Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Curing color blindness, and color vision

My two color-blind brothers will be heartened to learn that scientists recently used gene therapy to cure color blindness in adult monkeys. After being injected with a corrected gene, the monkeys' brains rewired and learned to correctly distinguish red from green. If the research translates to apes like us, there's a good chance my brothers will see green and red before the end of their lifetimes.

Turning to color blindness of a different sort, I recently had an interesting facebook conversation about the hidden hand of race in our society. I was not alone amongst my friends (or the media/politicians) in detecting a hint of racism in the GOP of late. From the "fiery latina" bullshit that surrounded the Sotomayor hearings (white males are the victims of racism!) to Joe Wilson's shameful "You lie!", there's something more than a healthy fear of socialism going on around here.

Most agreed, but one friend felt I'd mistaken partisan politics for racism, and certainly it's difficult to prove. After all, no one wants to be a racist, and even fewer want to be labeled one. In this emotionally charged arena, science is really our best hope of understanding what is really going on. As another friend pointed out, there is a burgeoning field of research on implicit racism, which distinguishes between overt racism and less conscious racism and predicts that people with implicit biases act equally in cut and dry situations, but act very biasedly in ambiguous situations.

One set of recent experiments showed that people pause just a fraction of a second longer before identifying opposite-race faces as friendly. Other research has revealed that schoolchildren have a tendency to self-segregate, suggesting that racism is to some extent a natural tendency (the tribe instinct?). There's some great stuff about this in a recent Newsweek cover story, including this hilarious excerpt about an experiment observing classroom children:

It being December, the teachers had decided to read to their classes 'Twas the Night B'fore Christmas... As the teachers began reading, the kids were excited by the book's depiction of a family waiting for Santa to come. A few children, however, quietly fidgeted. They seemed puzzled that this storybook was different: in this one, it was a black family all snug in their beds.

Then there was the famed clatter on the roof. The children leaned in to get their first view of Santa and the sleigh as Johnson turned the page—

And they saw that Santa was black.

"He's black!" gasped a white little girl.

A white boy exclaimed, "I thought he was white!"

Immediately, the children began to chatter about the stunning development. At the ripe old ages of 6 and 7, the children had no doubt that there was a Real Santa. Of that they were absolutely sure. But suddenly there was this huge question mark. Could Santa be black? And if so, what did that mean?

Now replace the word "Santa" with "President," and you begin to get the idea!

It may yet prove easier to cure color blindness in our eyes than to unlearn "color vision" in our hearts. But if there's a cure to this societal disease, it lies in every next generation. We have to talk to our children, integrate them socially, and be honest about our own implicit biases - when in doubt, letting science be our guide.

4 comments:

YZF said...

Obama is Santa?

Volcanicuz said...

Interesting point in those researches. However, I wonder whether there might be more of an "existential" problem with religious characters (eg Santa) being of different race than political leaders.

In other words, the last line (was that from the article, or is it yours?) about substituting "President" for "Santa" may not actually be a valid point.

As to the implications of Obama being a religious figure... well, let's just say I wouldn't put it past some of his supporters...

Gmar Hatima Tova! to the whole clan as well.

Samurai Scientist said...

@Volcanic/Vulcanic, nice to hear from you.

I wonder whether there might be more of an "existential" problem with religious characters (eg Santa) being of different race than political leaders. In other words, the last line (was that from the article, or is it yours?) about substituting "President" for "Santa" may not actually be a valid point.

The last line is mine, not Newsweek's. The point I'm making is that we have certain expectations/biases which we may not even be aware of until reality challenges them. At that point, there's a (noisy) period of reevaluation. The Santa story is more like a metaphor for what's going on than a direct analogy.

This is one of the reasons I push for direct encounters and integration with people of opposite ideologies/races/cultures. Very few of us operate out of pure reason - there's always an emotional/identity component! A dose of reality is a healthy antidote against intellectual rationalizations and assumptions.

G'mar tov to your whole 'clan' as well!

Mom said...

Yeah, but will it be here in time for your grandfather to see a "true" red or a "true" green. He still thinks we've all got it wrong!

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