Archive for August, 2011


Whither Eugenics

Reuben Hayat posted this 2005 PBS documentary focused around James Watson’s views of genetics and eugenics at his blog Jewamongyou:

If you have an hour of free time, I’d recommend watching it.  As Reuben points out, the narrator of the documentary does not seem especially sanguine about Watson’s views, but in many ways this is meant to balance against Watson, who is given quite a bit of time to speak his mind without much direct criticism of his views.  In light of the views presented in this PBS production, it’s easy to see why Watson’s statements to The Sunday Times caused such a furor, essentially ending Watson’s career.

Watson’s philosophy is essentially a form of eugenics which is focused on the choices available to parents.  He believes that parents should be able to make informed decisions regarding the genetics of their offspring.  For instance, as a simple case, there is a current practice of screening fetus for Down Syndrome.  Given a positive result, the parents would have the choice of aborting the fetus, which happens in the majority of positive screenings.  Watson approves of this, as do I, against the views of the pro-life movement, which can be embodied in Sarah Palin and her son Trig.

Other opponents include those who have already had a child with Down Syndrome and one such family was featured in the film.  While I sympathize with this family and understand their love for their son in spite of the difficulties, I like Watson think that not only should they have had the option to terminate the pregnancy, but that they should have sought to end it if they had screened for Down Syndrome and the test had come up positive.  A child with Down Syndrome can never achieve what a fully functional human can and in essence, when such a child does what would be considered ordinary for other children of his age, it is considered extraordinary.

The father expresses this feeling in a positive light, but the end effect is a child that will never grow up to be an autonomous adult as well as a robbing of resources from the other children of the family, including the prevention of future children.  While the families of children who suffer from this disorder love them deeply, the harsh truth is that they are mostly a burden that makes a family worse off, not to mention the difficulties that the child himself would face compared to a healthy child, one that would be made possible should a family decide to end a Down Syndrome pregnancy.

The program moves toward more controversial and difficult to answer questions when it broaches mental illnesses, with the chosen example being bipolar disorder, which has a significantly heritable component.  Kay Jamison is brought on as a counterweight to Watson’s views.  To my mind, Watson’s answer of leaving it to the discretion of the parents is the best answer.  Parents who are at risk for having children with bipolar disorder are likely to have had relatives with the same disorder and are probably in the best position to determine whether or not they are willing to let their children live with it.

Given that Watson’s views on this topic are outside of the mainstream and that he has already made an enemy of many because of his candor, it’s easy to see why his comments concerning the intelligence of sub-Saharan Africans was a bridge too far.  Not only did it question the notion of equality between the races that has become central to American civic religion since the civil rights movement, when coupled with his views on eugenics, it’s easy to see a stir of fear forming in the minds of those familiar with his point of view.  One can see him attempting to allay that fear in the editorial he wrote in the Independent shortly after his statements caught fire in the media:

Rarely more so than right now, where I find myself at the centre of a storm of criticism. I can understand much of this reaction. For if I said what I was quoted as saying, then I can only admit that I am bewildered by it. To those who have drawn the inference from my words that Africa, as a continent, is somehow genetically inferior, I can only apologise unreservedly. That is not what I meant. More importantly from my point of view, there is no scientific basis for such a belief.

Because it was not a repudiation of his earlier comments, it was not enough to soothe the mob and he was stripped of his post as chairman of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory as a result.

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Sheril Kirchenbaum at her new blog Culture of Science has a post featuring three bar graphs depicting the correct response rate of males and females to three questions on simple scientific topics.  The data (which can be found in Table 7-4 of the National Science Foundation’s Science and Engineering Indicators) shown here comes from the 2008 version (the survey was also conducted in 2001, 2004, and 2006) of a survey done four times over the last four years asking men and women ten questions of scientific relevance, six in the physical sciences and four in the biological sciences.

Physical Science

Respondents were asked six questions regarding the physical sciences.  Five were true or false and the sixth was actually a complex of two questions in which respondents were asked the second question if they answered the first correctly.  Here are the questions with the answers in parentheses

  1. The center of the Earth is very hot. (True)
  2. All radioactivity is man-made. (False)
  3. Lasers work by focusing sound waves. (False)
  4. Electrons are smaller than atoms. (True)
  5. The continents have been moving their location for millions of years and will continue to move. (True)
  6. Does the Earth go around the Sun, or does the Sun go around the Earth? (Earth around Sun)
    How long does it take for the Earth to go around the Sun? (One year)

Here are the percentage of correct responses:

As is pretty clear from the chart, the men noticeably outperformed the women on all four questions.  As will be seen, the results for the biological science questions are more complicated. Continue reading

Commenter M.G. Miles posted a link to a map she made showing 2006 GDP per capita in the Eurozone (plus Switzerland and the UK) at the largest subnational level.

Since she offered it up for comparison, I thought I’d show the GDP per capita and PISA maps side by side for both Spain and Italy:

I must say, it is an interesting comparison.  While there is a clear correlation between the test scores and the economic indicator, there are definitely exceptions and outliers.  Furthermore, many of the outlier provinces have interesting characteristics that could act as confounding factors. Continue reading