Monthly Archives: May 2015

Bad Math

On the way into work today, I was listening to Forum, the KQED Public Radio show hosted by Michael Krasney. Krasney can be insufferable (he’s brilliant, and he really knows it), but he’s a pretty good talk show host. (His limited understanding of science notwithstanding.)

At any rate, today’s guest was Charles Murray, the irresponsibly idiotic libertarian who is most famous for writing “The Bell Curve”.  Murray was on to discuss his new book about the regulatory environment in the United States and his case for civil disobedience as a way to counter it (the book is “By The People”), but he was, of course, asked by callers to defend some of his more inflammatory previous statements. One such statement, “No woman has been a significant original thinker in any of the world’s great philosophical traditions,” he dug right in and defended. Basically, no, women aren’t smart, but they can’t do philosophy, either, based on his definition of what constitutes a significant contribution to philosophy. His exact words: “In philosophy, they’ve all been second-tier.”

Others can deal with that. Me, I’m writing to discuss the OTHER idiotic thing he said and then dug in to defend, namely that there must be a genetic difference in intelligence between people who are above the poverty line compared with those below it.

His argument, as presented this morning:

1. IQ is demonstrably lower in people living below the poverty line compared with people living above it. (True.)

2. IQ is significantly heritable. (True. He gives the figure of 50%, which, though I haven’t looked up the numbers recently, sounds reasonable.) Note to non-geneticists: “heritable” is a stand-in for “the amount of variation in this trait that we think is due to genetic differences. The rest is then due to environmental differences. Like, say, growing up in poverty.

3. If the first two assertions are true (they are), then it follows mathematically that there must be a heritable difference in intelligence between people below the poverty line compared with people above it.

RED ALERT! RED ALERT! CATASTROPHICALLY POOR LOGIC!

Okay, so anybody with half a brain, an open mind, and basic math skills can see why “3” doesn’t follow from “1” and “2”. Let’s say we accept his unstated premise that IQ = intelligence. (Note: we know this is a dangerous thing to accept, given that IQ tests are biased towards particular cultures and types of education.) Even if that assumption is true, if HALF of intelligence is heritable, it does NOT follow that the difference in IQ between impoverished and not-impoverished people is found in that half.

Incidentally, the difference is about 13 IQ points, according to a 2013 Science paper. Since average IQ is set to 100 for all scales (and there are many), that means that poverty can reduce IQ by about 13% on average. Logically, then, ALL of that difference could easily be accounted for by environmental differences, which, by Murray’s own numbers, account for half of the variability in the trait.

What really chaps my ass is that Murray isn’t a dumb guy, nor is he in some way logic-challenged. He KNOWS his numbers are bad, and he presents them as if they are unchallengeable. And Krasney, to my annoyance, tried to challenged the validity of IQ tests instead of the math. The math is the low-hanging fruit, as is Murray’s dishonest approach to presenting it. He actually said, “This isn’t my opinion; it’s just math.”

Yeah, but it’s really BAD math.

Also, there are literally reams of scientific literature on the effects of poverty on the ability to learn (which is what IQ tests actually test). How well can you learn if you haven’t eaten sufficiently in a week, and are always worrying about where your next meal will come from? Or if you have to watch your younger siblings while your mom works her third job at night? Or if you live in a place where urban violence puts you in danger every day, and you’ve already lost several classmates to it? Murray is fond of the pretentious phrase “QED” (Latin, quod erat demonstrandum, usually meant to indicate that a thing has been proven). In this case: it is hard to focus on learning if you don’t eat enough, don’t have time to study, and have to worry you might get shot. You will probably therefore do worse on IQ tests. QED.

The thing is, he knows this. And yet he persists in saying that differences in IQ are due to genetic differences (without evidence), and that, therefore, people in poverty are there because they are less able than people who aren’t in poverty. When there is abundant evidence to the contrary.

Which makes him a bad person. QED.

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42

“Good Morning,” said Deep Thought at last.
“Er..good morning, O Deep Thought” said Loonquawl nervously, “do you have…er, that is…”
“An Answer for you?” interrupted Deep Thought majestically. “Yes, I have.”
The two men shivered with expectancy. Their waiting had not been in vain.
“There really is one?” breathed Phouchg.
“There really is one,” confirmed Deep Thought.
“To Everything? To the great Question of Life, the Universe and everything?”
“Yes.”
Both of the men had been trained for this moment, their lives had been a preparation for it, they had been selected at birth as those who would witness the answer, but even so they found themselves gasping and squirming like excited children.
“And you’re ready to give it to us?” urged Loonsuawl.
“I am.”
“Now?”
“Now,” said Deep Thought.
They both licked their dry lips.
“Though I don’t think,” added Deep Thought. “that you’re going to like it.”
“Doesn’t matter!” said Phouchg. “We must know it! Now!”
“Now?” inquired Deep Thought.
“Yes! Now…”
“All right,” said the computer, and settled into silence again. The two men fidgeted. The tension was unbearable.
“You’re really not going to like it,” observed Deep Thought.
“Tell us!”
“All right,” said Deep Thought. “The Answer to the Great Question…”
“Yes..!”
“Of Life, the Universe and Everything…” said Deep Thought.
“Yes…!”
“Is…” said Deep Thought, and paused.
“Yes…!”
“Is…”
“Yes…!!!…?”
“Forty-two,” said Deep Thought, with infinite majesty and calm.”
― Douglas AdamsThe Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Yesterday it was my birthday. (I hung one more year on the line.) Okay, time to stop quoting for a bit. Yesterday, I turned 42. Which is an age I rather like, since 42 has mystical significance for my people (see above). But, as long as we’re on the subject of Life, the Universe, and Everything:

On Saturday, I was at a retirement barbecue at the home of one of my colleagues. It was a beautiful day, they have a lovely home and gorgeous, drought-tolerant yard. My kids were having a great time, and my husband was kid-wrangling so I could talk to other adults. The subject of my birthday came up, and the lead tech from my department asked me, “So, what do you want for your birthday?”

I thought for a second, and then said, in all honesty, “Nothing. I have everything I want.”

The cool thing is that it’s absolutely true. I have everything I want and need. It’s a great place to be. Sure, I have goals. Tenure, which will probably NOT happen early this week (two committees in favor, one against), but certainly will happen next year. We want to buy a new home in the next year, which will be a slog given the market, but will also happen. Overall, though, I have a great life, and am content. I have a husband I love, who is a great husband and father. I have two awesome children, who are smart and funny and healthy and minimally destructive. I have enough money, and a home that will provide what we need to move into a new one soon. I have colleagues I enjoy working with and the job I always wanted. It is almost summer, and I’m not teaching for the first time in five years.

To quote another of my favorite artists, life’s been good to me (so far).

So, yeah. I do sorta feel like I have The Answer. How was your weekend?

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Book Review: “Transhuman”, by Ben Bova

Today it’s back to basics – in the sense that this blog started as a way for me to recommend books to friends who like to read the same sorts of things that I do, but it quickly diverged from that. But today I want to discuss the last novel I read: “Transhuman”, by Ben Bova.

THERE WILL BE SPOILERS BELOW. Consider yourself warned.

I have read other novels by Bova, most notably for today’s review “Brothers”, which is also about the quest for scientifically-induced immortality. I am not a huge fan, but have enjoyed his novels and never had any major issues with one. Until now.

The plot of “Transhuman” is this: The main character, Luke Abramson, is a brilliant “cellular” biologist (first red flag there) whose 10-year-old granddaughter, Angela, has been diagnosed with a rare and incurable form of brain cancer. She is going to die, and soon – except that Luke thinks he can cure her. The cure: he’s going to give her telomerase inhibitors.

Sidebar for the non-biologists in the mix: Telomeres are the sequences at the very ends of chromosomes, which, for reasons that aren’t important here, get shorter every time a cell replicates its DNA and divides. This leads to gradual shortening of the chromosomes, and it one of the ways in which cells are limited in how many times they can replicate before exiting the cell cycle (a process called “senescence”). Telomerase is a cellular enzyme that extends the lengths of telomeres, and which tends to be present at low levels in cells that aren’t supposed to be dividing (most cells most of the time), and at high levels in cells that are (for example, stem cells that renew tissues like the skin and the lining of the gut). Cancer cells also tend to (inappropriately) express high levels of telomerase, and this is one of the factors that makes them immortal.

Telomerase inhibitors are a reasonable approach to cancer treatment. So reasonable, in fact, that it’s been tried. More than once. That second article is 12 years old, and this novel is one year old. So the idea was already a decade old or more by the time Bova wrote his novel – in the year 2014, the year in which the novel is set, this would not be a brilliant idea that no one had ever tried before. We’ve tried it…a lot. This is one of several problems that come down to the same thing: it feels like Bova didn’t do his homework when writing this novel.

The story proceeds – Luke kidnaps his granddaughter from imminent hospice care to give her his treatment, accompanied by her oncologist, and takes her on a cross-country trip, fleeing from the FBI and the clutches of a powerful multinational biotechnology company who wants his work for their very own. He soon finds that he’s too old to successfully evade capture, and decides to try his other pet telomerase theory: if you could turn ON telomerase in your cells, you could reverse the process of aging.

Another sidebar: one of the hypotheses about what causes aging involves senescence, the process I mentioned above, whereby cells are leaving the cell cycle. Aged tissues have far more senescent cells than young tissues, and there’s some data from mice that inhibiting senescence does slow down aging. Again, none of this is recent information, though.

This is where the science begins to leave the rails: you might be able to PREVENT aging with telomerase, but you almost certainly couldn’t reverse it. I suppose you could hypothesize that you’re replacing senescent cells with new ones from cells that are now dividing. My problem with that explanation is twofold: first, telomerase activity wouldn’t drive cells to divide more, which is what you’d need to replace senescent cells. It would just allow the ones that were still dividing to do so longer – prevention, not cure. Second, the data that actually exist don’t back up this idea.

Also, as I alluded to above, telomeres are ONE method cells use to determine cellular age. One of at least three I’m aware of. Here’s another. Telomeres aren’t the be-all and end-all of aging.

Unsurprisingly (this being a science fiction novel), the cancer treatment works. Angela’s tumors disappear. Unfortunately, she develops progeria (premature aging), which was a predictable side-effect, but, of course, Luke has a plan to fix that (see above). And, as long as he’s at it, he and another “cellular” biologist friend (former student, in fact) are going to fix another of Angela’s problems for her. It seems she carries only one copy of the p53 gene, which, of course, is why she has cancer in the first place. Luke explains that, due to this mutation in p53, her immune system can’t destroy cancer cells like a normal person’s would, and that’s why she has cancer in the first place.

Jeez, where to start? Okay, p53. The p53 protein is very important in cancer development, as the protein itself regulates a LOT of processes that are necessary for cellular monitoring and control of incipient cancer. It is involved in DNA repair, cell-cycle arrest, senescence, programmed cell death…and, yes, immune function. Both copies of p53 are mutated in something like half of all cancers. The function of p53 is central to cancer prevention.

However, we KNOW what happens when you’re born with only one functional copy of p53, as Angela is described in the novel. The disorder that results is, yes, a cancer-predisposition disease. Specifically, Li-Fraumeni Syndrome (LFS), which is well-known, and if Bova had been doing his homework, he should have mentioned it. By name. Yes, a small percentage of people with LFS get childhood brain tumors. But the usual presentation is early-adulthood tumors, most often breast cancer. Also, the clinical presentation, as with pretty much all inherited “cancer mutations,” is dominant – she inherited the mutation from a parent, who would ALSO have the disorder. Unless it’s a new mutation. Which isn’t uncommon in this disorder. My problem is that if you’re going to be this specific about your science, you need to do your homework, and not to mention all of this while going on repeatedly about p53 mutation is sloppy work.

Finally, they apparently just flip a new copy of p53 into Angela’s genome. In a world where this would be possible, wouldn’t you think they could target their telomerase inhibitors to the tumors, and not give the child progeria?

Yes, this is a rant. Each of the above problems, by itself, I would overlook. But when a writer is specific enough about extant science to mention two proteins by name (p53 and telomerase), they should also know that: the “miracle treatment” they’re hypothesizing has been tested already, that you’d probably want to target your telomerase inhibitors, and if you could do a whole-body transformation of a human to get p53 into her cells, you could probably target your inhibitors to the brain tumors, and that the specific, inherited, cancer-causing mutation you’ve given to one of your characters is already known and has known consequences. You can’t both use the real science AND ignore the real science.

Successful science-fiction novels are either much more specific, or much more vague.

Okay, rant over. I don’t recommend this one, obviously.

ETA: Oh, forgot to mention: “cellular” biologist is a red flag because nobody calls themselves a “cellular” biologist anymore. “Cell biologist”, and “cell biology”, please.

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