The cheating of the chosen

Update: Harvard Students in Cheating Scandal Say Collaboration Was Accepted.

Harvard Says 125 Students May Have Cheated on a Final Exam:

Officials said that nearly half of the more than 250 students in the class were under investigation by the Harvard College Administrative Board and that if they were found to have cheated, they could be suspended for a year. The students have been notified that they are suspected and will be called to give their accounts in investigative hearings.

“This is unprecedented in its scope and magnitude,” said Jay Harris, the dean of undergraduate education.

Administrators would not reveal the name of the class or even the department, saying that they wanted to protect the identities of the accused students. The Harvard Crimson, the university’s student newspaper, reported that it was a government class, Introduction to Congress, which had 279 students, and that it was taught by Matthew B. Platt, an assistant professor.

Anyone have opinions on this? I know plenty of readers are in the local area in various capacities. My working assumption is that these kids will get off with a slap on the wrist. The meritocracy does not eat its own young. With such widespread cheating in this course this not a matter of intellectual incompetents, but very smart kids who simply wanted to push their advantages on the margin. This is the university that was sending half its graduates to investment banks a few years ago, so what’s new?

Seeing the workings of the hyper-elite probably turn the average person in two directions. If they lean Right, it’s guns & gold. If they lean Left, some sort of Red revolutionary urge. There’s a reason history goes in cycles….

Deep dive into the Denisovans

By now you have probably seen the new Denisovan paper in the media. John Hawks has an excellent overview, as you’d expect. The only thing I will add is to reiterate that I think population movements in near and far prehistory significantly obscure our comprehension of the patterns of past genetic variation. One reason that the Denisova hominin presents conundrums (e.g., how did Australians and Melanesians admix with a population whose only remains are found in Siberia) is that we’re viewing it through the lens of the present. What other lens can we view it through? We’re not time travelers. But we should be perhaps more conscious of the filter which that imposes upon our perception and model of the world. This is probably a time when it is best to have only a modest confidence in any given proposition about the prehistoric past.

Also, I don’t know why, but I much like this tree:

Being fat is like being gay (?)

Anti-obesity: The new homophobia?:

Consider the many parallels between the treatments advocated by those who claim being gay is a disease, and those being pushed by our public health establishment to “cure” fat children and adults of their supposedly pathological state.

The advocates of so-called conversion or reparative therapy believe that “homosexuality” is a curable condition, and that a key to successful treatment is that patients must want to be cured, which is to say they consider same-sex sexual orientation volitional. These beliefs mirror precisely those of the obesity establishment, which claims to offer the means by which fat people who want to choose to stop being fat can successfully make that choice.

Those who seek to cure homosexuality and obesity have tended to react to the failure of their attempts by demanding ever more radical interventions. For example, in the 1950s Edmund Bergler, the most influential psychoanalytical theorist of homosexuality of his era, bullied and berated his clients, violated patient confidentiality and renounced his earlier, more tolerant attitude toward gay people as a form of enabling. Meanwhile, earlier this year a Harvard biology professor declared in a public lecture that Mrs. Obama’s call for voluntary lifestyle changes on the part of the obese constituted an insufficient response to the supposed public health calamity overwhelming the nation, and that the government should legally require fat people to exercise.

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Quantifying the great flip

The two maps above show the Democratic and Republican counties in blue and red respectively. Carter in the 1976 presidential election, and Obama in 2008. A few days ago it was brought to my attention that Matt Yglesias was curious about how Maine become a Democratic leaning state in the past generation. How is a deep question I’ll leave to political scientists, but how about the patterns of voting Democratic over elections by state for the past 100 years? That’s not too hard to find, there’s state-level election data online. So I just calculated the correlations between past elections and Democratic results, and Obama’s performance in 2008. If you’re a junkie of political science I assume you’ve seen something like this….

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Evolution: its ideological self-refutation


Recently I stumbled upon the fact that Honey Boo Boo‘s sister had a child at age 18. The grandmother, Honey Boo Boo’s mother, is 33 years old. Younger than I am! Then I see headlines in trashy British tabloids of the form: The three men who have fathered 78 children with 46 different women… and they’re not paying child support to any of them. Here I am, in the fullness of man-childhood, a new father, groping to understand evolutionary process in all its glory, and here are they who live evolution! There are those around us who don’t blink at maximizing their fitness in the modern world. Here’s some data from the GSS:

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The future of the three "Pakistans"

Over at Econlog Bryan Caplan bets that India’s fertility will be sup-replacement within 20 years. My first inclination was to think that this was a totally easy call for Caplan to make. After all, much of southern India, and the northwest, is already sup-replacement. And then I realized that heterogeneity is a major issue. This is a big problem I see with political and social analysis. Large nations are social aggregations that are not always comparable to smaller nations (e.g., “Sweden has such incredible social metrics compared to the United States”; the appropriate analogy is the European Union as a whole).

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The eternal question of calorie restriction

There’s a lot of buzz about a new paper in Nature (yes, I know there’s always buzz about some Nature paper or other), Impact of caloric restriction on health and survival in rhesus monkeys from the NIA study. You’ve probably heard about calorie restriction before. For me the issue I have with it is that people who are very knowledgeable (i.e., researchers who know a great deal abut human physiology, etc.) have given me contradictory assessments of this strategy of life extension. But it’s not totally crazy, there are serious scientists at top-tier universities who practice calorie restriction themselves. This isn’t the final word, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it is going to take decades for it to resolve itself for humans specifically (because some people will always be, and perhaps rightly, extrapolating from short-lived organisms to humans when it comes to modulations of lifespan in the laboratory).  The New York Times piece had a really strange coda:

Dr. de Cabo, who says he is overweight, advised people that if they want to try a reduced-calorie diet, they should consult a doctor first. If they can handle such a diet, he said, he believes they would be healthier, but, he said, he does not know if they would live longer.

Some scientists still have faith in the low-calorie diets. Richard Weindruch, a director of the Wisconsin study, said he was “a hopeless caloric-restriction romantic,” but added that he was not very good at restricting his own calories. He said he might start trying harder, though: “I’m only 62. It isn’t too late.”

Then there is Mark Mattson, chief of the laboratory of neurosciences at the National Institute on Aging, who was not part of the monkey study. He believes there is merit to caloric restriction. It can help the brain, he said, as well as make people healthier and probably make them live longer.

Dr. Mattson, who is 5-foot-9 and weighs 130 pounds, skips breakfast and lunch on weekdays and skips breakfast on weekends.

What I do is what I do

This morning on Twitter the estimable Carl Zimmer stated that I had “reported” on the recent paper on European skin pigmentation evolution. I wondered, wait, am I a reporter? I don’t really know, and this really is rooted in the “am I a journalist” thread. I’m starting to get worn down by those who claim I am a journalist. My main issue is that once you’re pegged as a journalist, you’re held to journalistic standards. So, for example, people might demand that I selectively misquote and misrepresent the opinions of others, because I might alienate readership by telling them what I think, instead of using mouthpieces who I don’t even bother depicting with any accuracy. I’m only half-kidding here. I’ve had great experiences with journalists, and not so great experiences. I really, really, hate it when people go fishing for quotes to fit their story arc.

In regards to papers, I don’t exactly take the tack of someone like Ed Yong or Dave Munger. I’m just a guy offering my own unvarnished opinions, and the reality is what I do “on the blog” intersects strongly with the way I talk and behave in “real life.” If this blog is journalism than a huge portion of my time chilling with my boys is journalism And, a substantial proportion of the posts here emerge directly from reader questions. Oh, and sometimes I tell readers what I really think of them, which is often not much. All of this just doesn’t seem right to me as journalism. So I don’t feel it is. Randall Parker suggests a new word, “rifting.” Though that got me to thinking: a lot of what I do is “sifting.” The content of others, but also my own thoughts.

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Not all genes are created the same

The map to the right shows the frequencies of HGDP populations on SLC45A2, which is a locus that has been implicated in skin color variation in humans. It’s for the SNP rs16891982, and I yanked the figure from IrisPlex: A sensitive DNA tool for accurate prediction of blue and brown eye colour in the absence of ancestry information. Brown represents the genotype CC, green CG, and blue, GG. Europeans who have olive skin often carry the minor allele, C. While SLC24A5 is really bad at distinguishing West Eurasians from each other, SLC45A2 is better. Though both are fixed in Northern Europe, the former stays operationally fixed in frequency outside of Europe, in the Near East. As I stated earlier the proportions of the ancestral SNP in the Middle Eastern populations in the HGDP seem to be easily explained by the Sub-Saharan admixture you can find in these groups.

In contrast major SNPs in SLC45A2 are closer to disjoint between Europeans and South Asians. For example I’m a homozygote for the C allele. And yet even here we need to be careful. I want in particular to draw your attention to the frequencies in the Middle Eastern populations, the Sardinians, and the Kalash of Pakistan.

The Kalash, and their Nuristani cousins, have often been observed to have “European” physical features. These populations even trade in legends of descent from the Macedonians of Alexander. And the genetics here shows why. Though the Kalash far are more closely related to other Northwest South Asians than to Europeans, on the subset of genes which are implicated in pigmentation many of them could actually “pass” for Europeans. In fact, it is interesting to me that by these measures the Sardinians are no more European than groups like the Kalash and the Druze (in contrast to the total genome, where Sardinians may be the best reference for Western Europeans). They have a lower frequency of the SNP strongly associated with blue eyes than either of these groups, for example.

In the above paper they also produced a chart which illustrated the relationships of HGDP populations as a measure only of the six SNPs they used in their prediction method. These are markers which distinguish blue and brown eye color in Europeans efficiently.

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A political animal in the genes

Trends in Genetics has a review article, The genetics of politics: discovery, challenges, and progress. The main reason I point to these sorts of papers isn’t that I think they’re revolutionary. Usually they aren’t. Rather, the public domain has totally forgotten about this domain of study. Most of the informed and high-toned discussion presumes that almost everything of worthy note is socially constructed. If not, then the counterpoint is a crude caricature of genetic determinism which is refutable in a blink of the eye. It’s as if someone was commissioned to paint R. Daneel Olivaw, and ended up using crayon to sketch out the Frankenstein monster.

For example, in sex differences the public debate veers between evolutionary psychological Leave It To Beaver, pre-scientific cultural traditionalism, and de facto Blank Slatism. On the one hand you have to deal with people who use “scare quotes” around the “highly speculative” “hypothesis” that males have a greater tendency toward inter-personal physical aggression than females (including in the comments of this blog, so spare with lectures about how this is a marginal perspective; I’m pretty sure I talk to people about behavior genetics a lot more than you do, though if not I’d like to hear from you!). Set against this you have an elevation of a particular specific and historically contingent nuclear family structure in the post-World War II West as normative by the laws of biology. Never mind that you need to leave the hearth to gather, and that someone must have been minding the farm when citizen soldiers were away at war. Some aspects of the ideal of American social conservatives may actually be socially constructed and economically contingent, rather than being a consequence of the natural laws of society. And just because something is socially constructed does not mean that it is not good or worth defending. And just because you believe that something is natural does not mean that you think that one should never rein in one’s natural impulses. Is and ought are not the same, and they do have relationships, but they’re complex and need to be teased apart precisely. As it is most discussions deal in rhetorical preening and misrepresentation of one’s interlocutors.

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