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Gingers Are Not Being Wiped Out by Climate Change

According to the Independent—and a bunch of other newspapers borrowing quotes from the original Daily Record report—“Gingers face extinction due to climate change.” Wrong.
July 10, 2014, 1:00pm

Artist Anthea Pokroy and her "collection" of gingers, who will not become extinct any time soon.

General consensus in the UK dicates that it's totally OK to discriminate against redheads. The rest of the world might be shocked at the attitude Britain holds toward its ginger population, but that hasn't helped all that much; schoolchildren are still being attacked in the name of "Kick a Ginger Day," and anti-ginger prejudice is a real thing that makes a lot of people's lives very miserable.

Unfortunately, the world's carrot-tops now have to confront an even bigger problem. According to the Independent—and a bunch of other newspapers borrowing quotes from the original Daily Record report—“Gingers face extinction due to climate change.”

At this point I’d love to spend a few paragraphs going through the research, explaining what the scientists involved did and pointing out any issues with their methodology; it makes these things a lot easier to write. Unfortunately, I can’t, because there doesn’t actually seem to be any of that whatsoever. Instead, the story appears to be based entirely on the conjecture of Dr. Alistair Moffat, MD, of a Scottish consumer DNA-testing company called “ScottishDNA.” It isn’t even published as a press release on their website, let alone in an actual study.

To back this speculation up, the Daily Record’s "Scotland Now" blog approached another scientist who agreed with the research, but who “asked not to be named because of the theoretical nature of the work.” This mysterious spewer of science-y sound bites was so confident in the work he was commenting on that he didn’t want his name to be publicly associated with it. And while we’re looking at the people involved, it’s not entirely clear why the Record has called Moffat "Dr. Moffat" in the first place, given his main career was as a journalist at STV, and the company website lists his qualifications as an MA and M.Phil, the former apparently in medieval history.

Moffat's argument is actually pretty simple: People with ginger hair tend to be more vulnerable to the damaging effects of the sun, with a higher risk of developing skin cancer as a result. That’s one reason why you don’t see many redheaded people in, say, sub-Saharan Africa—the genes responsible take equatorial latitudes into account to avoid any of those negative effects. In places like Scotland, however, this is obviously less of a problem, and so the three genes responsible for redheadedness can flourish. With rising global temperatures, the scientists claim, redheads will be under more pressure and the gene would be at risk of dying out.

It sounds sort of plausible, until you actually stop and think through the bullshit these people are spouting. For the redheaded gene to die out completely, something drastic would have to happen to the survival rate of redheaded people. In practical terms, that means every single person carrying the genes would have to die of skin cancer so that all genetic copies were eradicated. And crucially, they’d need to die before they had a chance to breed.

Given that skin cancer in the UK kills about 2,800 people a year, and that the majority of those will be middle-aged or older and that—at most—maybe several hundred of those are redheads, this is a complete fantasy. And that’s before you even take into account the advances in treating cancer. It’s not just wrong, it’s completely fucking moronic; there is not going to be a mass extinction of redheads.

Just for the sack of completeness, let’s tackle the impact of climate change. Given that it’s UV exposure and not heat that leads to skin cancer, the scientists making these claims need to explain how climate change would lead to greater UV exposure in the first place.

The world is getting warmer, sure, but the sun isn’t getting any brighter, and rising temperatures don’t necessarily translate into more sun exposure. Scotland, for example, has seen considerable increases in rainfall over the last 50 years. Even where UV radiation levels have risen—or may rise—that doesn’t necessarily translate into more exposure.

Of course, this isn’t the first time that somebody's predicted the extinction of all redheads. In 2007, widespread reports cited "genetic scientists" who claimed that gingers would be extinct by 2060. That turned out to be a marketing hoax. And it’s not just redheads: Stories about the "disappearing blond gene" have been circulating for years now, to the extent that they even have their own Wikipedia page.

Does it matter? Probably not, in the grand scheme of things. But the way these stories appear—and the speed at which they proliferate—is a good illustration of how dire a lot of mainstream "science" reporting is these days. For a start, this isn’t even science; it's just the ramblings of an MD and an anonymous coward. A journalist thought this insight was worth reporting, and content-hungry outlets around the world repeated it without the most basic bit of thought—a true testament to modern online journalism.

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