The Genetics Profession Confronts its Troublesome Inheritance

On August 8, a remarkable letter appeared in the New York Times Sunday Book Review. Written by a group of five leading evolutionary geneticists and signed by another 135, it repudiated the main conclusions of Nicolas Wade’s book A Troublesome Inheritance. Wade was for many years the main science reporter for the New York Times covering developments in genetics and biology. His book purported to summarize the main findings of the research he had been covering: that the European, African, and Asian races are genetically defined and that they have faced different evolutionary pressures that have given them what he claimed are different intellectual, behavioral, and civilizational capacities.

The book has been widely reviewed and, apart from a glowing endorsement from conservative policy writer Charles Murray, has received largely negative assessments. Wade’s main response has been that the commentators lack the stature and expertise to criticize his ideas. Thus, when the 135 scientists, many of whom Wade cites as his own authorities, blasted his argument as “incomplete and inaccurate” and with “no support from the field of population genetics,” his thesis had been dealt a mortal blow.

But to understand what makes the move of these geneticists so remarkable, you need some history and sociology of claims that genetic science explains racial differences in intellect and behavior.

In 1969, educational psychologist Arthur Jensen used ideas from the emerging field of behavior genetics in an article claiming that the IQ and educational achievement gaps between black and white children were due in large part to genetic differences between the races, and that educational efforts to close the gap must therefore fail. This was the era of intense conflicts over civil rights and President Johnson’s Great Society. Jensen’s writings sparked student protests and heated academic debates. Not surprisingly many education scholars, social scientists, and psychologists denounced Jensen’s work, but so too did many geneticists. In 1975, 1,390 members of the Genetics Society of America co-signed a statement that said “there is no convincing evidence as to whether there is or is not an appreciable genetic difference in intelligence between races” and over nine hundred had signed a stronger repudiation of Jensen’s work.

The IQ and race controversy was traumatic for researchers interested in genes and behavior. As debates raged about science, politics, and ethics of the research, the field fragmented into mutually distrusting groups and many geneticists completely abandoned behavior as a topic.

A quarter century later psychologist Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray published The Bell Curve, an 845 page doorstop that made a very similar argument to Jensen’s: the lack of success of Latinos and African Americans relative to whites and Asians has a strong genetic basis. American inequality, they argued, is mostly genetic. This time, the response was very different. Social scientists and liberal pundits decried the work, criticizing the science and linking it to the history of scientific racism. However, biologists and geneticists largely ignored the debate. Those who tried to intervene, like Stephen J. Gould, were often perceived as politically, rather than scientifically, motivated. Geneticist David Botstein explained his peers’ silence: The Bell Curve “is so stupid that it is not rebuttable.” Members of the Human Genome Project’s (HGP) Ethical, Legal, and Social Issues (ELSI) division hoped to organize project leadership to publicly distance genetics from the book’s racial ideas. It took two years for an ELSI statement to be allowed to appear in a specialist genetics journal, but HGP leadership remained publicly quiet. Soon thereafter ELSI was reorganized and its public activism discouraged.

We tend to think of a scientist’s public responsibility as a matter of individual commitment. But it has much to do with the structure and culture of scientific communities. The IQ controversy from the 1970s had spurred changes driving geneticists’ disengaged approach to The Bell Curve in the 1990s. Conflicts fragmented the research community so geneticists rarely interacted with behavioral scientists and weren’t comfortable engaging their claims critically. Mistrust made it impossible to see public criticism as legitimately scientific rather than purely political. And the outsourcing of ethics to ELSI made it difficult for many geneticists to see the public interpretation of scientific controversies as their business.

The genetic evidence for racial behavioral differences hasn’t changed in the 45 years since Jensen wrote, but geneticists’ public responses have. The recent collective response to Wade’s book is heartening because it indicates that geneticists are coming to see that a new approach to the public interpretation of their science is needed. Because it aims to tell us about human similarities and differences, capacities and potential for change, there will always be a public politics to genetics. The difficult work of the public interpretation of contentious issues cannot be left to social scientists and ethicists (whose genetics credentials will be questioned) or to individual geneticists (whose motivations will be questioned). This group will take heat for their stand, but they cannot be doubted as scientists or marginalized as individuals. They will learn, I believe, that being political in this way—soundly criticizing public misappropriations of their research—can only be good for the long term legitimacy of genetics.

Aaron Panofsky is Associate Professor in Public Policy and the Institute for Society and Genetics at UCLA. His recent book, Misbehaving Science considers the scientific and political controversies surrounding behavior genetics.

The less-union jack

Inquiring minds want to know, what will the British flag look like if the Scots scoot? Well, it will look like this:

british-flagThe reason involves one of the most famous creative heraldic hacks in history. If you look at paintings of British battles and ships before 1808, you will see that the Union Jack had only a white X, not a red one. More precisely, Azure, the Cross Saltire of St Andrew Argent [the Scottish cross] surmounted by the Cross of St George Gules, fimbriated of the second. This means, “on a blue field, a white X behind a red cross, the latter edged with white”. The white border on the red cross is required by the rule that metals (white/silver and yellow/gold) may not touch each other, nor may colors (red, blue, purple, orange, black, green).  Most baseball caps obey this rule, but incomprehensibly, the Mets and Giants take the field with non-compliant caps, an enduring scandal.

Upon the Act of Union with Ireland, it was necessary to add St. Patrick’s cross, a red saltire.  If this were centered, St. Andrew’s cross would disappear, becoming a mere fimbriation of the Irish saltire.  Placing the latter off-center as though slightly rotated, making St. Andrew’s cross an element in its own right, (given that the implied mess at the center crossing is hidden by the English cross), was a stroke of near genius and to my knowledge completely original in heraldic gimmickry.

If the white cross is removed, all that is necessary is to recenter the red saltire of (Northern) Ireland in its obligatory white border, hence the figure above: Azure, the Cross Saltire of St Patrick Gules, fimbriated Argent, surmounted by the Cross of St George Gules, fimbriated of the third.

 

Visa security kabuki

Lu had to go to Madrid for her interview on her application for a US visa. As it happened, this was on 9/11, and the embassy Stars and Stripes were at half-mast. Less impressively, the State Department continues the fight against the terrorist threat through searching questions on its visa form:

  • Do you seek to engage in terrorist activities while in the United States or have you ever engaged in terrorist activities?                                YES/NO
  • Have you ever or do you intend to provide financial assistance or other support to terrorists or terrorist organizations?                            YES/NO
  • Are you a member or representative of a terrorist organization? YES/NO

I bet that scares off al-Baghdadi! Do they really hope to catch idiots like Reid answering “yes”? I’ve applied for visas from China and Russia, with paranoid and efficient secret police forces, and they didn’t waste my and their time with such questions. The North Koreans don’t ask if you have ever spat on a photo of Kim il Sung. Iran just asks if you are a journalist, have a criminal record or a contagious disease, and where else you have been (read Israel).

The kabuki extends wider than terrorism – but falls well short of a full catalogue of high-profile Dr. Evil crimes. State asks if you are a money launderer, but not a currency forger; a génocidaire or torturer, but not a rapist; a procurer of forced abortions, but not a paedophile; a drug smuggler, but not an illegal arms dealer; a prostitute, but not a political consultant mafioso.

What is the mental process behind this? Is it the Al Capone tactic, of getting the bad guy through a technical offence? I don’t see how this would work. Dr Evil lies on his DS-160, flies to New York, tries to plant sarin in the subway, and is arrested. The prosecutor assembles a list of charges adding up to 2,000 years in jail. Would she weaken the media impact by adding the misdemeanour “lying on his visa application”? A similar argument holds for deportation. The false declaration only stands up if Dr. Evil’s substantive misconduct in the USA justifies deportation, in which case the false-declaration charge adds nothing useful.

The only way I can think of to generate this absurd list is an accumulation of random grandstanding by congresspersons of limited understanding. “What, Mr Under-Secretary, is the State Department doing to stop the entry into this great, pure country of foreigners guilty of the disgusting crime of [insert offence lifted from recent mail from constituent]?”

Better suggestions welcome.

 

In defense of football

I don’t write to defend domestic violence, drug abuse, denigration of women, or the many other ways in which professional football players misbehave. I don’t write to defend what I consider to be the unjust withholding of money from college players. And I don’t write to defend lack of transparency and not paying for the health needs of players injured while playing.

I do write to defend the game of football, as it was played yesterday in a middle school game in Durham, N.C. I loved playing middle school and high school football, and I now have the privilege of being a volunteer assistant coach with my son’s team, who won the game 14-12. The other team easily could have won and both played well and hard. No parents misbehaved. The refs did a good job. And no one got seriously hurt. Continue Reading…

Weekend Film Recommendation: The Crooked Way

crookedwayAmnesia is one of the most overused and hokey plot devices in film. Yet if the rest of the elements of a good movie are wrapped around it, viewers can suspend disbelief and really enjoy themselves. A perfect example is this week’s film recommendation: 1949′s The Crooked Way.

The plot: A war veteran who thinks his name is Eddie Rice (John Payne, again playing a noir archetype, the ex-GI) is being treated for a head injury in a San Francisco military hospital after a heroic career as a soldier. Eddie’s physical function has returned, but he can’t recall anything about his life in Los Angeles before the war. Hoping to recapture his memories, he leaves the Bay Area for L.A. (as in real life, always a bad idea). He is immediately recognized by cops, gangsters and a dishy B-Girl (Ellen Drew) and finds himself hip deep in a world of trouble that he can’t understand because the events of his former life are all lost in a fog of failed memory.

The credibility-straining premise aside, this is a superb film noir. As the anchor of the movie, John Payne does well in the romantic and action scenes and puts over the premise of the story by eliciting sympathy from the audience for his amnestic plight. I have written before about Payne’s successful reinvention of himself as a tough guy after the war (see reviews here and here), and this was one of the high points of that second phase of his career. Another former All-American song and dance man, Dick Powell, made the same transition and his noirs are better remembered, but Powell didn’t have the physical presence and hard emotional edge that works so well for Payne in these types of films.

But even more important than Payne is noir legend John Alton, who gives a photography masterclass here. Gordon Willis is sometimes referred to among cinematographers as the Prince of Darkness; Alton was the King (I sometimes wonder if he even owned a fill light). In a wide range of L.A. locations he dazzles and entrances viewers with memorable visuals, my two favorites being of Payne getting worked over by thugs in his hotel room as a light flashes through the shutters, and, later in the film, a car driving straight away from the camera, progressively being swallowed by utter blackness.

the-crooked-way2There are no bad performances in the movie — which is saying something when Sonny Tufts is in the cast — so props to director Robert Florey for his efforts. Florey also deserves credit for keeping things moving crisply, building tension as he goes along but never making viewers wait too long for the next violent confrontation. Another plus: Amidst the vengeance and killing comes a wonderful comic relief scene when Payne, fleeing through the night, hitches a ride with an eccentric undertaker played by Garry Owen.

The Crooked Way is a suspenseful, exciting and gorgeously shot movie. I am amazed how few people know of this fine film. Please take a look at it, and then share the secret with another movie lover, so that it can acquire the reputation it deserves.

p.s. Interested in a different sort of film? Check out this list of prior recommendations.

A conversation with Rick Perlstein: The bootleg tapes

Defeat in Vietnam, the OPEC oil embargo, Watergate, rising crime rates, and the first signs of the collapsing blue-collar economy marked the mid-1970s as among the toughest periods in American history.

Rick Perlstein’s current best-seller, Invisible Bridge, chronicles that time. It portrays the rise of Ronald Reagan from the Nixon presidency’s Watergate demise to the bitterly-contested 1976 Republican nomination fight between Reagan and then-incumbent president Gerald Ford.

I interviewed Perlstein for the Washington Post’s Wonkblog section. For reasons of space, not all of our conversation was posted. Below is an edited transcript of what didn’t fit within the Post. I think it’s pretty interesting: The FBI, Ford vs. Reagan, the legacy of Martin Luther King, the Manson family.

Screen Shot 2014-09-03 at 5.10.15 PM

The life of an independent historian

Harold Pollack:  You’re one of the few historians who’s doing this work in a free-standing way. You’re not a professor. You’re a writer. That’s a difficult path. I can’t say I know too many other folk who are able to do that.

Rick Perlstein:  Yeah. There have been some challenges. Luckily, I’m now in a very stable place and have been able to put together a solid living doing this. I went to graduate school. I was in a Ph.D program in American Studies. It was much more oriented towards abstruse academic stuff. I really wanted to reach a wider audience. I moved to New York and got into journalism.

HP: The style and sweep of this book does reach a wide audience. Its infusion of popular culture within a broader narrative has reminded several people of William Manchester’s The glory and the dream. It’s a very long book, but it actually reads very quickly….. Continue Reading…

Values in sports

Michael Vick was suspended from the NFL and sent to prison for  bankrolling a dogfighting ring.  Ray Rice was given a two-game suspension (until the public outrage was perceptible even to the Ravens and NFL honchos) and a wrist-slap in court  for punching his girlfriend out.

Why the disparity? Could it be because Vick was abusing highly trained athletes who excel at a violent sport?

The Pyroholic Brethren I: the sermon

So I’m a Polyyanna on climate, eh? You would prefer this?

Amos Starkadder rose from his seat with terrifying deliberation, mounted the little platform, and sat down. For some three minutes he slowly surveyed the Brethren,his face wearing an

Alastair Sim as Amos Starkadder

Alastair Sim as Amos Starkadder

expression of the most profound loathing and contempt, mingled with a divine sorrow and pity. [...] At last he spoke. His voice jarred the silence like a broken bell.

“Ye miserable, crawling worms, are ye here again, eh? Have ye come like Nimshi son of Rehoboam, secretly out of yer doomed houses to hear what’s comin’ to yer? Have ye come, old and young, sick and well, matrons and virgins (if there is any any virgins among ye, which is not likely, the world bein’ in the wicked state it is), old men and young lads, to hear me tellin’ o’ the great crimson lickin’ flames o’ hell fire?” [,,,]

“Ay, ye’ve come.” He laughed shortly and contemptuously. “Dozens of ye. Hundreds of ye. Like rats to a granary. Like field-mice when there’s harvest-home. And what good will it do ye?”

Second pause. [...]

“Nowt. Not the flicker of a whisper of a bit o’ good”. He paused and drew a long breath, then suddenly he leaped from his seat and thundered at the top of his voice: “Ye’re all damned!”

An expression of lively interest and satisfaction passed over the faces of the Brethren, and there was a general rearranging of arms and legs as though they wanted to sit as comfortably as possible while listening to the bad news.

Stella Gibbons, Cold Comfort Farm, 1964.

So: settle down with the chocs and listen to Mr. Wimberley standing up at his first meeting of the Pyroholic Brethren.

My name is James and I am a pyroholic. Continue Reading…

Bureaucrats who can’t be trusted around children

In the annals of amazing young musicians, Avery Gagliano is making herself quite the niche.

In the annals of timid, heartless school administrators who think the purpose of students is to be abused with idiotic rules, and preen about “zero-tolerance” policies that take plastic knives away from eight-year-olds and suspend first-graders, this is some kind of new low, and deserves note.  Jemea Goso, are you are just personally clueless and heartless? More likely the cowards you report to, who won’t take responsibility for this, have nailed your feet to the floor so you can’t do your job.

You would all be merely ludicrous, if you weren’t dangerous to kids.

Update 9/IX:  DCPS has quite a different version of events. My instinct (no more than that at present) is that they are having an elevator-video moment of reflection and damage control since the Dvorak story was published, but it’s possible Dvorak just pooched the story and the family didn’t tell tell her the truth. These versions cannot both be true.

Update 10/IX: Dvorak replies.

Another Enormous Mental Health Benefit of the Affordable Care Act

The Affordable Care Act was a sweeping piece of legislation with multiple, well-known goals, most notably to dramatically expand insurance coverage. Many of us who worked on the Act’s provisions regarding mental illness and substance use disorder believe that the care of these disorders will be transformed by the law. If you want to understand why, check out this [ungated] new journal article by the high-wattage wonks of the office of the HHS Assistant Secretary of Planning and Evaluation. Among the many valuable points it makes is how the ACA is increasing insurance coverage for people in late adolescence/early adulthood:

The ACA requires all group plans and individual policies (both inside and outside the marketplace) that offer dependent coverage of children to make such coverage available up to age 26. This provision has already improved access to care for many young people. In the first 9 months of 2012, among adults aged 19–25, the percentage uninsured decreased from 35.6% in the third quarter of 2010 (a recent high point in uninsurance) to 26.3% in the third quarter of 2012. There was a corresponding increase in private coverage for this age group, from 49.3% in the third quarter of 2010 (a recent low point in private coverage) to 56.7% in the third quarter of 2012.

The benefits of this change are not evident to many people, because they think of serious illnesses as starting in middle and old age. For cancer and heart disease, that’s generally true, but a striking feature of addiction and serious mental illness is that their age of onset is concentrated much earlier in life. For example, here are age of onset data from a study of 270 people with schizophrenia).

sczonsetfull

A chart for other serious mental illness or addictions would show the same pattern. Because of the ACA, families whose child experiences a mentally illness or addiction between the ages of 18 to 26 can now avoid substantial health and financial burdens that would otherwise complicate what is already a difficult situation.