November 24, 2007
Flynn on "The Flynn Effect"
To continue on the discussion of genetics and intelligence a bit, one of the more important trends in IQ studies is the so-called "Flynn effect," which describes the rise in IQ numbers over the past century. This would, to some, seem like definitive proof that something's very wrong with the way we test IQ -- if the scores are changing, that wrecks the metric's claim to be an objective measure of natural capacity. Not so, say hereditists, you can look at studies of twins where they end up with similar IQs. Well James Flynn himself just wrote a book called "What Is Intelligence," in which he argues:
Flynn’s most intriguing and controversial claim concerns the preponderant influence of the environment over genetic inheritance in determining intelligence. The direct effect of genes on IQ accounts for only 36 percent of IQ variance, Flynn tells us, with 64 percent resulting from the indirect effect of genes plus environmental differences uncorrelated with genes. Yet this cheeky claim would seem to be contradicted by the fact that identical twins separated at birth and raised apart end up with very similar IQs, presumably because of their identical genes. Not so, says Flynn, who buttresses his argument by drawing on an analogy from basketball.
If on the basis of their genetic inheritance, separated-twin pairs are tall, quick, and athletically inclined, both members are likely to be interested in basketball, practice assiduously, play better, and eventually attract the attention of basketball coaches capable of transforming them into world-class competitors. Other twin pairs, in contrast, endowed with shared genes that predispose them to be shorter and stodgier than average will display little aptitude or enthusiasm for playing basketball and will end up as spectators rather than as players. [...]
According to Flynn, the environment will always be the principal determinant of whether or not a particular genetic predisposition gets to be fully expressed. “There is a strong tendency for a genetic advantage or disadvantage to get more and more matched to a corresponding environment,” he writes.
Obviously, the implications of that are rather serious, and they suggest, again, that it's essentially impossible to tell what is and is not genetic. The interaction of genes and proclivities with environment is simply too complex.
Also interesting is Flynn's case study of Chinese-Americans:
Chinese-American entrants to Berkeley in 1966 had an IQ threshold seven points below their Caucasian classmates. This held true whether the students were born in the United States or in China. Yet by 1980 55 percent of the Chinese members of the 1966 class occupied managerial, professional, or technical occupations compared to only 34 percent of their Caucasian classmates. Flynn attributes this unexpected result (in terms of their lower IQ scores) to a parentally instilled passion for intellectual achievement. He noted that “Chinese Americans are an ethnic group for whom high achievement preceded high IQ rather than the reverse.”
Not surprisingly Chinese Americans in the highly successful class of 1966 provided their own children with an even more enriched cognitive environment than they themselves had enjoyed. Their children, as a result, by age six had a mean IQ nine points above Caucasian students. But as the children matured further, a surprising finding emerged. By age 10 the IQ differential had fallen four points. By age 18 IQ had declined further to only a three-point advantage. The reason for this IQ drop? According to Flynn, “Much of their advantage was lost when school began to dilute parental influence.”
Those are significant swings that a) aren't related to race and genetics and b) suggest that the influence of IQ on overall achievement may not, in fact, be as large as some argue. That's not to say that cognitive capacity has no influence at all, but it's probably significantly less determinative than some wish to believe. Now, why so many wish to believe that achievement is the result of immutable genetic proclivities is a more troubling question...
April 21, 2007
The Impassioned Plea Of A Bitter Bee*
[by litbrit, who wishes everyone a happy and thoughtful Earth Day]
It's Earth Day tomorrow, April 22nd, and word has it that Mother Earth has registered her wish list at every grocery store, gas station, and recycling center in the nation. What would she like from us, the human residents who seem hell-bent on partying long and hard in her beautiful home and then leaving the place a mess?
"If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe then man would only have four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man."
And while some bloggers are busy devoting time and bandwidth to proving or disproving that it was indeed Einstein who made that dire prediction, I'd like to point out that regardless of who said it, bees are in trouble.
And so, therefore, are we.
In a potent closing monologue last night, comedian and political pundit Bill Maher had a lot to say about bees, and birds and humans, too:
Well, guess what? The bees are disappearing. In massive numbers. All around the world. And if you think I'm being alarmist and that, "Oh, they'll figure out some way to pollinate the plants..." No, they've tried. For a lot of what we eat, only bees work. And they're not working. They're gone. It's called Colony Collapse Disorder.
But I think we're the ones suffering from Colony Collapse Disorder. Because although nobody really knows for sure what's killing the bees, it's not al-Qaeda, and it's not God doing some of his Old Testament shtick, and it's not Winnie the Pooh. It's us. It could be from pesticides, or genetically modified food, or global warming, or the high-fructose corn syrup we started to feed them. Recently it was discovered that bees won't fly near cell phones -- the electromagnetic signals they emit might screw up the bees navigation system, knocking them out of the sky. So thanks guy in line at Starbucks, you just killed us. It's nature's way of saying, "Can you hear me now?"
Maybe you don't need to talk on your cell phone all the time. Maybe you don't' need a bag when you buy a keychain. Americans throw out 100 billion plastic bags a year, and they all take a thousand years to decompose. Your children's children's children's children will never know you but they'll know you once bought batteries at the 99 cent store because the bag will still be caught in the tree. Except there won't be trees. Sunday is Earth Day. Please educate someone about the birds and the bees, because without bees, humans become the canary in the coal mine, and we make bad canaries because we're already such sheep.
Global warming, overflowing landfills, rainforest destruction, and an imperiled food supply are not inventions of the oft-derided Left. Neither are they alarmist soundbites set forth to pave the way for the Great Socialist Takeover Of All That Is Capitalist And Wonderful, which is to say, used the way other alarmist soundbites--Saddam has nukes! Gotta fight 'em there so we don't have to fight 'em here! Hair gel and Evian water can bring down planes!--were employed to achieve all manner of political objectives, from instilling fear and compliance in a population to offering a flimsy, plastic justification for pouring the nation's blood and treasure into the voracious war machine.
No, the threats to our environment are not only non-partisan, they're very real. The ice caps don't give a rat's bottom if you're red, blue, or green--they're melting anyway. The disrupted and destroyed ecosystems have no political affiliation, either. And as man and his machines intrude on heretofore untouched rainforests, and tropical viruses once contained deep within begin their outward creep--first to rodents and primates living at the perimeter, then to humans--the microbes will fell us all.
Which is, by the way, how I believe the world as we know it will end: not with a bang, but a whimper. Not with a meteor collision, not with a bomb, but rather, with the world-wide deathblow of a tiny organism, one that rises to power when humans, via their ongoing destruction of Earth's complex ecosystems and precarious balance, finally remove every possible obstacle that might have protected us. Those who survive the floods, famine, and disease wrought by global warming will then have to contend with unprecedented outbreaks of tropically-bred hemorrhagic fevers like sabia and ebola, to name just two lethal viruses, as well as yet-unnamed and undiscovered ones. In true virus fashion, they will take an opportunistic view of our devastated populace.
And that will be that.
Regardless of your politics, I hope you'll think about the bees this weekend, as well as the many ecosystems--all interdependent, all quite fragile and easy to disrupt--that keep our planet and our species grooving along.
*My first name, Deborah, is Hebrew for bee; my second name, Mary, means bitter.
March 17, 2007
Addressing The Climate Crisis: US Not Leading Or Even Following
The richest and most developed nations in the world are forging ahead with plans to cut carbon emissions significantly by the year 2020. But the United States--arguably the richest and most developed of all, and inarguably the world's largest per-capita consumer of natural resources and contributor to carbon emissions--is still not on board. Worse, developing nations are citing America's poor example of stubborn isolationism as the reason for their own hesitation or outright refusal to participate and enact proactive climate-protection policies (bolds mine):
Environment ministers of the Group of Eight leading industrialized nations, and officials from leading developing countries, were meeting to prepare for a June G8 summit at which climate change will be a major topic.
"On two issues, the United States were the only ones who spoke against consensus,'' German Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel told reporters at the end of the two-day meeting, which he chaired on behalf of Germany's G8 presidency.
Gabriel said the U.S. remained opposed to a global carbon emissions trading scheme like the one used in the
European Union and rejected the idea that industrialized nations should help achieve a "balance of interests'' between developing countries' need for economic growth and environmental protection.
The Bush administration, which for years questioned the reliability of scientific findings showing man-made pollution was responsible for the planet's warming, has shifted its stance.
Washington now backs the conclusions in a U.N. report last month which said mankind was to blame for global warming and predicted an increase in droughts and heatwaves and a slow rise in sea levels.
"There is a strong consensus on the science,'' de Boer said. ''We can now put behind us the period when science was called into question.''
Several environmental groups criticized the United States, which in 2001 pulled out of the U.N. Kyoto Protocol on reducing greenhouse gases, for refusing to support carbon dioxideemissions reduction targets at the Potsdam meeting.
Developing countries cite the U.S. position as a reason for their refusal to commit to reduction targets.
I realize that different cultures--indeed, different individuals within each culture--are going to have widely divergent ideas about how much change is realistic or even tolerable when the benefits of living green and adopting carbon-neutral lifestyles are, in many respects, not immediate, visible, and tangible. And Big Business in all its incarnations has done a bang-up job of scaring everyone into believing that reducing America's carbon footprint will lead to all manner of economic woes, not to mention intrusions on one's very freedoms, like the right to drive a massive, gas-guzzling SUV to, say, a football stadium, the building of which required the clearcutting and dredging-and-filling of once-sensitive land. Or the right to eat beef and pork for breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day. Or the right to consume our way through time and space, demonstrating to the world once and for all that he who dies with the most toys wins.
But when all is said and done, I have to hope that even the stubbornest among us would want his children to enjoy a habitable world, as opposed to one in which draconian emergency restrictions had to be enacted and enforced lest everyone starve when arable, above-water land was in critically short supply and drowning in a hurricane-caused flood was a very real threat. Or, equally disturbing, a world in which ecosystems are so violently and precipitously thrown off-balance, deadly viruses that were once contained deep within rainforests emerge and begin to sicken the planet's already-stressed animals, including humans.
It should also be noted that some of us have already begun to view the climate challenge as an enormous economic opportunity.
Beyond the strawman arguments posited in such irresponsible statements as "Scientists disagree about how bad things will get and when we'll really notice any ill effect" or "Last year's hurricane season was tame, so I'm not buying this whole global warming thing", there really is nothing to debate at this point. We must take action, we must commit to a solid and comprehensive plan to reduce greenhouse gases, and we must do it now.
It's time to put our pride in our collective pocket and take our place at the table alongside Europe's leaders. They know we're well-armed--aren't we always?--but this time, at this international sit-down, the weapons will be American ingenuity and innovativeness, two resources we actually do have in limitless supply.
February 18, 2006
I Love Scientists
Looks like scientists at NIH are making progress on a vaccine for Ebola!
I'm hoping that the scientists don't get laid off due to budget cuts, like those government scientists working on renewable energy who lost their jobs right after Bush talked about weaning us off our addiction to oil. Fortunately, there isn't a wealthy pro-Ebola lobby in America, so we're probably safe this time.
February 11, 2006
Tell the Scientists -- the Enemy Is Here
From Pharyngula, we hear of the latest horror:
Evangelist Ken Ham smiled at the 2,300 elementary students packed into pews, their faces rapt. With dinosaur puppets and silly cartoons, he was training them to reject much of geology, paleontology and evolutionary biology as a sinister tangle of lies.
"Boys and girls," Ham said. If a teacher so much as mentions evolution, or the Big Bang, or an era when dinosaurs ruled the Earth, "you put your hand up and you say, 'Excuse me, were you there?' Can you remember that?"
The children roared their assent.
"Sometimes people will answer, 'No, but you weren't there either,' " Ham told them. "Then you say, 'No, I wasn't, but I know someone who was, and I have his book about the history of the world.' " He waved his Bible in the air.
"Who's the only one who's always been there?" Ham asked.
"God!" the boys and girls shouted.
"Who's the only one who knows everything?"
"So who should you always trust, God or the scientists?"
The children answered with a thundering: "God!"
Reading that makes me feel sick. I can't imagine a scientist who'd feel differently.
One of the ways you get people to become conscious of some aspect of their identity is to present them with an attack on it. (The religious right is really good at making Christians feel that anything, even a friendly "Happy Holidays," is an attack on their religion. To take an example that's closer to home, our Nicholas came to identify with Seattle only after Matt Yglesias dissed his hometown.) There's no shortage of horror stories we could tell scientists, from the sad tale above, to the Bush appointee who wanted to always put the word "theory" after "Big Bang" to signify that it was just one opinion.
Identity politics usually runs along ethnic or religious lines, but I'm wondering if one could get occupational status as a scientist to operate as a genuine political identity that motivates voting, volunteering, donating money, and trying to persuade those near you. On all sorts of issues -- global warming, stem cell research, tobacco, and the teaching of evolution in schools -- Democrats are taking the side of science against business interests and the religious right. If scientists see themselves as scientists when they think about politics, their motivation to engage in progressive politics will increase.
Are there serious efforts out there to tell the scientists what's going on? PZ Myers is wonderful at this, and big props to Chris Mooney on his book. But I'm wondering if anybody's started an organization devoted to filling mailboxes in university science departments with news of how Ken Ham is destroying young minds. You wouldn't even have to say anything about Democrats or Republicans -- just making scientists aware of the threat to everything they stand for is enough.
February 06, 2006
Science: More Boring Than You Think
Given my semi-lupine nature, it falls to me to address the issue of human-animal hybrids. (Also, Ezra is a little busy today and tomorrow, so us weekenders will be filling in.) Let me point you to Pharyngula, who explains that human-animal hybrids are a lot more innocuous than they might seem. Putting a couple human genes in mice allows us to generate an animal model of how Down's Syndrome works. These mice aren't the Rats of NIMH or freakish mouse-men plotting to control the global cheese supply -- they're basically ordinary lab mice with Down's Syndrome. Figuring out how the disease works in mice will help us cure it in humans.
The general point to be made here is that science fiction far outruns science, and people shouldn't freak out when they hear astonishing descriptions of scientific discoveries. The media will make science seem more sci-fi than it really is (cloning is another example) to generate exciting stories that sell nicely. On the public's side, there's a large stock of exciting story elements from comic books and movies that guides the popular imagination of real discoveries. This creates a lot of confusion and error.
August 27, 2005
ID: Where Domino Theory Works
A while ago, Matt Yglesias stepped back from his shamefully accommodationist position on Intelligent Design. I was originally confused by his stated reason for doing so -- "At any rate, if ExxonMobil, the American Beverage Association, and their ilk think it's worth lending financial support to this sort of nonsense, I can start to see why pushing back may be important." Why does it matter who's supporting the nonsense anyway? If fighting ID is a bad political strategy, it's a bad political strategy regardless of who's paying TechCentralStation to publish pro-ID nonsense.
Now I think that Matt's list of TechCentralStation corporate contributors does, in fact, lead us to a good reason to fight back against the enemies of evolution. It's essential to demonstrate that the Reality-Based Community has the power to defend public education from right-wing manipulation. If the ID movement is able to show other conservative interest groups that confusing dull-witted school boards with phony research is a successful path to getting their agenda taught in schools, a bunch of other bad folks will follow their example. If a biology textbook includes a little between-the-chapters essay on the dangers of global warming, expect ExxonMobil to fund a front group saying that no such thing is happening. It's probably a bit of a reach for the alcohol and tobacco industries to block health textbooks that make reference to the dangers of their products, but I wouldn't be surprised to see them try. Probably a bigger danger in health textbooks is a load of anti-gay propaganda. Southern school boards will be pressured to purchase history texts saying that slavery wasn't really all that bad. And defenders of genuinely useful sex education will face an even more powerful attack than they do now.
In his excellent attack on domino theory in foreign policy, Robert Farley points out that "Domino theory depends on the notion that commitments are interdependent. If we fail to demonstrate resolve in one area, our enemies will attack us in other areas." I think that's the case with Intelligent Design, though the issue is not one of resolve but of power. If people on the right see that the defenders of well-established science and historical scholarship are politically too weak to block special-interest groups from controlling curricula, they'll see an ID-style attack as a fruitful strategy, and public education will face attacks from all sorts of crazy people. But if the ID people go home hungry and their strategy is proven fruitless, we show our enemies that established scientific opinion is not to be trifled with.
July 14, 2005
Australian computer scientist Tim Lambert is one of the more underrated bloggers I know of. He does a lot of fairly technical work, chasing down statistical mistakes made by sloppy or devious right-wing hack scientists. One of the neatest cases was when he caught some global warming deniers plugging in angle measurements in degrees when their software demanded radians, thereby rendering enormous amounts of their data invalid. It's about a year old, but it's still a neat story to look at if you didn't see it when it came out.
The more amusing story is about how he helped to catch gun control opponent John Lott using "Mary Rosh" and other pseudonyms to promote his fraudulent work over the internet.
January 31, 2005
I had no idea that one man fixing his faucet could so perfectly parallel the evolution/creationism debate!
January 25, 2005
This Word, It Does Not Mean What You Think It Means
PZ Myers is right: if evolution is a religion, religion is no longer a word with a recognizable meaning. That's what's so confusing to me about that rebuttal; do creationists really want to argue that religion is nothing more than a way of explaining certain portions and conditions of reality? I would think they'd want something in there about spirituality or the divine, but in the rush to counter science they seem to be quickly devaluing their own beliefs. Although it is pretty funny to see such absolutists turn to ardent relativists in moments of need...