Profile of Greg Cochran in The Los Angeles Times

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Steve points me to a profile of Greg & Henry, with a focus on Jewish genetics & smarts.

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  1. To Ferguson, that was a dangerous idea. There may indeed be versions of genes that are unique to Ashkenazi Jews, but it would be impossible, he said, to prove that those genes are responsible for higher IQs. 
    Uh… that’s a very interesting and extremely unique position. 
    I have to wonder if this guy could have been mischaracterized? But the journalist did not seem incompetent.

  2. Cochran and Harpending readily acknowledge the need for such experiments. But they have no plans to do them. They say their role as theorists is to generate hypotheses that others can test. 
    “One criticism about our paper is ‘It can’t mean anything because they didn’t do any new experiments,’ ” Cochran said. “OK, then I guess Einstein’s papers didn’t mean anything either.”
    seriously, what a crock. testing the ashkenazi hypothesis as pinker proposes would involve an association study, using completely standard techniques (no one expected einstein to create and perfect some new cooling technology to prove the existence of the Bose-Einstein condensate, but if such a technology had existed, one imagines he might have been interested in it). the fact that Cochran et al. profess absolutely zero interest in doing a trivial (intellectually, though admittedly not logistically) test of their hypothesis baffles me.

  3. I don’t see what’s so baffling about a division of labor between theorists and experimentalists. I’m pretty sure Greg would be as interested as anyone to see the outcome of such an experiment, but in his position I’d say I had better things to do, too.

  4. Eric, 
    From what I know of Ferguson through his work, it wouldn’t surprise me if that was accurate.  
    Personally my favorite bit was when he put on his commissar hat and declared it to be illegitimate research.  
    “Lysenko is dead; but given the way of tenured men, there may still be academic departments for tens of years in which his shadow will be shown. — And we — we still have to vanquish his shadow, too.”

  5. P-ter: feel free to go ahead and do it. I’m sure that permission and funding will be a snap.

  6. P-ter: feel free to go ahead and do it. I’m sure that permission and funding will be a snap. 
    no, i agree the logistics would be difficult. but it’s a dirt-cheap experiment–all you need to do is assay (or infer) carrier status and IQ in families carrying the mutations. maybe i’m being naive about how willing such families would be to participate. but certainly it’s worth putting some effort into if you prefer the adjective “vindicated” to “controversial” :)

  7. I don’t see what’s so baffling about a division of labor between theorists and experimentalists 
    if “having a hypothesis” counts as theory, then all experimentalists are theorists.

  8. [T]he fact that Cochran et al. profess absolutely zero interest in doing a trivial (intellectually, though admittedly not logistically) test of their hypothesis baffles me. 
    I’m from a field of science where the logistical issues pretty much determine what you are free to do empirical work on. If you can’t touch the right fossil, you’re up shite creek. In my case, all I need is the money to travel and stay where the specimens are housed, and permissions. Yet this is far from trivial; it is extraordinarily time-consuming to apply for grant funding.  
    In this instance, you have the money involved in testing carrier status, the testing (at $XX/hour for your assistant and $YY for participants) and IRB approval for the whole thing. You’ll need a facility to carry out your plan, and some relatively long-term relationship with the test population.  
    Heck, it might be cheaper to dig up some Jewish skeletons from the year 400 AD and test them directly for carrier status.

  9. if “having a hypothesis” counts as theory, then all experimentalists are theorists. 
    Actually by that definition *everyone* is. Hypothesizing makes you a theorist in about the same sense that dribbling and shooting hoops makes you a basketball player.

  10. If Greg and Henry spent the next three years putting together a definitive study of their theory and came up with results proving them right, their critics would just say, “Well, they did the experiment themselves, so why should we believe them?” 
    It’s better to let somebody else do the study.

  11. We have talked to some people about doing such a study. A researcher in Israel was interested, but met massive lack of enthusiasm from the powers that be: try to guess why. It might not be what you would think. Someone else I know wanted to do it until his adviser pointed out certain likely side effects – I believe the phrase “unemployable pariah” was used. That, of course, if his results supported our work.  
    I asked an associate of Plomin – one interested in our ideas – and was told there was no chance of it ever happening. 
    Some of the events in our push toward publication might also clarify the picture: one editor who had expressed interest called up, crying, and explained that the dean had said he’d close down the journal if our article was published. In another case, an editor rejected on the grounds the the Ashkenazi Jews had been farmers in the Middle Ages: which mistaken idea I figured he had picked up from Fiddler on the Roof, which he admitted was the case. When I told him enough to correct thaat misapprehension, he went on to say that we might well be right (judging in part from hsi teaching experience), but that of course his journal would never publish anything so controversial. So why a six-month review process when the answer was foreordained? Ya got me.  
    In another example, someone interviewing at the University of New Mexico was asked about sphingolipid mutations and intelligence (it was related to his thesis) and he said he couldn’t afford to think about it – he wasn’t Harpending.  
    I doubt if any university IRB in the country would approve it. I doubt if the Feds would ever fund it – with the exception of one possible scenario, but probably not even then. 
    Still, there are ways. It’ll happen.

  12. To shift the topic slightly, it’s worth pointing out that experimental verification is the key to deciding whether the CHH hypothesis is correct — it really could be incorrect. It’s not enough to decide that the hypothesis is offensive as Professor Neil Risch did. And Risch and R. Brian Ferguson are incorrect that the hypothesis can’t be tested. It’s also not enough to point out that the hypothesis is consistent with the available data. 
    Considering that (1) good examples of hybrid vigor are few and far between and (2) that few if any variants have been conclusively associated with IQ differences, this should be a very high priority line of research. The question to the scientific community is whether we collectively have the integrity to examine this hypothesis. If not, then it speaks very badly about the state of the human sciences.

  13. When we were working on that paper the big empirical question was whether or not a bottleneck could explain the disease pattern. The bottleneck hypothesis was well established, Monty Slatkin had shown that it was (remotely) plausible using neutral theory, IOW assuming that the effect on homozygotes could be ignored, and so on. All the work went into testing that. Turns out we could have waited a year or so: Olshen et al. and the recent paper from David Goldstein’s group show that there is no hint of a bottleneck. We were working from a much poorer set of data but we found the same thing. 
    Now folks are picking at us for not testing the disease part of the hypothesis but I see an easy out. Who has access to the Jewish disease community, who has the name in this field? Risch, of course. I am sure he will step right in and help us out with the study everyone wants us to do. 

  14. Greg,  
    fair enough, I can see why you’re a bit frustrated.

  15. I wonder how they were able to do the IQ study on ASPM and microcephalin.

  16. Most people outside the field of science, like me, have no knowledge of or personal experience with the politics of the university/research system. Yes, we know of the politics that exist where we work, but for a variety of reasons, we are naively unaware of what kinds of research are approved, what kinds are denied, and why. That doesn’t mean we are uninterested, doesn’t mean we are dispassionate. We simply don’t have the information. 
    Discovering this blog and some other science blogs has been an eye-opener for me, but not all of us outside the fields in which many of you roam have the luxury of time to devote to reading such things.  
    What we DO have time for is reading the weekend newspaper and coming across an article such as the one Ms. Kaplan wrote about the Ashkenazim. It’s at this level, reading an article in a newspaper, or seeing an interview on the local news, that the average person would hear of such ideas. 
    So, while the rest of you bang your heads against the wall, or scratch them, as the case may be, you must understand that while most of the masses lack scientific knowledge that goes beyond high school biology, while we may have struggled with calculus or never taken it at all, we can be educated, and when we hear or read something that interests us or ticks us off, we can, eventually, be of help. 
    I think that people in the hard sciences do not understand that they must actively market their ideas, market them outside their fields in ways that can reach the widest audience, the very audience that, yes, will have the most difficulty understanding the specifics of such ideas, but that’s okay. We don’t need to understand the specifics of genetics to understand what was said in that article. What so often happens is that those in the pseudo-science market themselves and their “ideas” and it’s that pablum we get rather than the stuff that matters.  
    That LA Times article reached a lot of us, the unwashed. Maybe that doesn’t seem like a big deal to a lot of you, but it is. When you can’t get around review boards, you need to get your ideas out to the average guy who eventually plays a significant role in the spread of ideas. Once an idea is out there in the general public, it has to be harder for review boards to ignore it.  
    So, what do we, ignorant of science, the unenlightened, those who never took a genetics class need to read next in our newspapers? A follow-up article by Ms. Kaplan or another reporter, an article which examines the process, protocols, politics of review boards.  
    While the idea of forbidden subjects was illustrated in Kaplan’s article through the remarks of a “scientist,” it was not the focus of the article. A series of articles on such a subject would be great, and I , for one, will write her and her editor and suggest that they consider such a series.  
    I don’t mean to sound like a Pollyanna, but I do think the power of the little guy is often forgotten.

  17. BL, you’re absolutely right. Also, see the Snyderman & Rothman book ‘The IQ Controversy’ on how the media has generally distorted or avoided these topics misleading the public. 
    In terms of the LA Times article here’s a very negative piece by PZ Myers. He seems to protest a little too much? 

  18. Popular militant atheist and leftist blogger PZ Myers has a post up criticizing Gregory Cochran’s theory on Ashkenazi intelligence which was written in response to the LA Times article.

  19. I discovered Pharyngula, Myers’ blog, not long after I discovered gnxp. On almost all things touching social issues, I have found Mr. Myers’comments to be predictable, sounding as if they come from a moralizing sociologist, not a biologist. I realize that in science, ethical questions are often of great import, yet somehow, at least with me, his point of view lacks the scientific objectivity I had, perhaps naively, expected of scientists. I haven’t yet read what he has to say about the interview in the Times.  
    Having attended college in the late 60s, I am familiar with the mushy thinking of the times, and like most, I fell victim to it for a very long time, until age provided some wisdom and a more inquiring mind.

  20. BL, you don’t sound ‘wise’, you sound like you are a disillusioned old man with a chip on your shoulder.  
    Please refrain from dressing your personal views up as “objective” and “common sense” – in reality, you just sound like the moralising sociologist that you claim to detest in others. 
    As for Cochrane’s hypothesis, I feel very underconfident about the science behind it – in fact, I am having a hard time trying to figure out how they came to their conclusions – there is no correlation between the phenomena – such phenomena has been adequately explained by other disciplines and his work adds nothing to the field of evopsych, except controversial debate.  
    But the experiments should go ahead…if for no other reason than to placate the Cochranite fan club that has risen out of this.

  21. From the PZ Myers post
    Posted by: wgc | April 20, 2009 11:59 PM 
    The molecular genetics of Tay-Sachs disease support the idea that the loss of the hexosaminidase A enzyme, which is required for the degradation of glycosphingolipids has an adaptive advantage. There is more than one mutation in the Ashkanazi population that result in hexosaminidase A loss. The most common, a single base insertion resulting in an abnormal, non-functional protein product is 70%, but there are others that are found at a higher frequency than in other populations. This argues against a founder principle or genetic drift for this particular disease, at least. It does not say what that adaptive advantage is. 
    Slatkin (1994) argues that a founder effect associated with a population bottleneck associated with the Jewish Diaspora could explain the elevated gene frequencies, but I feel that his model fails to explain multiple types of mutations affecting the same enzyme. 
    Other mutations affecting the glycosphingolipid degradation also occur at a higher frequency in the Ashkanazi population (Nieman-Pick disease, Gaucher disease, and Mucolipodosis IV, which is not an enzyme loss, but a loss of the ability to import lipids into the lysosome for degradation. Since all four such mutations affect glycolipids, which are common in neural tissue, that is the basis of the proposal that they yield elevated intelligence (in the heterogyzous state, since the homozygous state is reproductively lethal). 
    Note that the loss of the enzymes in question also occur in other populations at frequencies consistent with random mutations. And, the pattern of mutation type is much different from that found in the Ashkanazi population, supporting the conclusion that these mutations are fixed in this population, although that can occur through an adaptive advantage, random drift, or a founder effect. 
    Multiple gene defects being associated with a single condition has a precedent in resistance to malaria. Not just sickle cell trait (heterozygous for beta-S-globin, but hemoglobin C, alpha-thalassemia, beta-thalassemia, glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase deficiency, and some others have elevated gene frequencies in populations where malaria is endemic–actually, compare against the incidence of malaria 100 years ago before eradication efforts. I remember reading a review by David Weatherill a number of years ago that claimed that ten or twelve different mutations are associated with being from regions of malaria. 
    So, the Cochran-Harpending idea is possible. I think that there is a lot of hand waving about selective conditions for intelligence in their proposal. But, the data already exist to test it, as Pinker proposes. Not just for Tay-Sachs, but for the other diseases. The gene frequencies of carriers are high enough (1:31 for Tay-Sachs and 1:16 for Gaucher disease for example) that enough data already exist. Pick your favorite test (IQ, SAT, etc.) and see what comes out when carrier and non-carrier siblings are compared–if you are brave enough to do experiments in this field! Just look at some of the comments above. 
    If you want to get references and descriptions of some of these defects, check out the Online Mendelian Inheritance in Man (OMIM) at the NCBI.

  22. MV said, Bl, you don’t sound wise, you sound like you are a disillusioned old man with a chip on your shoulder. 
    MV, sorry you feel that way. As for my being a “disillusioned old man”? First, I am woman. I used the word guy in its generic sense in case that was the reason for your supposition. Second, I do think age, even the tender age of 57, confers some wisdom that the certitude and obstinance of youth often prevents, and that is the wisdom that we shouldn’t be quick to dismiss ideas before we’ve examined them completely or because we don’t like the people who propose them. Next, as for my having a chip on my shoulder? I looked back at my post and at first didn’t find any suggestion of that in what I wrote until I realized that my calling myself one of the “unwashed,” one of the “unenlightened” is what you were referring to.  
    At that point I realized that my saying that could indeed have left you with that impression, and if so, it’s an impression I didn’t intend to create. Thus, if the “chip” was inferred from those comments, your comment on that point is well-taken. However, I can only say that my use of those words was meant to emphasize that people like me, those whose careers are outside the sciences, are still interested in science and the issues that arise in science even if we can’t understand highly technical points that only experts in the field would understand. I meant to suggest that if ideas are having a difficult time escaping the confining walls of academia and the rooms in which boards meet, an alert and interested audience exists beyond those walls. 
    My point, which I have a feeling you missed, is that in all fields there exists the shout-downs, the sound and fury that serve to muffle thought. That serves no one. It’s not as if Henry Harpending and Greg Cochran are unknown know-nothings, after all. 
    As for my being a “moralising sociologist” like those I detest? I never used the word “detest.” It’s a pretty strong word, but yes, I do think it’s bad if we only seek that which somehow confirms our worldview and condemn that (or fail to give it a hearing) which might seem to contradict it. 
    As for my “refraining” from “dressing up” my personal views as common sense? Hmmmm. Seems that all I suggested was that ideas deserve to be heard and that we ought not to condemn them if they don’t fit our biases. Sounds pretty common-sensical to me. So, to your request? No can do.

  23. As for Cochrane’s hypothesis, I feel very underconfident about the science behind it – in fact, I am having a hard time trying to figure out how they came to their conclusions – there is no correlation between the phenomena – such phenomena has been adequately explained by other disciplines and his work adds nothing to the field of evopsych, except controversial debate. 
    You’ve got a sketch of an opinion, but as written it seems pretty thin on concrete facts.