Archive for the 'identities' Category

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?

The road to self-lovability

July 6, 2009

*PR science blogging alert*

Psychological Science is quickly becoming my favorite journal.

Allow me to — gasp! — quote the latest press release:

Psychologists Joanne V. Wood and John W. Lee from the University of Waterloo, and W.Q. Elaine Perunovic from the University of New Brunswick, found that individuals with low self-esteem actually felt worse about themselves after repeating positive self-statements.

The researchers asked participants with low self-esteem and high self-esteem to repeat the self-help book phrase “I am a lovable person.” The psychologists then measured the participants’ moods and their momentary feelings about themselves. As it turned out, the individuals with low self-esteem felt worse after repeating the positive self-statement compared to another low self-esteem group who did not repeat the self-statement. The individuals with high self-esteem felt better after repeating the positive self-statement–but only slightly.

In a follow-up study, the psychologists allowed the participants to list negative self-thoughts along with positive self-thoughts. They found that, paradoxically, low self-esteem participants’ moods fared better when they were allowed to have negative thoughts than when they were asked to focus exclusively on affirmative thoughts.

The idea is that for people with low self-esteem (as measured, I’m guessing, by numerical responses to statements such as “I am a capable person”), telling themselves how great they are sets up contradictory thoughts, because, you know, their entire world view depends on how ungreat they are. To admit to greatness would entail drastic changes in their way of being.

Like a psychologist tells the BBC:

“If you’re not close to your parents, don’t have many friends, are unemployed and are unhappy with your appearance, it might be hard to have high self-esteem.”

A good therapist teaches you to find the upside to your down traits, and then to isolate the negative world view that’s twisting the expression of that upside, e.g., “I would communicate my feelings honestly to friends and loved ones, but a) my feelings don’t matter and b) I would be rejected anyway.”

Seeing the upside — a desire for honest communication — gives you a foundation for making (incrementally) better decisions. Then you can seize on any improved outcome as signs of your newfound potency.

Or in other words, it’s like Bill Murray said: “baby steps.” Even with 20 pounds of explosives strapped to your torso.

Update: Did I accidentally kill Robert McNamara? 

If ever there was a guy who needed to calibrate his self-love, it was Robert McNamara, the much-vilified defense secretary who was forever tarnished by his role in the Vietnam War. This weekend I re-watched The Fog of War, the Errol Morris documentary in which McNamara very nearly breaks down with regret for his mistakes. Today I learn that McNamara has died. By Jenny McCarthy’s logic, I am partially responsible for the death. I regret my involvement.

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.

Oprah’s abuse of cultural power

June 3, 2009

Read the Newsweek article.

Oprah would do more good for women if she could strip away the bullshit. These two bits encapsulate the danger:

In real life, [Oprah] has almost nothing in common with most of her viewers. She is an unapproachable billionaire with a private jet and homes around the country who hangs out with movie stars. She is not married and has no children. But television Oprah is a different person. She somehow manages to make herself believable as a down-to-earth everywoman. She is your girlfriend who struggles to control her weight and balance her work and personal life, just like you. When she recently related the story of how humiliated she felt when she arrived for a photo shoot to find that she couldn’t fit into the clothes she was supposed to wear, she knew she had every member of the audience in her hand. 

Which is great, except when it isn’t.

[A]fter the first two shows on The Secret, Oprah invited a woman named Kim Tinkham on the program. She had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and her doctors were urging surgery and chemotherapy. But Tinkham wrote Oprah to say that she had decided to forgo this treatment and instead use The Secret to cure herself. On the show, Oprah seemed genuinely alarmed that Tinkham had taken her endorsement of The Secret so seriously. […] A few weeks earlier, Oprah could not say enough in praise of The Secret as the guiding philosophy of her life. Now she said that people had somehow gotten the wrong idea.

I’m focusing on the pitfalls of Oprah’s message because they mirror our larger public confusion over the value of subjective experience. I live my life a lot more intuitively these days. I’m sure Oprah would be proud. But without a critical eye, intuition leads you astray. This is why some people need to be talked down from an intense drug experience. I guess what I’m saying is, Oprah is a powerful narcotic. Approach with caution. Don’t operate heavy machinery.

See also:

David Brooks has my attention

June 2, 2009

The theme of my 2009 is paying attention to what I’m paying attention to.

It turns out David Brooks predicted my year back in December:

Control of attention is the ultimate individual power. People who can do that are not prisoners of the stimuli around them. They can choose from the patterns in the world and lengthen their time horizons. This individual power leads to others. It leads to self-control, the ability to formulate strategies in order to resist impulses. If forced to choose, we would all rather our children be poor with self-control than rich without it.

See also the excellent New York magazine article, “In Defense of Distraction.”

David Foster Wallace was concerned about how we construct meaning in real time. Driving home his point for me was the Kid Rock video, “Warrior,” which I watched a couple times in the theatre waiting for a movie to start.

Jonah Lehrer’s been sniffing around this subject, too. I’ll have to read his New Yorker piece on self-control.

Nicholas Kristof has my (old) number

June 2, 2009

In my early 20s, you couldn’t get me to swig from somebody else’s drink. You also couldn’t get me to call myself a liberal.

Nicholas Kristof connects the dots: “People who would be disgusted to find that they had accidentally sipped from an acquaintance’s drink are more likely to identify as conservatives.”

Thanks, 3 Quarks Daily

See also: Conservatives are more easily disgusted.

The pleasure of finding things out

May 30, 2009

Have you read this book? You might try it.

<i>The Pleasure of Finding Things Out</i> by Richard P. Feynman

The Pleasure of Finding Things Out by Richard P. Feynman

I’ve owned it for a year or two at least. A few minutes ago I flipped through it at random. The name of a magazine, Omni, caught my eye. I read from some old interview.

One day I’ll be convinced there’s a certain type of symmetry that everybody believes in, the next day I’ll try to figure out the consequence if it’s not, and everybody’s crazy but me. But the thing that’s unusual about good scientists is while they’re doing whatever they’re doing, they’re not so sure of themselves as others usually are. They can live with steady doubt, think “maybe it’s so” and act on that, all the time knowing it’s only “maybe.” Many people find that difficult. They think it means detachment or coldness. It’s not coldness! It’s a much deeper and warmer understanding, and it means you can be digging somewhere where you’re temporarily convinced you have the answer, and somebody comes up and says, “Have you seen what they’re coming up with over there?”, and you look up and say Jeez! I’m in the wrong place! It happens all the time.

I stopped reading, and I realized the book in my hands was no longer a book. It was a pearl, mirror-smooth and big around as a medicine ball, and I was cradling it in my arms. The man shat wisdom, people. You would too if your mind did nothing but think all day, every second. Unfortunately, we live in a world where “genius” is a rare gift bestowed on the genetically chosen few, and me and the other stereotypes are too busy clocking our time to say otherwise.

Trendwatch: hugs, Great Books

May 28, 2009

Either I’m paying attention to more trend pieces, or some serious trends are underway.

For Teenagers, Hello Means ‘How About a Hug?’

Girls embracing girls, girls embracing boys, boys embracing each other — the hug has become the favorite social greeting when teenagers meet or part these days. Teachers joke about “one hour” and “six hour” hugs, saying that students hug one another all day as if they were separated for the entire summer.

The Great Books are coming back?

I kept running into more and more students fed up with militant multiculturalism and squash-you-all-flat postmodernism. Although pomo’s demise has been widely reported, one can’t ignore how sclerotic academe is. […] But every orthodoxy, as they say, breeds its own apostasy, and I was getting the message that this might be the hour for recuperation, renaissance, resurrection, recovery, renewal, and revival of the Great Books’ perennial questions. Old ideas become stale — perennial questions do not.

Steven Pinker no longer pisses me off

May 26, 2009

As long as I’m eating crow, let it be in an area in which I supposedly have some expertise. I finished reading Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate (The Modern Denial of Human Nature), and I have to say he’s made a pretty convincing argument that a) we often take for granted the idea that a person’s behavioral tendencies are primarily learned, in particular learned from culture, and b) although some of the forms those behaviors take may reflect our cultural context, the tendencies themselves probably do not.

I could quibble with Pinker on some points. He could have strengthened his argument, and expanded the scope of his audience, by acknowledging that culture can and does reinforce the idea that some universal behaviors are more valuable than others. Without that proviso, I think it’s easy for the concept of a “human nature” to end up reinforcing hurtful stereotypes. I also think he glosses over some problems in the field of evolutionary psychology — in particular, an over-reliance on adaptive rationales — for the sake of streamlining his argument for a human nature.

That being said, I disavow my earlier line of argument that Pinker is letting parents off the hook, for reasons I hope to get into soon. And in general, I am starting to agree with his statement in the book’s final chapter:

I suspect that few people really believe, deep down, that boys and girls are interchangeable, that all differences in intelligence come from the environment, that parents can micromanage the personalities of their children, that humans are born free of selfish tendencies, or that appealing stories, melodies, and faces are arbitrary social constructions. … Scholars who publicly deny intelligence is a meaningful concept treat it as anything but meaningless in their professional lives. Those who argue that gender differences are a reversible social construction do not treat them that way in their advice to their daughters, their dealings with the opposite sex, and their unguarded gossip, humor, and reflections on their lives. … The alternative [to acknowledging human nature] is to make intellectual life increasingly irrelevant to human affairs, to turn intellectuals into hypocrites, and to turn everyone else into anti-intellectuals.

Like I mentioned, I hope to find some time in coming weeks to explain how Pinker turned me around.