28 April 2011


WARRIOR GENE. According to a study by geneticist and political scientist (oxymoron?) Rose McDermott, a so-called "warrior gene, which occurs in about 30 percent of the population, makes you more likely to engage in physical aggression." Support for her hypothesis, however, is inconclusive at best. John Horgan writes in Scientific American that there is little evidence for the warrior gene, since the difference between carriers and non-carriers is miniscule. Further, "Obviously, the warrior gene cannot possibly live up to its name. If it did, the whole world .... would be wracked by violence. The warrior gene resembles other pseudo-discoveries to emerge from behavioral genetics, like the gay gene, the God gene, the high-IQ gene, the alcoholism gene, the gambling gene, and the liberal gene.

" .... The abyssmal record of behavioral genetics stems from two factors. First, the quest for correlations between thousands of genes and thousands of traits and disorders is prone to false positives, especially when traits are as squishy as "aggession" or "childhood trauma". Second, the media -- including respected scientific journals like Science and PNAS as well as shows like Dr. Phil -- are prone to hyping "discoveries" that will attract attention."

I introduce this controversy to illustrate one of the most essential core features of good science -- that any theory or hypothesis, however appealing or reasonable, must be falsifiable. That is, one cannot simply make a tautological statement (one whose conclusion restates the founding assumption), and expect the listener to make a leap of faith and accept it. In science, you can prove a statement to be false, but you can never prove a statement to be true. Even the most compelling foundation stones in science must be able to be proven false by further experimentation or reasoning, to qualify as science. This is what separates science from myth or religion. You cannot prove the existence of your god to me, and I cannot disprove it to you. It is a question of belief, not science.

Debates such as the one over the purported warrior gene are a healthy and essential part of scientific discourse. Only by probing, questioning, and repeated testing does a hypothesis eventually gain (conditional) acceptance among the scientific community, becoming a well-grounded theory. The scientific method requires it, and rightfully so.

WHOOPIE. I love this woman. Whoopie Goldberg is an intelligent woman who knows when to exercise caution in a debate, and also when to come right out and tell it like it is. I mentioned in yesterday's post the subtext of racism which underlies so much of the opposition to our nation's first black President -- in this case within the context of the ridiculous suggestion that Barack Obama is not a U.S. citizen. On yesterday's episode of The View, Joy Behar and Whoopie Goldberg publicly called a spade a spade, declaring the birthers and their ilk to be motivated by blind, unreasoning racism. Check out the "episode" link above to see the fireworks.

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