Blog COVID-19

I am not a racist but…

Some geneticists have very unorthodox ideas. These might sound like racism or eugenics to simple folks, but it is really high science. UK Biobank is apparently on board.

The coronavirus death toll in USA has officially passed the 100 thousand mark. As it turned out, black US Americans die of COVID-19 at a three times higher rate than whites. And now, after one prominent (and other less prominent) recent police killings of black people, USA are literally burning with mass protests.

The police brutality and the COVID-19 deaths plaguing the black American community are not unrelated. USA were founded on racist exploitation and the country still struggles with often institutional racism, such as in police and judiciary. The current US president Donald Trump, aside of being a kleptocratic lying crook, whose ineptitude and corruption caused the surreal death wave of the pandemic, is also most obviously a racist and a white supremacist. A self-admitted fascist even, after Trump declared “Antifa” a “terrorist organisation” on Twitter. As if prove the point, these Trump facts apparently bother very few people among the Republican party and its voters.

While black people are dying of the COVID-19 pandemic much more often than whites, not just in USA, but also in the UK, scientists debate the reasons. Some scientists are not helpful at all.

Black Lives Matter?

The geneticist and director of EMBL-EBI institute in Cambridge, Ewan Birney, tweeted this thread on 18 May 2020, as his own contribution to #BlackLivesMatter:

Deep breath; Let’s talk about Ethnicity, Vitamin D and COVID19 hospitalisation. TL;DR we don’t have enough data/good enough studies to provide conclusive information of whether vitamin D is part of the causal pathway for COVID19 severity

Some baseline. In the UK and US, people from minority ethnicity (labelled “BAME” in UK, and “African-American” or “non-White” in US) are substantially more likely to be in hospital with COVID19. There will be undoubtedly be many reasons for this.

(A side note: would be great to have a French perspective on this but in France recording of ethnicity for health is far more complex and I have not seen studies with this broken out – does anyone know of one?)

Clearly the urbanisation of BAME / African-American is the biggest part of this effect (London and NYC) but it does look like there is more than this.

A potential genetic pathway is the vitamin D pathway; vitamin D production happens via sunlight, and people with lighter skin make more vitamin D in weak sunlight (think – UK winters) and usually overall.

As long time followers know, I am *very* leery of rushing to a “genetic” explanation of “ethnic group” differences – for starters human genetics is way way messier and complex than the simple buckets we are asked to sort ourselves into.

At a deeper level the “bucket” view of human ethnicities is profoundly wrong – its best to think of human genetics as a complex family tree with many joins and splits – this way “hispanics” and “afro-caribbeans” and “black british in liverpool” – mixtures of recent people that>>

<<don’t fit the “bucket” view of ethnicity due to recent mixing (and sometimes therefore trigger new buckets to be made in the labelling process) fit absolutely fine in humans as “its a big complicated tree” view. As it happens “Europeans” (the bucket view) are a complex mixture ..

.but… if there is *one* phenotype where the phrase “white” vs “non white” has an alignment between “what box do you tick on the survey” and “what is your phenotype” it is going to be skin pigmentation.

(NOTE; I go ballistic when people wave their hands around other phenotypes – from height to intelligence – being somehow well captured at the genetic level via this box ticking process. It’s so wrong. For other threads).

So – it is pretty well known that vitamin D levels are lower in BAME in northern climates. And studies like this one medrxiv.org/content/10.110… points to some (weak) association of Vitamin D levels and COVID status

*BUT* this is association, and frustratingly for the people with the vitamin D hypothesis the fact that skin-pigmentation <=> vitamin D levels are correlated opens up vitamin D levels <=> COVID assocaitions via other routes (very simply exposure due to cities).

Untangling this is all is a real mess. And because this is one of the few areas where genetics is tangled up with ethnicity labels which itself is tangled up with all sorts of societal processes (straightforwardly – poverty – but lots of other subtle things)

Usually we can use genetics as a sort of sword through the Gordian knot of correlations (I’m a big fan) but even here genetics just because one more complicated rope tangled up with all the others. Irritating.

So, the most responsible thing to say here – which is super annoying – is that it *possibly* might be part of the explanation, given the complexity of things unlikely to be the only thing and we will need to be very sophisticated to untangle it.

To sum up: here is a scientist, one of top geneticists in UK and Europe, thinking loudly: what if it is just the lack of vitamin D which causes such high COVID-19 mortality among black US Americans? By extension, what if all those black people have to do to protect themselves from coronavirus complications and even death, is to pop some vitamin D pills?

This is of course just an expert in human genetics hypothesising loudly to himself, and if you take his vitamin D musings seriously, it is only due to your own low IQ. To be fair, Birney did mention the word “poverty” once somewhere in the thread. But what about the institutionalised racism and the absence of a functional public healthcare in USA? The real primary causes for COVID-19 (and other diseases-related) deaths among black and also Latinx Americans? In this regard, I do not know how black Latinx people rate on Birney’s vitamin D scale, most have rather fair skin in fact. Social reality is that Latinx and black Americans also have to do all those jobs which most white people don’t have and sure don’t want to do, like working in hospitals, care homes, grocery stores, meat packing factories, delivery services: all jobs with extremely high coronavirus exposure risk.

Of course it is not just coronavirus. Black women are three times more likely to die in childbirth in USA compared to whites women. Black diabetes patients are much more likely to have their legs amputated than white diabetics in US. True, their genes do code for a dark skin, which causes institutional racism, poverty and lack of health care, so I do think Professor Birney is onto something. But is not vitamin D.

Both Birney’s EMBL-EBI institute and the mothership EMBL in Heidelberg, Germany, refused communication with me, all emails went unanswered. I guess they have no problem with his vitamin D hypothesis then.

The genetics of IQ

Birney is the leading expert not just in genetics, but also in fighting racism. In October 2019, Birney published a blog post, which he coauthored with his geneticist colleagues Jennifer Raff, Adam Rutherford and Aylwyn Scally: Race, genetics and pseudoscience: an explainer.

While strongly denouncing racism and race theories, the authors move to the topic of intelligence, as measured by the IQ, and its heredity. They write:

Although an IQ score is far from a perfect measure, it does an excellent job of correlating with, and predicting, many educational, occupational, and health-related outcomes.”

The authors protest the notion of IQ differences among different human population, which classic racists (including some of their own scientific peers) keep asserting. But they warn that IQ is inherited genetically, which is unfortunately also a central dogma to scientific racism:

The Genome-Wide Association Study (GWAS) is a powerful tool for finding genetic variants associated with all sorts of human traits. GWAS researchers take a group of people with differing values or levels of a trait of interest, and scan their whole genomes to look for specific sections of DNA where their genetic variation correlates with their variation in the trait. […]

When it comes to a trait as complex as cognitive abilities, there is nothing genetically unusual or special about measures of intelligence such as IQ. Just like other complex traits discussed above (such as height or disease susceptibility) measures of cognitive ability are related to thousands of different genetic variants, each of which may play small but significant roles in brain development and function, or any number of other biological processes that are involved in a person’s cognitive abilities.

IQ scores are heritable: that is, within populations, genetic variation is related to variation in the trait.

How to argue with eugenist

Which brings me to that recent Hill et al Nature Communications 2019 paper by Ian Deary and colleagues, which Birney is such a staunch defender of. I wrote about that paper before, and have found more interesting information which I will present later below. The authors around the Edinburgh psychology professor Ian Deary analysed human genetic data from UK Biobank (which holds information on half a million of volunteer participants) to determine that economical attainment, i.e., wealth or, if you prefer, poverty, is encoded in your genes.

How so? IQ is heritable, and IQ is directly causal for educational attainment (i.e. Oxbridge degrees) and wealth. The fact that so few wealthy elite university graduates in UK and USA are non-white can be explained by… Obviously these populations have low IQ genes, what else, right? I mean, it’s just science.

A key coauthor of the Hill et al Nature Communications 2019 paper is Stuart Ritchie, an Edinburgh University graduate. Ritchie used to be mentee of Robert Plomin, the US psychologist who has been finding genes for IQ for decades already while having much tolerance for outright racist peers like Arthur Jensen. Ritchie seems also to be a personal friend or maybe just a protege of Birney’s, and is now lecturer at King’s College London, with best academic career prospects. More recently, Ritchie wrote a book about scientific bias, which is about to come out now. Basically, someone who peddles pretend-scientific crypto-eugenics is now the highest research ethics authority in psychology and human genetics.

Birney’s blog post coauthor and geneticist peer Adam Rutherford has recently also authored a very popular book, “How to argue with a racist“. There, the popular science populariser thanks Plomin in the acknowledgements. Thanking Plomin was very important for Rutherford to do, unlike acknowledging a BAME woman, Subhadra Das, whose work Rutherford was accused to have recycled without any nod or reference. Rutherford eventually rejected the accusations, because Das’ work was not used “directly”, whatever that means:

Rutherford is also not only the world-leading anti-racist and supporter of BAME women, he is also unafraid to call out eugenicists like Dominic Cummings’ father-in-law (Cummings himself is also a rabid eugenist, btw):

What confuses the feeble scientifically-illiterate genetically-inferior minds like my own is: in a way, anti-racist anti-eugenics geneticists like Rutherford seem to agree with the Cummings family, because further in that Twitter thread Rutherford mentioned:

Of course intelligence, wealth, influence, and power are heritable, because everything is, and part of that heritability is genetic

In any case, all that proves that if Birney or Rutherford say the financial income is genetically inherited via IQ genes, then it is a science fact. Only a flat-earth creationist antivaxxer science-denialist would protest this.

Rutherford was one of the authors of a protest letter published in April 2020 in Nature and directed against the science journalist Angela Saini, author of the excellent book on racism in science,”Superior“. Saini’s crime: she criticised, also in Nature, the UCL academics for having tolerated a racist culture of the very recent past, having ignored racist eugenics conferences happening annually on UCL premises, organised by a UCL lecturer. The affair was in fact exposed by UCL students and some faculty whistleblower(s), none of whom was a geneticist. Certainly none of the UCL-affiliated authors of the protest letter.

Quite the opposite: one coauthor was Steve Jones, Rutherford’s academic mentor, UCL emeritus professor for genetics and former (2002-2008) president of the Galton Institute at UCL. Yes, the institute is named after the Victorian godfather of both statistics and eugenics Francis Galton, on whose financial and intellectual heritage this institution was founded upon. Jones, who liked to keep students in the dark about Francis Galton’s and Galton Institute’s history, was also vehemently opposed to renaming the institute, and he obviously succeeded. Jones explained why his Galton Institute must not be renamed:

The individuals we have honoured at UCL are commemorated not on political grounds but for discoveries that laid the foundations of several new sciences.”

Oh well, then Galton’s contribution to eugenics must be commemorated. Incidentally, the Galton Institute issues research grants via its Artemis Trust, explicitly designed for “assisting in the provision of fertility control” to “those from poorer communities“, as it was previously mentioned in Saini’s book. Galton Institute also funds conferences titled like “Why aren’t the social sciences Darwinian?” and “The Darwinian Renaissance in the Humanities and Social Sciences“. Sir Francis Galton would sure approve.

As it happens, Chris Brand, the late Edinburgh psychologist and (to sum up his views) the women-hating antisemitic racist eugenicist, was member of the Galton Institute until his death in 2017. Brand was in turn the mentor of Deary, the last and corresponding author of the Hill et al Nature Communications 2019 paper, which I wrote about before and promised above to discuss further.

Eugenics at UK Biobank

Now, you might recall that the Galton-admirer Deary, Ritchie and their Edinburgh colleagues used human data from the UK Biobank to study genes for financial attainment, and prior to that, for intelligence (in the paper Hill et al Molecular Psychiatry 2018). Birney, who is member of the UK Biobank Steering Committee, is a great fan of Deary and uses every occasion to advise his followers to study Deary’s work. The problem previously discussed in my earlier article, is this: when applying for access to human volunteer data, one of the coauthors, the psychologist Catherine Gale, argued in her research proposal:

One outcome we are also interested in exploring in relation to prior cognitive function and other factors is dementia. For instance, we would like to investigate the extent to which prior cognitive function helps predict later onset of vascular dementia independently of other risk factors. We have research experience in the cognitive epidemiology of dementia. This is not an outcome that we specified in our original application so I am writing to ask for approval to expand the scope of our project to include dementias as an outcome.”

The summary of that original access application and its extension are available on the UK Biobank website. But it is most obvious that the proposed research has nothing to do with any studies of the genetics of intelligence or of “economic attainment” , i.e. the genes for being rich. The Gale application to UK Biobank is referenced in both eugenics papers, Hill et al Molecular Psychiatry 2018 and Hill et al Nature Communications 2019.:

Ethical approval for UK Biobank was received from the Research Ethics Committee (REC reference 11/NW/0382). This work was conducted under UK Biobank application 10279“.

Has UK Biobank been tricked? No. They tricked you, the public, and also the volunteers who unwittingly donated their genetic and private data for eugenics studies.

I wrote to UK Biobank and eventually received their reply, from their Head of Communications, Andrew Trehearne. My own questions in bold:


1. Does UK Biobank consider it a problem when human data is being accessed on false pretences, especially for eugenics research?

The analyses in the paper entitled “Genome-wide analysis identifies molecular systems and 149 genetic loci associated with income” were conducted by the investigators as part of an approved UK Biobank application 10279. The researchers have met UK Biobank’s requirements to use the resource (we have confirmed their identity and checked their bona fides – in this case established university researchers, funded by a wide range of organisations including UK government, the Economic & Social Research Council, and charity).   

The Application itself states that the investigators will study the extent to which relationships between cognition and certain health outcomes are explained, related to or modified by genetic and socio-demographic factors.  Their published paper concerns the correlation between such health outcomes and income and genetic markers.  Household income is a significant socio-demographic variable which is commonly used in health-related research. 

The Application and the subsequent research and publication is consistent with our access process and procedures: where the underlying test that is applied is whether the research is “health-related and in the public interest”

Aware that the paper might be open to a range of interpretations, the authors produced a ‘Questions and answers’ document which can be found here (pages 9-17):  Supplementary Note FAQs:  https://static-content.springer.com/esm/art%3A10.1038%2Fs41467-019-13585-5/MediaObjects/41467_2019_13585_MOESM2_ESM.pdf

2. Does UK Biobank intend to sanction or at least renounce such behaviour?

Please see the reply above“.

3. Did UK Biobank receive any complaints about unethical access since this publication appeared, and if yes, how did UK Biobank follow up on these?

We had correspondence with one individual.”

4. Do you see a possible COI for Dr Birney regarding this study and its unethical access to UK Biobank?

There is none. UK Biobank Steering Committee is not involved in decisions about access to UK Biobank.”


I then pointed out to Trehearne that his statement that UK Biobank was well informed of the study’s real design does not match anything in Gale’s online application. Which was most clearly about cognition, negative emotions and their effect on health. Most definitely nothing even resembling any plans to study genes for IQ, or worse, for wealth or absence thereof.

After I sent Trehearne these links and asked to share with me any other application files he based his earlier reply on, the UK Biobank spokesman clarified

Just to confirm, the two links below go to research summaries. The full application did cover the research that was done.”

Trehearne refused to share the “real” application, apparently it is secret. This is apparently how you can conduct eugenics research with UK Biobank data:

  1. Write two applications. The long version should describe your eugenics views and plans to prove your pet eugenics concept, the short version should describe an utterly unrelated, innocuous project.
  2. Once your personal buddies at UK Biobank make sure your eugenics research is green-lighted, you upload your second version as a decoy to the UK Biobank website.
  3. While the dumb low-IQ public believes you study something like effect of bad emotions of health, you can publish eugenics in high-impact scholarly journals while making friends with genetic elites like Dominic Cummings.
  4. Don’t forget to beat your chest as anti-racist and anti-eugenics science hero every time someone challenges you.

Update 6.06.2020

EMBL still refuses communication, but the superior English science led by urologist Petre Cristian Ilie paves the way. This paper appeared a month ago to prove Ewan Birney right.

Petre Cristian Ilie, Simina Stefanescu & Lee Smith The role of vitamin D in the prevention of coronavirus disease 2019 infection and mortality Aging Clinical and Experimental Research (2020) doi: 10.1007/s40520-020-01570-8

You can guess what they found:

We hypothesize that vitamin D may play a protective role for COVID-19. […] We have identified a potential crude association between the mean vitamin D levels in various European countries with COVID-19 cases/1M and COVID-19 mortality. […]

The Southern European countries have lower levels of vitamin D because of decreased exposure (prefer the shade in strong sun) [10] and also as skin pigmentation decreases vitamin D synthesis [11]. Northern part of Europe’s mean levels are better as a consequence of the consumption of cod liver oil and vitamin D supplements as well as fortification of milk and milk products (Finland) [6].”

Their both p-values for Vitamin D levels vs COVID-19 cases and mortality, respectively, just happen to be exactly p=0.05, the magic value. You can’t make this crap up even if you tried.


Donate!

Unlike the genetic elites Birney, Rutherford, Deary and Ritchie I am not blessed with quality genes for either IQ or financial attainment. Would you like to leave here a small tip of $5? Or several of small tips, just increase the amount as you like (2x=€10; 5x=€25).

€5.00

12 comments on “I am not a racist but…

  1. Patricia Murray

    It’s very disappointing to see the lack of transparency here. How can the UK Biobank justify keeping the application secret, especially if the main aims are not reflected in the summary?

    Like

  2. Pingback: Hanno una "teoria" - Ocasapiens - Blog - Repubblica.it

  3. Ana Pedro

    Racism and Pandemics are two very old problems. Both cultural and genetic diversity just can make humanity stronger to face challenges.

    Like

  4. As a fan of your work, I thought the start of this article to be very disappointing.

    To write: “To sum up: here is a scientist, one of top geneticists in UK and Europe, thinking loudly: what if it is just the lack of vitamin D which causes such high COVID-19 mortality among black US Americans?
    By extension, what if all those black people have to do to protect themselves from coronavirus complications and even death, is to pop some vitamin D pills?”

    after Birney writes e.g.)
    1)
    “TL;DR we don’t have enough data/good enough studies to provide conclusive information of whether vitamin D is part of the causal pathway for COVID19 severity”

    2)
    “where genetics is tangled up with ethnicity labels which itself is tangled up with all sorts of societal processes (straightforwardly – poverty – but lots of other subtle things)”

    3)
    “is that it possibly might be part of the explanation, given the complexity of things unlikely to be the only thing and we will need to be very sophisticated to untangle it”

    your point is manipulative at best, and realistically is rude slander, sorry. You are totally twisting his words. Oh, yes, and for good measure, please add some “by extension” so that you can make it look even worse, even though that’s not linked what he said. I don’t care for your potential other holy wars with regards to that person, but based on what he wrote and you wrote, I think you’re completely in the wrong.

    I understand you’re frustrated with the state of this world, but your writing seems to be much more sensational and hysterical (and needlessly aggressive) than when you were fairly criticising scientific misconduct when I started following your site years back, and I think it’s a pity.

    Like

    • Well, as you can imagine I cannot make everyone happy.
      But as a white male who never suffered any discrimination based on his skin colour, gender, religion etc (I can see your real name) you might be biased in your own way.
      While you bravely pour dirt over me here and threaten to switch to reading Retraction Watch or whatever, you are afraid to sign your comment. Why? Your current Oxford boss is an Englishman. Will he disapprove of your valiant defence of Birney’s tweets?

      Like

      • Would you mind commenting on how your accusations of that person (that I’ve never met or know, I may add) is consistent with his statements that I posted there and that were included in your article? Or are you just content with pointing out my background (btw. ad hominems are prohibited by your comments policy, and I think this is a fairly textbook case)?

        Where have I threatened to switch to anything, let alone Retraction watch?

        Where have I “bravely poured dirt”? I criticised your statement at the beginning of this article, yes. And at the end, I commented on the writing style that subjectively seems to me to have changed somewhat, but I am not sure if these are “pouring dirt” (and I see nothing “brave” about it either). Sorry if you tok it that way.

        Of course I’m most likely biased, and probably everyone is, it’s unfortunate, but I at least try to be aware of it and counter my biases when I detect them.

        “valiant defence of Birney’s tweets”. I don’t know why you wrote “valiant”, I don’t perceive it that way. Second, I’m not “defending his tweets”. I’m saying that what you wrote about a single one does not seem to me to follow from that, that’s all.

        I’m sorry, reasons for not signing are my own, linked to mental health. It’s nothing to do with my boss, no. You don’t see inside me, so there is not much point guessing.

        Good bye.

        Like

      • I am sorry about any mental health issues you might have. Otherwise, I suggest you show the Birney tweets to a BAME person. I did before writing my post.

        Like

  5. César A. Urbina-Blanco

    I don’t think this article could have had a better timing. Just look at what happened in Angewandte, TODAY!

    Like

    • The article has been removed completely.
      Here an illegal backup: https://sci-hub.se/10.1002/anie.202006717
      Tomas Hudlicky
      Department of Chemistry and Centre for Biotechnology, Brock University, Canada
      “Organic synthesis—Where now?” is thirty years old. A reflectionon the current state of affairs

      Diversity of work force.
      In the last two decades many groups and/or individuals have been designated with“preferential status”. This in spite of the fact that the percentage of women and minorities in academia and pharmaceutical indutry has greatly increased. It follows that, in a social equilibrium, preferrential treatment of one group leads to disadvantages for another. New ideologies have appeared and influenced hiring practices, promotion, funding, and recognition of certain groups. Each candidate should have an equal opportunity to secure a position, regardless of personal identification/categorization. The rise and emphasis on hiring practices that suggest or even mandate equality in terms of absolute numbers of people in specific subgroups is counter-productive if it results in discrimination against the most meritorious candidates. Such practice affects the format of interviews and has led to the emergence of mandatory “training workshops” on gender equity, inclusion, diversity, and discrimination [Note 2].”

      Note 2

      “2. An example of focusing on “underrepresented minorities” can be seen in the recently established “Power Hour” at Gordon Research Conferences.While this effort is commendable in order to increase the participation of women in science it diminishes the contributions by men (or any other group). Universities have established various centers for “Equity, Diversity and Inclusion”, complete with mandatory seminars and training. These issues have influenced hiring practices to the point where the candidate’s inclusion in one of the preferred social groups may override his or her qualifications.”

      “This essay is dedicated to Dieter Seebach on the occasion of his 83rd birthday and in recognition of his outstanding contributions to synthesis”

      Like

  6. In France recording based ethnicities is forbidden since in theory the republic treat everyone equally. In reality, localities with high proportion of immigrants and descendants of immigrants had higher infection rates. People living there were more likely to be “essential” poor workers, exposed with little protection. They live in small houses in close contact with family members, they use public transport and access to healthcare is more difficult. So as in US and UK the social inequalities are more likely to blame. But you still wonder about genetics, because sometimes whole families are wiped out. You mention Vit. D. , there’s also sickle cell disease for African descendants.

    Like

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