Publishing on genetic diversity and economic growth

Should Ashraf and Galor’s paper The ‘Out of Africa’ Hypothesis, Human Genetic Diversity, and Comparative Economic Development have been published? I planned to place this post last in my sequence of posts on the paper, but some comments in response to my earlier posts (links at the bottom of this page) have encouraged me to discuss this question now.

The major critique about whether the paper should have been published comes from the conclusion of an article in Current Anthropology:

Social scientists seeking to explain economic behavior through genetics must exercise particular caution. As Benjamin et al. (2012:656) point out, “researchers in this field hold a special responsibility to try to accurately inform the media and the public about the limitations of the science,” especially in studies intended for “social-scientific interventions” (Benjamin 2010:1). Without proper methodology and data analysis standards, false positives are likely to be misunderstood as facts, and these can then be mobilized in the political arena. Ashraf and Galor’s (2013) paper is based on a fundamental scientific misunderstanding, bad data, poor methodology, and an uncritical theoretical framework. While the attempt to create interdisciplinary studies that link anthropology, genetics, and economics is laudable, economists should consult with specialists in those fields to avoid making such uninformed blunders. The same should be true of the peer-review process for such interdisciplinary articles.

More egregiously, this study has the potential to cause serious harm. By claiming a causal link between the degree of genetic heterogeneity and economic development, their thesis could be interpreted to suggest that increasing or decreasing a nation’s genetic (or ethnic) diversity would promote prosperity. Ultimately, this can provide fodder to those looking to justify policies ranging from mistreatment of immigrants to ethnic cleansing (especially by groups with real political power, e.g., Golden Dawn in Greece).

We are not concerned here with the authors’ own social or political attitudes. Rather, we wish to emphasize the irresponsibility of bad science. In the social sciences, scientific methods are an extremely powerful tool for analyzing trends in an empirically demonstrable manner and thus have the important opportunity to guide political action. When used improperly or when it is of dubious quality, however, science can become a justification for reactionary policy. The dismal nature of economics is often appealed to when facts contradict a desired reality. However, we are not arguing a case for blissful ignorance. What we see in Ashraf and Galor’s study is the worst of all worlds: something false and undesirable.

This conclusion has two major threads. First is the responsibility of the authors to consult with specialists in other fields and for the peer review process to do likewise. I don’t know who reviewed this article for the American Economic Review, but Ashraf and Galor acknowledge five anonymous referees. The acknowledgements section of the paper also lists participants from 33 seminars, 13 conferences and 3 lectures. They list 24 people by name, including the population geneticist whose data they use. The list does not include any anthropologists, but this is not through hiding the paper. They posted the paper on IDEAS in May 2010, on the Social Science Research Network in January 2008 and again in May 2011 (with regular updates to those submissions), and as an NBER working paper in July 2011. If anything, this paper epitomises open peer review.

The issue seems to be that it was not noticed by some people until it was mentioned in Science late last year. If not for the Science mention, it may have been published without any fuss. This is indicative of a broader problem that I am not sure how to solve. In working on a paper of this nature, how do you get it seen by everyone who might object and want to comment? My own experience of seeking a broad variety of feedback on my working papers is that it is not easy. Everyone is busy and has limited time. It is only when accepted by a major journal that people become interested, by which time it is too late. (On that note, here is my SSRN page and feel free to critique).

The second argument by the authors of the Current Anthropology piece concerns the potential for harm. But for this argument to hold much weight, we need to assume that those who would misuse such research are not gathering evidence from other sources. A quick google search will show the depth and breadth of discussion on the topic of “human biodiversity”. Much of the discussion is serious and data rich (some of it is horrible). Barring work that implies genetic differences between populations does not stop these discussions. All it prevents is the ability to examine openly whether the hypotheses have merit and to build evidence against those that don’t. As an example, research by Arthur Jensen, who faced similar claims about the responsibility of his research, triggered James Flynn’s important work on IQ. As Flynn wrote at the end of his recent book:

Psychologists should thank Jensen for pursuing his life-long mission, against great odds, to clarify the concept of g. In addition to intellectual eminence, he had the courage to face down opposition often political rather than scientific. If I have made a significant contribution to the literature, virtually every endeavor was in response to a problem set by Arthur Jensen.

A further issue arises where the work is empirically strong. Should it then be published? If you base your defence against unethical use of the hypothesis on the hypothesis not being true, your defence falls away as soon as the evidence mounts in support of the hypothesis. An ethical framework of human equality or liberty, or something of that nature, is a stronger place to build the barricades if you are worried about the ethical implications of research such as this.

As a reading of my other posts on this paper suggest, I am not convinced that the conclusions drawn by Ashraf and Galor are correct. But I am glad it was published. During the three years in which Ashraf and Galor presented the paper and sought feedback, you could see the econometric analysis evolve and be strengthened. They take the hypothesis seriously, and we should treat the empirical result with some respect. If their robust statistical result is not evidence of a causative link, why? This paper provides a basis for further thinking and research. Personally, the process of going through this paper and the debate surrounding it has been (and is continuing to be) an important learning experience.

Scientific progress is not made by publishing the perfect answer the first time. We should not see peer-reviewed economics articles as truth handed down from above (if you do, you would become confused very quickly). A serious effort can provide a springboard for other work, even if you consider it flawed. In that sense, Ashraf and Galor’s work is a springboard that we should make use of, rather than complaining about whether it should be published at all.

My posts on Ashraf and Galor’s paper on genetic diversity and economic growth are as follows:

  1. A summary of the paper methodology and findings
  2. Does genetic diversity increase innovation?
  3. Does genetic diversity increase conflict?
  4. Is genetic diversity a proxy for phenotypic diversity?
  5. Is population density a good measure of technological progress?
  6. What are the policy implications of the effects of genetic diversity on economic development?
  7. Should this paper have been published? (this post)

Earlier debate on this paper can also be found hereherehere and here.

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