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The science of oppression

The (mis)use of ancestry DNA tests by white supremacists

Content warning: racism, anti-Semitism

Science impacts all of us daily, but the significance of that impact varies based on people’s access to—and engagement with—the scientific process.

The public’s current mistrust of scientific information is alarming—not only in the U.S., where said mistrust is explicitly fuelled by politicians, but in Canada as well. The overwhelming amount of misinformation makes it hard to detect what information is real, what is a little bit true, and what is flat-out quackery. Although the public supports research funding through taxes, they have limited access to most of this research. In the recent past, the Canadian government facilitated this lack of scientific translation by muzzling scientists for nine years. With extremely high journal subscription prices and unnecessarily technical language, it is understandable that many are disengaged from the scientific process and product. The public, and particularly those communities that have been historically marginalized and underrepresented in scientific narratives, should always have the opportunity to access and feel empowered by scientific knowledge.

This push for increased access to science also needs to occur in tandem with advocacy for diverse representation within STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). Marginalized groups, including people of colour and women, continue to be underrepresented in the STEM fields, and are less likely to be interviewed as scientific experts in the media. One of the reasons often cited for the necessity of diversity in STEM is the opportunity for better science that it presents; research benefits from heterogenous groups. But beyond the statistics, (in)visibility speaks volumes. It sends a powerful and frightening message to young women, youth of colour, and other underrepresented groups about the fictitious limits of their capabilities and curiosity. Simply put, this is wrong and needs to change. But how?

Broad Science is an initiative based out of radio station CKUT 90.3 FM that was created by neuroscience graduate students at McGill University in an attempt to make science more inclusive, engaging, and intersectional through podcasting. One effective way they do this is through the social currency of storytelling. Research indicates that storytelling is a useful tool for sharing scientific knowledge with non-experts, and should play an important role in informing research itself. Broad Science therefore focuses on telling science stories from voices and perspectives which often get overlooked. The goal is to provide a platform that makes science accessible for everyone, highlights the voices of marginalized groups, and encourages socially-conscious scientific practices.

As part of its first official podcast season, Broad Science investigated the social aspects of DNA testing: what can DNA tell us about our identity? How has the rise of consumer DNA tests impacted different communities? This August, Broad Science interviewed Aaron Panofsky, a sociology professor at UCLA’s Institute for Society and Genetics. His research with Joan Donovan on the ways that white supremacists in the U.S. have used genetic ancestry tests was released on August 14 at the American Sociology Academy conference. This conference was just two days after the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville which ended in the murder of a female protester. Broad Science feels it is important to address the ways systems of oppression operate within the framework of science, especially given how the discipline has been used as a colonialist tool in the past (e.g., eugenics, one drop rule).

Broad Science (Bsci): Your latest research has struck a major chord with many people, especially given the recent horrific events in Charlottesville and the current political climate. But can you take our listeners back to the beginning of your study, and how you and your colleagues started to analyze posts from white nationalists talking about genetic ancestry tests?

Aaron Panofsky (A.P.): Sure, we started actually almost two years ago. It was long before obviously the events of Charlottesville, but even longer before white nationalism had taken such a prominent role on the American political stage. What got us into it really was two things. I had been working with my colleague Christopher Kelty at UCLA on a longer-term project about public participation in science and how the internet could mediate that experience. A lot of the research and public commentary on this phenomenon of citizen science was all about how good this was for innovation and connecting the science to public interest. So we were actually kind of looking for a negative case, where the internet may be mediating or enabling public participation in science in ways that were less than fully salutary. At the same time a colleague had suggested looking at the StormFront website. This website, it’s basically a bulletin board for white nationalists to discuss their politics and identity issues. He suggested, “Hey, look at this website,” because he knew I was interested in issues of genetics, and he said, “You know there’s lots of genetics discussions on this website.” So that was about two years ago and really in a lot of ways, the ground of the American political scene has kind of moved under our feet. We were not thinking of this as something that was destined to capture so much public interest or to be so relevant to contemporary politics, but it has, unfortunately.

Bsci: Why were these white nationalists talking about genetic tests? What were they looking for?

A.P.: Yeah, so if you go on this website, I don’t recommend it, but if one goes on this website, you’ll see that there’s actually a huge amount of discussion about science issues. There are entire sections of the discussion board that are linked to things like eugenics and social policy, racial realism, genetics, anthropology, and history. Science and the relationship between their ideology is a very urgent topic for a lot of white nationalists. I think they’re looking for ways to justify what they see as true. They’re looking for an alternative framework [through which] to receive public discourse and receive academic discourse about issues like history and genetics. They see StormFront as a place where they can sort of talk in what they see as brave and heterodox ways about what they believe to be the reality of race as a determining variable in history and in social order and life.

Bsci: When a lot of these supremacists were taking genetic tests, they found something that might not have been in line with their ideology. Do you mind explaining that?

A.P.: The way that we decided to sort of hone in on all these issues was to look at instances where StormFront users had posted the results of their genetic ancestry tests. So 23andMe is one of these direct-to-consumer genetic testing companies. What we found was 153 distinct times where someone said, “Here are my results,” and described those results, either by directly posting the quantitative results that the company gave or by describing those results in their own words. In about a third of those results, the users thought that those results gave them what they considered good news. Evidence that they were ‘fully white’ or ‘fully European’ or sometimes surprising evidence that they were ‘whiter’ than they thought. About a third of results were offered without commentary, so people would put up their results but they wouldn’t say what they believed about those results. Finally, a third of those results were presented as offering bad news or problematic news in some way. So they would sort of say, “Oh, this result seems to indicate that I’m not completely European. What should I make of it, community members?” or, “Oh, how do I make sense of this posting?”

Bsci: For that latter group, when they got these results that didn’t meet their expectations, rather than keep it to themselves they actually turned to this online community to be validated. They weren’t shunned and they weren’t turned away. Did you find that interesting at all?

A.P.: Yeah, that was one of our first and most interesting findings. StormFront has stated all over its rules for membership that are something like, to be a white nationalist, to be a member of StormFront, you need to be 100% European, not Jewish, no exceptions. There’s a very public and prominent absolute image about your background, your ancestry, your ability to be on the site, and despite that rule, a fairly large number of people, at least a third to two thirds, depending on how you interpret this, were willing to put up results that didn’t meet that definition. It’s interesting that despite this hard rule, they were willing to appeal to the community for how this should be interpreted. I guess the flip side of those folks being willing to put up their results was that the community typically did not respond to the problematic results by immediately trying to shun them. We counted the number of responses that were kind of like, “Hey, you’re not white,” or, “Hey, get out of StormFront,” and the kind of responses that were helping an individual repair what they believed to be bad news. The repair responses far outweighed, in 9 to 1 roughly, the “Get out of StormFront, you’re not white,” responses.

Bsci: In your research, you found that there were a few different types of arguments presented for these quote-unquote bad results.

A.P.: Exactly. The kind of repair tactics grouped really into two. The first one is where a lot of people respond and say “Why did you take a genetic ancestry test in the first place? That’s false knowledge. It can’t really tell you anything true about your ancestry.” I guess they never used the phrase, as the phrase became popular afterwards, but the kind of ‘fake news’ interpretation of genetic ancestry tests. What they’ll say is a genetic ancestry test is inferior to the kind of knowledge you should just have as a white nationalist. So they talk about doing the mirror test, not the genetic ancestry test. Look into the mirror. Do you see someone not white looking back at you? If you do, get out of StormFront, if you don’t, you’re good. So they presume you should be able to see race or see Jewish ancestry. In another way, they reject these tests and will say, “Hey, look at who owns these companies, dot dot dot,” and what they’ll be presuming is that genetic ancestry testing companies are owned by Jews and that they’re part of the Jewish controlled media and that what Jews who run these companies are trying to do is confuse white people about their ancestry by sprinkling in non-white results so that white people will think they’re less pure than they are or that all humans are inherently from mixed backgrounds. So, for some posters this is another reason to reject these genetic ancestry tests.

Bsci: So you’ve previously said there were two-sided arguments presented, the second being more nuanced, can you explain that?

A.P.: Yeah, I think the second strategy for them to reject these tests was not to reject the test, per se, or not to reject the science of genetics, per se, but to reject a particular interpretation or to reinterpret the test in ways that would make them less damaging to an individual’s identity. This set of interpretations was often very sophisticated and sort of science-based or related to a kind of scientific argument. They would argue on the basis of statistical arguments, genetic arguments, historical or even anthropological arguments, that the particular result of this individual needed to be interpreted in a way that was not so dangerous. For example, if the results show that there might be a relatively low percentage of Native American ancestry, three or four per cent, or middle eastern ancestry, something they considered discrediting, they would often say well that might be within the sampling error of the test so they would talk about how these tests are constructed and how there are inherent error bars around all their estimates. That you can’t take seriously relatively small estimates, like the precision of the estimates is always subject to some uncertainty. Another kind of argument would be a version of correlation does not equal causation. They would say, for example, well, one reason why lots of white Americans get Native American ancestry on their test is that the reference group that the company sampled from to establish Native American DNA might actually have white ancestry in its past and so then your ancestry is being ascribed to Native Americans when it’s actually that the Native American group has some white ancestry in the past. Then, this kind of explanation was often accompanied with two kinds of alternative historical explanations: one was about the heroic conquest by white people of non-white people all around the world. Vikings going all around conquering people and therefore spreading their DNA or Aryans spreading their DNA around the world, or conversely that non-whites had, through some sexual violence in the past, raped white women, and so this historical framing would be often wedded to kind of white nationalist views of history. On the one hand, heroic white populations conquering other populations and also sexually violent non-white populations infiltrating white population were arguments that were often very rational and logical up to a point, but then they interpreted the data in ways that made the white nationalist point of view come through.

Bsci: Does this make academics [such as yourself and your colleagues] uneasy, because it is partly a good understanding of science, but then introducing a deviating narrative to validate their ideologies?

A.P.: Yeah, I think that’s one of our most interesting findings. First of all there’s such a mix of different explanations and that, at least at the level of community, the sort of conspiratorial and the rational explanations can co-exist. Secondly, what’s interesting is that, as you say, there are that a lot of these criticisms of the tests, at least the rational criticisms, that are based on logic and knowledge about how statistics and science works. I like to think of them as kind of off-label interpretations. They’re interpretations that a population geneticist, or a biological anthropologist, or an academic historian, wouldn’t accept; they would say the evidence points other ways and that they’re emphasizing the wrong set of data. Emphasizing the sort of short end of the stick rather than the big part of the story, but they’re still using the tools and the styles of thinking of those disciplines to mobilize their argument. It’s a really interesting and complicated kind of public understanding of science. We often assume, when people are interpreting scientific findings the ways that scientists don’t like them, that they’re doing so out of a kind of ignorance, a flat earth denialism of science. Then scientists say, oh, well, the answer is that we have to educate this public. But this case shows that the most vocal discussants in these groups are highly educated, highly intelligent, not at all ignorant about these issues, but they’re just interpreting it in ways that the scientists [whose work I engage with] wouldn’t prefer. So it’s not quite a matter of these guys just needing to be educated, and once they understand how genetics works, or how statistics works, or how history unfolded, they suddenly change their minds. They actually have an alternate framework of those very narratives and can deploy them very fluidly, so it presents a kind of challenge for how we should think about what to do about this.

Bsci: Another twisted idea that’s brought up in all of this, is that they’re using these DNA tests as a way of redefining what it means to be white by accepting these results and celebrating “white diversity.”

A.P.: Yeah, I think that’s true. When they are talking about the collective, talking about white nationalism in general among those that accept genetic ancestry tests, they will often sort of say, we need to rethink what it means to be a white nationalist in the wake of these tests. They start to debate instead what percentage of non-white ancestry would be acceptable, and then they start to debate, “Is white nationalism really an identity where purity matters or is it a political movement where we’re going to have to make some compromises if we want to have the numbers to carry out our political program?” So there’s a lot of debates about that kind of thing.

In addition to biological framing of ancestry, which appeals to their worldview, is an appropriation of the language of diversity and the idea of multiculturalism without people of colour. When you take this test, if you are a person of European ancestry, even if you are a person who the test algorithm will assign 100% European ancestry, usually it will show, 30% English, 20% Dutch, 15% French, 10% broadly southern or northern European. What that does, is say to an individual that a white person is already diverse within themselves. You see this in a white nationalist websites. For example, one poster on StormFront had a signature line that said, “White people are the true people of colour. Hair: white hair, black hair, brown hair, yellow hair; Eyes: brown eyes, blue eyes, hazel eyes; Skin: from very pale to a deep olive colour.” The idea is that white people have all of this colour and diversity within them and people of colour don’t need to be in the picture to have diversity. White nationalists don’t think of themselves as racists, they think of themselves as recovering for whiteness all the good identity stuff that has been taken by non-white people. Genetic ancestry tests allow them to claim diversity without having to respect the inclusion of non-white people. That’s another part of the picture.

Bsci: They [white supremacists] bring up an understanding of migration patterns and geopolitical lines in some respects, but they also turn a blind eye to a country like Germany, which has no unique genetic heritage. It’s contradictory, but they don’t recognize that?

A.P.: That, and also, we shouldn’t forget, part of this is about what genetic ancestry tests tell us. What these test are doing is statistically matching a person’s genetics to reference databases. Then it’s asserting the reason why you have connections to these reference databases is through some ancestral relationship to an ancient group. But it is making a whole bunch of arbitrary assumptions, that a biological anthropologist or population geneticist could explain much better than I could. They are ultimately arbitrary divisions and it’s the political groups that exist today that are being projected onto the DNA data. So it presents a set of ambiguous information about our ancestry that then can be picked up by these narratives. I guess part of what I’m saying is, and where I’m moderately critical of the genetic ancestry testing companies, is the way they present the information they’re giving as the truth of ancestry, when it is merely one way to think about our ancestry, and it has all these assumptions built into it. These assumptions are not clearly communicated, and they could be what sociologists and cultural anthropologist called reified. It’s a set of arbitrary cultural distinctions that then look like they are given to us by DNA and biology. That’s one of the reasons why StormFront people find these test appealing, it’s because they seem to ground our contemporary political identity in our biology.

As a result of the media coverage of this study, reporters tried to get quotes from 23andMe and, who are two of the biggest companies, to say, “Hey, do you realize that white nationalists are using your tests for their own devices?” Those companies where rightly alarmed, maybe knew about it a little bit and issued statements saying, “Our tests don’t support racism, they show that all humans are biologically related, that we can’t use DNA to hate and that we should all love each other.” I’m paraphrasing, that was sort of the gist of the statement. I think that’s all well and good, but at the same time the kinds of information that these genetic ancestry test do promote sends a very different message than universal human brotherhood. It sends a message of we are all separate little groups and each individual has a mixture of these groups in their background, but these groups are all coherent real different things and that groupness is given to us by our biology. Which precisely fits into [white nationalists’] world view very well.

Unravelling stories

Science remains relatively inaccessible to the general public, and DNA testing has provided an easy entry point for many people to engage with the complex worlds of genetics. It is worth questioning why DNA testing has been so enthusiastically seized on by the public as a tool to engage with one’s ancestral past and one’s own relation to race. As Alondra Nelson, author of “The Social Life of DNA: Race, Reparations, and Reconciliation After the Genome,” voices in her interview with PBS, a lot of the value of requesting DNA testing is to discover one’s ancestral lineage and to build a narrative around that. In other words, to tell a story. Whether genetic testing is being used by people of colour to engage with a lost past, or by white nationalists to prove their “purity,” the results are taken up to tell a story about the individual. The work of unravelling DNA in genetic testing turns into the work of unravelling a personal history.

It is also worth recognizing the ways in which science itself is about telling a story. As Karl Popper forcefully argued in his book The Poverty of Historicism, the philosophy of science has always been based on the understanding that science can never be proven, only disproven. Thus, science is an ever evolving discipline. Even the science of genetic testing as it relates to ancestry is forever evolving, with new papers being published on the topic every day. Scientific reasoning is based on the experimental methods employed, which are often error-prone and should be examined critically. So science is about debate; it is about connecting meaning to results; it is about storytelling. Broad Science’s podcast engages with the ways that science is storytelling, through conversation and discussion with scientists, by transforming scientific research into oral history, by critically engaging with the debates raging in the field scientific inquiry. Popular consumer DNA tests like 23andMe and don’t engage with the ways that science has always been a debate. The way that genetic testing has been taken up by white nationalists needs to be challenged in order to encourage the story that science has to tell to be taken up in ways that promote anti-oppressive actions.