Sunday, July 27, 2008


Economist Roland Fryer has been a favorite of the chattering classes ever since a gushing profile of him by Freakonomics co-author Steven Dubner appeared in the New York Times Sunday magazine three years ago. Fryer's personal story--the son of a single, impoverished mother, a scholarship student at a lesser state university, a prodigy in economics, a coveted Junior Fellowship at Harvard, and an inaugural Alphonse Fletcher, Sr. Fellowship--make him a compelling figure. Among economists, he already has a stellar reputation. Lawrence Katz, a major figure in labor economics, is typical in his praise. He raved to Dubner about Fryer: "As a pure technical economic theorist, he's of the first rate....But what's really incredible is that he's also much more of a broad social theorist -- talking to psychologists, sociologists, behavioral geneticists -- and the ideas he comes up with aren't the 'let's take the standard economic model and push a little harder' ideas."

Fryer has brokered his biography and credentials into a role as a talking head on race issues, most recently in the new CNN documentary Black America--a show that has received a lot of attention in the black blogosphere. Though economists are often notoriously wrong, it's remarkable to me how a little cleverness and the pretense to being scientific seems to allow them to slip half-baked ideas into the public discourse. Such has happened in the case of young Fryer.

In Black America, Fryer promotes a troubling and wholly dubious genetic (or really pseudo-genetic) argument about salt and black health and pitches it, with all of the authority of Veritas behind him, to a huge, international audience. In short, Fryer argues that African Americans have worse health outcomes than whites because of their proclivity to hypertension and other salt-retention related diseases. That is the result, Fryer argues, of a selective advantage possessed by some enslaved Africans. Those who retained salt, he contends, were more likely to survive the Middle Passage of transit from Africa to the Americas. Those who didn't retain salt, he believes died of dehydration. As a result, the salt retention gene (whatever that might be) passed on to the descendants of slaves, today's African Americans. His primary piece of evidence: an antique etching of a slavetrader supposedly licking the face of a slave to test his saltiness, and presumably his hardiness. Bad use of historical sources, but I'll save that for another time.

Monocausal genetic explanations of traits in genetically heterogeneous populations are problematic. Natural selection in just a few weeks on a slave ship? Darwin, please. And African Americans, as anyone with the most rudimentary knowledge of American history can tell you, are the descendants of Europeans and Native Americans, of Spanish and French and British and Irish. They hail from many different parts of Africa. They are not a genetically homogeneous group. But we Americans, even smart Harvard faculty members like Fryer, cannot jettison our essentialistic notions of race.

The slippery use of genetics by non-scientists like Fryer is not just bad scholarship, but it has potentially dangerous consequences for public policy. Fortunately, there are many, many well-respected scientists out there who think that Fryer's salt/genetics theory is false. Unfortunately, they don't have CNN cameras following them around.

Johns Hopkins public health professor Thomas LaVeist, one of the nation's leading scholars on racial and economic disparities in health, just offered the best critique of Fryer's dubious scholarship to date.

"This bogus theory just won't seem to die," stated LaVeist. "Even though public health researchers have discredited the theory it continues to be promoted by people who are not knowledgeable about the field. THE AVERAGE HEALTH CONSUMER WATCHING CNN COULD TAKE THIS AS THE GOSPEL AND RUN WITH IT TO THEIR OWN DETRIMENT."

LaVeist offers a series of explanations, none of which have the sexy, monocausal, Freakonomics-style cachet of Fryer's argument. But all of them come from decades of research, not just superficial, clever theorizing.

* Blacks are exposed to more environmental toxins because of
residential segregation
* Blacks have less access to quality healthcare
* Higher levels of poverty among African Americans
* Higher levels of use of harmful products such as cigarettes
* Less healthy diets
* Less healthy foods in African American communities
* Residing in more stressful environments

LaVeist goes on:
"To suggest that health disparities are caused by a gene that exists in African Americans and does not exist in others is ridiculous. There are no genes found in only one race group," LaVeist said. "Hypertension and all other major causes of death are caused by a complex set of factors. They are not single gene diseases. If race disparities were primarily caused by a gene, that gene would have to cause hypertension and cancer and diabetes and glaucoma, and Crohn's disease and asthma and HIV-AIDS and every other condition that is more prevalent in blacks and we know no one gene does that."

"I respect professor Fryer, but quoting an economist as an expert on health disparities is like interviewing me for a story about why gas prices have spiked," LaVeist said. "Not only are researchers at Hopkins working on this problem, but people are working on this issue right there in Atlanta where CNN is headquartered. The problem of health disparities is complex. By trying to reduce it to a simplistic explanation we risk having health care providers, policymakers and patients feel there is nothing they can do to address the issue."

Once again, the fashionable embrace of genetics by untutored social scientists is leading the public down a dangerous path of explaining away the social and environmental causes of racial inequality. It's a problem that is not going away.

h/t to MC for introducing me to LaVeist's work.


Lester Spence said...

thanks for catching this and writing more. i realized that i didn't have the time to write the critique that the show deserved....

Comrade M said...

One additional problem with the revival of race-gene explanations is that they take the heat off the cultural pathology behavioral strand of race essentialism. (It's worth remembering that The Bell Curve and the "underclass" industry roughly overlapped in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and whatever the problems of the "underclass" research, it sure looked much better in comparison to Murray/Herrnstein.) It also means less (much needed) discussion of the methodological/explanatory limits of the quantitative correlation studies that comprise the bulk of the disparities research, crucial as they have been to identifying these troubling trends in health outcomes.

Of course, the above assumes that race-gene explanations will attract a lot of criticism, but I've been very bothered by the surprising lack of it (and the amnesia among mass media and social scientists toward the Bell Curve episode, which wasn't that long ago, and the caution we should have developed from it.) In the past couple years, I've seen enough articles by medical scientists who can't think clearly about race and articles by social scientists who can't think clearly about biology and genetics to really worry about what's coming up.

sfauthor said...

What is Tom's email address?

Tom S said...

rustbeltintellectual at

Tom S said...

Thanks Lester for linking to this. We share a calling to name dubious social science for what it is. And Comrade M, you are right about the dangers of the cultural strand of racial essentialism. For now, it has been trumped by biological essentialism, but I don't expect it to die. Not at all. One of my favorite social scientists, Herbert Gans, has written about "sociological amnesia." In his case, it's about how scholars pass off the last generation's work as new, usually without having read or acknowledged the formative work. There's another version of social scientific amnesia at work with the race-gene scholarship--in this case a willful neglect of critical scholarship that is only a decade old. The Murray/Herrnstein flap has been long forgotten. Or putting it differently, just as Murray was on the cutting-edge of welfare research (anticipating the welfare abolition of the 90s by more than a decade), perhaps the Bell Curve was just the first gasp of the new bio-social science, not what many of us hoped at the time, the last gasp of an antiquated racist, eugenicist current.

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