Monday, 29 April 2013

The Victorians were cleverer than us!

We keep hearing that people are getting brighter, at least as measured by IQ tests. This improvement, called the Flynn Effect, suggests that each generation is brighter than the previous one. This might be due to improved living standards as reflected in better food, better health services, better schools and perhaps, according to some, because of the influence of the internet and computer games. In fact, these improvements in intelligence seem to have been going on for almost a century, and even extend to babies not in school. If this apparent improvement in intelligence is real we should all be much, much brighter than the Victorians.

Although IQ tests are good at picking out the brightest, they are not so good at providing a benchmark of performance. They can show you how you perform relative to people of your age, but because of cultural changes relating to the sorts of problems we have to solve, they are not designed to compare you across different decades with say, your grandparents.

Is there no way to measure changes in intelligence over time on some absolute scale using an instrument that does not change its properties? In the Special Issue on the Flynn Effect of the journal Intelligence Drs Michael Woodley (UK), Jan te Nijenhuis (the Netherlands) and Raegan Murphy (Ireland) have taken a novel approach in answering this question. It has long been known that simple reaction time is faster in brighter people. Reaction times are a reasonable predictor of general intelligence. These researchers have looked back at average reaction times since 1889 and their findings, based on a meta-analysis of 14 studies, are very sobering.

It seems that, far from speeding up, we are slowing down. We now take longer to solve this very simple reaction time “problem”.  This straightforward benchmark suggests that we are getting duller, not brighter. The loss is equivalent to about 14 IQ points since Victorian times.

So, we are duller than the Victorians on this unchanging measure of intelligence. Although our living standards have improved, our minds apparently have not. What has gone wrong?

You can get more details from Dr Michael Woodley (

I will post more about this work, but a good start is to look at my previous post "Can I have a reaction?"

Are rich Americans bright?

 How bright are the elites in that home of opportunity and unbridled capitalism, the US of A?

It is a commonplace for the wealthy to say that they have worked for their money, and equally common for poorer citizens to doubt that hard work had anything to do with it. So it is interesting to look at those who rise to the top in terms of wealth and power and see what they have in common, and how, if at all, that differs from poorer and less influential citizens.

Jonathan Wai, who is becoming known for interesting intelligence research, has done a study (Jonathan Wai (2013) Investigating America's elite: Cognitive ability, education, and sex differences Intelligence, 41, 4, July–August 2013, pp 203–211) which seems obvious in retrospect, but which has not been done before, to check out whether IQ contributes to elite status. He studied the educational backgrounds of Senators, Congressmen, top Judges, the top 500 CEOs, and billionaires, and then looked up the entrance requirements of the colleges they attended, thus getting good estimates of their intelligence.

This might seem an error-prone procedure, but there are some intriguing validity checks which emerge from the findings. The brightest billionaires (top 1% of ability) went into investments and technology, the less able went into fashion, retail, food and beverage. Even among billionaires you can find stratification by intellect. And for those impecunious readers who are muttering to themselves that they are willing to become a billionaire even by selling sandwiches, the brightest billionaires had 6.04 billion whilst the duller ones were making do with $3.36 billion. Oh, the ignominy of finding one’s superyacht overshadowed by a larger one in Monaco. Overall, higher wealth is positively associated with higher ability and education level.

So, the American elite are intelligent and well educated. Women were in the minority, and those who reached the top 500 positions had to be brighter than male CEO’s to get there. Elite Democrats are brighter than Elite Republicans. Most billionaires did not flunk out of college, Bill Gates notwithstanding. To my eye there is some evidence in this study to support the popular notion that after living convivially through their college years together, Conservatives go off to make lots of money, paying just enough taxes to ensure that their Liberal college friends end up as Judges.

Of course, there are other bright people in America, working as journalists, film makers, computer hackers, fraudsters, researchers and even possibly as university teachers. Not all the 3 sigmas want to be in the public eye. Many lurk on obscure websites under pseudonyms, and who can blame them, particularly when one cannot trace them.

So, whatever you may think of American foreign policy, the behaviour of the Federal Reserve, the size of the US national debt and the future of the debased dollar, the American elite is composed of the brightest and the best.

The world is ruled by a mere fraction of wisdom.

Friday, 26 April 2013

Hereditarians gaining ground

There have long been strong grounds for acknowledging a substantial genetic contribution to intelligence. At heart the argument is simple: there is a correlation between relatedness and intelligence, strongly discernible between identical twins, less so between fraternal twins and parents and children, though still significant. And thereby hangs the problem: there is a correlation, but correlations are slippery things, explicable in different ways. Families share genetics, but also experiences, so the contributions of each can be hard to disentangle.  Separated twin studies and adoption studies can help attribute the source of variance, but not to the satisfaction of environmentalists.

In this football match it is Hereditarians versus Environmentalists. The hardline Hereditarians say that intelligence is 80% genetic in countries with good standards of living, and 50% genetic in poor countries. Hardline Environmentalists (Richard Nisbett) say that intelligence is 100% due to the environment. Those Environmentalists who are less hardline would say that there may be some genetic effects, but that they are small. Of course, variance estimates depend on the samples, the measures and the circumstances, but a general pattern has emerged, and the debate is about how to interpret that pattern.

Science depends on proofs, so 15 years ago a number of researchers led by Bob Plomin set out to find the genes for intelligence. They argued that they had got to be there, somewhere. Their strategy was to collect DNA from very bright people, and compare the pattern with the DNA extracted from average people. Nothing showed up. The problem is that there are no genes for intelligence, any more than you would expect to find genes for romantic poetry. The behaviours we regard as intelligent involve the whole brain. Roughly half the human genome is expressed in brain. In all likelihood there are very many genes which each have only a tiny effect and the end result is intelligent behaviour to varying degrees. Those tiny effect genes are scattered among many others, and thus have proved almost impossible to find.

Warning: what follows a gross simplification. The full paper can be obtained here:

In those early days genetic analysis was a cumbersome, expensive and slow business. Cracking the first human genome took 10 years, lots of money, and many whirring, shaking, humming machines, where serried ranks of automated pipettes moved with hypnotic regularity through multiple samples. Now the analysis can be done by a chip the size of a postage stamp (the Affymetrix 6.0 DNA array) and you get lots of additional data. It can hunt for minute signals in a wall of genetic sound, and given bigger samples it should one day get an even stronger signal, and thus identify many of the genetic variants that influence cognitive abilities.

This new approach, genome-wide complex-trait analysis (GCTA), does not try to identify individual genes but instead estimates the total heritability captured by common DNA markers across an entire population sample. Using 3,154 pairs of 12-year-old twins they worked out estimates on the basis of 1.7 million DNA markers. The DNA markers tagged by the array accounted for .66 of the estimated heritability, reaffirming that cognitive abilities are heritable. There is still one third of the estimated heritability to be identified, but that may be achievable soon, once newer analytic chips can identify rare variants which are being missed at the moment.

This study is part of a pattern, with other teams showing there are many genes involved, each having small effects. Ian Deary’s group has achieved results of comparable magnitude, by related methods on a different population. No individual study will be sufficient but in Plomin’s view this technique might also mark “the beginning of the end of the nature-nurture controversy because it is much more difficult to dispute DNA-based evidence for genetic influence than it is to question the results of twin and adoption studies”.

So, the Hereditarians have taken a step forward. Their explanations about the genetics of intelligence can now be grounded in patterns of DNA. There is much more to be done, but the next few years should be interesting, probably even astounding.

Thursday, 25 April 2013

James Watson, Nobel Laureate and UnPerson

It is every researcher’s dream to publish a paper which changes their discipline. Few papers achieve that. It is even less common to publish a paper which changes the world. 
Today is the 60th anniversary of the publication of a short communication to Nature entitled “Molecular structure of nucleic acids” by Francis Crick and James Watson from the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, England.  Maurice Wilkins from King’s College London also published complementary observations in the same issue. The latter was a quiet and modest man I enjoyed meeting many years later, when I was chairing a research group on cancer following nuclear weapons tests. All three shared the Nobel Prize.

The Crick and Watson paper heralded a change in our understanding of evolution. As a result, we had more of an idea about how the code was structured. It took 50 years to lay out the book of the code of one human being in the Human Genome Project that Watson helped set up in 1990. It has taken another 10 years to get started on reading the book. The genetic age has barely begun. At the moment we are in the grip of Moore’s Law as it applies to the computing power of genetic chips, and we are just about getting the analytic power needed to move from the first stage of obtaining coded intercepts, to the second stage of deciphering some of their meaning to the final stage, which is to take thousands of those meaningful messages so that we can make sense of the vast biological forces deployed across oceans and continents for millennia.

Both Crick and Wilkins are dead, so James Watson is the last survivor, our greatest living biological scientist. Today should be a time of celebration of his achievements and commemoration of what his intellect contributed to our understanding. However, in a travesty worthy of Stalinism, Watson has become an Un-person. His treatment has been so horrible that it has given rise to a new phrase: “being Watson’ed” which means that you are trashed, your name blackened, your career and social standing destroyed. 

At this stage you may be wondering how many young children he molested, or whether he devoted his subsequent life to developing nerve gasses. No, there was nothing like that. His modern day crime was to give his opinion, as the father of modern genetics, that genetics were involved in racial differences in ability and behaviour.

Possibly, at this juncture, you might want to turn elsewhere, alarmed that by a process of contagion you might be risking drawing opprobrium upon yourself. Leave now, before you have to explain to inquisitors why you have dallied here. Outside totalitarian regimes, the last scientist of comparable stature to be treated this way was Galileo Galilei. Some regimes always want to put the best thinkers under house arrest.

In October  2007, Watson was compelled to retire as chancellor of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory after he had been quoted in The Times the previous week as saying "[I am] inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa [because] all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours—whereas all the testing says not really."

In the most recent battles over the intelligence of Sub-Saharan Africans between researchers with strongly differing views,  Richard Lynn (whose work Watson was probably quoting) estimated their IQ at 70 (later raised on more recent data to 73) while Jelte Wicherts estimated their IQ at 78 to 81. Their arguments revolved on the representativeness of the samples studied, with the appropriateness of the tests, after an exchange of findings about the lack of ceiling effects, being somewhat less of a problem. Getting high quality national samples in Africa is hard, but not impossible. In those cases where larger, epidemiologically sound methodologies have been employed, the results have often been close to those obtained in the original smaller samples. The broad picture stated by Wicherts et al. (2010b, p.17) is that “there can be little doubt that Africans average lower IQs than do westerners”. Sub-Saharan Africans have an average IQ significantly lower than that of African Americans in the United States. Even taking the higher of the two estimates, Jelte Wicherts’ estimate of IQ 80, Watson’s remarks are correct.

By the way, racial differences in intelligence may be due to genetics or profoundly negative environments: both can have lasting effects on adult intelligence. I have given references below to the recent findings, but the picture continues to change, with some African countries showing gains in intelligence and scholastic ability. These are empirical matters, and the fact that in Africa only Mauritius and Tunisia participate in PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) somewhat limits the evidence base.  

Leaving aside that Watson made his off-the-cuff remarks in an interview to an ex-student he had mentored, there was no proper public debate about his opinions, objectively based on the merits of the case. The Science Museum in London refused to let him speak, saying his views went "beyond the point of acceptable debate".

Prejudice is something which must be avoided by all parties. In 1830 William Hazlitt observed: Prejudice is prejudging any question without having sufficiently examined it, and adhering to our opinion upon it through ignorance, malice or perversity, in spite of every evidence to the contrary.

As an America astronomer (see below) said: Truth may not be consonant with what we desperately want to be true. But our preferences do not determine what's true. 

The scientific ideal is that any hypothesis should be considered in an open-minded manner, whoever propounds it and however odd it may sound, and then the implications tested by harsh tests intended to destroy it until the remaining residue, if any, is accepted as probably, provisionally true.

As that kind and clever astronomer scientist Carl Sagan observed about the scientific mindset: It seems to me what is called for is an exquisite balance between two conflicting needs: the most skeptical scrutiny of all hypotheses that are served up to us and at the same time a great openness to new ideas.

Such exquisite balance seems not to be part of European thought in the 21st century.


Wicherts, J. M., Dolan, C. V., Carlson, J. S. & van der Maas, H. L. J. (2010a). Raven’s test performance of sub-Saharan Africans; mean level, psychometric properties, and the Flynn Effect.  Learning & Individual Differences, 20, 135-151.
Lynn, R. (2010).   The average IQ of sub-Saharan Africans assessed by the Progressive Matrices: Some comments on Wicherts, Dolan, Carlson & van der Maas. Learning & Individual Differences, 20, 152-154.
Wicherts, J. M., Dolan, C. V., & Van der Maas, H. L. J. (2010b). A systematic literature review of the average IQ of sub-Saharan Africans. Intelligence, 38, 1-20.

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Are you feeling better?

Compared with how you were feeling before, are you feeling better now?
Coming out of the blue, this will sound an odd question. Nonetheless, please try to answer. For the sake of uniformity, are you feeling better today than you were feeling yesterday? In what way, and by how much? What caused the difference? Please use numbers in your answers.

For most of you this will still sound an odd set of questions, but for the third of you who probably had something go wrong with you yesterday, it may seem like an insightful and timely enquiry, showing I care for your well-being, which I do. Is your cold better? Has your stomach problem resolved? Are you in a better mood? Have you been able to banish troubling thoughts? Did you make the right choice of treatment?

Assessing the effects of medical interventions is notoriously difficult. I doubt whether many of us keep daily records of our health and mood, but once we start a course of treatment for an ailment we initiate a sub-routine of monitoring, so that we can judge whether the treatment is doing any good. There is a bias towards imagining that it is. After all, you would be a fool to be doing something pointless. Once something has been labelled a medicine then one expects that bright and diligent researchers have established its beneficial qualities.

There is a very large literature on the placebo effect, on compliance and adherence (whether patients actually take their tablets) and on the need for random controlled trials (one of Britain’s greatest achievements). There is also a thriving industry of liars, cheats and fraudsters willing to rip off the troubled public with useless remedies.

Emeritus Professor David Colquhoun has been battling against these charlatans for many years, and his blogsite “ DC’s Improbable Science: Truth, falsehood and evidence: investigations of dubious and dishonest science”  has just been rewarded the 2012 Science Blog Prize. Yes, he is also at UCL, so this might be product placement, but after reading him you wouldn’t fall for that, would you?

In case you were interested, I’m fine, thanks. Mustn’t grumble. All well. How about you?

Sunday, 21 April 2013

But they seemed so normal!

Boston has done well. Within a week they got the two bombers who killed and maimed Bostonians at the Marathon finishing line. Catching a determined bomber is not easy, but in retrospect these bombers were pretty obviously stupid, or at least determined to get caught or killed. Puffed up self-confidence was their undoing. They did nothing to escape in the precious (to a terrorist) immediate aftermath of the bombing, when normal human beings are helping the dying and the wounded, and the Police are stretched to the limit. They planted the bombs with minimal attempts to cover their faces or disguise their appearance. Perhaps they did not care, or did not realise how quickly they might be identified.

Then, once their faces were on public display they shot a policeman, and embarked on a high speed car chase, flinging grenades at their pursuers. Unless you have a proximity fuse, this is a poor defense. Their shoot out was an attempt at going out in a blaze of glory, and ended with the survivor getting into yet another shootout. Suicide by cop seemed to be their ambition.

In fact, Bostonians have done well, and the official agencies only well enough. It was fellow students who recognised the bombers immediately, and since the suspects were still in town it was already the end of the road for them. It was also a Bostonian who, once he was allowed out of his house, checked his boat in his back yard and found the bleeding and sleeping 19 year old, who should already have been located by a competent policeman with a dog. The understandably jumpy and heavily armed police could probably have done more basic checking: it is easier to hide in a garden than to break into a house, which runs the risk of running into a resident. Too many of them seemed to be in armoured vehicles, and not enough of them just poking about.

The FBI will have the usual questions aimed at it: why did they not realize that this particular trawler of Jihad websites was going to move from just looking to bombing and killing? The conversion rate from fantasist to activist might be 100 to 1 (I do not have the figures, but even 25 to 1 would make life very difficult). How many Islamists can one watch at one time? This is not to say that the problem is impossible to solve. What does one expect to obtain from an interview with a suspect, given the low rate of prediction achieved by most interviews? More reprehensible is the failure to weight indicators: a six month stay abroad in a quasi-war zone should merit at least another look. The regression equation or discriminant function analysis may need revision.

Statistical prediction is usually better than clinical prediction, as Cronbach and Meehl found in 1954. That supposedly cunning, penetrating, highly sophisticated face to face interview is less predictive than actuarial data obtainable by diligent recording of major behavioural events.

Meanwhile, what with social media we have an outpouring of data about them. Their family are giving the usual disbelieving responses (including stupid conspiracy theories) though their uncle had a robust disdain for their actions. As usual, most other people who knew them are astounded that they could have done the things they did. They did not “seem” to be mass murderers.

Why? Well, we are not all that good at detecting simple liars, of which there are many (usually we are little better than chance level at detecting deliberate deceit). We are even worse at detecting many lower frequency behaviours. Can you spot a man who privately looks at a lot of violent pornography? Can you spot a works supervisor who uses drugs or alcohol?  Can you tell which friend was cautioned by the Police for violence towards a spouse? Possibly some of them, but murderers are mercifully too rare for us to have much of a track record in detecting them. Mass murderers are even rarer, and much harder to spot. My brother met one, had a meal with him, and was none the wiser. Nor would I have been.  

It is clear that normal social interaction is neither too taxing nor too revealing. In fact, it may be designed for precisely that purpose. We can associate for what we require, and keep many of our thoughts to ourselves. Courtesy and normal social interaction is a skill that most people can muster to some degree, but much of the inner life can go undetected. There is something of a pattern that mass murderers tend to be loners and misfits (and to be seeing psychologists), but that is by no means the rule.

Now, with the benefit of hindsight, some elements stand out: moments of boorishness, alienation, fascination with Jihad and inflammatory preaching. Not necessarily too predictive, sadly.  I note, at a mere clinical level, that one of my favourite indicators was mentioned: a change in appearance from more to less, or less to more, devout. In this instance the older, more dominant brother is said to have shaved off his devout beard a month before the bombing. It could have been due to the practical need not to attract attention, or the psychological need to prepare for battle. Otherwise, thin pickings. As far as I know they did not dress in religious battle clothing for their final outing, or shave their heads. More background facts may emerge.

Some Americans are making the usual laments, asking: how come those to whom we gave refuge have turned against us? How could a decade of western life have not transmitted the ideals of the Enlightenment?  President Obama asked: “Why did young men who grew up and studied here as part of our communities and our country resort to such violence?” 

It may not seem much of an answer, but it seems that they did so because some people told them they should, and eventually it seemed a good enough reason. It is not a failure of the American welcome, given to so many, with few questions asked. It simply provided a good and uplifting explanation for their adolescent problems, even though those failures were hardly out of the ordinary. Great outrages often arise for trivial reasons. Asked why he had triggered a major prison riot, with warders held hostage on the roof with a noose round their necks, the ringleader was unable to give interviewers a coherent reason, other than the late delivery to his cell of his morning cup of milk.

Thursday, 18 April 2013

Not all neuroscience is rubbish, just 92% of it

For some time I have been arguing, in the company of those few persons polite enough to listen, that much of what is being passed off as neuroscience (the centre for Psychopathy/Intelligence/Love/Hate/Racism has been found in the brain) is not good science. 

That point was made a year or so ago by Prof Tim Shallice in a book review (Shallice has been looking at brain-behaviour links for at least 40 years, and I remember going to his talks on memory disorders at the National Hospital, Queen Square, in the late 60’s), in which he pointed out that there were three problems: small sample sizes, inconsistent methods and measures, and a lack of theory against which to test findings.

Now the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest   has a piece entitled Serious power failure threatens the entire field of neuroscience. In this article it is reported that Katherine Button and Brian Nosek argue that typical sample sizes in neuroscience are woefully small, and that as a consequence the median statistical power of a neuroscience study is 21 per cent. This means that the vast majority (around 79 per cent) of real effects in brain science are probably being missed. More worrying still, when underpowered studies do uncover a significant result, the lack of power means the chances are increased that the finding is spurious.

Button's team also turned their attention specifically to the brain imaging field. Based on findings from 461 studies published between 2006 and 2009, they estimate that the median statistical power in the sub-discipline of brain volume abnormality research is just 8 per cent. Hence my title, because I am probably correct in assuming that if you and I read any neuroscience results, we are most likely to read those with pretty pictures of the brain, because a coloured MRI image is delightfully precise, and cannot be wrong.

Another paper by Chris Chambers and Petroc Sumner documented how 241 fMRI studies involved 223 unique statistical analysis strategies, which to me suggests data cooking for publication purposes. Furthermore, in general most brain imaging papers do not provide enough methodological information to permit replication.

However, there are still parts of my personal rant not covered. Whilst it is necessary for sample sizes to be large enough to confer statistical power, they also need to be absolutely representative of the population. It is a legal requirement for an intelligence test to show that it is standardised at a national level, matched for age bands, with a balance between urban and rural dwellers, and with good racial representation. Given the sensitivity of racial differences in intelligence, it is now usual to “double sample” racial minorities. This means that if 200 subjects are required in the standardisation sample to represent the population of African Americans, then 400 representative persons will be recruited and tested, simply to increase the confidence levels regarding the results for that group.

For an MRI result on an individual to be valid, in the way that an IQ result has to be valid (or be open to legal challenge) we are going to need to scan a representative sample of something like 1400 people.  Getting the full age range will be essential, given age related changes in intelligence.  Also, there will have to be agreement on the protocol for obtaining and analysing the results. Also, a proportion will need to be tested twice, a few months apart, just to establish the reliabilities of the scanner, and natural changes in the brain.

Anyway, after reading with great approval the story in the Research Digest on small sample sizes, I looked at the sample sizes in the other stories reported in this month’s edition.

Exploiting children's social instincts to boost their learning : 55 children in 3 conditions (28 per condition), 39 children in 2 conditions (20 per condition). Far too small to support the aims of the study.

Female political role models have an empowering effect on women: only 82 women, and 4 conditions, so 20 women per condition, rather small.

Anxiously attached people are ace at poker and lie detection: no sample sizes given initially, then 35 real poker players. This is better than psychology volunteers. It is too small really, though perhaps not so bad considering that it attempted to get out into the real world.

Nine-month-olds prefer looking at unattractive (read: normal) male bodies: A bold title, but no sample sizes given in the Research Digest story, nor in the abstract of the actual paper, but on inspection of the paper itself, this bold conclusion is based on 18 nine-month olds. Somewhat of a small sample, I think.

Investigating the love lives of the men and women who have no sense of smell: 32 patients, but the condition only occurs in 1:7,500 so it is a pretty good sample size, given the rarity of the condition, and we should cherish any insights we can gain.

Of course, psychologists never pay any attention to psychology, apart from Daniel Kahneman, who noticed he knew that small samples were unreliable, but kept on using them, and made a career out of explaining why.

Next time you see a pretty MRI picture of the brain, look at the sample size, the sample representativeness, the protocol and the statistical assumptions before believing a single pixel of it.  

Boston Bombs

To BBC World Television News yesterday in the new Broadcasting House building, full of tourist parties and holidaying kids looking in wonder at the glass-caged journalists imprisoned within. Met by a lovely “greeter” with a big smile we got the lift down to the basement, which is where they always put the windowless studios. Waiting for the lift I told her my one BBC basement joke:  When Mae West's manager asked the journalist Gilbert Harding if he could try to sound a little sexier when he interviewed her on the radio, Harding replied:

'If, sir, I was endowed with the power of conveying unlimited sexual attraction through the potency of my voice, I would not be reduced to accepting a miserable pittance from the BBC for interviewing a faded female in a damp basement.'

The bombs in Boston were rightly leading the news, and I was there to comment on the psychological reactions. The story board put much emphasis on the speed with which “first responders” had acted to help the victims, as well as proper amounts of coverage of the horror of the bombing itself. Later there was a well-conducted, low key press conference in which the emergency services were praised, the city was rallied by its Mayor, the investigation explained by the FBI and the local Police chief, and the legal process explained by the appointed Attorney. It was an example of civic order, with clear evidence of pre-planning. In psychological terms they were showing leadership, outlining what should happen next, and identifying heroes. (The uniformed services hate that word: it suggests something other than them doing the job they were trained to do. Worse, it leads to random medals afterwards, which irritates the hell out of those who did their duty off camera). Of course, at that stage it was not possible to identify the Villains.

Disasters test the morality of the organising structure. In too many cities of the world the citizens do not trust their leaders to look after them, to ensure the safety of buildings, nor to invest relief monies honestly. The press conference gave every appearance of public servants explaining themselves honestly, and trying to inform, reassure and engage the public.  There were too many of them, but there are always too many agencies piling in after every disaster. With luck, they will keep talking and working together. After the King’s Cross fire in London in 1987 survivors reported that they had been contacted by at least 13 agencies. Turf wars are worth avoiding, as are pointless partial re-countings of horrific details as part of repeated official interviews.

Calling for all citizens to send in their photos of the event helps the Police, and also helps citizens feel that they are contributing something to this otherwise senseless event, over which no law abiding citizen was able to exert any control.

By next day the rumours were flourishing: suspects identified, suspects arrested, vital clues found, and so on. It is natural to pray that the villains will be found, and given their just deserts. Civil society is based on the Just World hypothesis. Much of the time the notion seems solid, but when it obviously fails there is a desperate wish to set the balance right as quickly as possible. However, catching bombers can take years. The Unabomber operated with impunity from 1978 to 1995 killing 3 and wounding 23. Making bombs is easy, catching bombers is hard.

Leaving the studio, she of the smile said: “Well, few interviewees stay as long as you did, so you must have said something worthwhile”.

Then back home through delicious sunny London, the innocent untroubled crowds on the street strolling with coats off, others sitting at pavement tables for coffee, all without tragedy, and the brick and stone of the old buildings glowing against the bright Spring sky.

Monday, 15 April 2013

Help by our own efforts those who are unfortunate

Who said this?

There is living tapestry of men and women and people and the beauty of that tapestry and the quality of our lives will depend upon how much each of us is prepared to take responsibility for ourselves and each of us prepared to turn round and help by our own efforts those who are unfortunate.

This whole unscripted verbatim sentence (taken from an interview) was too long to remember, and the concept somewhat too difficult to grasp because it balanced four ingredients: individuals, quality of life, personal responsibility and helping others. 

Possibly because of that,  the shorter sentence which preceded this remark, carrying only one ingredient, was remembered instead. 

What was that sentence?

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Totchah! Totchah! Totchah!

In the mid 1980’s I was in a Moscow taxi, making my way to the conference hotel near Red Square when the taxi driver, having seen the British Airways tags on my luggage, turned round to me, beamed and said with great approval “Totchah”.  Like any good leftist academic I had practiced a few Russian greetings, including of course Comrade, but this vernacular exhortation defeated me. I smiled vaguely, but he repeated the phrase, like a chanting crowd. To my prissy dismay, I eventually worked out what had generated so much enthusiasm in this Soviet comrade: “Thatcher”.

As far as I know, she is the only Prime Minister to have studied Chemistry, and perhaps the only Prime Minister with a science degree. She got a Second Class Honours in the four-year Chemistry BSc; in her final year she specialised in X-ray crystallography under the supervision of Dorothy Hodgkin, one of the few women Nobel Laureates in science, who deciphered the structure of penicillin, vitamin B12 and insulin. Although the Thatcher biographies identify her father as the main influence in her life, it seems likely Hodgkin would have also been a “role model” and inspiration. Her technique of peering into obscure systems, getting to know them in detail, and then opening up their structures must have appealed to the young Margaret Roberts. Hodgkin was bright, and worked very, very hard in the male world of science. 

(I met both Hodgkin and Thatcher when they were ghosts: Hodgkin sat next to me at a Pugwash conference in Geneva, an elder grand lady of science who dozed through most of the proceedings. The Soviet generals were defending their radar systems against US complaints that they were built for attack. She was probably wise to take a nap. Like most very bright minds, she was modest in her self-presentation.  Thatcher I “met” at 10 yards: supplicants gently queued to be in her presence at a Royal Hospital reception in Chelsea. I thought I would be a hypocrite to join the throng. She was perfectly attired and coiffured, imperious, silent and probably only the vestigial carapace of her former self. My wife used to see her in the Royal Hospital Chapel on occasional Sundays).

It is both irritating and humbling to note that most of us lead much of our lives in the magnetic fields of political thinkers. At least half of the time we are grinding our teeth, and waiting for the other lot, usually to be disappointed. In actual fact, the very things we oppose may come to take us over. Citizens generally claim a consistency in their world views which is entirely illusory: Greg Markus (1986) studied the same US high school seniors in 1973 and 1982, and on the second occasion asked them to remember what their political attitudes had been in 1973. By the latter date they were already mis-remembering their earlier attitudes, bringing them into line with their current attitudes, thus showing political plasticity, not stability. For example, most respondents in 1982 claimed that they had always been in favour of total equality for women in 1973; only they hadn’t.  Cognitive dissonance is rampant in the political sphere. Both those that realise they are becoming more conservative with age, and those who realise they are becoming more liberal with age tend to say that, looking back, they were always like that.  We are most of us pliable, given time, but stoutly sure of our own consistency.

The members lobby of the House of Commons has four bronze statues,  portraying David Lloyd George, Winston Churchill, Clement Attlee and Margaret Thatcher. These are the politicians’ politicians, in their hall of fame. They made the weather, and set the tram lines down which we travel. Looking at the current political furore over reforms to the benefits system, it is evident that the last two are still battling it out today.

Saturday, 6 April 2013

Fancy some sex, cousin?

Is mixing races an intrinsically good thing, because it reduces the number of relatives held in common? Professor Steve Jones, probably Britain’s best known geneticist, apparently argues so, in an elegant and witty Telegraph column:

Here are some illustrative paragraphs:

the malign effects of long, doubled-up DNA ……reflect the extent to which large sections of the genome as a whole descend from a common ancestor and, as a result, bring many damaged genes together in double copy. They are unduly common in people with colon cancer, autism, Parkinson’s disease and other conditions, and doctors have become very interested in scanning patients to test their risk.

taking all family ties into account, the person you sat next to on the bus this morning is, on average, likely to be something like your sixth cousin, which means that the two of you probably share at least one ancestor from the time of the Paris Commune.

Finns (who have a history separate from that of the rest of the continent) and Ashkenazi Jews are even more likely to have close family ties; while in parts of Pakistan, the average relationship of two random people is that of second cousins, with their common ancestor alive at the time of the fall of France.”

in the Western world incest (or at least inbreeding) is on the way out. The proportion of people who identify themselves as of mixed race in Britain has almost doubled in the past couple of decades, and one household in eight contains members of different ethnic origins. For about half of the nation’s children with an Afro-Caribbean parent, the other parent is white, so that on these islands the pedigrees of two continents will soon merge.

Of course, obstacles to sexual relations among groups have not disappeared. In the United States, black-white unions make up only one in 60 new marriages today, far fewer than in Britain – but even there the incidence has shot up from fewer than one in 1,000 when Barack Obama’s parents tied the knot half a century ago.

A survey of long-shared blocks of DNA in Americans of different age also shows how the habit of sex with relatives is fading. Over the past century or so, the numbers of doubled DNA sections have dropped by about a seventh, and their average length by a quarter. All this reflects changes in patterns of mating – and the increase in sex with strangers – since the invention of the motor car.

Comment: It would seem to be clear from this article that a willingness to marry across “continents of origin” will reduce some of the unpleasant effects of inbreeding. Put like that, some readers might consider that such relationships are a public duty, diluting the deleterious effects of quasi-incestuous parochial pairings. Even driving for 100 miles to find a partner seems to convey a benefit.

Does this present a balanced picture? Well, it seems to suggest that relatedness carries a clear disadvantage, with no countervailing advantages. Ashkenazi Jews and Finns are lumped together with Pakistanis, without reference to intellectual and scholastic abilities, or any behavioural differences.  Let us consider the matter by way of some simple comparisons.

The scientific and cultural achievements of Ashkenazi Jews are legendary, and very well documented (for example, Richard Lynn “The Chosen People: A study of Jewish Intelligence and Achievement, Washington Summit Press, 2011). Sephardic Jews are a step behind, but well above other contenders.  Jews have won 139 Nobel Prizes in science (Chemistry 33, Medicine 56, Physics 50). The latter subject, in particular, would have been left in a very different state without Albert Einstein, Neils Bohr, Wolfgang Pauli, Richard Feynman, and Hans Bethe.  (I have left out mention of my old friend Joseph Rotblat, because despite being a physicist good enough to work on the Manhattan Project, his Nobel Prize was for peace. Also, it allows me to re-tell the Israeli joke about the 1978 Peace prize: “Have you heard that Menachem Begin has won the Nobel Prize for Physics?” “For Physics? I thought it was for Peace!”  “No, no, no. His qualifications in Physics were better”). Anyway, assuming an Ashkenazi Jewish population of 10 million, that gives them 139 Nobels per 10 million or 107 per 10 million for all Jews. At a mundane and worldly level, they tend to be prosperous.

Finns come third in the world in the Programme for International Student Assessment 2009 rankings (behind Shanghai and Korea).  They have got two Science Nobel prizes which converts to 3.8 per 10 million. They tend to be prosperous.

Pakistanis do not participate in PISA. One Pakistani has won a Nobel in Physics, the only Muslim to have done so.  Pakistan gets a per capita score for science Nobels of 0.05 per 10 million. They tend to be poor.

I think you will agree that these three populations differ considerably in their scholastic achievements. They also differ in population size.

Ashkenazi Jews            10 million*    
Finns                             5.5 million;
Pakistanis                    182 million
*There are roughly 13 million Jews world-wide, but far fewer in each nation state: Israel 6, United States 5, Europe2 and Canada .4

This gives us a clue as to what is going on as regards inbreeding. Whereas the first two could be seen as being restricted by population size, that is not the case for the 182 million Pakistanis, who should have no shortage of potential partners. They should be free of inbreeding, so long as they can walk several miles to the next village. The problem is that Pakistanis practice first cousin marriage. This is not a good idea. Europeans have usually avoided it. The link below shows the global distribution of consanguinity.

The Pakistanis should be able to free themselves from the risk of genetic disorders by avoiding their first cousins. The Ashkenazis, on the other hand, who have already avoided their first cousins, but mostly chose partners from among other Jews, have decided to participate in genetic studies aimed at tracing the genes which cause unpleasant neurological disorders, and taking steps to eliminate them, probably by screening foetuses. They hope to avoid eliminating genes which lead to high intelligence, though those cannot be identified at the moment (but are being searched for by Prof Robert Plomin).

A more balance presentation would be to say that some relatedness is not bad of itself. The genetic code carries good and bad messages. Restricted populations have an increased rate of genetic disorders. Cousin marriages almost guarantee an even higher rate of genetic disorders, and those are avoidable.  It is misleading to consider the genetic risks of relatedness without considering how it comes about, and without looking at the benefits of positive characteristics in relatives.

Avoid first cousins, but otherwise marry whom you choose, even among your own genetic group.