The Limits of Lawyers, Murderers, Maggots, and Brain Scans

Anne Fausto-Sterling is killing it lately on the brain and gene beat. She does so again here with On Maggots and Brain Scans

What do brain images really tell us? What critical questions can a layperson ask to avoid being sucked into a brain vortex or wowed by new words such as “connectome”? Can we really link specific brain structures to particular behaviors? Or do these fascinating new finds get a critical pass because they feed into ingrained preconceptions about biology as a root cause of all things evil or inevitable?

Oddly, I want to begin answering these questions by considering an important new study of fruit fly larvae.

And then comes much goodness — fruit flies, murderers, lawyers, other strange creatures — before the take-home:

Biologists are great. I love ’em. Some of my best friends are. . . . But we cannot properly use a science of behavior to make critical decisions about justice and human potential without also calling on the wisdom and insights of philosophers, historians, theologians, artists, sociologists, and many others.

Get the rest at Of Maggots and Brain Scans | Boston Review. Save that link for every tine you read anything that tells you brain scans or genetic tests regarding behavior are safe to use in court cases. They too easily convince beyond the evidence they contain.

How Mashable Aced the Malaysian Air Story

I’ve said this before, but it’s nice to see it made particular: In calamity is opportunity, and this is true even in the tormented world that journalism world has been the past decade or so. Nieman Lab’s Joseph Lictherman reports on Mashable’s amazing move to serious coverage:

Within minutes of the first reports that a Malaysia Airlines plane had crashed over eastern Ukraine Thursday, Mashable had live coverage up and running. Its real-time news staff in New York was updating the post with videos from the scene and carefully sourced information culled from social media and other outlets; its own social accounts, including its meant-for-breaking-news @MashableLive, were busy pushing out information.

Meanwhile in Ukraine, Christopher J. Miller, a Mashable contributor, was working his sources and providing information to the main Mashable story while also writing his own piece as further developments unfolded. Miller and two editors in New York also cowrote a story highlighting leaked audio from an alleged conversation between pro-Russian rebels and Russian security forces discussing the plane. The breaking news story has been shared more than 30,000 times; Mashable’s continued updating its coverage, including dispatches from Miller filed from the crash site.

For those who remember the site’s early days — when it was a tech blog covering Web 2.0 startups — the idea of a Mashable correspondent reporting from eastern Ukraine is probably still a bit disorienting. But covering big breaking news this way has quickly become the norm for Mashable — the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, the recent World Cup finalEmmy nominations, and, of course, virtually every major technology announcement.

Get the rest of this smart write-up at Nieman:  From Grumpy Cat to Ukraine: How Mashable is expanding beyond gadgets and apps » Nieman Journalism Lab

Huge Study Throws Tiny Bit More Light on Schizophrenia

An unprecedently large genetic study of schizophrenia has linked a bunch of new genes to this confusing ailment. This’ll take years, decades maybe, to sort out, partly because if you repeated the study with a different set 36,989 people, you might find quite different set of 80 genes associated.

NIMH director Tom Insel says this and a similar finding about autism “place these disorders squarely in the field of complex genetic disorders, in which scores or hundreds of variants, both common and rare, contribute to risk.”

John Williams, the head of neurocience and mental lhealth for the Wellcome Trust, says this study reminds us that psychiatric genetics is still feeling its way around in the dark..

What this research screams to me is how little we know about schizophrenia, and how far we are from biological tests and treatments for mental health disorders compared to other major diseases. We now know there are 128 different genes spread across the genome, some with stronger effects than others, with not every gene present in every schizophrenia patient. The number of possible gene combinations is a complicated enough tangle of causation and background noise to understand – but genetics is not the only factor we need to take into account. It is well established that there are multiple environmental and social causes of mental illness, demonstrated by countless studies. Socio-economic status, stress levels, family environment and drug abuse have all been shown to be important triggers.… Any one patient might have one of thousands of possible combination of genes which leads to greater susceptibility to the illness, plus a handful of environmental risk factors.
What is clear is that the answer to schizophrenia and all mental health illnesses…will not be found in genetic analysis alone.

Talking Genetics and Writing with David Goodman

My journalist friend and colleague David Goodman had me on his radio show “The Vermont Conversation” this past Wednesday, over at WDEV’s fine studios in Waterbury, Vermont, and we spent a few minutes discussing writing about science; my review of Nicholas Wade’s A Troublesome Inheritance; depression and neurology; and my mother’s lover.

My segment starts shortly after the 2-minute mark and runs to about minute 29. Enjoy.

Thinking globally: Journalist David Dobbs, 7-16-14.

How the Tobacco Industry Shaped the Science of Stress

Screenshot 2014-07-16 17.23.06

The modern idea of stress began on a rooftop in Canada, with a handful of rats freezing in the winter wind. This was 1936 and by that point the owner of the rats, an endocrinologist named Hans Selye, had become expert at making rats suffer for science.…

What was interesting to Selye was that no matter how different the tortures he devised for the rats were — from icy winds to painful injections — when he cut them open to examine their guts it appeared that the physical effects of his different tortures were always the same.

So opens a remarkable story by Alix Spiegel about the science of stress. The work of Hans Selye — truly a monumental stack compiled during the middle third of the 20th century — remains foundational in stress studies. But as Spiegel relates, this work also shows how readily science gets infused with other cultural forces of its time. In this case, Selye’s stress work ended up shaped, weirdly enough, by both the tobacco industry, which funded a lot of Selye’s work, and the psychological concept of the Type A personality.

How so? The tobacco industry managed to exploit the idea of the Type A personality in two ways: first, by blaming Type-A personality stress for heart disease and cancer that was actually caused by cigarettes; and second (you have to almost admire this judolike maneuver) by recommending cigarettes as a way to ease that stress. Cigarettes thus became not only a cure for what supposedly ailed the Type A man — but a status symbol of the drive that would make him successful. And Selye was complicit; he let the industry vet some of his papers.

Get the full juice from Spiegel, who’s one of the best, and in fine form here.

via The Secret History Behind The Science Of Stress : Shots – Health News : NPR.

RIP Charlie Haden

Young Charles Haden

Young Charles Haden

“No one wants to be remembered most for what they did at 22.” But if at that tender age you get the chance to change musical history with the Ornette Coleman Band, take it. Charlie Haden, who died this week at 76, did. Here’s David A. Graham on one of jazz’s most deeply musical and melodic bass players:

His playing isn’t elaborately virtuosic, in the style of a Paul Chambers; and it isn’t irresistibly swinging, like Ray Brown. Like a country or blues bassist, Haden often stayed close to the root note of each chord. In Coleman’s band, for example, there was no piano player—just the leader’s saxophone, Don Cherry’s trumpet, Billy Higgins’s drums, and Haden’s bass. Without the crutch of a keyboard, Haden anchors the band.

Listen to him do this on Coleman’s cacophonous but melodic “Lonely Woman.”, an immensely influential piece and one of the era’s most haunting. And, later, the resonance of his exquisite work with guitarist Antonio Forcione, one of several duet albums he did late in his long career in which he played with unparalleled intimacy. Read the Graham tribute. (Johnny Cash shows up late.) The Times obit is also good.

And here he is with his Quartet West:

Ed note: This goodbye to Haden is also included as one of the three reading snippets in today’s edition of my new, more-or-less-daily email newsletter, Read Two of These and Call Me in the Morning — 2 or 3 short snips-and-links from my recent reading. You can subscribe here.

Michael Eisen on Wade’s Leaps of Logic

As my own review of Nicholas Wade’s book suggested, his treatment of genetics has many deep and fundamental problems. And as my blog post noted, many others have called some of those out. I want to call out here a particularly clean such account, which came from evolutionary biologist Michael Eisen a few weeks ago. He cuts right to the nut of one of Wade’s most central and dangerous errors:

It turns out to be far easier to demonstrate that there has been a fair amount of recent natural selection acting on the human population, than it is to pinpoint specific examples, or to rigorously evaluate specific hypotheses. The reason is that different types of evolution (drift, positive selection, purifying selection) leave different fingerprints in the genome, and we can use these to estimate how prevalent each of these forces has been in human history, and, to a lesser extent, identify regions of the genome that have been subject to certain types of selection.

But the effect of specific examples of selection are almost always weak – especially the kinds of transient selection affecting relatively small groups of people on which Wade hangs his speculation. Furthermore, while natural selection leaves a signal behind in the genome, the signal is primarily that it happened – it’s much more difficult to precisely identify what was being selected, let alone why or how.

Knowing that natural selection has occurred, in some cases recently, but being unable to be more specific leaves a huge void – and it is into this void that Wade has inserted himself.

And a bit later:

In making the leap from the broad to the specific – from signature of natural selection in the human genome to explanations of the industrial revolution, Jewish Nobel Prizes and political turmoil in Africa and the Middle East – Wade tries to paint himself as a courageous scholar, going places with modern evolutionary biology that scientists WILL not go. But the truth is that scientists don’t go there, not because we are afraid to, but because we CAN’T. The data we have before us simply do not allow us to reconstruct human evolutionary history in this way.

from Michael Eisen’s On Nicholas Wade and the blurring of boundaries between science and fantasy, which I urge you to read whole.

Whites Win, Because Genes. My Times review of “A Troublesome Inheritance”

Today the New York Times Book Review published its advance online version of my review of Nicholas Wade’s A Troublesome Inheritance. (It will appear in print this Sunday.) Others have already reviewed this book elsewhere, with particularly sharp takes coming from Jennifer Raff, Eric Johnson, Michael EisenH. Allen OrrJerry Coyne, and, also at the Times, Arthur Allen. You’ll find a fuller listing within Daniel Lende’s review at NeuroAnthropology; and another, with many favorable reviews, and ad hominem attacks and annotations I largely disagree with accompanying critical reviews, at Occam’s Razor.)

I’m afraid my own review is not exactly glowing. Given how hard it is to write a book, I generally don’t review books I dislike — unless I think they’re dangerous, laughably bad, or abusive of a position of authority. There’s nothing laughable about this one. Wade demonstrates how a lucid, well-written, selective presentation of evidence — eloquent, elegant cherry-picking — can sell smart people pernicious ideas that seem scientific, but which science does not support. Much of the sleight of hand in this book will not be evident to people who don’t know the field. In some cases one has to read a specific paper cited by Wade to recognize that he thoroughly misrepresents its findings.

There are other sleights of hand as well. From my review:

Wade … indulges in circular logic. He tells just-so stories. While warning us to avoid filtering science through politics, he draws heavily from conservative historians who minimize the roles played by political power, geographic advantage, momentum, disease and dumb luck. Conveniently, this leaves more historical questions for genetics to answer.

And despite his protests to the contrary, Wade often sounds as if he sees the rise of the West as a sort of stable endpoint of human history and evolution — as if, having considered 5,000 years in which history has successively blessed the Middle East, the Far East, and the Ottoman Empire, he observes the West’s current run of glory and thinks the pendulum has stilled.

If Wade could point to genes that give races distinctive social behaviors, we might overlook such shortcomings. But he cannot.

Something I lacked room to explore in the NYTBR review was Wade’s dismissal of culture. He repeatedly overlooks or ignores that culture provides a way through which societies can create and pass on values or behaviors. This dismissal is necessary, of course, for his argument that genetic differences create different social behaviors in “the three major races.” (These, per Wade, are Caucasians, East Asians, and sub-Saharan Africans; he more or less dismisses Austronesians and Native Americans from the race race.) He argues Caucasians are more trusting and cooperative, for instance, because genetic selection has made them so. But because he can’t plausibly point to specific trust-and-cooperation genes that were selected for, he ends up arguing that these group’s differences in social behavior must be genetic, or they would not be so persistent.

This, of course, is not just a just-so story but a tautology. It also ignores a wealth of findings showing that culture provides a powerful and flexible way for behaviors to evolve and pass on. In fact, transferring values, behaviors, and practices is culture’s entire purpose. Clearly genes give us the general power to create culture; we get that power from genes that create brains that help us make tools, form concepts, remember, and communicate. Those genes we all share. But there’s no evidence of genetic differences of the sort Wade insists upon, the sort that create race-specific differences in social behavior.

Wade asks an awful lot. He asks us to accept his premises as facts. He asks that we accept what he describes as the plausible and the possible as the most probable — and then to accept that what he describes as the most probable is an inconvenient truth we must face.

Finally, he asks us to accept that a causal link explains a (purported) association between two (highly questionable) assertions — namely, that Caucasians are more fit for modern life because Caucasians have distinctive genetic make-ups selected to do so. In asserting this link he is asking us to set aside one of science’s most fundamental tenets. This is the null hypothesis — the principle that we should not assert a causal relationship between two phenomena unless there’s hard evidence for doing so. Wade has no such evidence for his assertions. Yet he asks repeatedly that we set aside the null hypothesis and indulge him.

And why? To speak of three genetic races, one more fit than the others, instead of a world of ever-changing overlapping genetic populations. To see humanity in three colors, divided, instead of in its rich and continuous spectrum.

Which is why I find this a “deeply flawed, deceptive and dangerous book.”

Note: I’m grateful to several anonymous readers who vetted drafts of my New York Times Book Review review, and to the fine editors and fact-checkers at that publication.

Can Bergdahl’s statements in therapy be used against him?

That’s what this story from the LA Times appears to say. If that’s true, seems something is amiss. Surely a POW being debriefed has some a right to confidential psychotherapy? If anyone knows (really knows, not guesses), kindly comment below or write me at Would be grateful for clarification to know this.

Under investigation for possible desertion, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl has been warned that incriminating statements he makes as he undergoes treatment after nearly five years in Taliban captivity could be used to prosecute him, Army officials said Wednesday.

via Bergdahl is warned his statements could be used in his prosecution - Los Angeles Times.

War-Torn: CBS Reporter Cami McCormick’s Latest Story About Combat and Its Aftermath is Her Own | People & Politics | Washingtonian

Usually it’s a reporter writing about a wounded soldier. This time, in the Washingtonian, Iraq-war veteran-turned-writer Alex Horton writes about a fearsome injury that CBS Radio reporter Cami McCormick suffered while covering the war in Afghanistan. A superb piece. Please go read it.

McCormick arrived at Walter Reed the same way most of the soldiers did, in a frantic journey that began August 28, 2009, in Afghanistan’s Logar Province, a sparsely populated region near the Pakistan border veined with marijuana fields and steep valley walls that make it perfect territory for ambushes.

That day, a week after Afghanistan’s first round of voting for president, McCormick was riding with the 10th Mountain Division in the Charkh District. She was offered a spot in one of two vehicles: a 14-ton MRAP, an armored vehicle that looks like a giant safe on wheels, or a smaller Armored Security Vehicle (ASV). “Which one is safer?” she asked the convoy’s commander.

“Well, it depends on which one gets hit, doesn’t it?” he deadpanned. McCormick had never ridden in an ASV, so she jumped in.

The explosion that came a short time later corkscrewed the 29,000-pound vehicle off the ground. The force of its landing popped all four tires.

vWar-Torn: CBS Reporter Cami McCormick’s Latest Story About Combat and Its Aftermath is Her Own | People & Politics | Washingtonian.