How science journalism “adjusts” findings to fit political agenda

2012/11/04 § Leave a comment

Open letter to Ms. Bojs:

I appreciate your article mentioned above since this has been my field of research and expertise. I continue to follow the current development in genetics very closely. Thank you for a well written article.

However, I respectfully like to raise one major point of objection. You claim that “there are no human races”. I understand Sweden and swedish politics well enough to know that this is a common view amongst social scientists and it is the predominant political view in Sweden. However, there are aspects of the general concept that are useful and I would maintain, are needed in life science. And this is also emphasized in the study by McVean.

On the other hand, nowehere can I find any mention of the impact on the concept of race the way you describe it in your article in McVean’s report? It appears implied in the article on DN but I think not rightfully so. To the contrary. As you mention in your article “Sådana sällsynta variationer är i hög grad knutna till särskilda platser på jorden,  visar den nya studien.” (Translation: Such rare [genetic] variations are connected to certain places in the world to a high degree).

It is exactly this variation that we mean, when we talk about the definition of race. Genetic variation that is clustered in distinct patterns around the globe.

It is, as the authors of the 1000 genomes project point out, of medical relevance too. This would not be relevant as a consequence or a finding of the 1000 genomes project if the concept of race was flawed. Genes do cluster in distinct geographic patterns due to evolutionary laws. The outcome is what we call race in biology. We could use another term, but I think we should not only do so because of a political agenda. I reject the idea to let political ideology dictate the language of science.

The definition of race is an expansion on the concept of the (family) group that becomes geographically separated and takes well established natural laws into account, such as the hardy-weinberg principle of genetic drift. It hence is a valid concept and an important one too.

I understand the political sensitivity connected to the issue of race. However, I personally doubt that it is a good idea to make statements about scientific topics driven by a political agenda.

Certainly the term race is- or rather has been- poorly defined for quite some time. However such findings as the ones described in your article help improve the definition. However, in medical treatment of, for instance, diabetes type II patience it is of crucial importance to take race in to account. Recent research has revealed many areas of major differences of individuals with different phenotypes that go far beyond the skin deep differences. Especially the newest revelation, e.g. that the so called junk DNA contains the blueprint for the regulation of complex expression patterns, calls for caution. Apparently minute differences carry major medical relevance- which is in the same vein as the finding of McVean et al.

The dogma, that has long been held, that the differences in the human sequences between different populations are too small to make a real difference in terms of phenotype have long been revised by researchers that dissect the complex regulation of genetic expression. It has become evident that minute differences between sequence patterns can have major implications for the overall expression patter.

This is before even going into the details about modifications of the DNA due to epigenetic regulation, that vary heavily within geographically separated (race) groups.

My point simply is that the concept of race- although it may need some minor revision and an adjusted modern definition- is not merely useful as a category when studying human genetics. Medically speaking it is a crucial aspect to be taken into account if one wants to develop the optimal treatment for various racial groups of people.

Why do I care? I am a proponent of freedom, also freedom from oppression of the sciences due to political agendas. We all know too well from examples such as the Nazi regime what happens when we let political agenda dictate what the findings of science should look like.

Especially natural science must be free from ideology. Natural sciences must explain how the world functions in its inner workings, it must not explain it in a watered down narrative for people with certain ideological sensitivities to being able to accept it. The consequences of the findings are not to be anticipated by science and manipulated in an attempt to prevent potentially negative consequences.

The consequences of each finding are a challenge to society, but one that society has to tackle, not science or individual scientist.

I strongly believe, neither should journalists try to shelter the public from findings or twist “words” in order to make the current science be pleasant to the current political ideology. This is what I found disappointing about your article because to me it looks like that is what you- maybe not intentionally- were doing.

This is not to say that in social sciences you are free to deal with this term “race” or the concept or its implications as you please. As a matter of fact, I believe it should be a challenge accepted by social sciences to deal, explain and come to terms with the findings of natural sciences, that challenge conventional wisdom of social sciences. Unfortunately I do not see social sciences accept that challenge on a grant scale. Rather they reject findings or try to narrate them in a different way to “make them fit” their preconceived point of view.

Certainly racism must have no basis in modern society in any form or shape under any circumstances ever. Of course people must not in any conceivable way be discriminated against on the basis of their biological make-up.

This is a challenge still to most societies, I admit. However, this is not to be solved by denying the existence of terms that are useful to biology. I fear that by merely denying differences we do not cause less discrimination but more in the end. In my opinion, we must learn to live and embrace differences, even celebrate them! not deny them.

Kind regards.

For more background please check:

1000 Genomes project

1000 genomes the study on SPON in German

DN article on the subject

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The chicken or egg problem

2008/08/25 § 1 Comment

A recent argument with a friend made me realise, that I should make a note about the so called “chicken or egg” or also called “hen or egg” problem. 

In short: what was there first? Did a first egg emerge which let a first chicken hatch? Or was there a first chicken which laid the first egg? [1]

Maybe you think this is a stupid question? Yes, it is. And we were not even actually talking about this primarily back then. But we got into the issue somehow anyway, probably helped by the pub environment we were in at the time 😉

However, my friend was sure that the only logical solution must be that the egg came first. He is not alone with this assumption since an expert group also ruled that the egg came first [2]. However, I replied that this is possible but no necessarily so, and since I came across a posting on the web the other day, claiming the same, I felt it is time to clarify [3].

 

First off: how to define a chicken?

What is a chicken? Where does the proto-chicken end and the modern chicken as we know it start? Domestication has led to today’s chicken. So we would have to assume that our great grandfathers are responsible for the chicken as we know it. 

Genetic research has indicated that the modern chicken is a cross of two wild species. Since there are many different types of domesticated chicken today the question is not easily addressed. However, let us assume that we take one subtype of the modern chicken. We would have to agree on which traits we want to include in our definition. Not few geneticists agree that this is a ludicrous task and that you simply cannot give a tight definition of the modern chicken.

Despite these difficulties, let us assume we could agree on a clear cut definition. Then we would assume that there must have been one pre-chicken who lacked at least one protein coding gene or gene-function of the modern chicken (also here we run into trouble if we would consider single nucleotide polymorphisms without effect on the aminoacid sequence as differences- but let’s not pick nits now 😉 [4]). 

We do know that mutations which are relevant for being passed on to subsequent generations do only occur in gametes, i.e. the male or female cells that are merged during fertilisation (egg or sperm cells). Mutations here occur due to cross-over events of the chromosomes but also due to mutations caused by random processes or mutation enhancing agents (like chemicals or radiation).

In this case clearly we would have an egg at some point which is the product of a sperm and an egg-cell which have produced the exact genetic information that we have agreed on to constitute a chicken.

This follows the assumption that we accept the definition:

– the first egg to carry the complete genetic (DNA) information of a chicken we accept as chicken egg

Then the egg comes before the chicken!

 

Chicken egg or no chicken egg?

You may wonder why I said, “[if] we accept the definition”; what other definition could there be for a chicken egg? Let us look at what an egg contains. 

The inner part of the egg contains the genetic information for the production of a new chicken, but it also contains some organelles, liquids and plenty of other stuff. Similarly to mammal eggs (including human) there also is the cell membrane that contains the mothers’ proteins and lipids. In the case of a chicken egg there is a hard calcified part additionally protecting the egg.

These proteins are coded by the nucleus. If the last mutation we were waiting for in order to see the first chicken-DNA to be completed occurred in a membrane protein, the egg we are talking about (containing complete chicken-DNA) would not have exclusively chicken proteins in its membranes.

Considering the calcified outer shell of the chicken we can safely assume that the structure changed with evolution. More precisely, the chicken shell developed from softer predecessors to the modern hard shell structure. So even worse; if we would (only as a brain-game of course, since we know that the wild type birds chicken derive from have hard shell eggs already) assume that the last and final mutation making a modern chicken happened in a protein controlling aspects of shell production, the first egg to contain chicken DNA was not a chicken egg. 

Exaggerating to make the point more transparent, one could imagine a gel-like egg that looks nothing like a chicken egg, but more like a soft reptile of fish egg. From this proto-egg a chicken would hatch which would then lay the first generation of chicken eggs.

Again: the first egg to carry all the nuclear genetic info to produce a chicken would not necessarily carry all proteins necessary to fulfil the definition of a proper chicken egg. Only the second generation of eggs would carry all chicken proteins and would be a proper chicken egg.

So, then we would have to define:

– the first chicken egg to be laid has to be laid by a chicken. 

The chicken comes before the egg!

 

Solving the mystery

Without knowledge of the exact definition the question of what came first: chicken or egg, cannot be answered (as so often definition is all, isn’t it?).

If one runs with the definition mentioned above, i.e. one is content to call anything an egg, that lets a chicken hatch (even if it is purple, cube-shaped and with spikes on its surface) then the egg came first.

If you insist that an egg has to contain all the ingredients of a chicken (not only the chicken DNA) then the chicken might have come first. Again: this is not necessarily the case but a fair possibility!

It all depends. And I guess it is clear that there are many philosophical attempts to answer the riddle out there. However, I wanted to answer the biological basis here. And I feel that chicken and eggs are primarily a biological problem to be solved.

The philosophical answers mostly come to the conclusion that the egg came first [3]. But I am not sure that philosophers necessarily know about DNA, mitochondria, ribosome, calcification and membrane proteins, to name only a few aspects one should be aware of.

 

Conclusion

It is more likely that the egg came first, which may be why “experts” have decided that the egg came first [2]. However, it would surprise me if they had not addressed the above thoughts and I would be curious to hear what they had to say about it.

However, the question itself is so extremely flawed in terms of its exact definition that it has to be treated rather theoretical of course. Admittedly, following our assumption that we would manage to define it in terms of genetics, the chance that some crucial gene for egg production was the “last gene” in the process of the chicken development is very small. This may be the simple reason the “experts” think the egg came first.

I would like to have you leave from this page keeping in mind that depending on our definition in combination with the right circumstances the chicken might have been there before the egg! And maybe next time you have the discussion coming up you can send them here 🙂

 

 

 

References

1) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chicken-and-egg_problem

2) http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2006/may/26/uknews

3) http://www.eecs.harvard.edu/~cduan/writings/ckvsegg.shtml

4) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Single_nucleotide_polymorphism

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