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Wednesday, August 11, 2021

Razib Khan and the curious Insitome Institute part 2

Razib Khan & Spencer Wells.
Observe Wells ignoring Khan's well-known, decades-long
career as a promoter of race pseudo-science.

So Razib Khan, in spite of his long-term involvement in race pseudo-science, has found support for his career from the Insitome Institute

Khan is their "Director of Scientific Content."

Reminds me of the days when "celebrity intellectual" Steven Pinker supported the career of Razib Khan, going so far as to use Khan to respond to a negative review of The Better Angels of Our Nature in the New Yorker. Which was a seriously unequal match in terms of literary ability alone - Razib Khan vs the New Yorker. 

Pinker also promoted the career of the blatantly racist Steve Sailer, before dropping him, at least in public.

Khan and Sailer are buddies. Here we see Sailer, in the infamously racist VDARE, promoting Khan's review of "Facing Reality".

In 2019, Donor's Trust, a funding vehicle for right-wing plutocrats like Koch and the Mercers, gave over $1.5 million to the VDARE Foundation in 2019, according to tax records obtained by the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD). Razib Khan has been associated with VDARE for at least twenty years, and he is mentioned there often by Steve Sailer and especially too-racist-for National Review John Derbyshire. Derbyshire described Khan as "my old friend" in December 2019 and gives some insight into the Khan-Sailer relationship:

Blog post of the week comes from my old friend Razib Khan at the Gene Expression website. Razib is a close competitor with Steve Sailer for the title Smartest Gink I Know. Indeed, it was at Steve's original HBD listserv twenty years ago that I first got acquainted with Razib.

"HBD" stands for "Human Bio-Diversity" and is a code word for anti-Black racism.

So who are Razib Khan's new friends at the Insitome Institute think tank?

The Team consists of Spencer Wells, Ph.D; Gareth Highnam, Ph.D; and Khan. 

Wells has worked for National Geographic and is on the record saying things like:

WHEN ASKED about the question of race, Wells’s answer was unequivocal. “Racism is not only socially divisive, but also scientifically incorrect. We are all descendants of people who lived in Africa recently,” he says. “We are all Africans under the skin.” The kinds of differences that people notice, such as skin pigmentation, limb length, or other adaptations are “basically surface features that have been selected for in the environment. When you peer beneath the surface at the underlying level of genetic variation, we are all much more similar than we appear to be. There are no clear, sharp delineations.

So Wells believes the exact opposite of what Razib Khan believes.

Meanwhile Gareth Highnam doesn't have much to say about race in the media, although I did notice him liking a tweet by Amy Harmon, that was critical of hereditarian Nicholas Wade back in 2014. 

Needless to say, Khan is a fan of Wade because of his hereditarian beliefs.

Also, Highnam does give a shit about the World Health Organization, at least in 2018.

So that's the Team. There is also a Board of Directors which consists of Spencer Wells and Carlos D. Bustamante, Ph.D

Everybody has a Ph.D except Khan, who has two Bachelors of Science degrees, in Biochemistry and Biology, according to his Wikipedia page, as well as some graduate work. Although Khan is described as a "geneticist" on the Insitome site and many other places, his Wiki page describes him, more accurately as a "writer in population genetics and consumer genomics."

Bustamante is interviewed in Technology Review (my highlight):

Many genetic researchers have long argued that race has no basis in science. But the debate doesn’t seem to go away. 
In a global context there is no model of three, or five, or even 10 human races. There is a broad continuum of genetic variation that is structured, and there are pockets of isolated populations. Three, five, or 10 human races is just not an accurate model; it is far more of a continuum model.

Humans are a beautifully diverse species both phenotypically and genetically. This is very classic population genetics. If I walk from Cape Horn all the way to the top of Finland, every village looks like the village next to it, but at the extremes people are different.

But as a population geneticist?

I don’t find race a meaningful way to characterize people.

In 2017 Razib Khan published an article in Skeptic, founded by hereditarian (and creep) Michael Shermer. It's co-written with "biosocial criminologist" and frequent Quillette contributor Brian Boutwell and titled "Is race a useful concept."  It ends this way (my highlight):

Here is perhaps the most important point and one on which we will end. Injecting bluster, rhetoric, and anger around this topic is an entirely pointless exercise. We have the tools necessary to answer this question: Are racial classifications meaningful? The answer is "yes."

So Bustamante believes the exact opposite of what Khan believes. 

And Bustamante knows exactly who Khan is because in February of this year he blocked someone on Twitter for daring to ask about Razib Khan's connections to Ron Unz and Richard Spencer.

Khan, for his part, is happy to use Bustamante's much more impressive attainments to legitimize his work.

So what is going on here? Khan is the only non-Ph.D at the Insitome Institute and his beliefs are the opposite of the others associated with the Institute. He's not really a geneticist, he's a writer, and he's not even a good writer. 

In June of this year Khan made a big discovery, which he announced in the science magazine Nautilus: The Human Family Tree, It Turns Out, Is Complicated.

Adam Rutherford has been talking about this topic for years. And Rutherford is a much better writer than Khan.

Let's start with the last sentence of the Nautilus piece: 

The first 20 years of this century have been the most exciting decades of paleoanthropology since the emergence of the field, in large part due to the rise of paleogenetics. I see no reason to assume that wave has crested. I for one, can’t wait to continue constantly updating my priors on humankind as the 2020’s unfold.

The last sentence is awkward: I for one, can't wait to continue constantly updating my priors on humankind as the 2020s unfold. But even more awkward is that his priors are not mentioned anywhere else in the article - Khan never tells us what his prior beliefs are. I guess we are supposed to assume they aligned with the orthodoxy of all science guys in the year 2000, since for most of the article he uses the first person plural:

Finally, we need to acknowledge that our long-standing and intimate interest in Neanderthals may have misled us when it came to Denisovans. Neanderthals were discovered in Europe, the continent with the longest and most well-funded tradition in archaeology. But it turns out they may not be typical “archaic” humans. The best genetic work indicates that Denisovans were not one homogeneous lineage, as seems to have been the case with Neanderthals, but a diverse group that were strikingly differentiated.17 The Denisovan ancestry in modern populations varies considerably in relatedness to the genome sequences from Denisova Cave. It is clear that the Denisovan ancestry in Papuans is very different from the Siberian Denisovan sequences. The most geographically distant Denisovan groups, those in Siberia and those from on the far edge of Southeast Asia into Wallacea, were likely far more genetically different from each other than Khoisan are from the rest of humanity. Depending on the assumptions you set your “molecular clock” with, the most distant Denisovan lineages probably separated into distinct populations from each other 200,000 to 400,000 years before their extinction.

He seems to be implying that "we" have somehow refused to acknowledge that our "long-standing" interest in Neanderthals has misled us about Denisovans. Denisovans were discovered in 2010 and Neanderthals were identified as such in the mid-1800s. So I don't see how anybody was "misled" - we've just known about Neanderthals a century and a half longer than Denisovans. 

Is there some contingent of scientists who are refusing to acknowledge the significance of Denisovans compared to Neanderthals? (Maybe some dastardly "woke" scientists?)

If there are, Khan doesn't say who they are. And I absolutely cannot figure out what he thinks is the significance of "Neanderthals were discovered in Europe, the continent with the longest and most well-funded tradition in archeology." Nothing in the rest of the paragraph explains why it matters where Neanderthals were discovered.  

The point he appears to be making with the paragraph is that Denisovans had a wider range than Neanderthals, but it's confusing since the fact that Neanderthals were discovered in Europe, and that Europe is the continent with the "most well-funded tradition in archeology" do not contribute to the issue of difference in ranges. 

This article was originally posted on Khan's "Unsupervised Learning" blog. But Khan has a Wikipedia page that describes him as a writer. He presumably gets paid to write. And parts of Unsupervised Learning are behind a paywall. Did Nautilus have any editors look at this when they decided to reprint it? Or did they just figure, well, Khan uses big science-y words and footnotes so that's good enough? I hope they didn't pay him for this rambling mess.

In Khan's review of "Facing Reality", discussed in Part 1, he accuses the "regnant culture" of refusing to "connect the dots" about Black people. But he never says explicitly what it would mean to connect the dots. It's hard to tell if this vagueness is intentional or not. It probably is, but on the other hand, he really is a terrible writer.

So he's not a geneticist; not a Ph.D; he believes the exact opposite of what the other people at the Insitome Institute believe about race; and he's not even a good writer. 

And on top of that he has a career checkered with connections to horrible racists and has an obnoxious right-wing personality on social media and can't even restrain himself from publicly disparaging one of the Institute's partners.

Why would the Insitome Institute want him?

Adam Rutherford, who is only two years older than Khan, is more their kind of guy: an actual geneticist - with a Ph.D in genetics - an opponent of race pseudo-science and a great writer as well as a charismatic and funny presenter. I realize the Insitome Institute probably couldn't afford Adam Rutherford and anyway he's busy with his own projects, but there is surely a range of science writers between Razib Khan and Adam Rutherford, so that the Insitome Institute could have found someone better qualified and less likely to embarrass them.

So why have Khan? I have some theories. Razib Khan must want a career as a legitimate science explainer, not as a sleazy race pseudo-science promoter, aiding and abetting disgusting racists like Steve Sailer and John Derbyshire and Charles Murray. I could be wrong of course. It's possible Khan is such a devoted racist he can't image ever forsaking his career of race-mongering. But I think it's about the money.

I think it's likely that he's been getting paid through the wingnut welfare system for years, like so many people associated with the IDW and Quillette. We know Ron Unz gave Khan a total of $31,000 as a "research fellow." And we've seen how Koch and other right-wing plutocrats will throw big money even at a blatantly racist organization like VDARE - 1.5 million dollars in one year. Who knows how much they might give to Quillette or other right-wing race-mongers who maintain even a thin veneer of respectability? 

Khan has been associated with VDARE, Unz and Taki's magazine - all founded by wealthy racist kooks - for years. It's hard to establish a career as a science writer. It's a competitive field and neither Khan's educational background nor his literary abilities are impressive. Getting a boost from wingnut welfare is likely his only option to have a career as a writer. 

So maybe one of Khan's sugar daddies offered the Insitome Institute money to take him on, to help white-wash Khan's career, in expectation Khan will continue to further the Koch/Mercer/VDARE cause of making "scientific" racism acceptable.

This is purely speculation of course, but it seems far more plausible to me than a scenario in which an organization of Ph.Ds, opposed to race pseudo-science, would freely choose Razib Khan of all people to be their Director of Scientific Content.

Part 3: blocked by Spencer Wells