Archive for July, 2009

Regarding my recent hiatus

July 22, 2009

Clearly I’m not updating this thing on a daily basis. Making a living is taking up a lot of my mental energy, as is getting my head around some of the comments my posts draw. I guess it’s a combination of web discourse and my own personal style. I mean, the name of this blog hardly invites constructive dialogue.

Maybe I’ll start a tumblr blog similar to Brandon Keim’s.

Until I get my second wind, here are some blogs you might want to follow:


Why you should be skeptical of “genes”

July 16, 2009

Newsweek’s Sharon Begley is a one-woman wrecking crew. Maybe you read her crushing attack on bad evolutionary psychology?

Now she’s telling us about a new finding that high school kids get better grades if they are physically attractive (girls), well groomed (boys especially) or have an “attractive” personality (girls). Note to my lefties: sex and class bias are almost certainly in play here.

Here’s the paper, which I need to dip into at some point.

Begley says the beauty bonus is well known. The other findings are new. One explanation might be that “attractive” kids get more positive feedback from a young age, which makes them better learners. Keep that point firmly in mind.

In Begley’s uppercut, she notes that some researchers (this guy) are still hoping to link individual genes to IQ.

When scientists link a gene to a trait, they seldom know exactly what the heck the gene actually does. So let’s say they link gene X to IQ. Based on what’s known about the beauty premium, and now on how personality can boost kids’ GPA through mechanisms unrelated to actual brainpower, what if gene X is in fact producing a shapelier nose, or prettier eyes, or a sunny personality, and not, for instance, making synapses denser or brain neurons more efficient or causing some other effect that increases intelligence? How much do you want to bet that it will be hailed as a true IQ gene with all that entails (discrimination against those who have the wrong form being the most obvious), when in fact all it does is give people traits that society chooses to reward with (unmerited) higher grades and the resulting greater success in the work force?

In behavioral psychology, researchers like to compare traits of twins raised in the same home versus twins raised in separate homes to try to assess the “heritability” of traits such as IQ. In other words, if you hold the environment constant (as much as possible) and still see variation in a trait, you can attribute more of that variation to genetic factors, as expressed in the shared environment. Or that’s my understanding, anyway.

Begley’s point is that maybe the genes underlying the heritability of IQ are ones that give you, say, pretty eyes that make teachers pay more attention to you.

I think Malcolm Gladwell just wrote a book about this kind of thing.

See also: Newsweek | The Gene Puzzle

The argument for running barefoot

July 16, 2009

From Wired Science:

“People have been running barefoot for millions of years and it has only been since 1972 that people have been wearing shoes with thick, synthetic heels,” said Daniel Lieberman, a professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard University.

Strong evidence shows that thickly cushioned running shoes have done nothing to prevent injury in the 30-odd years since Nike founder Bill Bowerman invented them, researchers say. Some smaller, earlier studies suggest that running in shoes may increase the risk of ankle sprains, plantar fasciitis and other injuries. Runners who wear cheap running shoes have fewer injuries than those wearing expensive trainers. Meanwhile, injuries plague 20 to 80 percent of regular runners every year.

The author tried it. He (?) advises starting slow, no more than 10 percent barefoot running in a week. Here’s a barefoot strengthening program (.doc).

A related JR classic: The evolutionary origins of the New York City Marathon

[H/T: Gene Expression]

A disgusting way to control hay fever

July 16, 2009

From New Scientist:

In the mid-1970s, while working at the UK’s Medical Research Council Laboratories in Surrey, he [John Turton] intentionally infected himself with hookworms in an attempt to relieve his chronic hay fever. It worked. For two summers while he harboured the parasites, his allergy abated, only to return when he was free of them (The Lancet, vol 308, p 686).

Here’s what that means:

Hookworm larvae […] enter through the skin and make their way through the bloodstream to the lungs, where they pass through the thin-walled blood vessels. They then travel up from the lungs into the trachea, only to be coughed up and swallowed, allowing them to reach the small intestine where they develop into adult worms. “The potential protective effects of hookworm infections on asthma may be related to these parasites’ lung migration phase,” Flohr says.

Worms suppress the immune system, which could have adverse effects in the long run.

Not all worm infections are the same. Read the whole story to find out which disgusting parasite is right for you.

[H/T: Seth Roberts]

I HAVE NO IDEA IF PZ Myers would make one stern father

July 9, 2009

If only Aquaria, some commenter on PZ Myers’s blog, he were more like a stoned farmer.

Mr. Mooney, you seem to have this bizarre notion that anyone here cares what you think, or what you have to offer.

After you spend two chapters essentially telling one of the strongest voices of the pro-science movement that he’s a poopyhead who needs to sit down and shut up, even though he has evidence on your side, do you really think that he or those who think speaking out and up are going to heed what you have to say? To care?

And why–why–don’t you expect the stupid to educate itself, rather than telling people to pat stupid on the head and say, “there, there, I’m sorry if what I said hurt your feelings.” These people are screaming their heads off while smearing feces on the wall. “There there” will not change them. It only enables them, and usually makes them act up even worse.

>> Check out Classic Quote from PZ’s Blog, vs. Classic Quote from RealClimate.

Update: I am a bad journalist today. A commenter points out that PZ Myers did not write the above, unless PZ comments on his own blog under the name Aquaria. Mooney and I should both read more Benedict Carey. My apologies to PZ and anyone who reads this.

What is the cultural purpose of schizophrenia genetics?

July 8, 2009

Autism rights advocates don’t like being perceived as a problem that needs to be solved. Here’s how one blogger feels about the quest for a genetic understanding of schizophrenia:

We don’t ask what the genes are that would cause a soldier in captivity to crack under torture. We don’t ask what the genes are that would shut a prisoners lips, and keep that prisoner from squealing on his or her cohorts, in the face of certain death. We don’t look for genes to explain why most people would burn out on the job, in certain lines of work, given enough stress and pressure. We wouldn’t be seeking the genes behind schizophrenia and bipolar disorder if we didn’t feel somehow that the experience of receiving a psychiatric diagnosis had not pushed a segment of the population a wee bit closer to a lower branch on the evolutionary tree than the rest of humanity.

Here’s what I wrote in the comments to my schizophrenia post:

Schizophrenia and autism are burdensome on [our] society[, which is not set up to integrate them]. It would be nice if publicly funded science could help us alleviate those burdens. When science doesn’t “cooperate,” parents say things that can be interpreted as wishing autism would go away. Scientists are then perceived as agents of that wishing away.

I’m positive something like this accounts for some of the shrill discourse around autism — “damn scientists! parents need help!,” and, “damn scientists! auties are people too!” — and I suspect something similar is at work with schizophrenia, where we also have to make hard decisions about how to treat people suffering from the disease.

What do you think?

Ha! — Obama should read Benedict Carey

July 7, 2009

Sounds like Obama is focusing too hard on not thinking of Putin as Russia’s president:

Mr. Obama lavished praise on Mr. Putin, while stumbling for the second time in as many days over his titles. “I’m aware of not only the extraordinary work that you’ve done on behalf of the Russian people in your previous role as prime minister — as president, but in your current role as prime minister.”

Read the post on how pressuring yourself can backfire.

1-2-3: Southern gun culture on the skids

July 7, 2009

Add it up:

1. Insult, aggression, and the southern culture of honor

Three experiments examined how norms characteristic of a “culture of honor” manifest themselves in the cognitions, emotions, behaviors, and physiological reactions of southern White males. Participants were University of Michigan students who grew up in the North or South. In 3 experiments they were insulted by a confederate [nice one — Ed.] who bumped into the participant and called him an “asshole”. Compared with northerners–who were relatively unaffected by the insult–southerners were (a) more likely to think their masculine reputation was threatened, (b) more upset (as shown by a rise in cortisol levels), (c) more physiologically primed for aggression (as shown by a rise in testosterone levels), (d) more cognitively primed for aggression, and (e) more likely to engage in aggressive and dominant behavior. Findings highlight the insult-aggression cycle in cultures of honor, in which insults diminish a man’s reputation and he tries to restore his status by aggressive or violent behavior.

2. This scene from Barry Lyndon.

3. Williamson [TN] County Seeks To Ban Guns In Parks

A new resolution seeks to bar gun owners from bringing weapons to any Williamson County-owned park, trail or historic site.

Beginning Sept. 1, handgun owners who have carry permits can bring their guns to all local parks in Tennessee, unless leaders in local governments choose to ban them. The General Assembly passed the new law a few weeks ago.

But the resolution sponsored by County Commissioners Mary Brockman, Mary Mills and Judy Hayes would prevent gun owners from bringing their guns to all public parks owned and operated by Williamson County. That would include nature trails, waterways, greenways, historic parks and other similar places.

Jeremy on Facebook commented, “i remember when i first moved to TX there was a huge uproar over the attempted ban of handguns… at the state fair.”

The kicker: Handling a gun boosts testosterone.

Why pressuring yourself can backfire

July 7, 2009

If you’ve ever wondered why self-deception is so effective, here’s the always-interesting Benedict Carey in the NYTimes:

At a fundamental level, functioning socially means mastering one’s impulses. The adult brain expends at least as much energy on inhibition as on action, some studies suggest, and mental health relies on abiding strategies to ignore or suppress deeply disturbing thoughts — of one’s own inevitable death, for example. These strategies are general, subconscious or semiconscious psychological programs that usually run on automatic pilot.

Perverse impulses seem to arise when people focus intensely on avoiding specific errors or taboos. The theory is straightforward: to avoid blurting out that a colleague is a raging hypocrite, the brain must first imagine just that; the very presence of that catastrophic insult, in turn, increases the odds that the brain will spit it out.

One study asked subjects to evaluate the behavior of a fictional black student, Donald [not my friend David], whose behavior was ambiguous.  Donald passed up on a handicapped parking space, cut off another driver for a regular space, and then chose not to donate change to someone collecting for charity — a heart fund. Some readers were instructed to suppress “bad” racial stereotypes as they read a description.

These students rated Donald as significantly more hostile — but also more honest — than did students who were not trying to suppress stereotypes.

In short, the attempt to banish biased thoughts worked, to some extent. But the study also provided “a strong demonstration that stereotype suppression leads stereotypes to become hyperaccessible,” the authors concluded.

Bottom line: Distractions are good. So is situationism.

Missed opportunity – not debacle – in bogus schizophrenia genes coverage

July 6, 2009

Journalist Brandon Keim has a smart post about how he approached last week’s over-hyped schizophrenia genetics story, the latest in a long string of them.

Basically, some high-tech efforts to scan the genome for links to schizophrenia turned up thousands of rare gene variants, each of which might account for some tiny fraction of all schizophrenia cases, and together explained only about 30 percent of all cases. (Papers here, here and here.)

Given that researchers had been looking for meatier schizophrenia genes for years and years without finding anything substantial, this was to be expected, especially if you’re the kind of person who questions whether there are very many genes “for” anything.

Brandon notes that a number of web stories uncritically hyped the journal’s spin, namely, that this was a big, juicy, pharmacologically relevant finding, which it wasn’t. He uses NYTimes reporter Nicholas Wade as his stalking horse, following Wade’s transformation from “gene-whiz” kid to genomics realist.

Here’s Brandon’s point of view:

From a journalistic perspective, there are two possible stories here. First, the straight story: schizophrenia is extraordinarily complicated, and genetics can’t now explain it in any useful way. And two, the contextual angle: for years, the public has expected, and scientists have sometimes promised, that genetics would illuminate this disease — and it failed, just as it has for nearly every disease. 

(Useful perspective: search Eurekalert for “schizophrenia” and “gene.”)

When these studies showed up in my pre-embargo pipeline, I made a quick note of them — see above — and moved on. I’m already reporting for a long-form article on the disappointment of genomics, and this didn’t feel like a Wired daily news story. It would require at least a half-dozen interviews, and ultimately produce a narrative preaching caution, tempered expectations and patience. Instead I chose to write about an interesting finding on salamander limb regeneration, and waited for the inevitable onslaught of “Schizophrenia! Unlocked!” stories.

Brandon links to a number of such stories. He wants to portray this as a failure of science journalists — his subject line calls the story a debacle — which I’m inclined to second-guess. As journalists, we tend to critique ourselves from the supply side: we look at the world and see bad things, then look at what our colleagues are doing and see bad things, and then try to link the two, because it reinforces our sense of efficacy. And that’s probably appropriate here.

The other half of the story is the demand side. Can we prevent uncritical science stories from being published? Not by ourselves as journalists. It’s a structural issue that journalists can and should address in the only way they can — by directing skepticism at their own motivations, at least where times allows, and it doesn’t allow much these days for a working journalist. If I was living in a Brooklyn apartment right now instead of my mom’s place in Nashville, you probably wouldn’t be reading these words, although who knows.

I’d argue that Brandon inadvertently makes my point for me.

Knowing that others news outlets would herald the finding uncritically, and assuming that was a bad thing — which calling the coverage a “debacle” implies — what should Brandon have done? By passing on this story in favor of salamander limb regeneration, he passed on an opportunity to confront scientists in real web time about the unmet promise of genomics in understanding complex disease. It could have started something like “Studies appearing in Nature today will be trumpeted as a triumph for the genetics of schizophrenia, and they shouldn’t be,” similar to Nick Wade’s blog post about the coverage, which Brandon says was the only piece to get the story right.

As someone who’s been there, I know what I’m suggesting is easier said than done, although Brandon obviously had the chops to write the tougher story. I’ll forgive him (this time), if for no other reason than because, like he says above, he’s working on a bigger story about the failed promise of genomics, which I can’t wait to read.

So what to make of the schizophrenia coverage? Barring demand-side evidence to the contrary, it was hardly a debacle. The subtext of Brandon’s post is that it’s actually the culmination of a long story arc. It reflects an underlying attitude of scientists and journalists. Attitudes take time to change, and rightly so. I wish I was in a better position to argue about whether the human genome project was oversold, and whether the big daddy gene assumption represents an institutionalized failure of a masculinist theoretical assumption, to paraphrase Evelyn Fox Keller.

We need journalists to step up, in part so other journalists will step up. I am Spartacus, right? With than in mind, I take Brandon’s critique of Wade as a positive.

Not long ago, Wade could be relied upon for reductionist coverage of genetic links to disease. (On the subject of genes and schizophrenia, here’s Wade in July 2002: “Researchers hope they are now starting to close in on some of the genes that go awry in schizophrenia.” In December 2002: “The long search for a gene that helps cause schizophrenia may at last be bearing fruit after many false starts and disappointments, scientists are reporting.” In April 2006: “Researchers have made progress in understanding how a variant gene linked to schizophrenia may exert its influence in the brain.”)

But Wade, who arrived at the Times in 1981, seems to have finally lost patience with the “gene-linked-to-(fill in the blank)” narrative that he and so many others told, and were sold, for so long.

That’s called intellectual honesty! And it’s something all science journalists should aspire to, starting… now.

Related: NYTimes | 1) A Dissenting Voice as the Genome Is Sifted to Fight Disease, 2) Gene-Hunters Find Hope and Hurdles in Schizophrenia Studies

Question for somebody: To what extent do genetic studies reflect a desire to treat the disease, as opposed to wishing we could find a gene to make it go away?