Race-Free Actuaries

My colleague Tom Traina has an interesting piece about a recent case in New York wherein a judge rejected actuarial tables because they make racial distinctions.

Staten Island ferry passenger James McMillan was injured when the ferry crashed into a pier. When calculating damages, the state of New York presented actuarial evidence that suggested that M. McMillan, as a black man in New York, has a lower-than-average life expectancy. However, in the opinion of Judge Jack Weinstein, the use of race-specific actuarial tables was improper.

Judge Weinstein gave three reasons in his opinion for the exclusion of race-specific tables. The first was his conclusion that race-based tables were an inadequate as a matter of science, and a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment to boot. First, the judge pointed to the lack of a biological definition of “race”, and concluded that race is a social construct rather than a biological trait. From this assertion, the judge concludes that race-based tables are inadequate not only as a matter of law, but as a matter of science.

He concludes that:

By forcing life actuaries to move away from a more accurate predictor of lifespan towards one that’s politically correct, the court is implicitly placing its own notions of racial justice at a higher priority than accurately assessing damage done to the plaintiff. As a social policy, this might be an acceptable trade-off, but it’s a trade-off that the legislature should make, not the courts.

I myself don’t have much of a problem with a judge making this ruling. The judge ruled in this case that, in essence, there’s no way to scientifically define someone’s race, and therefore no race-based actuarial table could be accurate. That’s certainly a finding of fact within the judge’s purview on this matter. And if race-based actuarial tables can’t be reliably applied to individuals, then using them in some instances is a violation of due process.

FILED UNDER: Law and the Courts, Race and Politics,
Alex Knapp
About Alex Knapp
Alex Knapp is Associate Editor at Forbes for science and games. He was a longtime blogger elsewhere before joining the OTB team in June 2005 and contributed some 700 posts through January 2013. Follow him on Twitter @TheAlexKnapp.

Comments

  1. Joe R. says:

    When I was younger, I should have claimed to have been a woman trapped in a man’s body. Maybe I could have had cheaper auto insurance.

  2. Joe R. says:

    Also…

    First, the judge pointed to the lack of a biological definition of “race”, and concluded that race is a social construct rather than a biological trait. From this assertion, the judge concludes that race-based tables are inadequate not only as a matter of law, but as a matter of science.

    And Alex adds:

    The judge ruled in this case that, in essence, there’s no way to scientifically define someone’s race, and therefore no race-based actuarial table could be accurate. That’s certainly a finding of fact within the judge’s purview on this matter.

    Determining race for affirmative action purposes, however, is apparently quite possible.

  3. Dave Schuler says:

    Alex, aren’t you assuming what is to be proved?

  4. Alex Knapp says:

    Joe,

    For affirmative action purposes, race is a social construct, isn’t it?

    Dave,

    I’m not agreeing with the judge, necessarily. I don’t know if the actuarial tables work or not. I’m merely commenting that I think this decision is proper to make on a judicial level.

  5. However, in the opinion of Judge Jack Weinstein, the use of race-specific actuarial tables was improper.

    If the Judge had used the word “this” instead of “the” I could agree with him. Further, you seem to want to extend this into an argument towards eliminating all genetic differences from actuarial tables. So, you want to talk about the politicization of science?

    It’s not nice to fool with Mother Nature.

  6. Floyd says:

    BRAVO! Finally a baby step in the right direction.
    Governmental use of race for restraint or privilege is institutionalized racism.
    It is that simple, and recognizing this is the only way forward.

  7. Dave Schuler says:

    Has equal protection under the law ever been construed to mean that everybody should pay the same insurance premium? It seems to me that’s the logical conclusion of the judge’s constitutional argument.

    His other argument, the scientific one, requires one to assume all sorts of thing which it seems to me actually need to be proven.

  8. Sine Nomine says:
  9. Drew says:

    Its one thing to be race blind when discussing the right to vote etc.

    But let us hope that the medical establishment doesn’t apply the same logic as our judge. Failing to acknowledge the morbidity and mortality differences of races wrt diabetes, heart disease, certain cancers etc etc (and therefore treating races differently) would be medical malpractice.

    I wonder if this foolish judge’s view would magically change if he was ruling in a tort claim brought by a black man against a doctor??

  10. Floyd says:

    Drew;
    Each patient would be better treated as an individual.
    Treatment based on statistical an@lysis…
    Now THAT’S malpractice!!

  11. Drew says:

    Floyd –

    Wrong. If a 45 year old black male showed up in your office with mildly high “bad” cholesterol, 130/100 blood pressure and elevated C-reactive protien measure, elevated blood sugars and about 20 pounds overweight would you a) treat him the same as a white male with the same figures, b) treat him more aggressively than the white male.

    Factor in the potential adverse effects of statins and blood pressure meds. Same meds? Same dosage??

    Would you? I hope not.

  12. Floyd says:

    If I were a doctor I would take every factor of my patients condition into consideration and treat him accordingly, which would be based on professional judgment.
    If my next patient were black I would not treat him the same as the first because of it.
    Of course taking all factors into consideration is good judgment, factors like gender, age,faith,sexual orientation,and race are factors.
    But statistics is not even bad science, it’s not science at all!
    And treating each person as an individual instead of a statistic is not “wrong”, it’s good medicine.
    Considering all factors in that treatment has no place in politics.