Baseball Statistics, Racism and 23andMe

I enjoy watching baseball on TV or even listening to a game on the radio. I am amused by the discussions of the announcers, usually around the 8th or 9th inning, particularly when the result of the game is already decided due to a lopsided score. The announcers begin doling out complex baseball statistics. As a former math and engineering student in college, I find this part of the game fascinating.

“Well John, I think this may be the first time Cincinnati Reds player Yasiel Puig has ever been involved in a late-game brawl with the entire Pittsburgh Pirates bench so soon after being traded to the Cleveland Indians earlier during tonight’s game and just 14 days after a Full Moon to boot.”

In baseball, as in life, if you specify an event in sufficient detail with enough variables, you are accurately characterizing that unique event. Some diehard baseball fans argue that with enough baseball statistics, the predictability of the outcome of any future game will become trivial.

In blog-related news, the New England Journal of Medicine recently had two thought-provoking “Perspective” opinion pieces dealing with racism in medicine. The first by medical student D.W. Paul, Jr. is entitled Ghosts of Our Collective Subconscious – What Blackface in a Yearbook Photo Means for Medical Education and the second by Dr. Tara Vijayan entitled ”Browner” – Creating Narratives of Race. Both are unfortunately available by subscription only. Among other things, both articles point out the obvious problems that occur when we reflexively categorize individuals by a single variable – such as one’s skin color – and attempt to predict current or future reality by that single variable. Habitually trivializing people in this manner results in prejudice, bias and bigotry.

This would never happen in baseball. For instance, I have yet to hear the following from an announcer:

“Well John, looking at the stat sheet on this next relief pitcher for the Pirates, it just says he’s white. For our radio listeners, from where I’m sitting, I must say our statisticians have nailed it as he is one of the whitest relief pitchers I’ve ever seen”.

I can promise you that when Yasiel Puig steps up to the plate, he doesn’t care about that relief pitcher’s skin color. He is far more concerned about the speed of his fast ball or the spin rate of his curve ball.

Enter 23andMe (or similar service). For the first time, the average person can send in a sample of saliva and get back a detailed DNA graph and report revealing the multiple countries of origin of their great grandparents and beyond. Having readily available DNA information may not be completely without its problems, and this blog has touched on some of these in past postings. However, one benefit of this technology may well be to convince people that we are a kaleidoscope of genetic material, much more complex, and far more interrelated, than our skin color alone would suggest.

If we are not going to treat our neighbors with the respect and dignity due unique image bearers of God, let us at least stop treating them as if they have only one variable worth considering – the color of their skin – and begin treating them like they have complex baseball statistics. Maybe then we will more accurately describe them, and, in doing so, perhaps better understand and appreciate them.

We should start now and not wait until the 9th inning.

Racial inequalities in cancer survival

Three studies published in a supplemental issue of the journal Cancer this month come to disturbing conclusions: in the United States, the survival rates for colon, breast, and ovarian cancer are lower for black people than for white people.

The news isn’t all bad: overall cancer survival rates are going up. The three studies mentioned here draw from two larger studies of worldwide cancer survival, the CONCORD study, published in 2008, and the CONCORD-2 study, published in 2015. Between CONCORD and CONCORD-2, cancer survival increased across all groups. But in both studies, the survival of black people in the United States lagged behind that for white people by about 10%.

Now there are certainly many reasons for the difference. Black people may be getting diagnosed with cancer at later stages, when survival is lower. There may be differences between the two groups, like genetic factors or the presence of other illnesses, that cause the cancers to be more aggressive in blacks. Mistrust of the health care system is more common among black patients, so they may be less likely to access care or access it early enough.

But other reasons include socio-economic status and access to health care; those who can’t access medical care because they can’t afford it or because it is not available nearby are less likely to receive necessary screening and treatment. And most troubling is the “consistent finding that black women do not receive guidelines-based treatment compared with white women, even when treated within the same hospital.”

The situation is too complex for simplistic answers; one can’t say from these studies that doctors are individually practicing blatant racism, and there is after all such a thing as systemic racism. But the medical profession should take such findings seriously, and seek every available avenue of education and self-monitoring to ensure that of all the places people encounter racism, the health care system is not one of them. And Christians especially, who believe that God created all people with equal dignity because all of us are created in His image, should work towards a health care system where the value — or length — of one’s life does not vary based solely on the color of one’s skin.