Attack of the Armchair Scientist

The reason I post about cultural anthropology now and then isn’t that I want to argue or discuss with cultural anthropologists. Rather, I want to aid in spreading the message the discipline should be extirpated from the academy, just as Creationists have been extirpated from biology – Razib Khan

There is a long history of work claiming the mantle of science, which seeks to push forward essentialist theories of racial disposition and intelligence. Historically, racialist theories were formed upon a population typology which could be ranked along some set of criteria. Currently you can find modern armchair scientists hard at work behind their keyboards using programs like ADMIXTURE to form up new population typologies, which can be ranked along some set of criteria. See this nice article in the Annals of Human Genetics for an overview of the latter in terms of the former.

It isn’t hard to conflate population with race if you try, so I will let Khan explain how it is done:

The problem here is the word “race.” It has a whole lot of baggage. So many biologists prudently shift to “population” or “ethnic group.” I don’t much care either way. Let’s just put the semantic sugar to the side.

What Khan dismisses as so much “semantic sugar” is a notoriously arbitrary category, which varies widely across historical periods and cultural settings. For example, during the US census in 1790, a person could assume one of the following classifications:

1) free White men 16 and over

2) free White males under 16

3) free White females

4) all other free persons

5) slaves

By 1890, these classifications had changed to:

1) black

2) mulatto

3) quadroon

4) octoroon

5) Chinese

6) Japanese

7) Indians

But, why should Khan care either way?

Khan hangs his hat on the tight fit between computational tools, big data sets and a tiny bit of mangled theory he borrows from population genetics. The last few years have seen an explosion of both freely available genetic data and computational tools for statistically examining that data. Essentially, this is big data for genomic information. And it is a powerful and useful tool in the right hands. The skill, as in all research, lies in knowing where that point is and in having the discipline not to pass it.

But, as Nassim Taleb cogently points out:

big data means anyone can find fake statistical relationships, since the spurious rises to the surface. This is because in large data sets, large deviations are vastly more attributable to variance (or noise) than to information (or signal). It’s a property of sampling: In real life there is no cherry-picking, but on the researcher’s computer, there is.

. . .

Another issue with big data is the distinction between real life and libraries. Because of excess data as compared to real signals, someone looking at history from the vantage point of a library will necessarily find many more spurious relationships than one who sees matters in the making; he will be duped by more epiphenomena.

My point here is that there is a difference of kind between the type of knowledge produced by “discovering” associations (note: not necessarily correlations) in big data sets and the type of knowledge produced in the field or laboratory. The shorthand for this difference has always been that correlation is not causation, but one should never forget the ramifications of mistaking the two can be stark.

This is related to Taleb’s other point, the difference between “matters in the making” and the library. Latour, in rephrasing Kaplan’s sentiment of 30 years prior, famously termed this disconnect the “Janus Face” of science. Going forward, either in the field or at the lab bench, science is an exercise in patience and frustration. You very quickly learn that nature is anything but uniform and smooth. As I mentioned in the first post, nature can be made uniform in a test tube and miracles can be performed, but only for short periods of time and at great effort.

However, for desk jockeys like Khan, who sit safely ensconced behind their keyboards where they face neither uncertainty nor doubt, the data they encounter has already been made uniform. Like all big data, processing genomic data for analysis requires taking a few analytic steps to cleanse the data prior to use. This paper gives a nice overview of the process and perils of cleaning data. But, just how often is the cleansing of data reported upon?

Back to Taleb:

And speaking of genetics, why haven’t we found much of significance in the dozen or so years since we’ve decoded the human genome?

Well, if I generate (by simulation) a set of 200 variables — completely random and totally unrelated to each other — with about 1,000 data points for each, then it would be near impossible not to find in it a certain number of “significant” correlations of sorts. But these correlations would be entirely spurious. And while there are techniques to control the cherry-picking (such as the Bonferroni adjustment), they don’t catch the culprits — much as regulation didn’t stop insiders from gaming the system. You can’t really police researchers, particularly when they are free agents toying with the large data available on the web.

As I mentioned earlier, there is a long history of armchair scientists like Razib Khan, Charles Murray, and Arthur Jensen attempting to extract answers from questions that population genetics cannot and will never be able to give meaningful answers to. It should come as no surprise that the answers they “discover”, as Taleb implies, never fail to reinforce their whiggish starting assumptions.

The question I am left with after this back and forth with Khan is: Why do the publishers of Discover (a magazine of science?) pay this guy to represent science to the the public?

A question for the publisher of Discover magazine. Do you consider this science?

Because of the occupational constraints of Ashkenazi Jews, and their narrow ecological niche as an non-agricultural minority, the development of a religious specialist class whose stock and trade was extensive commentary and interpretation of law is not entirely surprising. But it is also totally parasitic upon the genuine productivity of a society. The reality is that for a society to flourish you do not need thousands of ethical rules to follow. Like many investment bankers and “patent troll” attorneys the great rabbis of yore many have had fast processing units, but they did not utilize them toward productive ends.

Please note that the emphasis is Khan’s own.

35 thoughts on “Attack of the Armchair Scientist

  1. I just got up. Nice post, Michael. I’ll try to get up something in a day or two about Max Weber’s definition of identity with its ephasis on beliefs in the nature of blood relations–i.e. the nature of social construction in racial definitions.

  2. Interesting that you link to the publisher feedback page, then quote Razib saying something un-PC without context.

    Are you trying to get Mr Khan fired for not hewing to science or for being outside the mainstream of political correctness?

  3. @Sean. I think he called Razib “Whiggish,” not politically incorrect. He’s trying to get him fired by Discover for that, but I don’t think it will work–it is not generally the sort of epithet that is well-understood in science circles.

    Just like I doubt calling Michael a leftist creationist (or “dude”) will get him thrown off planet anthropology.

  4. @razib

    My mistake. I fixed the link. Originally I was going to use the whiggish post about how Bill Gates children are more likely to get into Harvard because of their genetic disposition. Apparently you have never heard about legacy admissions…

    You have written so many outrageous things that it is sometimes hard to choose between them. Your blog truly is an embarrassment of riches. For both you and your publisher.


    Maybe they will give him a pat on the back and a raise instead? After all, what Khan does is science, right?

    Conflating race with population in the laziest way imaginable is good science, right?

    Using his “science” as support for an anti-semitic canard so old it has its own wikipedia page ( is good science, right?


    I am sure Khan is a nice guy. But, he when writes that cultural anthropology should be pulled by the roots from the academy replaced by the most recent iteration of Social Darwinism, what is one to do? The situation is absurd.

  5. Well, you could try to examine why there are so many smart geneticists and biologists who generally agree with him. Do you think people like James Watson are really that far off the mark? Or do you think it’s more likely that an obscure AnSo blogger, on a website no one reads, might not be making any sense…at all.

  6. #9, i think a lot of cultural anthroplogists see the wisdom in these scroggings. since i’ve been starting these series of posts i’ve gotten a fair amount of pointers to weirdo critiques of genetics work from prominent geneticists who have been the target of such salvos. generally it is of the form whereby a researcher’s primary research is critiqued and deconstructed, but the researcher himself finds it opaque and confused, so they can’t even muster up a response. ultimately it doesn’t matter, the NSF and NIH money will flow into human genetics. this is really an issue about cultural anthropology.

  7. though to be fair, i generally recognize the substance of tony’s critiques and posts. michael leaves more either confused or laughing.

  8. Yeah, after reading his stuff i typically think “damn, i just got Scrogged.” I can’t even think of a response!

  9. I’m a little confused – while I find Khan to be abjectly misinformed about cultural anthropology, making broad generalizations without backing them up by pointing to concrete works by mainstream cultural anthropologists. Not only does he not know what he’s talking about it, but he wears that fact like a point of pride to an extent you seldom see outside of an interview with Sarah Palin.

    But, I don’t see how this is an actual refutation of him. From reading the context of the statement about Jewish priesthood being parasitic on society, it isn’t clear that he’s making an argument which is racist or essentialist. While he does seem to be making modernist value assumptions, his point that what counts for genius is relative to the socially defined goals people work towards is utterly mundane.

    And, you link to that passage after a discussion with the problems of assuming that historical genetic communies constitute races. But, Khan’s argument in that passage isn’t based on genetics, is it? So, where does it fit in to your critique of the use of big data sets to make arguments based on genetics?

    Again, I am a cultural anthropologist who thinks that Khan has no idea what he’s talking about when it comes to anthropology. But, I’m not so sure this critique is all that damning – what am I missing?

  10. @ justaguy

    I should have gone into a little more detail in the post about this. Thank you for bringing this up.

    Khan’s argument is based on his bizarre interpretation of population genetics and it is more damning than it seems at first glance. It is also a good example of Khan at work, so below I will do a bit of deconstruction.

    If you follow the link to the Slate article on Gaon of Vilna it is about the genetics of genius and asks whether Gaon of Vilna’s reputation was genetic or the result of hard work? The writer comes down firmly on the side of the hard work of pursuing learning for its own sake. The life of the mind predicated and reading and writing copious amounts over genetic disposition.

    The first thing Khan does after linking to the article is to bring notice to the fact that Gaon of Vilna was an Ashkenazi Jew. He then introduces Spinoza, a Sephardic Jew, as a counterexample.

    Following this he connects Spinoza to the enlightenment and then to Einstein. So, Khan sets up two “populations” (we know he uses tpopulation and race interchangeably) each with a representative great man. One population has a great man who looks into the future, Spinoza, the other to the past, Gaon of Vilna.

    Sidebar: Here ( Khan digs into the question of Jewish genetics using the ADMIXTURE technique to form up stable populations as I described in the post. The question of Jewish genetics is also a hot button issue in the literature. In Khan’s use both Sephardic and Ashkenazi are very much essentialist categories.

    Following his positing of the two representative men, Khan goes on to say that one population is parasitical, which is the passage I quoted.

    But, the worst comes at the end of the article where Khan writes: “Baruch Spinoza was a genius who just happened to be born a Jew. The Gaon of Vilna was a genius about things pertinent to Jews. If there ever was a “Jewish physics,” it would be of far less interest than just plain physics.”

    The implication here about the relation of “Jewish physics” to “physics” is isomorphic to the passage I quoted in the post.

    Khan simply transposes the oldest anti-semitic canard into a different register. Where it was previously applied to economics, Khan breaks new ground in applying it to “science.”

  11. , Khan goes on to say that one population is parasitical

    personal experience suggests that people who ‘deconstruct’ are not big on reading comprehension, but for those who don’t read the original post, i’m going to make it clear that i am saying that religious specialists, rabbis, are economically parasitical on the rest of jewish society. the “population” here being ashkenazi rabbis in eastern europe, like the gaon of vilna (someone like joseph maimonides was at least a doctor). also, most of the post you linked to re: jewish genetics used hypothesis free PCA, *not* model based clustering like ADMIXTURE. i don’t expect the scrogg to get what that means, but i’ll at least make it somewhat clear so others aren’t confused.

  12. @razib “personal experience suggests that people who ‘deconstruct’ are not big on reading comprehension,”

    At least he takes the time to misunderstand you. That’s more effort than you put into your denunciations of anthropologists. Just sayin’

    I confess that the genetics is over my reading level – I don’t know what the ADMIXTURE technique is or why its problematic. And I don’t see how the use of the word parasite is similar to the way its deployed by anti-semites – or his use of the phrase “Jewish Physics”, for that matter, which has its own troubled history. Unless you’re suggesting that Jewish ritual specialists hoarding knowledge for Jewish purposes and not for the benefit of humanity is some sort of play on traditional anti-Semitic slurs of Jews – but that seems like a stretch given his reference to other religious specialists in the passage.

    But what really frustrates me is that when I read passages from Khan’s blog like this:

    “The methodology of both groups was similar. Take Jewish and non-Jewish populations of interest, and sequence them with a SNP-chip, and then try and extract out some useful patterns for the purposes of analytics. Here’s an important issue I want to reemphasize: the different methods of extracting out useful patterns give somewhat different results, and these results themselves are to a great extent human constructions which map only approximately onto the shape of reality. Measures of “genetic distance” are really just useful reifications and their biological reality as the differences amongst billions of base pairs is a somewhat different thing. This is why it is difficult to be more than trivial sometimes when it comes to what the “bottom line” on these studies are; the bottom lines represent human attempts to generate intuitive categories and representations on natural processes which are in some ways deeply alien to us. So with the cautions out of the way, let’s look at what the figures in this paper might indicate to our puny human intuitions.”

    It makes me suspect that you’re talking past each other, and that if you were to have an actual dialogue you might actually figure that out. But, he doesn’t want to take the time to understand the science studies points you’re making (which makes him pretty average for a scientist), and you seem intent on reading a racial essentialism into what he’s saying which doesn’t appear to exist in any of the passages you’ve pointed out so far. As I read it, again being fairly ignorant of genetics above an intro to Biological anthropology course and AP Bio, that sounds like the exact opposite of presupposing race as a stable and meaningful category of genetic difference.

    So, we’re going to get a dick measuring contest and not an actual conversation. But, then again, given Khan’s post which began all of this – which claimed that even though Jared Diamond is empirically wrong, he’s kinda right because anthropologists are leftist opponents of science, and I know because not having read any anthropology I haven’t encountered anything to prove me wrong – its hard to see how things could turn out differently.

  13. you’re pretending like you have perspective yet you think that Anthropologie is on the same level as genetics. 1 is practiced by middle IQ unemployed hipsters and the other is done by high IQ people who actually do real research.

  14. @ justaguy

    His reference to the similar tradition among Muslims is delimited to a particular school of law and its relation to a wider religious context, as is his reference to “the haredi.” Those are clearly narrow comparisons of a religious class to a broader religious context.

    In contrast, his discussion of rabbinic interpretation is couched in a broader discussion about two differing traditions of genius in representative minority populations. And his comparison in each case is between minority population and the larger society.

    Now, when he introduces Spinoza Khan remarks that “There is a Jew who preceded him (Gaon of Vilna) by generations who is much more relevant to modern Jew and gentile alike.” So, he sets up one type of Jewish genius that is productive to the larger society. This point is reinforced by Spinoza’s excommunication.

    In contrast when Khan writes of Gaon of Vilna he concludes of the tradition of genius he represents “But it is also totally parasitic upon the genuine productivity of a society. The reality is that for a society to flourish you do not need thousands of ethical rules to follow. Like many investment bankers and “patent troll” attorneys the great rabbis of yore many have had fast processing units, but they did not utilize them toward productive ends.” Unlike the first type of genius this other type isn’t “relevant to modern Jew and gentile alike” but rather is “parasitic” upon the “genuine productivity of society” – and that is exactly the economic canard.

    My feeling is that Khan shouldn’t be let off the hook just because he throws out a few technical remarks or, as he has directed at me, a steady stream of invectives. Or because he tries to obfuscate his conclusions with a personal remembrance. He positions are morally outrageous precisely because they are intellectually outrageous.

    I am fully aware that there can never be a good dialogue with Khan and that this latest round has played itself out. One thing Tony and I have discussed is finding someone with a deeper background than Khan who might be interested in posting a few things for discussion. We are trying to move this conversation forward in a more productive direction. But, we need a new interlocutor to do so.

  15. A deeper background? Yeah, won’t find one. I think you’re seriously underestimating his knowledge base. He’s like 30 and is read by actual geneticists and has been for years.

  16. #19, oh i can name plenty with deeper knowledge of evolutionary genomics. but if i made the suggestions i’m not sure that they would appreciate the ‘recommendation’ :-)

  17. @Michael
    Yeah, I do see your point – I was giving him a charitable reading, as is my general inclination, but your reading is perfectly valid. Mentioning Rabbinical scholarship, bankers and shady lawyers as parasites on society in one breath is a bit much, as is the contrast with the excommunicated Jew who benefits mankind. And his argument in itself doesn’t make much sense – why is it unsurprising that a minority with limits on employment would develop ritual specialists focused on commentary? Also, the general problem with questions of why X group didn’t develop science is that it takes a historically contingent development and treats it as normative. As Nathan Sivin said of the debate over why science never developed in China, its the same thing as asking why your picture isn’t on the third page of todays NY Times.

  18. @ justaguy

    I understand your reading too, and my inclination at the start was to give him a charitable reading as well. But he has made it abundantly clear over the last few days that charity towards him is misplaced.

    I agree 100% with your point about treating the historically contingent as normative. Assuming historically contingent categories are normative seems to be his main gambit.

  19. Yeah, and insisting on a charitable reading of Khan seems silly given that his entire schtick consists of interpreting anthropology solely through things its critics say about it. Even if everything you’ve written about genetics is as wrong as he says it is, you at least know enough to say something that’s recognizable as being about the subject. What he denounces as anthropology is certainly wrong, but doesn’t resemble anything I’ve ever seen as anthropology.

    He argues that anthropology would only be valid if it were based on cognitive psychology. I’ve talked with a number of neuroscientists and people working in cognitive psychology about our respective research and, while I can’t claim any expertise on the subjects, its clear they’re asking very different questions than we are. So the only way you can make that claim is out of ignorance of what anthropologists actually study.

  20. “Currently you can find modern armchair scientists hard at work behind their keyboards using programs…”

    I think it’s a good observation. There’s indeed something sociopathic, politopathic (a neologism?) and anthropophobic about Razib Khan’s keyboard science. From his arbitrary perspective, the politicization of science is a crime, while the computerization of science is the blessing. In reality, however, the social, the political and the mathematical aspects of science (to name a few) need to be properly balanced.

    On a funny note, Razib Khan enrolled into a Ph.D. program at Davis last year, but not to study human genetics or culture but to “develop[ing] new analytic methods and produce[ing] novel results using the DOMESTIC CAT as a model.”

    Those who “monitor” his blog know that Razib Khan is a “cat person.” My agency did research last year among “cat people” in the U.S., and I learned a lot of new things about this subculture, especially about how interchangeable humanity and felinity are for them. Why in the world would someone who idly blogs so much about “human realities” choose domestic cats as a venue of professional growth? Should veterinary anthropology be added as a branch of cultural anthropology to make it more scientific or to four-field anthropology to make it more fluffy?

  21. By the way, in case any one is wondering, German Dziebel has been banned from a number of anthropology blogs for the relentless promotion of his crackpot theory that the human race originated in the Americas, as well as his incorrigible rudeness towards anyone who bothers to correct his blunders.

    And as you might guess, he’s probably not very fond of felids, either.

    As far as mammals go, I suppose the domesticated cat is as good of a place to start as a model organism. Mice and rats are easily tractable, and have a much shorter generation time, but cats have interesting parallels with the human species in the realm of disease, in no small part due to their history of domestication.

  22. @justaguy

    “He argues that anthropology would only be valid if it were based on cognitive psychology…So the only way you can make that claim is out of ignorance of what anthropologists actually study.”

    Anthropology should be consonant with cognitive science, and some (admittedly few) anthropologists practice this way. You might not ask questions about cognition (I do), but your research should be conciliatory across levels of abstraction.


    “you’re pretending like you have perspective yet you think that Anthropologie is on the same level as genetics. 1 is practiced by middle IQ unemployed hipsters and the other is done by high IQ people who actually do real research.”

    As an employed, non-hipster with a demonstrably high IQ, I can assure that this is not actually true- but you aren’t wrong in noticing that the field of anthropology tends to accommodate a great diversity of intellectual ability, to put it mildly.

  23. justaguy: the racism is there in razib’s stuff but he’s smart enough to be very passive aggressive about it and spread it out. but if you read him enough over a period of time it’s undeniable and start spotting new instances right away. it’s a cumulative thing though.

    and seriously, can you just ban this “dad” guy? he adds nothing to the conversation and is borderline trollish. he makes razib look mature and polite almost.

  24. Can you guys elaborate on the debate about treating the historically contingent as normative? Is Jared Diamond’s book an example of NOT treating the historically contingent as normative? Can you link to any books or articles that go into this debate? It seems like an interesting topic and I love the Nathan Sivin page 3 analogy. Where can I find it?

  25. @Sam

    Even at this short stretch of an argument you can’t get the facts straight. How can you debate bigger issues?

    I haven’t been banned from any “anthropology blogs.” I did have issues with arguing against out-of-Africa and with providing evidence for an out-of-America alternative at a number of blogs run by people who are NOT anthropologists and moreover who are (often anonymous) amateurs regardless of the field. And I did face “incorrigible rudeness” from those bloggers. But all of this counts against them, not against me. For a truly anthropological (and scientific for those who think those two are always separate) blog, see

  26. @KbH

    Yes, sorry to leave cognitive anthropologists out of the picture – I just assume you’re not among the dirty activist hippies Khan’s talking about. But, sure, since human behavior is largely shaped by cognition, any accurate description of human behavior should be consistant with understandings of cognition.

    The Sivin article the quote is probably in is here

    This isn’t my area of expertise, so anyone who knows better please jump in. But…

    To say that the development of science is historically contingent is not to say that it doesn’t produce accurate information about the external world. Its just to say that there were several steps along the way of its development, and you can’t assume that absent those steps happening science would have developed in its current form. We tend to take the current form of science as universal and acultural – so instead of being an institutional practice that started at specific centers and spread out from there, we take it as something representing a progress that all humanity has been developing towards. But science is a lot more like Christianity, something which started out belonging to specific cultures, and developed into something that claims to be universal. Again, that’s not to say that science doesn’t work, just to say it isn’t inevitable in its current form.

    And the idea of science as progress then leads to the lack of science in other cultures as being signs of a lack of progress. There’s a thinly veiled undercurrent of cultural supremacy in the argument. That’s not some kumbaya argument about how all the cultures of the world are beautiful and unique little snowflakes. Its a warning that you can’t presuppose a teleology along which cultures develop, and assume that any one which doesn’t follow that trajectory is a failure – there is no empirical basis for such a view.

    But anyway, the problem of searching for signs of proto-science in other cultures is similar to the refutation of the anti-evolutionary argument of irreducible complexity. That is, how did half an eye evolve, the creationist asks. What is the evolutionary advantage of a half formed eye? The problem with that argument is that it presupposes that an eye is the end product that evolution was selecting for. But, the eye was formed by a number of small steps – each of which was selecting for something advantageous at the time. Some of those earlier intermediary steps could have had nothing to do with eyes.

    And its the same thing with science – it was the process of several intermediary steps, some of which looked nothing like what we see now as science. So when Khan looks at a different cultural tradition and says it couldn’t develop into science, he’s presupposing that every step along the way of that development would look like contemporary scientific practice. Its anachronistic, and takes a specific historically situated tradition as something universal.

  27. @ justaguy

    That is a good summary.

    @ Royo

    Thank you!

    And, I would hate to lose @dad because he really drives home so many of my points:)

  28. That’s a good point. It’s kind of like how Razib and his petty, grade school taunts kind of drive home your points about his immaturity and mental processes. I gave Razib a lot more benefit of the doubt when I used to read his blog posts until I started to see his personality more on twitter and in responding to critics.

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