Saturday, November 8, 2008

No on 8, strategy & the origins of modern biostatistics

Last night when I got home, I was delighted to see a bunch of young queers blocking Market Street at Ninth street, right outside my building.
I grabbed Tuna and went out to join the fray.
It became clear that this was a side-show to the main event, and so we walked towards Dolores Park, but by the time we got there, things were winding down quickly, so I headed up Church Street, and by chance caught the tail end of a re-march headed down to City Hall.
It put a spring in my step.

I want to start out making it clear that I'm thrilled to see street activism directed against the homophobia inherent to the Proposition 8 campaign, but I wanted to comment on some tactics that I felt might be counter-productive.

I saw a bunch of signs making explicit ties to the Black civil rights movement (such as "I have a dream, too!") that made me a bit uncomfortable. For one thing, these signs were always wielded by White marchers, which should be a tip-off right there that the elision of the Black civil rights movement and the current struggle over marriage equality is not without complications.
I understand the parallels that these marchers were trying to make, but in making these parallels, they are inviting other comparisons that are not necessarily apt.
I've often heard people make arguments paralleling the bans on similar gender marriage with bans on inter-racial marriages that existed formally in this country (and still persist informally), and while I do get the similarities, I think that there is an important consideration that is often not recognized by the (usually White) commentators making these comparisons.

The main issue in the current debate on recognizing similar gender marriages seems to be about recognition first and foremost, equality in the recognition, legally and socially, of similar gender unions.
And that in itself, it seems to me, is sufficient cause to be entirely in support of legal recognition of similar gender marriages.

But, when we start making comparisons to legal bans on inter-racial marriages, there is another key element that is often overlooked: that anti-miscegenation laws were not so much intended to block recognition of inter-racial unions, but had an explicitly eugenic basis, not necessarily geared towards the elimination of racial minority populations (although that was presumably also a desired end), but primarily to prevent the "dilution" of the White race. That's why they were called "anti-miscegenation" laws.
So I think there's a strong potential for being counter-productive when making parallels that (unintentionally) primarily invoke a eugenic element that is largely missing from the current debate on recognition of similar gender marriage.

Origins of Modern Biostatistics
At the risk of making an incongruous jump, the whole topic of anti-miscegenation brings me to one of my favorite subjects, the origins of modern biostatistics.

Ever wonder where the term linear regression came from?

If you go back to the papers describing its original development, the technique was originally used to describe the physical characteristics of the offspring of Englishmen and racial degenerates (their term, not mine), such as Chinese women. The term linear reflects the fact that various physiognomic characteristics of these "racially degenerate" children were, on average, linearly half-way between similar measurements made on their parents. The term regression refers to the fact that these charateristics were racially "regressed" from "English" in the direction of the "racially degenerate" form of the child's mother.
Scary stuff, eh?
I don't mean to say that linear regression and various other methods of modern biostatistics that have been developed should be thrown out as morally indefensible, but I think it is helpful to carry forward the history of where they originated.
Myself, I try to use the term "linear modeling" rather than "linear regression", but I think that's still only papering over the truth.

I don't really see a way of tying these two topics together in some nice pithy conclusion, except to say that history is important, even when one isn't aware of it.

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