Furthest Right

Bad science: nurture advocacy

In the nature versus nurture debate, bad science proliferates. This is because the nature side argues that an individual’s abilities are determined mostly by biology; the nurture side argues that an individual’s abilities are determined mostly by access to social resources. Obviously, nurture will be infinitely more popular to a crowd.

We’d all like to think we can be anything. If we can be anything, our needs are obviously just and our importance is guaranteed. We are all superstars, geniuses, undiscovered artistic powerhouses, and so on. And the best part of the nurture argument is that if we fail, we can claim that this too was a product of limited access to social resources.

However, reality suggests that the nature people are right: some of what makes us is genetic recombination at the time of conception; some is nurture by parents and friends; some depends on what notions we’ve got in our little heads about how to organize ourselves. But the bulk of it, as shown in Stephen Pinker’s The Blank Slate, is biologically determined before our birth.

But since the crowd wants to hear nurture is right, it’s a good way to advance your career. Be a hero — pitch them a convenient half-truth. Here is it, in action:

Chronic stress from growing up poor appears to have a direct impact on the brain, leaving children with impairment in at least one key area — working memory.

For the new study, Evans and a colleague rated the level of stress each child experienced using a scale known as “allostatic load.” The score was based on the results of tests the children were given when they were ages 9 and 13 to measure their levels of the stress hormones cortisol, epinephrine and norepinephrine, as well as their blood pressure and body mass index.

The subjects also underwent tests at age 17 to measure their working memory, which is the ability to remember information in the short term. Working memory is crucial for everyday activities as well as for forming long-term memories.

When the researchers analyzed the relationships among how long the children lived in poverty, their allostatic load and their later working memory, they found a clear relationship: The longer they lived in poverty, the higher their allostatic load and the lower they tended to score on working-memory tests. Those who spent their entire childhood in poverty scored about 20 percent lower on working memory than those who were never poor, Evans said.


…you may be asking: “Is that the extent of the data presented?”

Indeed it is. They found a correlation and assumed a reason.

Nevermind that how long parents remain in poverty may have something to do with their intelligence — or be entirely determined by it. You have a few bad years; no biggie, you pull out. You’re chronically dumb and disorganized? Yes, welcome to the doom forevermore.

It’s embarrassing to see one of our nation’s newspapers blankfacedly print this crap without a sense of how completely unscientific it is.

Would scientists do something so unscientific, just for their own gain?

A former Harvard researcher falsified data and fabricated results in a 2003 sleep study, two news outlets report online today.

Dr. Robert B. Fogel, who taught at Harvard Medical School and practiced at Brigham and Women’s Hospital until 2004, said he altered numbers and invented anatomic details reported in an article about obesity and sleep apnea. The journal Sleep retracted the article in February and the federal Office of Research Integrity concluded its investigation last month.


They would, because it works.

For the record, my take is that 80% of ability is determined by genetics; some of that is enhanced with recombination at conception, often with dramatic results — but much, much more often with none at all. The rest is nurture and more importantly, the philosophy of the individual. Someone predisposed toward rigorous questioning will increase their brainpower as much as is possible given their genetic range, while people who live dissolute lives seem to get dumber.

This is not to say those traits are permanent or cannot be cured with discipline or fear, but that our subjective assessment of the intelligence of others is easily fooled. If they are disorganized or dissolute, or have personality quirks which make them both do stupid things and hide their reasoning, smarter people can appear to be blockheads to us.

In modern society, we have a superfluity of idiots who may not actually be idiots. They are generally nice, reasonably intelligent people who thanks to selfishness and disconnecting from an offensively stupid reality have made themselves oblivious, disorganized, dissolute and consequently fatuous. When we see them in action, we assume they are dumb but the truth may be more complex.

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