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Thread: Forensic anthropologists versus race denialism31 days old

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    Default Forensic anthropologists versus race denialism


    A Klingon skull.

    When bones are found in a pond, law enforcement would like to know who it is, and the job of the forensic anthropologist is to give a profile of the victim. Such data includes age of death, date of death, means of death, sex and race. Oops, did I say, "race"? I meant, "race." In America, forensic anthropologists tend to divide the human species into three or four major races, such as caucasoid, negroid, mongoloid, and sometimes Native Americans are split away from mongoloid. They may use different words, because the "oid" words may seem offensive, and sometimes they don't even use the word, "race," maybe just "ancestry," instead, but the meaning is the same. A forensic anthropologist who I used to work with claimed that he could identify the race of a skeleton with 90% certainty. Many of them just plug the measured dimensions of the skulls into the software Fordisk, which statistically analyzes and outputs the probable races and the corresponding p values.

    Forensic anthropology is a subset of the general field of anthropology, and most white anthropologists deny that race can be a useful biological construct, so they feel uncomfortable being in the same teacher's lounge as forensic anthropologists who make it an everyday part of their work. Three of the race-denialists wrote a paper titled, "Forensic Misclassification of Ancient Nubian Crania: Implications for Assumptions about Human Variation." They claimed to have entered data for ancient Nubian skulls into Fordisk, and their output from Fordisk was races belonging all over the globe, including Easter Island. Therefore, a key component of forensic anthropology "fails."

    None of the authors had studied or worked in the field of forensic anthropology, though they had worked in related fields, and therefore they were perfectly new to the software Fordisk at the time of the research underlying their paper. This would not have to be a problem, but a criticism of their paper highlighted a bad consequence of such inexperience, a criticism by Ousley, Jantz, and Freid, 2009, titled, "Understanding race and human variation: why forensic anthropologists are good at identifying race." The race-denialists claimed to have entered data for palate length and minimum frontal breadth. However, their source data (Howells, 1973, Cranial variation in man) did not contain those measurements. Instead, the source data contained measurements for palate breadth and frontomalar breadth, and perhaps that is what was entered for palate length and minimum frontal breadth. They are entirely different elements of the skull with different values. The data that the race-denialists entered into Fordisk were for skulls of Star Trek space aliens, at best, not of ancient Nubians, which is at least one of the big reasons why most of their output had bad p values: that means the output categorizations are uncertain, and forensic anthropologists know to check their data after such output. If they can not get better p values, then they don't use the output. I expect another problem would be that the control data used by Fordisk is of modern skulls, not of ancient skulls, which matters because humans have evolved. So, the paper of the race-denialists is plainly garbage, and I take it to be the kind of thing that follows from race-denialism. It is a perspective plainly at odds with reality, and it corrupts rational thought.

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    Yeah, it's certainly possible to determine racial categories based on craniometrics. It's obviously not as accurate as genome-wide SNP, but for the most part, skull shapes and nasal width and so on, can give a fair degree of accuracy in racial classifications. It's more difficult of course, to determine if the skull belongs to a Scandinavian or German, or Russian or Polish, and so on. And the older the human skulls are, usually the more ambiguous the skull shapes become.

    Craniometrics was a useful method back in the 1800s; obviously they overstated or exaggerated the importance of craniometrics back then, because they didn't really have any serious technology like modern hardware/software based population genetics tools, and they were trying to be as objective as possible by looking beyond pigmentation, which is not really an accurate racial marker. But science has expanded rapidly thanks to the modern tools we have today, so I personally no longer think craniometrics is a particularly useful method.

    By the way, gorillas have pretty damn unique and interesting skull shapes, lol:


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    Non-metric skull traits are best for inferring ancestry. Metric skull traits such as nasal width are subject to convergent evolution among ancestrally different subraces. Using little random skull features that tend to be free from selection is better, and this is what Blumenbach did. Darwin also said that using idiosyncratic features is better than overall form for inferring ancestry in Origin of Species, giving the example of points of resemblance between marine and terrestrial mammals, but I can't be bothered looking for the quote.

    Found it, actually it's in The Descent of Man.

    As we have no record of the lines of descent, the pedigree can be discovered only by observing the degrees of resemblance between the beings which are to be classed. For this object numerous points of resemblance are of much more importance than the amount of similarity or dissimilarity in a few points. If two languages were found to resemble each other in a multitude of words and points of construction, they would be universally recognised as having sprung from a common source, notwithstanding that they differed greatly in some few words or points of construction. But with organic beings the points of resemblance must not consist of adaptations to similar habits of life: two animals may, for instance, have had their whole frames modified for living in the water, and yet they will not be brought any nearer to each other in the natural system. Hence we can see how it is that resemblances in several unimportant structures, in useless and rudimentary organs, or not now functionally active, or in an embryological condition, are by far the most serviceable for classification; for they can hardly be due to adaptations within a late period; and thus they reveal the old lines of descent or of true affinity.
    Last edited by mikemikev; 2018-04-25 at 12:40.

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