What science really has to say

I’ve done some work regading the way that the vast amount of knowledge about genetics has been misused and abused (Lewontin is a key reference in this area) by all kinds of discourses: “we are what our genes are”, “mapping the genome will lead to the erradication of disease”, or at the very least, to a “revolution in medicine”. I have a friend who has similarly studied the neurosciences, and we compare notes now and then, concluding that both forms of rhetoric are much similar and based on an essentialist, reductionist and deterministic view of the world.

Much to my liking, PZ Myers managed to write about both subjects in one blog post, which I thoroughly recommend: Casual reductionism and genetic determinism

Just two selected quotations:

I prefer the approach of the National Genographic project, where the results are used to infer relationships rather than leaping to biomedical conclusions. We have far more accurate tools for determining your medical condition — it’s direct and involves examining your health, rather than indirectly looking at genes that have a remote connection to your health.

But one thing he doesn’t consider? That maybe PET scans and genetic tests aren’t as robust and interpretable as he thinks. What I find personally chilling is that he so blithely considers a scan or a gene so definitive that he will defend a diagnosis of psychopathy in himself; does he also judge the subjects of his research on the basis of these abstractions rather than on their behavior?

That last one reminded me of the famous paper on the neuroimaging of a dead salmon: Scanning Dead Salmon in fMRI Machine Highlights Risk of Red Herrings.

There is something definitely Pythonesque about that paper. And it won an igNobel prize: IgNobel Prize in Neuroscience: The dead salmon study.

UPDATE: If you are interested in this discussion, Cory recommends a book that seems to be very interesting on BoingBoing: Brainwashed: Neuroscience vs neurobollocks.


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