The fallacies of “objective” biological data

Joel Best’s (2016) introduction to social problems outlines the problems with objectivism, the idea that a social problem exists when there is an objective measure of harm to society. However, this is a deceptive idea. What concept is truly objective? In the sixteenth century, “civilized” society would not have judged slavery to be a social problem. In the twenty-first century, we might consider slavery to be a fundamental human rights issue. What is a fundamental human right? The United Nations has a Declaration of Human Rights. Article 5 states: No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Two controversial counterarguments immediately come to mind: 1) national security needs and 2) the death penalty. And down the rabbit hole we go… which is exactly why objectivism is problematic.

Browne’s (2009) article on Digital Epidermalization provides an excellent example of how biometric data has a patina of science, which is objective, right? However, biometric facial scans cannot distinguish darker skinned features as well as on lighter skin and Asian-descent women have fainter fingerprint ridges (along with elderly individuals and members of certain professions), which lead to a measurable failure of the technology in known instances. In addition to these racial implications, the science is not completely certain and highly subjective to user error.

In the above image, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) used Amazon’s Rekognition product, which misidentified 28 members of Congress as matches to arrest photos. The ACLU cited a significant concern: “Nearly 40 percent of Rekognition’s false matches in our test were of people of color, even though they make up only 20 percent of Congress.”

As another example, direct-to-consumer genetic testing has become popular in the mainstream audience to “uncover your origin” or “commit to a healthier you, inspired by your genes.” I’ve discussed this topic a bit before because these companies essentially have “black box” proprietary methodologies for creating neat charts about your origins. This Science News article even compares the varying results from five different services. Alternatively, this blog post nonchalantly describes how results can be different across four siblings:

Wait, what?? A Google search provided a few more articles that seem to confirm that ancestry results can differ just like appearance for siblings.

Anyway, these services offer results that seem definitive for an average person who doesn’t read the fine print explanation. Basically DNA samples have been taken from current populations and extrapolated to represent regions. One of the most convincing arguments about the problem with this approach also deals with race: South Africa. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the Dutch colonized the region and settlers became known as the Boers (or Afrikaners). This resulted in both White and Black South Africans. So, how does an ancestry test account for this historical context? If you had a White South African grandmother, would the result reveal a South African heritage or Dutch heritage? The companies make a decision to represent results based on subjective factors, so the science is not completely objective and certain as the charts make it seem.

What’s the lesson here? That there may be no objective truth? (Is teal actually a blue or green?–the answer might depend on the brain of the eye of the beholder.) This might be more of a philosophy question. Or that science is portrayed as objective and certain, but is often not really either? Science is an iterative process of hypotheses, experiments, and validation, where established ideas become theories, but still might be overturned by new evidence. We tend to forget that in science, the only certainty is uncertainty.


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