Journalism and “Journalism”

I guess it takes beating a dead horse to get me back on the writing horse.

Results were recently published in Nature, along with a lengthy FAQ, from a study conducted by more than 250 scientists to determine the genetic factors in educational attainment. This study has been ongoing for years, and the last time this group made headlines was in 2016. Here’s an excerpt from The Guardian:

While the work massively expands what researchers know about the role of DNA in reaching educational milestones, the 74 genetic factors explain only a minuscule amount of the difference in time people spend in education. Genetics accounts for at least 20% of the variation seen across the population, but family background, upbringing, and other social and environmental factors explain the rest.

“Taken together, the 74 genetic variants explain roughly half of 1% of the variation across individuals in educational attainment,” Benjamin told the Guardian. For the variant with the largest effect, the difference between inheriting zero and two copies – one from each parent – was on average nine extra weeks of schooling. That means many thousands, perhaps many millions, of genetic variants shape how long a person stays in education.

But that was 2016; what about 2018? Since the NYT has a pseudo-paywall, we will go to The Atlantic for the report:

after scanning the genomes of 1,100,000 people of European descent—one of the largest studies of this kind—they have a much bigger list of 1,271 education-associated genetic variants. The team—which includes Peter Visscher, David Cesarini, James Lee, Robbee Wedow, and Aysu Okbay—also identified hundreds of variants that are associated with math skills and performance on tests of mental abilities.The team hasn’t discovered “genes for education.” Instead, many of these variants affect genes that are active in the brains of fetuses and newborns. These genes influence the creation of neurons and other brain cells, the chemicals these cells secrete, the way they react to new information, and the way they connect with each other. This biology affects our psychology, which in turn affects how we move through the education system. 
This isn’t to say that staying in school is “in the genes.” Each genetic variant has a tiny effect on its own, and even together, they don’t control people’s fates. The team showed this by creating a “polygenic score”—a tool that accounts for variants across a person’s entire genome to predict how much formal education they’re likely to receive. It does a lousy job of predicting the outcome for any specific individual, but it can explain 11 percent of the population-wide variation in years of schooling.

Good introduction. Clear on difference population vs individual, and notes the more refined estimate of variance explained (11%). The Atlantic goes on to note that this is not trivial:

That’s terrible when compared with, say, weather forecasts, which can correctly predict about 95 percent of the variation in day-to-day temperatures. But when it comes to predicting education, it’s comparable to classic factors such as household income or how educated your parents are. “Within social science, that’s basically unheard of,” says Benjamin, who works at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles. “We can explain education as well with saliva samples as with demographics.”

“Education needs to start taking these developments very seriously,” says Kathryn Asbury from the University of York, who studies education and genetics. “Any factor that can explain 11 percent of the variance in  children’s performance in school is very significant and needs to be carefully explored and understood.”

The article could end right there, and we have a good piece of journalism. But the author presses on, and the rest of the article is a very careful writeup of the results and implications, with serious commentary. Fine job Mr. Ed Yong. No averagely intelligent, reasonably educated person should come away from this with concerns. No one, apparently, but Harvard educated Olivia Goldhill of Quartz:

Parents and grandparents and teachers are proud of kids who do well in school. They shouldn’t be.

Earlier this week, an international team of scientists published a paper announcing that they had identified 1,271 genetic variants that are associated with how many years people spend in school. Their result follows on from several other academics’ papers and years of research identifying the genetic variants associated with educational achievements.

Oh. Is the probably-did-very-well-in-school Goldhill confused about the research and implications? It doesn’t appear so. She writes here in the next paragraph and in a similar article in 2017 that this does not mean what many fearmongers believe. So what’s the angle here?

amidst all the worrying over how genetics could influence the way we think about a person’s success in school lies a fundamental, unquestioned assumption: That such an intelligence-based meritocracy should exist in the first place. We are so invested in the idea that academic achievement is a de facto good that we fail to consider whether intelligence should be rewarded in the first place.

Do we have an intelligence based meritocracy? What kind of intelligence? Why is she even talking about intelligence? Is she saying that years spent in school equals intelligence?

If we didn’t associate intelligence with personal worth, there would be as little controversy as the genetics of education as there is over the genetics of height. And yet we use educational success as an indicator of personal value—despite the fact that many of the factors that determine our experiences in school are beyond our control.

Here Goldhill subtly equivocates educational success with intelligence. But educational success is not “years spent in school”, and certainly not “intelligence.” But what is this meritocracy?

An ideal world, surely, wouldn’t be one where the most intelligent do the best, regardless of their family’s wealth, but a world in which everyone’s talents are equally recognized and rewarded.

Are talents not recognized in this world? We have several genres of TV shows

celebrating diverse talents. What is she even going on about?

In 1958, sociologist Michael Young created the term “meritocracy” in a dystopian novel that warned of the horrors of categorizing humans by intelligence. Four decades on, in 2001, he wrote in The Guardian of his despair at how the word had been adapted with none of the negative connotations he intended. “With an amazing battery of certificates and degrees at its disposal, education has put its seal of approval on a minority, and its seal of disapproval on the many who fail to shine from the time they are relegated to the bottom streams at the age of seven or before,” he wrote.

Those who buy into meritocratic ideals “actually believe they have morality on their side” added Young. As they’ve attributed their success to their own inherent worth, inequality has increased. Soaring wages for those at the top are, under the eyes of meritocrats, just rewards for their talents.

Of course pursuing knowledge is a valuable endeavor. But you can gain knowledge whether you’re studying for a final or working in kitchens, farms, concert halls, and railways. The notion that rewards should go to the most intelligent isn’t a sign of a fair society, but a truly unjust one.

Do grades categorize by intelligence? Are wages well correlated with degree attainment? Do we need grades for working on a farm? Can you not list work experience on a resume? Are work and education mutually exclusive? What does any of this have to do with genetic research which says little about individual “years in education” (which has little to do with any of the rest of what she wrote)? This whole piece is one disjointed, unsubstantiated, pseudo-moralizing rant. She claims:

I’m confident following arguments and discussions across a range of subjects.

Maybe following them, but apparently not making them, and we know a thing or two about confidence and ability. In support of the counter-argument that we have no meritocracy of intelligence, I would submit Olivia Goldhill as Exhibit A.



Adventures in Bad Journalism #1

In my opening post I referred to my general disdain for journalists. Not because journalism isn’t important, and not that some journalists don’t do good work, but that most either don’t or maybe can’t. Unfortunately, one cannot simply avoid this by subscription to prestigious outlets. The NYT, FP, Economist, etc. are not immune to this problem. There are at least two serious problems for the reader with bad journalism:

  1. It wastes your time
  2.  It gives you wrong impressions while often providing some actual truth, primarily by burying it.

Years and years of practicing reading has allowed me to avoid as much of problem #1 as possible. But it cannot be entirely ignored or avoided. #2 simply cannot be avoided or ignored. I recently read an egregious and simple example in Foreign Policy. More than 3,000 words on a dead-horse subject (Russian/foreign influence on elections through social media), which could be been limited to the following admission buried in the middle of the article:

FP: American Democracy is an easy target

It is unsurprising that there is little evidence that Russian activities have, for example, led to significant changes in what people think. While social media surely influences what people do, think, and say, it is hard to use it effectively on the cheap. Russian media accounts were only one relatively small grouping among a vast crowd of would-be influencers, each trying to shout down the others. Most of Russia’s efforts likely simply disappeared in the noise.

But a couple of paragraphs earlier:

In some countries, these attacks have had minimal success — creating a political nuisance, but nothing more. In others, such as the United States, they have had greater consequences. This is not because Russian efforts in the U.S. election were crafted with precision, but because American democracy is in such trouble that even relatively inept efforts can succeed.

Out of both sides of their mouth they speak. No wonder people don’t know what is real or fake anymore (as opined by the article), and sifting through all that rehashed garbage for useful information requires far too much energy for it to be worth it for most people. Verdict – bad journalism.