Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Progressives should not "Embrace the Genetics of Education." Nor should anyone else.

A new study (which I hope to critique in the next week or so), has all the usual suspects excited and touting it as some conclusive proof of their genetic assumptions.  I would like to specifically address this NY Times Op-Ed from Paige Harden, PhD.  I'm sure she feels that it is well-intentioned and focused on the best interests of society, but that is exactly the problem.  What is really happening in this piece is the use of genetic assumptions to justify a world view.  Let's start with the title:

Why Progressives Should Embrace the Genetics of Education

Before we even start, think about that for just a moment. "The genetics of education." 
Really, anyone with half a B.S. detector, should be wondering what exactly is being talked about here.  It would be enough of an argument to cite the genetics of intelligence, or the genetics of liking cherry pie, but think about what exactly would go into a person getting and completing a college education.  The idea that there is some set of genes that dictate something like that shows such a rigid understanding of the human mind that I would write it off as laughable if there weren't so many otherwise intelligent people buying into it.  
I will divide my critique into two parts (three if you count the critique of the study to come later).  The first part are the scientific assertions being made and the second are her proposed ideas that "progressives" are supposed to embrace.

Let me start with this sentence in her conclusion:
Genetic differences in human life are a scientific fact, like climate change. 
The idea here is to mock anyone who questions results of GWAS studies such as this as being akin to climate deniers.  It is insulting and arrogant, really.  Notice, also, the conflation of "genetic differences in human life" rather than specifically focusing on genes for intelligence or educational attainment, as if someone is denying that genes have any role in human life.  Why conflate in such a way?  Perhaps it's because  NO gene has been independently replicated showing a definitive causal link to intelligence or "educational attainment".  So if there are genes for blond hair, there must be genes for intelligence and liking cherry pie and regular church attendance (that last one, I didn't even have to make up).  It's all just "climate" and anyone who questions it is a denier.

Next let's look at what she offers as proof of the study's conclusions.
...but researchers focused on the remaining 1 percent and found thousands of DNA variants that are correlated with educational attainment. This information can be combined into a single number, called a polygenic score. In Americans with European ancestry, just over 10 percent of people with a low polygenic score completed college, compared with 55 percent of people with a high polygenic score. This genetic disparity in college completion is as big as the disparity between rich and poor students in America.

Let's start with the premise that they found "thousands of DNA variants correlated with educational attainment."  We have no idea how they are correlated, but, more to the point, we have no idea IF they are correlated.  These variants were found only in this particular study.  They have never been replicated, and, frankly, never will be.  This has been ongoing for many years in this field, with results of these studies being touted much in the same way as this one is, then never replicated and sliding into the dustbin of history, just as a new study makes similar claims, with all new variants, and is touted in the same way.  Let me point out a few things:
1. As mentioned, no gene has been consistently replicated for intelligence or educational attainment and this, of course, includes the genetic variants "found" in this study.
2. There is no consensus as to how genetic variants would influence educational attainment, on even a theoretical level.
3. Even if a DNA variant was EVER conclusively "correlated" to intelligence or educational attainment, this does not show that it has any causal relationship anymore than the (oft-used example) presence of genetic variants common in the Asian population would indicate causality for the increased prevalence in the use of chopsticks.  
Next, there is the issue of polygenic scores.  The reason that these have become popular for those conducting GWAS studies of late is quite simple.  They have been unable to replicate any of their findings.  Using polygenic scores, they no longer need to bother with things like significant p values and replication.  If they can find a way to correlate, this is a kind of back door validation of their results.  As yet, to my knowledge, there is no consensus as to the validity of using polygenic scores to demonstrate anything.  In fact, they have come under quite a bit scrutiny of late due to concerns about stratification skewing results even for something as concrete as human height, with the suggestion that there are as yet unrecognized stratification issues.
The study used to justify this OpEd has such a problem, in that, the predictive value of the polygenic score has almost no validity for African Americans.  It only seems to work on whites of European descent.  Harden glosses over this in the piece, with the implied assumption that they will eventually come up with a polygenic score that works for African Americans.  Well, that's interesting, isn't it?  The premise here is that African Americans have an entirely different set of genetic variants than white Europeans related to their educational attainment.  So, separate but equal, if you will.  Of course, the idea that African Americans have different genes related to intelligence and educational attainment compared to white europeans can in no way be construed as eugenics...
Really, in addition to the usual concerns, this should raise some obvious questions.  Doesn't it seem like a coincidence that black and white people both have thousands of genetic variants related to intelligence, presumably with a similar distribution, yet most of these are not shared variants?  This, in fact, is the same scenario we see when polygenic risk scores are used for schizophrenia.  Even though the prevalence and presentation are largely the same, the variants used for polygenic scores for white Europeans with schizophrenia, could not be used for predictions for Africans with schizophrenia.  The authors of a study examining this attributed it to unspecified stratification issues.  And that is what should be screaming out to anyone who reads this current study.  Is it possible that what we are really looking at with these polygenic scores is a type of stratification, unrelated to the trait.  The "prediction" is only valid, because the subgroup in question is being flagged by the stratification, which has nothing really to do with Educational Attainment (For my own theory on how this happens, see this entry).  Might that not explain why, for example, the disparity in EA between those with a low and high polygenic scores is roughly similar to the disparity amongst rich and poor.  Perhaps it is indirectly picking up a socioeconomic stratification.
In other words, this whole study might actually be a GWAS with unreplicated genetic variants and a polygenic score that is basically a result of population stratification.  Funny to think about, isn't it? (As noted, I will try to put together a full critique of this study when I have the time and energy).

Okay, so let me discuss some of the suggestions Dr. Harden makes related to the "evidence".  Let me say something first, though.  As someone who considers himself on the "progressive" end of the political spectrum, there are few things I find more condescending than someone saying, "Why progressives should embrace <insert dubious thing here>."  It comes off like some adult trying to guide the little children to the "correct" viewpoint.  I've heard arguments for it for Wars, nuclear power plants,  banning abortion and any host of other things.  Don't bother.  We have our own minds, thank you.  It is also disingenuous to try and paint this as "progressive."  Instead, Dr. Harden might ask herself if she is really sure that she isn't wading into a kind of "eugenics lite".  Although she may scoff at the notion, and I'm sure she is probably genuine in that scoffing,  the fact remains that she is making arguments in favor of a genetic stance and the argument that it is for the betterment of society is not really as different from those who've made similar arguments in the past.  Take, for example, this quote:
College education is a fault line in American society. Men who didn’t graduate from college have not had real gains in wages since the 1960s, and white Americans without a college degree are increasingly dying “deaths of despair” — liver disease from alcoholism, overdoses from opioids, suicides. 
If only we can help these genetic misfits get a college degree...  Really, can any of us silly progressives think of any other solutions to these difficulties?    And, of course, it's not about race, either:

...their results have no implications for understanding racial disparities in education. Also, when researchers looked at African-Americans, the genetic variants only minimally predicted educational outcomes. Many more studies will need to be done before we can come close to understanding fully the role of genetics in the American education system.
At least, it's not about race, until it is.  But once we get those genes for African Americans, we can help them, too...
It is cringeworthy to read some of Dr. Harden's stated reasons for the benefits of genetic findings for EA:
First, these genetic results reveal the injustice of our so-called meritocracy. As a nation, we justify stark inequalities with the idea that people who stayed in school deserve more than people who didn’t finish high school or college — more money, more security, more health, more life.
First, "progressives" don't need genetic studies to reveal the injustice of our so-called meritocracy.  Nor do progressives generally consider this to be a meritocracy.  This is a case you can make to the Ayn Rand, libertarian set, many of whom already border on a eugenic mindset, or at least that of an aristocracy.  Likewise, she follows this up with this:
By showing us the links between genes and educational success, this new study reminds us that everyone should share in our national prosperity, regardless of which genetic variants he or she happens to inherit. 
Yes, progressives are somehow the ones who need to learn this...  There is something insanely naive about the idea that we are going to use genetic findings to help everyone go to college and then... prosperity for all.  It ignores a very savage, greedy, racist, warmongering society.  There will continue to be poverty and wealth disparity, not because of the untapped abilities of the genetically lacking, but because that is exactly what our government strives for and will continue to strive for.  Contrary to her opinion, it should be obvious to anyone that genetic differences will be used in the same way that they always are: To justify the State's policies and vilify and blame the poor for their failings.
While I personally think that the study in question does not show what Dr. Harden thinks it shows and I very much doubt that we will ever find true genes for intelligence or educational attainment, it doesn't really matter, does it?  Because we have stories and Op-Eds  for some of the largest news organizations saying it is so, thanks to articles like this one.  No one needs to say it out loud.  It is just more fodder for those who want to justify a classist, racist, society.  That is what you are offering, Dr. Harden, whether you are aware of it or not, and little else.


  1. Thank you for this lucid analysis!

  2. Thank you very much for writing and posting this important analysis. It should be circulated and discussed widely.

  3. Thanks for this, which I quoted in this post: