Your genetic info — not free, easy, or clear


After I wrote in my Atlantic article about getting my serotonin transporter gene assayed (which revealed that I carry that gene’s apparently more plastic short-short form), I started getting a lot of email — several a week — from readers asking how to have their SERT gene tested. This led to an interesting hunt.

It was a hard question to answer. I couldn’t just tell people to do what I did, for a psychiatric researcher/MD I’d known for years, who specializes in depression and serotonin, had done mine as a sort of favor to science and journalism. That researcher also stood by, had I needed it, to offer counseling and more information about the result’s implications — an important point.

Obviously I couldn’t pass that researcher’s name out to several dozen strangers. Yet the readers who wrote wanted the information for the same reason I did: They wanted to know whether they had a genetic variant that by the conventional reading simply increased your risk of depression, but by another reading — the hypothesis explored in my article — conferred a broader sensitivity to experience, which can be a good thing.

As I well knew, this is powerful information. It opens a big box with lots of compartments. Those compartments hold things like the recently raised (but far from settled) question of how solid a connection the S/S variant holds to depression. They hold the question of how a person might interpret the results, and whether they have the emotional, intellectual, and social assets to make the most of the information; as well as the whole pile of broader issues raised by the growing availability of spitomics.

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State taxes inversely related to certain undesirable outcomes

The Tax Foundation recrently ranked the states according to their tax load, with low taxes generating high rankings. My home state of Vermont did not fare well.


Enter my friend David Goodman (
who has written several books with his famous radio-host sister, Amy, and whose wife, Sue Minter, is a Vermont state legislator. David found some notable correlations with these rankings. He used them to create this Interesting Facts sheet for Sue, so she could remind people what taxes do.


Do you ever wonder which states offer the worst education, have the highest school dropout rates, have the most hungry children, and have the unhealthiest citizens? It’s easy to find out: just consult the newest state rankings issued by the conservative Tax Foundation. The states that were ranked tops for their “business tax climate” and had the lowest tax burdens were the places whose citizens were, in the words of Alabama Gov. Bob Riley, “last in everything good and first in everything bad.”

Let’s look at Mississippi, the the state hailed by the Tax Foundation as having the lowest tax burden per capita. Here’s is what else Mississippi is tops in:
States with highest rate of food hardship: #1
Unhealthiest states in America: #1
Child health indicators: 50th
Public school graduation rate: #45

Let’s take Nevada, which is ranked #4 for business tax climate for 2010 by the Tax Foundation. What other categories does Nevda lead the country? Here are a few examples:

Crime rate ranking: #1 (branded “most dangerous state in America”)
Public school graduation rate: #50 (only half of Nevada’s high school students graduate)
States with highest rate of food hardship: #10
Unhealthiest states in America: #4

How about Florida? The Tax Foundation ranks it 5th for Business Tax Climate:
Crime rate ranking: #6
Public school graduation rate: #49
States with highest rate of food hardship: #12
Unhealthiest states in America: #5

And then there’s Vermont, which the Tax Foundation ranks 12th for its tax burden and 41st for its business tax climate
Safest states in America: #2
Smartest State: #1
Overall Child Health Status: #1
Quality of Life (Forbes Magazine): #2
Violent crime: #50

Where would you rather live?



Posted via email from David Dobbs’s Somatic Marker

How does Williams syndrome prevent racism? It’s subtle

Ed Yong, Mo Costandi, Scientific American, and others have covered nicely a new paper finding that people with WIlliams syndrome (a condition I’ve been interested in since writing a long feature about it for the Times Magazine a few years back) show little or no racial bias. But I wanted to add one thought about the finding.

Most of the write-ups have emphasized, rightly, that people with Williams tend to show little or no social fear — a lack that could explain a lack of racial bias. If you don’t fear people, you don’t feel out-groups. Yet as I noted in my article, people with Williams also show a distinct lack of social savvy, and I think this could contribute too:

If a person suffers the small genetic accident that creates Williams syndrome, he’ll live with not only some fairly conventional cognitive deficits, like trouble with space and numbers, but also a strange set of traits that researchers call the Williams social phenotype or, less formally, the “Williams personality”: a love of company and conversation combined, often awkwardly, with a poor understanding of social dynamics and a lack of social inhibition. The combination creates some memorable encounters. Oliver Sacks, the neurologist and author, once watched as a particularly charming 8-year-old Williams girl, who was visiting Sacks at his hotel, took a garrulous detour into a wedding ceremony. “I’m afraid she disrupted the flow of this wedding,” Sacks told me. “She also mistook the bride’s mother for the bride. That was an awkward moment. But it very much pleased the mother.”

So how might this lead to less or no racial bias? Most reactions to the paper have emphasized the lack of social fear that people with Williams. Doubtless that contributes. Yet I wonder if their lack of social savvy, particularly their tendency to miss the meaning behind hints or other veiled statements, whether friendly or hostile. Of you need to end a conversation with someone who happens to have Williams, the old reliable “Well, I should let you go” probably won’t work, because your friend probably won’t perceive this cue’s real signal (“I’d like to be let go now.”). Likewise they’ll miss most veiled threats. “Williamses,” as I put it in the article, “do not generally sniff out the sorts of hidden meanings and intentions that lie behind so much human behavior.” [I used that construction — “Williamses” — because IO was urged to do so by Williamses and their families, who find it friendlier and less distancing than “people with Williams.”]

You can see where this is going. These days, when people express racism, they usually do so via subtle, layered meanings or coded phrases. Not too many come right out and say, “I think ___ people are inferior [or scary, etc.].” They convey it in phrasing that allows some plausible denial, perhaps even to the speaker. Such, for instance, was possibly the case when House Speaker Harry Reid reportedly said Obama could win because he was “light-skinned” and had “no Negro dialect.” (I say possibly because it’s conceivable — though I think unlikely — that Reid was making only a political observation about other people’s racism.) One time my sister, hearing a remark along those lines, advised the speaker, “Excuse me, your cape is showing.”

If such comments communicate racism, they can spread it too. But not to Williamses. Politely assuming straightforward talk, they notice neither the cape nor its ugly history.

Apple as Editorial Overlord

The Columbia Journalismi review speaks plainly about Apple’s insistence on editorial control of its iPad apps:


Look, let’s face it. The iPad is the most exciting opportunity for the media in many years. But if the press is ceding gatekeeper status, even if it’s only nominally, over its speech, then it is making a dangerous mistake. Unless Apple explicitly gives the press complete control over its ability to publish what it sees fit, the news media needs to yank its apps in protest.


Yes, this is that serious. It needs to wrest back control of its speech from Apple Inc.


Genes & temperament; future of twitter etc; & how to sell that book

A few calendar notes: I’ve got a three-day run starting next Sunday in which I’ll be talking to authors and journalists about book proposals; NY science writers about the future of social media; and to genomic geeks about genes and temperament. If you’ve questions you’d like raised at any of these, please shoot me a note in the comments or privately at david.a.dobbs [at]


This Sunday morning, April 25, I’ll be on a panel at the American Society of Journalists and Authors annual conference in New York discussing, along with agents Michelle Brower and Chris Parris-Lamb and GP Putnam editor, Rachel Kahan, what makes for good book proposals. Panel runs from 10:30 to noon in midtown. You must register for the conference to attend.

The next evening, Monday, April 16, I’ll be at the meeting of the Science Writers in New York — what seems an eclectic, quite interesting crowd — to join Dave Mosher and Nancy Shute in talking about what the future of social media holds for medical and science writers. I expect that by the end of the evening, someone in the room will have accurately predicted the future — but we won’t know who. Anyone interested can come. A ripe affair for NY area science and medical writers, and should be a lot of fun.


Finally, the very next morning (barring volcanic ash), I’ll be in Boston at Genes, Environments, Traits or GET, a conference about personal genomics. The conference, organized by Harvard geneticist George Church and colleagues, will gather 10 people who’ve had their entire genomes run, along with another 190 or so interested in personal genomics, to discuss the upsides, downsides, and sometimes wiggly implications of our new ability to garner vast genetic information that meaning of which is not always clear or complete. I’ll be leading an hour-long discussion on “Predicting Temperament” — that is, what genomics can (and can’t) tell us about a person’s (or future person’s) temperament and behavior.

I’ll try to report on some of these later, as time allows. If you’ve questions you want me to raise in any of these, please shoot me a note in the comments or via email at david.a.dobbs [at]

Gleanings from the past week


from The Everett Collection, via Vanity Fair

Notables I didn’t get to. Blog posts, MSM stories, and tweets living together.

Fron the genomics front

NOVA | Ghost in Your Genes | PBS streams some of the Skip Gates program I mentioned in my post last week on the Genomes, Environments, and Traits conference.

What can you learn from a whole genome sequence? : Genetic Future ponders just the Lancet/Quake genome

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Sullivan & Jefferson on blogospheric chaos and the press



A Happy 4th from Andrew Sullivan:

The rise of this type of citizen journalism [i.e., journalism via blogs] has, in my view, increasingly exposed some of the laziness and corruption in the professional version – even as there is still a huge amount to treasure and value in the legacy media, and a huge amount of partisan, mendacious claptrap on the blogs.

But what distinguishes the best of the new media is what could still be recaptured by the old: the mischievous spirit of journalism and free, unfettered inquiry. Journalism has gotten too pompous, too affluent, too self-loving, and too entwined with the establishment of both wings of American politics to be what we need it to be.

We need it to be fearless and obnoxious, out of a conviction that more speech, however much vulgarity and nonsense it creates, is always better than less speech. In America, this is a liberal spirit in the grandest sense of that word – but also a conservative one, since retaining that rebelliousness is tending to an ancient American tradition, from the Founders onward.

And this juicyness as well:

“The most effectual engines for [pacifying a nation] are the public papers… [A despotic] government always [keeps] a kind of standing army of newswriters who, without any regard to truth or to what should be like truth, [invent] and put into the papers whatever might serve the ministers. This suffices with the mass of the people who have no means of distinguishing the false from the true paragraphs of a newspaper,” — Thomas Jefferson to G. K. van Hogendorp, Oct. 13, 1785

photo via The Daily Dish

Ozzy! Ozzy! Ozzy! — Neuron Culture’s Top 5 in June


You just never know what’ll catch fire. Then again, maybe I should have figured “Ozzy Osbourne” and “genome” would have. In any case, Ozzy simply buried every other contender this past month, racking up 7 times as many hits as any other entry ever did in one month — and accounting for two-thirds of June’s unique pageviews altogether. The power of Stumbleupon. A fifth of those readers went on to other pages. So maybe something good came of it.

Without further ado, here are Neuron Culture’s Top 5 from June.

Ozzy Osbourne. Now genomics is getting somewhere. Geneticists hope to figure out how lasted this long despite. If I’d fit Keith Richards into the headline, who knows what would have happened.

Tourette’s, goalie timing, and downside & upsides. A response to a nice post from Jonah Lehrer on the same. Tim Howard takes Ozzy’s superstar role. Genome unknown.

iPad, therefore iKludge. Or how the iPad ignores some of digital media’s greatest assets.

Does Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus undervalue meatspace?

Carr, Pinker, the shallows, and the nature-nurture canard.

I bring to this a bit of history: About a year or 18 months ago, I had several discussions with an editor (at Wired, of all places; this was going to be a sort of anti-Wired piece) about doing a story exploring a more tightly constrained version of Carr’s argument: I would flesh out the notion that consuming digital culture, even just words on the net instead of words on the page, likely wired the brain differently than reading on the page did. I pitched the story because I wondered if that was happening to me; reading on the web felt different; perhaps it affected brain and cognitive development proportionately.

Perhaps things have changed since then, but at the time, we decided against doing the story because in a couple days of surveying literature and making phone calls to people who studied reading from a neuroscientific point of view … well folks, I could not find anyone with data showing such rewiring. 

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Aglitter in the net: reading, writing, genes, and leaving your desk

Reading isn’t just a monkish pursuit: Matthew Battles on “The Shallows” » Nieman Journalism Lab More on Carr’s ideas from “The Shallows”

BoraZ interviews Eric Roston and gets some good ideas about journalism and reporting, past, present and future.

The Cure for Creative Blocks? Leave Your Desk. Or why my move to London is a good work idea.

Razib says what can’t be said too often: Your genes are just the odds

Also worth many reminders: Healthcare: U.S. spends more, but gets less, from the Well

Not again with the sekrit Renaissance brain anatomy! But yes: again. 

I want to see this movie: Metropolis, Enlarged

@PD_Smith’s review of Restless Cities, a collection of urban essays, is a delightful way to start your day.

Tourette’s, goalie timing, and downside & upsides



A few days ago Jonah Lehrer put up a lovely post about stuttering and Tourette’s syndrome. He looks at stuttering, Updike, Kanye  — and a couple papers suggesting that many people with Tourette’s (and by extension, I suppose, perhaps stuttering) develop

a compensatory change … whereby the chronic suppression of tics results in a generalized suppression of reflexive behavior in favor of increased cognitive control.” In other words, the struggle makes us stronger.

Jonah chose his studies well; you should read his (fairly brief) post to see how they that reveal this apparently increased cognitive control, and for the other pleasure the post delivers.

Meanwhile, I was struck — as was one of Jonah’s readers — by how these compensatory mechanisms echoed the upside-to-the-downside dynamics that I looked at in my article on the orchid or sensitivity hypothesis. That hypothesis asserts that certain gene variants that put us at risk for mood or behavioral issues such as depression, ADHD, or antisocial behavior can have upsides if a person’s experience and other assets are favorable. For instance, the heightened sensitivity to social connections that can depress you if you family and social world is hell can help make you especially successful and happy if you’re luckier with family and social environment.

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