Archive for the 'discourse' Category

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

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?

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?

Can someone translate Joseph Romm for me?

July 3, 2009


Blogger-activist-PhD Joseph Romm clearly knows a ton about climate science, renewable energy and the policies of both. I understand none of these things. I would like to understand them more, but for the time being all I can do is read stuff I don’t understand until parts of it begin to stick.

For example, I understand the technical point he and Real Climate are making about Roger Pielke, Sr., who is viewed as an obstructionist climate scientist, and it sounds totally valid. Actually, it sounds like Pielke used to have a point but doesn’t anymore, and in order to maintain his “hard-nosed skeptic” identity he has to torture the empirics, because more facts have come in and they undercut his meta-position.

I’m less sure what to do with Romm’s post, Tom Friedman: Obama “is going to have to mobilize the whole country to pressure the Senate — by educating Americans, with speech after speech, about the opportunities and necessities of a serious climate/energy bill….”

Things I don’t get:

1. He’s seconding something Tom Friedman said. Is this a case of a stopped clock (Friedman) being right twice a day?

2. This bit:

I believe Obama does understand that he will be tarnished forever if this bill goes down.

He’s of course referring to ACES, the cap and trade bill.

Future historians will inevitably judge all 21st-century presidents on just two issues:  global warming and the clean energy transition. If the world doesn’t stop catastrophic climate change — Hell and High Water — then all Presidents, indeed, all of us, will be seen as failures and rightfully so.

Er, okay. What?

Is this translation accurate?

There’s a strong chance under current global climate models that we could see intense changes in local climates and sea level such that many millions / billions of people would have to uproot their lives to attempt to cope, which (a) they can’t afford and (b) given that some predictions of climate models are coming true faster than we expected, we have to assume the worst and act based on that or else we run too high a risk of being totally effed w/r/t modern life.

3. Immediately after (2) comes this: 

How else could future generations judge us if the U.S. and the world stay anywhere near our current emissions path, warm most of the inland United States 10 to 15°F by century’s end, with sea levels 3 to 7 feet higher, rising perhaps an inch or two a year, with the Southwest from Kansas to California a permanent Dust Bowl, and much of the ocean a hot, acidic dead zone — impacts that could be irreversible for 1,000 years if we don’t reverse emissions soon and sharply.  This will require an unbroken — and indeed escalating — response by our political leadership throughout this century.

Is this what he means?: “Here is a worst case scenario. There is too high a probability based on climate models of this scenario coming to pass.”

4. Oh wait, maybe he answered (2) and (3) for me:

Also this is a dynamic messaging environment, so if our side downplays climate impacts, it essentially gives the deniers free reign to shape half of the debate, which they do with a vengeance, indeed with a disdain for both science and scientists — see “Why do deniers like Pielke shout down any talk of a link between climate change and extreme weather?

5. Which I guess (4) is why he’s making bold claims for what the public understands and desires. (Emphasis his.)

In short, a strong public consensus has emerged on the reality and severity of global warming, as well as on the need for federal action,” as Mellman writes.

This leads to the key strategic point.  Most of the public gets this — and in particular they understand things are going to get much worse on our current emissions path.  That’s why it is so crucial we keep messaging on climate science and impacts, and keep warning people about what is to come.

Personally — and I admit I’m probably in the minority of science writers, if not the larger public — all I really know is that the words “climate change” make some otherwise calm hairless apes I know want to fling their shit at a wall, and because I respect these particular apes, I want to know the score.

Hence this post.

Science journalists: lazy, credulous, overworked?

June 29, 2009

Last week some elder colleagues of mine were Twittering about the lack of skepticism among science journalists, particularly in cases where scientific journals are perceived as strongly dictating story selection, a practice that was characterized as “lazy.”

They were referencing a special report on science journalism published by Nature. Here’s the full list of stories.

My former boss at, Ivan Oransky, highlighted a piece on the invention of newspaper science journalism as an outgrowth of the Progressive era’s faith in perfecting the world through science and technology.

It’s an eye-opening article, written by Boyce Rensberger, the influential former director of MIT’s Knight Science Journalism Fellowship. David Dobbs made the point that if science journalism was so recently conceived of, and in a specifically cheerleading mode, it could explain why members of our profession are content to report journal articles as the main news of the day.

As someone who has always secretly wanted more guidance from veterans in his field, but hasn’t always known where to turn, I inserted myself into the conversation. I’d love to hear some of those folks (Rebecca Skloot was the third) elaborate on how they think skepticism is apportioned in our profession, so those of us working in it can improve what we do. 

For starters:

  • Do reporters in particular beats tend to be less skeptical than reporters in others?
  • Is there something about those beats that drives them toward or away from skepticism?
  • Is there more skepticism in web-only publications or in web-print? And again, in what subjects or types of content?

I feel more comfortable engaging with a separate piece by Toby Murcott, a former BBC science reporter, on “toppling the priesthood” of science. I’m not sure what I think of the specific strategy he recommended — that science somehow be “opened up” for journalists to help them cover it more analytically — but I concurred with his description of what it’s like to be a reporter covering a science beat.

I have a PhD in biochemistry and three years postdoctoral research, so if I am reporting a discovery in my field, I can make a reasonable attempt at understanding the technical detail and will have a sense of the overall history, evolution of ideas and current debates. I will know who is a leader in the field, and who is an outlier; I will be able to distinguish majority views from minority ones. Yet as a science journalist I am expected to cover more than just biochemistry. I need to be able to report on findings in cosmology, ecology, particle physics and much more. To draw on the knowledge of scientists in these fields, I must first find out which scientists are most relevant, and have a sense of their opinions and place within the field. All of this takes time, which reporters often don’t have.

This is partly why so many journalists resort to doing the bare minimum: reproducing press releases. Many journalists will telephone or e-mail one of the main contributors given on the press release to ask a few supplementary questions; but there is rarely the time or the expertise to go into the full story of how an item of research came to be, and how it fits into the bigger picture.

(See my previous post, on bullsh-t and science journalism.)

Interestingly, Murcott makes one of the same points Rensberger did: science journalists are not respected by their peers!

As science correspondent for the BBC World Service, I regularly experienced the quiet frustration some elements of the newsroom felt with science journalists. My colleagues felt that we reported on published papers without significant analysis, depth or critical comment: we just translated what scientists said.

Indulge my defensiveness for a moment: Would these “other journalists” be, say, the hard-hitting business journalists who saved us from the financial meltdown? Or maybe the genius White House correspondents who kept us from invading Iraq? I know he’s talking about the BBC. But you get what I’m saying. If science journalism is less than uniformly skeptical, it’s hardly the sole offender.

I’m not saying science journalism isn’t “problematic” by the standard of cultural perfection, or even optimality. As Rensberger alluded to, we’re still coming out of a cultural conception of science as revealed truth, which muddies the perception that science can be a powerful tool for defending subtle elements of the status quo. The science stories I see on sites like Yahoo News and are often pure entertainment, which is fine. We all like that stuff, to some degree. Stoned wallabies making crop circles? You need to know about that before you die. (I’m sure other science news orgs had their own jokes like we did at about what kinds of stories would get pageviews. It wasn’t only sex. I think monkeys were high on the list.)

To Murcott’s point, I think we’re all trying to topple the priesthood in our own way, meaning we can disagree on how to get there from here. My colleagues above would probably not agree with Murcott that science needs to be “opened up.” They’d say, cultivate sources, find better stories, give more context. I don’t disagree. I do think Murcott is right to point to structural institutional effects, which are at least transiently relevant. 

  1. To have a science news web site, you have to put up — what? — a good dozen pieces of content a day, including news and light features, especially multimedia, and with breaking news on top of that.
  2. For “news” to mean something other than what’s in the journals that day, you need good beat reporters. By no means do any of them have to be MDs or PhDs. But you have to acquire some of the specialized knowledge of your beat somehow, and having it upfront could mean the difference between burnout or room to breathe.
  3. Once you’ve got experienced, knowledgeable reporters, you can start to approach something like the Wall Street Journal Health Blog. And even if you have to throw up a lot of fluff to attract eyeballs, with forethought and skill, you can still insert the kinds of stories that deserve to be read: conflicts of interest in biomedicine, DNA evidence in the courts, regulatory agencies gone rogue.

I don’t have any numbers here, but from what I remember of Digg Science, I feel like there’s a healthy market for muckraking, although maybe interspersed with enough fluff that we don’t all get too depressed.

To speed the day, Murcott recommends opening up peer review reports to journalists. (To be published in most scientific journals, a manuscript has to survive scrutiny by several independent experts in the field.) My immediate reaction was, “Pff, whatever. I’ve had access to that in some cases, and the reporting uncovered it all.” And I had no journalism background going into this line of work! I’m the kind of person who got into the field for journalistically “incorrect” reasons, in particular a semi-idolatrous relationship with science.

As it stands now, I’m inclined to reassess how to put my skills to best use. Maybe I need to divide my time between academic pursuits and journalistic ones. I think it would be fun to be a cross between Sally Lehrman and Evelyn Fox Keller, using science and critical theory to expose ways that scientific discourse enforces damaging ideas about race, class and gender. Any good daily journalist is doing the same thing, just on shorter deadlines and with less theoretical baggage.

If you’ve read this far and consider yourself a working journalist, I’d be interested to hear how you handle the pressures of the job and what motivates you to get up in the morning.

Update [7/1/09]: Brandon Keim, a writer for Wired Science, has posted a really compelling reply to my final question. See also the comment below by Robin Lloyd of Live Science, who radiates Zen. I’ll say something more explicit about my own motivations soon.

Girls and boys equally good at math

June 3, 2009

From 80beats:

The researchers […] found that in countries with the greatest gender equality, as many girls as boys scored above the 99th percentile–and in a few countries, there were more girls in that elite rank than boys. The “scarcity of top-scoring females in many, but not all countries .. . must be largely due to changeable sociocultural factors,” the scientists write, “not immutable, innate biological differences between the sexes.” If the differences were innate, they should show up in every culture [Newsweek]. 

Damn, I’m gonna have to read more Newsweek.

If schools really care about test results, they should have kids read a series of stereotype-defusing affirmations before taking standardized tests.

Coastal intellectuals were so uptight about human pheromones

June 3, 2009

And by “were,” I mean in 2006.

Remember the story from that year about an interesting link between smell and sexuality? Well, I was working last night on my single-mechanism theory of male sexuality — how’s yours coming? let’s compare notes — and I got to the end of the theorizing — which is the fun part, involving chemicals — and then started looking at the data — which is the equally fun part, involving telecommunications — and the most salient bit of data I knew of was that 2006 study.

So I reread the NYTimes‘s coverage and was shocked by the unreasonable amount of hedging that in any other beat would be like saying, “This is study is pointless and possibly bogus.” 

The big data point:

Lesbians react to the smell of certain bodily odors in ways similar to heterosexual men and different from heterosexual women, new research suggests.

Interesting. Go on.

The substances involved are a progesterone derivative produced in male sweat and an estrogenlike steroid that has been detected in female urine. The two smells are processed in the brain differently from ordinary odors.


In the experiment, 12 lesbians [small study, I grant you] smelled the two substances while researchers observed blood flow in their brains with PET scans. The scents activated parts of the brain that ordinarily process odors, but the estrogenlike compound also activated a part of the hypothalamus, as it does in heterosexual men.

Animal studies suggest that the hypothalamus is important in sexual behavior. So when that part of the brain lights up under the stimulus of an odor, a sexual response, rather than simply an olfactory one, is implied.

The prior finding:

Heterosexual women responded to the male sweat odor in the hypothalamus rather than in the olfactory portions of the brain, and heterosexual men responded to female estrogen in the hypothalamus. Homosexual men processed the smells in the same way as heterosexual women.

Huh? I can barely follow that. He’s kludging it up so nobody will get what he really wants to say: Here’s another consistency check on whether these chemicals are pheromones, a puzzle we’ll only solve for sure if we knock out a few key control experiments, such as tracking the natural history of these patterns from a young age.

Despite the similarities, lesbians do not respond to these two odors in exactly the same way as heterosexual men, so the analogy with gay men and heterosexual women is imperfect. “This observation could favor the view that male and female homosexuality are different,” said Dr. Savic, an associate professor of neurology at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm.

The doubletalk:

The researchers also emphasize that their findings have no clinical application. “It is very important to make clear that the study has no implications for possible dynamics in sexual orientation,” Dr. Savic said.

What?? Seriously? Please show me other kinds of research that would have implications for “dynamics in sexual orientation” without using methods like these! It’s a scent that permits heterosexual members of one sex to recognize those of the other sex! Geeeyaaaaad.

Ok, look, I know it’s all correlation equals causation. Maybe we’re witnessing neural correlates of learned patterns of sexuality. And she did say “dynamics,” which every lay reader knows means change over time. And no, I haven’t Googled any single other thing on the subject. And yes, maybe NIcholas Bakalar had a long day that day.

I want nevertheless to record my first reactions upon revisiting that small bit of history.

The mere way the information was framed indicated a high (if only perceived) level of defensiveness on everybody’s part. From reading and talking to everybody, I feel says saying the evolutionary psychologists refuse to understand the subtleties of sexism, so they won’t acknowledge smart arguments by post-structuralists. And the post-it crowd sure as shit is not going to be having the mass media perpetuating the idea, foisted on us by undersexed nerds, of pheromones — human pheromones, for God’s sake! — when Times readers? women the world over are being treated like this and this.

In microcosm, the above is the bottom line message of Fistful of Science: Masculine and feminine; objective and subjective; scientific authorities and critically oriented academics — neither one knows how to talk to the other in this culture. It’s like a stereotypically bad marriage. One side is empowered but whines whenever he has to do anything; the other side is marginalized and forced to lash out to get fair treatment. Both sides have way, way more in common than they want to admit.

Now, regarding the specific issue of human pheromones, the authoritarian in me says, Yes, some people will misuse the likely fact (does anyone have a better, non-ridiculous explanation?) that human sexual orientation has a strong inborn biological component (to say “genetic” would imply single-gene causation; “hereditary” makes it sound like a disease that strikes both sexes).

The libertarian in me says people have nothing to fear but their chains.

And the empiricist in me says, I need more data. Seen any studies?

Are scientists perceived as unwise?

June 2, 2009

Rounding out my NYTimes tribute, here’s science writer Dennis Overbye, who isn’t sure what to do with science vs. spirituality in Angels and Demons:

Mr. Hanks as the Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon has just exposed the archvillain who was threatening to blow up the Vatican with antimatter stolen from a particle collider. A Catholic cardinal who has been giving him a hard time all through the movie and has suddenly turned twinkly-eyed says a small prayer thanking God for sending someone to save them.

Mr. Hanks replies that he doesn’t think he was “sent.”

Of course he was, he just doesn’t know it, the priest says gently. Mr. Hanks, taken aback, smiles in his classic sheepish way. Suddenly he is not so sure.

This may seem like a happy ending. Faith and science reconciled or at least holding their fire in the face of mystery. But for me that moment ruined what had otherwise been a pleasant two hours on a rainy afternoon. It crystallized what is wrong with the entire way that popular culture regards science.


After all is said and done, it seems to imply, having faith is just a little bit better than being smart.

It’s interesting how often us science types perceive non-scientific values as an attack on our chosen way of knowing the world.