Roland Fryer wins the John Bates Clark medal

Roland Fryer has won the John Bates Clark medal for the top economist under 40.

I’ve paid attention to some of his papers that impinge on biology, even corresponded with him.  In one,  he argued that higher risk for cardiovascular disease among American blacks was due to genetic factors, those resulting from selection for salt-sensitivity in the Middle Passage, the risky journey to America.

There’s nothing wrong with looking for genetic factors as a possible explanation (or partial explanation) of such health differences, but it’s not necessarily easy to come up with correct answers, least of all when you don’t know anything about the subject – don’t know anything about biochemistry or medicine or natural selection.  Which is the default state of humanity, of course – and of economists.

There are black-white genetic differences in genes involved in holding onto salt and water, and that’s undoubtedly a product of selection – but you see those same variants in Africans.  It’s not something that showed up in 1750.

The death rate in the Middle Passage was about 15%,  during the period that most of the ancestors of American blacks came across. A lot of those deaths were due to diarrheal disease, but there is no reason to think salt-sensitivity is the overwhelmingly dominant factor that determines survival in such cases – obviously the immune system must also matter, for example. There is certainly no evidence that salt-sensitivity is even the main factor in determining survival in such cases, although it might be.  And since there were other causes of death there, such as scurvy and smallpox, it couldn’t have been all-important.

Moreover, it is almost impossible to cause a significant genetic change in one generation*, unless the selective factor wipes out something like the least resistant 95% of the population. I told Fryer this – worked out an example using the breeder’s equation, plausible values of heritability, a favorable (and unrealistic) estimate of the importance of salt retention, reasonable estimates of mortality on those ships – there was no way anything significant would happen.  He didn’t make use of the breeder’s equation, but  it can’t be that he never heard of it, because I told him.

He mentioned a case in which researchers successfully bred salt-sensitive rats in three generations, with noticeable change by the second generation –  but with this was done by  founding one line with the two most salt-sensitive rats (2 out of 47) and the other with the two least salt-sensitive rats.   That rat experiment was the equivalent of  95% casualties for three generations , all strictly due to salt sensitivity – pretty different from 15% casualties for one generation that are maybe kind-sorta influenced by salt sensitivity.  Consider also that they are comparing one line strongly selected for salt-sensitivity with another strongly selected for  salt-insensitivity, selection was a minimum of 60 times stronger in the rat experiment than in the Middle Passage.

There’s no chance that salt-sensitivity in African-Americans is a product of selection  in the Middle Passage.

In another paper, Fryer and Leavitt looked at intelligence in children aged 8 to 12 months. They find only minor racial differences in test outcomes.  which proves..???  At that point you’re testing motor skills or something –  anything like an IQ test is impossible.  Black kids are somewhat precocious in motor skills compared to whites: on average they walk about a month earlier, East Asians about a month later.  But chimps at age one will outperform all humans, while gazelles can run 15 minutes after birth.  All which proves nothing at all. That first paper is wrong.  This paper is … not even wrong.

Well, maybe the papers I have not read are high-quality.   There’s a rule, I think: when someone is egregiously wrong on all the things you know anything about, he must be damn good on everything else.

* the next person who talks about how much people living in slum conditions  in the US over the last couple of generations must have been selected for X, where X is anything at all, WILL BE BANNED


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44 Responses to Roland Fryer wins the John Bates Clark medal

  1. dearieme says:

    “The death rate in the Middle Passage was about 15%”: I once saw it stated that the death rate among the crews was much the same. If the cause was infectious disease I suppose that’s plausible. Does anyone here know if it’s true, though?

    • MawBTS says:

      I heard 10%. 18th century ships weren’t great fun.

      As to how many black slaves died, it depends on when you look. Towards the end of the slave trade they were way better at keeping slaves alive than they were at the beginning. In 1788 a law was passed that fixed the maximal number of slaves as a proportion of the ship’s size – that stopped slaves being packed in the hold like sardines.

      Ships in general got faster – towards the end of the trade you could make a trans-Atlantic journey in a couple of weeks, where once it was a couple of months.

      In 1789 William Wilberforce said that that 12.5% of slaves died in transit – I guess that was be the slave trade’s best batting average. Earlier numbers would certainly be higher.

      Remember that “dead slaves” doesn’t just include people who died on a ship – there were forced marches on either side of the Atlantic, a “seasoning” process when they arrived at plantations, etc. I don’t know if these deaths are commonly counted as being part of the Middle Passage, but I suspect they often are.

      • j says:

        Captain Canot’s autobiography emphasizes the care taken on slave ships to ensure the health of the slaves. Also their mental health, as suicides were frequent. Most feared were the contagious diseases that decimated crew and cargo, otherwise mortality was under 10%. Slaves were bought for resale as soon as they landed and they had to be in good condition.

      • gcochran9 says:

        More than a couple of weeks. Probably the shortest was three weeks (with favorable winds), from Gambia to Barbados. But if the ship was caught in the doldrums, could be three months.

    • harpend says:

      I think it was Philip Curtin, 1969, The Atlantic Slave Trade. Excellent readable book BTW.

    • gcochran9 says:

      It was high among the crews, but lower than among the slaves, per-mile. I doubt if you could make a career of it, though: too much like being in Bomber Command in 1943.

      • syon says:

        RE: mortality rates for slave ship crews,

        Here are some figures that I found:

        “They [the crew] also were the victims of their officers’ whips and suffered from the same diseases that ravaged the Africans, so that the mortality rate among sailors, according to one survey taken between 1784 and 1790, reached higher than 21 percent. In fact, according to Rediker, “Half of all Europeans who journeyed to West Africa in the eighteenth century, most of them seamen, died within a year.””

        • gcochran9 says:

          On the trip from Africa to the Americas, crews had lower mortality than slaves. But crews had longer voyages, they lingered along the coast assembling a cargo (dangerous in terms of malaria and yellow fever), they sailed back from the Americas, etc.

  2. Jason Malloy has gathered good data showing that race differences in ability are evident by 3 years of age. He mentions Fryer’s work.

    • There is supposedly a part 2 coming up, but so far nothing. Malloy is a great scientist, but he is really, really slow (perfectionism?).

      • Jason Malloy says:

        Thanks. The intended follow-up post is connected to a broader research idea that it is in the development stage. Unfortunately it is competing for my limited free time with other mega-projects like the global IQ database, as well as a series of essays on transracial adoption, which I plan on posting to Human Varieties in the coming months.

  3. MawBTS says:

    At that point you’re testing motor skills or something – anything like an IQ test is impossible. Black kids are somewhat precocious in motor skills compared to whites: on average they walk about a month earlier, East Asians about a month later.

    Well let me blow your mind with my hot new study that proves there’s no cognitive difference between men and women after testing a bunch of 7 year olds.

  4. But the salt paper was never published, as far as I know. It’s just an unpublished working paper ( And it does not argue the selective pressure was during the Middle Passage, but a combination of the Middle Passage, mortality in the few first years after arriving in the South, and multiple generations of working in the South. And the paper mentions the critiques of the genetic hypothesis based on too few generations. So maybe your email had an effect….

    • gcochran9 says:

      If the paper mentions that there may have been too few generations exposed to this selective pressures, where does it do so? I didn’t see it. Maybe I missed it.

      People worked in high temperatures back in Africa too. For quite some time now.

      • Bottom of page 28:

        … Weder and Schork (1994), for example, argue that it is unlikely that salt selection
        could change rapidly enough within the number of generations that have passed. …

  5. JayMan says:

    I think a lot of people view evolution and natural selection as a mysterious black box where weird things happen, so hey, anything goes. Of course, they view it that way because to them, it is.

  6. Justin says:

    Economics is a highly useful field, but in my view there haven’t been many major insights since the 1980s, and really, we had a lot of it down by 1900. Theory of the firm, trade, efficient markets hypothesis, and macroeconomics are all essential for an educated person to know. But there’s not a lot of low-hanging fruit left. The economist’s main task today is to apply lessons learned to current problems facing business and government, yet most economist are in academia, trying to one-up their peers in use of jargon and dressed up statistical techniques. It’s a huge was of talent. There are a handful of people doing interesting work (Gregory Clark comes to mind, Market Monetarists too) but basically there are more economist than ever before, engaged in almost wholly irrelevant research. We’d all be better off if they’d get silicon valley jobs.

    • James Miller says:

      Speaking as an academic economist, even if everything you say before the last sentence were true, we still greatly benefit society by teaching pre-1980 econ insights to our students.

      • Justin says:

        Yes, absolutely.

      • BurplesonAFB says:

        “Speaking as an academic economist, even if everything you say before the last sentence were true, we still greatly benefit society by teaching pre-1980 econ insights to our students.”

        Sure, but you must concede that you’re far from optimized for that goal.

        If you had to imagine a system that was optimized for teaching the insights and methods of economic thinking to Americans aged 17-25 in the most effective, cheapest way, would it resemble the current system in any respect whatsoever?

        Would it involve having an academic, selected for his/her ability to write grant proposals and research papers, often a high functioning autistic, often with an impenetrable foreign accent, often with a baffling lack of charisma, standing at the front of the room writing on a chalkboard and speaking aloud like it’s 1740? Granted, electric lighting allowed a major boost in the efficacy of night classes, and now the chalkboard sometimes has dancing flash animations and you don’t get all chalky. The March of Progress.

        If such a ludicrous, atavistic system were still alive in the private sector, 5 years from now it would be a black mark on the CVs of its high ranking employees, that they took part in such a ridiculous charade, a mockery of customer service, and all on the public dime! Bond trader at Madoff Investment Securities. Audit at Arthur Anderson. You’d think of just leaving a gap in those years, explaining that you got very engrossed in World of Warcraft.

        Such a system would be dominated by its competitors. Competitors who deliver a good customer experience. Who are receptive to feedback. Who make use of technology. Which act in the interests of their shareholders. When these competitors hired people to communicate information, they’d hire the people who are best at it and use technology to bring that experience to everyone, everywhere, any time. To paraphrase Watson, I see a market for maybe 5 Econ instructors in the USA. Possibly another few hundred TAs who mostly point students to the FAQ.

        Lie back and let the efficiencies flow through you. It’s for the good of The Economy.

    • Austin says:

      Could you explain how economics is useful? It seems like an interesting field but not very useful. Pre-1900 physics is obviously very useful since it supplied us with basic mechanics and electrodynamics. Pre-1900 economics has some interesting Classical economic writings and some attempts to mathematize economics with general equilibrium models, but these models aren’t that useful

      • Justin says:

        Well applied econometrics is hugely useful (logistic regression, time series models &c) if you can use these methods and speak/write English, financial services companies will pay you well, tell you how wonderful you are and put up with your homemade standing desk. But I guess you’re more getting at text book economics. Hard to know where to start, but I guess I’d point to monetary policy. How much money should a central bank make? How should they talk about their future plans to make new money? Should they worry about that recent spike in inflation? How does NGDP growth tie in? The Great Depression, the 1960s/1970s inflation and the huge recession 5 years ago suggest that it is important that monetary policy makers have the right models in their mind when conducting monetary policy. Good monetary policy is absolutely essential to running a modern, complex economy (Hitler came to power follow a central-bank caused deflation). Nations rise and fall on this stuff.

        • Austin says:

          Right, I mean textbook economics. Investment banks also hire undergrad lib arts majors, teach them some basic accounting and finance for a few weeks in the summer, and then set them to work with big salaries and without any economics. Incidentally, investment banks and hedge funds also hire “technical analysts”, chart readers derided by economists for being unscientific, and it’s not unheard of for them to procure the services of psychics and the like.

          I understand that economics could be useful for something like monetary policy, but it’s not clear that it is or has been.

      • James Miller says:

        Comparative advantage showing the benefits of free trade, supply and demand theory showing the implications of the government setting price floors and ceilings, externality theory showing why market forces will cause there to be too much pollution, and numerous examples of how people responding to incentives often defeats the stated purpose of laws are extremely useful.

    • pyrrhus says:

      “Theory of the firm, trade, efficient markets hypothesis, and macroeconomics are all essential for an educated person to know. ” Speaking as one with an Economics degree from a famous institution, the main thing to know about these theories is that major parts of them are wrong, because they don’t describe the real world. The “efficient markets” hypothesis is just wrong, period.

      • Justin says:

        Weak form EMH is wrong? So you must be a billionaire then right? You’re able to beat the market?

  7. Patrick Boyle says:

    The reason creationism keeps hanging around is that the popular notion of evolution is so bizarre. When I was growing up many characteristics of blacks were attributed to some of them being able to run faster than the slave drovers. The Africans that we brought over as I remember were supposedly only the slow ones. There was also some strange explanation about Paul Robeson’s singing voice which also was explained in terms of his running ability.

    So if that’s what you think of as an evolutionary science, a creationist explanation involving an old white haired man in the clouds isn’t so bad.

  8. AppSocRes says:

    When I got my Ph.D. at Brown back in 1977 we were forced to listen to some Negro bozo pontificate at endless length about the superiority of American Negros resulting from selection during the trans-Atlantic passage. It was a dismal, yawn-invoking, and often embarrassing displal even by commencement exercise standards. And so my family informed me later.

    It pdid, however, provoke me to do a little research which uncovered the interesting fact that mortality was actually much higher — and hence I would assume any presumptive selection filter — on the ships carrying European immigrants to these shores. A little thought makes this seem obvious: slave ships’ profits were based on the number of live bodies that disembarked, immigrant ships’ on the number of live bodies that embarked; whether any of these survived after the boarding fee was paid was immaterial. All this escaped our “learned” locutor’s notice, of course.

    Finally, to avoid being banned, let me assure all readers that I don’t think either of these bottlenecks was such as to effect a significant amount of genetic selection.

  9. Erik Sieven says:

    “Black kids are somewhat precocious in motor skills compared to whites: on average they walk about a month earlier, East Asians about a month later.” thats the fascinating thing about a good theory. You can focus on any important field you have never thought about before and make predictions which turn out to be right.

  10. Bryan Bell says:

    Makes me wonder…. How would Roland F. fare against somebody like Paul Phillips, Since you probably don’t know, look up Paul’s youtube rants on scala. Paul is genuinely smart & painfully honest.

    I guess the real way to get ahead is ignore all the middle-brow or dumb people and focus on the stuff that matters. Cause you can spend your whole life looking at dumb shit.

  11. BayleyScale says:

    Is the Bayley scale that bad? It clearly does weight substantially on motor tasks, and given the group differences in early motor skills you mentioned that would bias the results. But is Fryer wrong when he says that it is correlated with later IQ for individuals within the same group?

    “The figure shows that the average correlation between BSID and future IQ scores starts very high and decreases as children age, stabilizing with an average correlation around 0.3 at approximately five years of age. For purposes of comparison, when older children are given achievement scores three years apart, the correlation between scores is on the order of 0.6 (Cruse et al., 1996).”

  12. Toad says:

    Obesity And Hypertension: Two Epidemics Or One?

    High Blood Pressure More Prevalent in the South

    Paula Deen’s heart attack

    Hypertension in Sub-Saharan African Populations
    A major risk factor for hypertension is obesity, which can account for differences in the standardized hypertension prevalence of ≈16% in West Africa, ≈20% in urbanized West Africans, and 26% in the Caribbean compared with 33% in the United States.

    In 1983, an age-adjusted prevalence study of the adult population of Durban (World Health Organization criteria ≥160/95 mm Hg) showed that hypertension was highest in urban blacks of the Zulu tribe (25%), intermediate in whites (17%), lower in ethnic Indians (14%),25 and lowest in rural blacks (9%).

    • I am wondering if diet changes that include more carbs are the primary driver. Though starchy foods are eaten in most populations, there is great regional variety, and the processing of such could vary some. Or – their cheapness may mean they are consumed by the poor in greater quantities. Mac and cheese may turn out to be a cruel school lunch to give to African-Americans.

  13. Fourth doorman of the apocalypse says:

    But, but, but, someone has found out why Chinese students do better:

    and why, presumably, African American students don’t do so well.

    A lack of direct instruction!

    • Hipster says:

      This is the most hilarious thing of all. Our entire education system has been veering away from direct instruction towards “inquiry learning” letting students “lead discovery” and other such nonsense. It works really badly if the kids don’t know anything and aren’t curious. If they’re smart and curious, that is fine.

      There always by necessity will be “innovation” in the educational field because nothing they try ever works, so it must be a bad method, so they must try a new method. Teaching is a huge headache because of this. If you teach how it was trendy 10 years ago, you’re a terrible educator who has no regard for kids, because didn’t you hear that the new way is XYZ?

  14. Beyond Anon says:

    I wonder if economists could be tempted to speculate about the racial makeup of a sustainable colony on the moon?

    Would they do any better than science fiction writers, who pretty much all seem to sing Kumbaya?

    • Fourth doorman of the apocalypse says:

      Well, I venture to guess that the percentage of Aboriginal Australians will be 0%, but Phssthpok might like to employ some.

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