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Saturday, January 13, 2018

My visit to a "shithole" country

Central Managua/WikiMedia Commons
I’ve visited a lot of what Donald Trump might call “shithole” countries in my life, but the one that evokes the most poignant memories is Nicaragua. I spent a week there in 1986, at the height of the U.S.-funded Contra war, as part of a delegation of journalists and artists. There were about ten of us, although I remember only two by name: Bill Press, the liberal talk show host, who back then worked in television in Los Angeles; and Fionnula Flanagan, the Irish actress and political activist. Fionnula, who by then was already well known, had just the year before achieved some notoriety by performing Molly Bloom’s soliloquy in the nude, in the film “James Joyce’s Women.”

The delegation was organized by my good friend Alice McGrath, a legendary political activist who got her start in Los Angeles in the early 1940s coordinating the Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee. In Luis Valdez’s Broadway musical and film “Zoot Suit,” based on the Sleepy Lagoon murder case, her character was called Alice Bloomfield (her “maiden” name was Greenfield.) We became close friends in the middle 1980s, when UCLA’s Oral History Program, for which I worked at the time, assigned me to interview her. As a friend of Alice, I was drawn into a tight group of friends and admirers in California who loved her strong spirit and her dedication to social justice; all of us are still in mourning over her death in 2009.

Alice had invited me to join the delegation, which I was thrilled to do. Our group stayed in a guest house in Managua. Every morning during our week-long visit we piled into a van and headed out to visit various Sandinista politicians, political activists, agricultural specialists, and anti-Contra fighters across the country. One day we supposedly ventured within firing range of the Contras, at least that’s what we were told; we were all skeptical that the Sandinista leaders would put us in danger. But while near the front, we did talk to a female soldier who told us the story, interrupted at times with torrents of tears, about the death of one of her comrades during a fierce battle.

We thought of ourselves as a sophisticated bunch, and treated what we were told, especially by Sandinista leaders, with the suspicion that all propaganda deserves. But at the same time, we were overwhelmed by the incredible kindness and generosity of the Nicaraguan people, with whom we had plenty of unrehearsed contact. We were often left to wander in Managua’s central market, or in the villages we visited, and had encounters that could not have been anything but genuine. Back at the guest house in the evening, we would sit around and share these experiences. None of us had ever met people as nice as these, and we were in a state of shock about it. As Fionnula said at one point, “Something is happening here, and we all know it.”

Most of the people we met were incredibly poor, which made their generosity all the more remarkable. One afternoon our van was heading down a dirt road when a couple of girls, perhaps 12 or 13, waved at our driver, asking for a ride to the next village. He let them in the van where they took a couple of empty seats behind Fionnula. There is no way they could have known who she was, but they immediately formed an attachment for the woman they repeatedly called the “ bella dama” (“beautiful lady”) and fluttered around, firing questions at her between their giggles and laughter. (I must confess that I, too, was fascinated by Fionnula, and did a poor job of covering up my star-struck infatuation with a veneer of coolness.)

The van arrived at their village. The girls, obviously looking for some kind of gift to give to Fionnula, suddenly produced a 20 cordoba note (worth less than a dollar today, but probably a few dollars back then) and thrust it into her hand. Before she could even jump up to protest, the girls were off the bus and running towards their home.

I was sitting across from Fionnula, near the front of the van, and I think I was the only person who could see her clearly. As long as I live I will never forget the emotions that passed across her face as she held the 20 cordoba note gingerly in her hand, all the way back to Managua: A mix of shock and guilt, disbelief and anguish, and, I suspect, hopelessness that she would ever be able to completely absorb why two girls who had almost nothing would bestow a valuable gift on her, who had so much.


I guess I have Donald Trump to thank for inspiring me to tell this story, which I have related to only a very few friends over the past three decades. But it’s gratifying to see that over the last 24 hours, a lot of other writers have also been inspired to tell stories about the “shithole” countries they live in or have visited, and the wonderful people who live in them.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

A Tree Grows in Van Nuys

6032 Woodman Avenue, Van Nuys, CA, as it looks today.
My recent move from Paris to the United States--a return to my home country after 29 years in exile--has provided an opportunity to sift through old files and documents, the remnants of times past. I came across an article I wrote for the Los Angeles Times Sunday Magazine in 1986, not long after the death of my mother. The Times' editors titled it "The Best Offer," although my original title was the one you see as the headline of this post. I always considered it one of the best things I wrote in my early days as a writer and reporter in Los Angeles, so thought to reproduce it here (if you can't share your experiences on your blog, where can you do it?) I think it speaks for itself, so here is the original text.


The house I grew up in, a house on Woodman Avenue in Van Nuys, will be torn down this summer and replaced by an apartment building. My mother died last September--my father died several years ago--and my brother and I came with some ambivalence to possess a quarter-acre of San Fernando Valley real estate. My parents had bought the new stucco ranch house back in 1949, and the orange tree they planted in the backyard shortly afterward is now one of the few vestiges of the Valley's formerly rural character.

For months after our mother's death, my brother and I procrastinated. Should we rent the house out? Should we sell it? Should we keep it for ourselves? On occasion we would confess to each other our fantasies about moving back in and reclaiming that fragment of our past.

We finally decided to sell. Our broker told us that the house was a "cream puff," real estate jargon for a home kept in beautiful condition. For a while we had illusions that a nice family would come along and fall in love with it. My mother, despite her illness, had completely redecorated her home, with new carpeting, wallpaper, draperies, bookshelves, French doors. In the backyard, she had built a swimming pool.

But although Woodman Avenue was just a dirt road in 1949, today it is a major Valley thoroughfare. Prospective buyers loved the house but balked at living on a busy street. And the land along that strip of Woodman had years earlier been rezoned for apartments; single-family homes were on their way out. When the developers began their bidding, we took the best offer and gave up our hopes of preserving the family homestead.

At the moment, we are in escrow. My father had gone into real estate soon after we moved to the Valley, and every night he and my mother would talk about "escrow" this and "escrow" that. To my  child's mind, it seemed like some strange state of being, an eerie limbo. I realized only dimly that, all around my safe little world, houses were going up by the blockful as the postwar Valley building boom hit full stride.

Our house was in one of the first tracts built in Van Nuys after the war. Across the street and just to the north of us was Marlene Dietrich's estate, and behind us, cowboy star Tex Ritter had a chicken ranch. My brother and I walked past the place each day on our way to school, and when Mom had packed a lunch we didn't care for--bologna was the chief offender--we would feed our sandwiches to the chickens that thrust their beaks through the wire fence.

As the Valley grew, so did the backyard orange tree, and every winter the oranges seemed to get bigger. One year, my father, who was then working for the real estate appraisal department of a downtown savings and loan, took an huge orange to work. The photographer for the office newsletter took a picture, but the editor apparently did not believe it was really an orange. When the newsletter was published, the photo caption read: "Morris Balter and a grapefruit from his tree."

Recently, I took a walk through downtown Van Nuys. Most of the landmarks of my youth still stand, though there are many signs of change. At Sylvan Street and Vesper Avenue, the old Spanish-style building that was once the Van Nuys Library is now occupied by the Bureau of Fire Prevention and the Department of Transportation. (I still remember being perched on the back seat of my mother's green 1949 Pontiac, surrounded by books like a pirate among his chests of doubloons, as she drove me home from an afternoon's treasure-hunting at the library.) And the McDonald's on Van Nuys Boulevard just south of Sherman Way, where I had my first "real" job at the age of 17, cooking hamburgers, is still serving up Big Macs by the billions.

When I was a young teen-ager, my best friend, Jerry, and I would walk down to Van Nuys Boulevard every Saturday, looking for things to do. After stopping off at Cupid's, at Victory Boulevard and Tyrone Avenue, and eating those delicious chili dogs under the stand's distinctive sign--a big red heart pierced by a yellow arrow--we would arrive on the boulevard only to discover, as we did every Saturday, that there was really nothing for us to do there. My circle of friends became determined to explore what was outside the San Fernando Valley. As soon as we learned to drive, rather than cruise Van Nuys Boulevard on Wednesday nights as many of the other kids did, we would travel to the ends of the city and beyond. And at the age of 18, I graduated from high school and moved out for good.

I confess that I have always been proud that I "escaped" the Valley, although I wonder whether I would have been better off growing up someplace more "exciting." Perhaps I appreciate Los Angeles and the rest of the world all the more, having discovered it only in stages. And now, 20 years later, I have returned to briefly reclaim my childhood home. Escrow closes at the end of this month. My brother and I will take one more slow walk through the empty rooms and hallways, grasping at memories already receding from our minds.

We will walk through the backyard, pausing before the orange tree, which, we have been told, cannot be saved and replanted elsewhere, because when it is uprooted, it will die. This past winter, for the last time, the tree exploded into great glowing orange orbs. My brother and I picked the fruit feverishly, knowing we would never again taste their sweetness.

And so with one last look back, we will lock the front door gently behind us and surrender it all--tree, house and land--to the forces of inevitable change and, I suppose, progress.


Saturday, November 25, 2017

Reposting of earlier blog

Dear readers,

For reasons that are not yet clear, a blog post from April 2016 was sent out again to those who subscribe to this blog. I did not do this, and I don't know why it happened, although I am looking into it. If it happens again, we can assume that my blog has been hacked and I will take action concerning that.

thank you,

Michael

Friday, October 20, 2017

At long last, human origins curator search begins anew at @AMNH

American Museum of Natural History -- Wikimedia Commons
It's been about 10 months since the last curator of human origins at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, Brian Richmond, was forced to resign his post after an investigation into allegations of sexual harassment and assault. And since Richmond was not allowed to work in the museum during the investigation, which took up most of 2016, that makes nearly two years that the AMNH has gone without an effective individual in that post. It's been a real loss for the public, as well as for biological anthropology and human origins research, because the curator was often seen as the field's public face. That was certainly the case during the many years that Richmond's predecessor, Ian Tattersall, held the position.

One possible reason for the delay is financial: In its settlement with Richmond, the museum agreed to pay him a full year's salary after he resigned, that is, for the entire year 2017. I guess the AMNH cannot be blamed for not wanting to pay the same salary twice

Now, finally, the job has been posted, apparently in time to get a new curator into position by January 2018. Whoever the new winning candidate turns out to be, I hope the museum will vet him or her thoroughly not only for their academic and research credentials, but also for their ethics. A closer look at Richmond's behavior before he was hired might have avoided this long and embarrassing episode for the museum. I say "might," of course, because there are no guarantees.

But the Richmond case, along with the fall of Harvey Weinstein and many others over the past few years, does carry one lesson that I hope will be taken seriously by would be sexual predators: The consequences for sexual harassment and assault can be very severe. The tide is turning, the culture is changing, slowly, but irrevocably.


Thursday, October 12, 2017

A "Second Chance" for Harvey Weinstein--Already?

David Shankbone/Wikimedia Commons
Last Sunday, according to the New York Times, Harvey Weinstein sent an email to agents and studio executives begging them not to allow him to be fired. "Whether it be in a facility or somewhere else, allow me to resurrect myself with a second chance."

Weinstein made this same plea for a second chance in his statement to the Times in response to its October 5 story revealing that he had sexually harassed actresses and others over a period of at least two decades. "I want a second chance in the community but I know I've got work to do to earn it," he wrote.

For the past two years, I've been reporting on sexual misconduct in the sciences, which--like the film industry--is still largely dominated by powerful men, some of whom see preying on younger female colleagues as just one of the perks of their power. When caught, they either deny what the evidence clearly shows they did, or, like Weinstein, start making the rounds of colleagues and also asking for a "second chance."

All too often, when a harasser asks for a "second chance," it means they want no consequences whatsoever for what they did. That's essentially what Weinstein was asking for when he pleaded with industry colleagues to save him from being fired: A little time off for some therapy and counseling, and then full restoration to the position of power that made it possible for him to do what he did over and over again.

Whenever I can, I link to a very insightful commentary published in Forbes in early 2016, by Janet Stemwedel, a philosopher at San Jose State University who studies sexual misconduct in the sciences. It's title is "Advice for the Reformed Harasser On Rejoining the Scientific Community," but I think it applies to any field or industry where sexual misconduct is rife. Stemwedel lays out six criteria by which a harasser might be deemed to have been rehabilitated. Her title is somewhat tongue in cheek, however, because her real point is that too many harassers are asking for forgiveness and second chances long before they are actually reformed.

The six criteria are:

1. Own what you did.
2. Accept the descriptions of the harm you did given by those you harmed.
3. Have your defenders stand down.
4. Avoid the limelight.
5. Don’t demand anyone’s trust.
6. Shift your focus to work that supports your scientific community, not your individual advancement.

For each of these points, Stemwedel provides wise counsel on what they would entail for a harasser who really is undergoing rehabilitation. Indeed, I don't know of any recent case, in the sciences or elsewhere, in which the accused harasser has fulfilled any one of the six criteria, let alone all of them. All of the harassers I know and have written about have yet to get past step one, admitting what the evidence plainly shows they did. Even Weinstein, despite his statements of remorse (now that he has been caught out) is denying much of what he is accused of, especially in Ronan Farrow's devastating piece in the New Yorker.

This week I've been having an email debate with an old friend (a woman, as it happens) about whether those accused of sexual harassment can be rehabilitated and returned to the community, just as we hope to do with those accused of crimes and sent to prison (which almost never actually happens in the case of the Weinsteins of the world.) My friend is concerned that in the swirl of moral outrage we are losing sight of this humanitarian goal.

Yes, people can and do change, and it's not entirely unreasonable for accused harassers to ask for a "second chance." But that plea should come in the future, not right now. It should only be voiced when, by their actions, abusers can show that they have fulfilled criteria for rehabilitation similar to those Stemwedel has spelled out. And, very importantly, it should be clear what a "second chance" really means. In my view, it should not mean that guilty parties be returned to the positions of power that allowed them to exploit others and cause them to suffer (and in many cases, abandon their own careers before they have even begun.)

If all goes well, Weinstein will never return to a position of power in the film industry. Never. And that's exactly as it should be.

Afterthought: If Weinstein really wants us to believe he is on the road to reform, he can start by releasing all of his alleged victims from the nondisclosure agreements he and his minions have forced them to sign.


Thursday, October 5, 2017

Michael Moore on Broadway

I've just returned to the USA after 29 years of living in Paris, and my darling New Yorker daughter thought it would help my adjustment if she took me to see Michael Moore's Broadway show (although I have been spending several months here each year, teaching at NYU, there's nothing like being totally stuck here to heighten awareness.)

It was, indeed, a big help. The show was much better than some of the negative reviews had led me to believe, even if Stephen Colbert's guest appearance seemed to me a low point rather than a high one (too much mutual congratulation for my taste.) But Moore did set the mood properly when he came on stage and started tossing rolls of paper towels into the audience. (For those who have been on another planet these past days, that's what Donald J. Trump did during his visit to Puerto Rico.)

Moore annoys a lot of people, especially those who don't agree with his left-wing politics, but even many of those who do agree with him on most things. But anyone who saw the Trump presidency coming from miles away, as Moore did, deserves a lot of attention in my opinion. Moore not only saw that, but he had a keen understanding of the reasons for it.

That's why I paid special attention when he told us that we should forget about convincing Trump voters to stop being assholes and get on with the job of taking back the country, as they say (Moore, to his credit, did not say that.) That's not what I have been saying since the election, but for the moment at least I think he is probably right. Moore pointed out that if the 90 million people who didn't vote in the last election had done so, we would not be having this conversation (I am paraphrasing him, and have not fact checked those numbers, but you get the point.) And his basic message was that everyone needed to find just a little time to help turn the corner on the current national catastrophe we are living through, each in their own way. It didn't require big sacrifices of time and energy, he argued, just a lot of people doing a little bit.

He reminded me that I am starting to think many of us are spending way too much time at our computers, talking to each other on social media, and too little time doing that little bit that he is talking about. I think it's obvious that is true, given how much time I and many others spend online. Just a 10th of that time each week, doing something to keep the fight going--a meeting, telephone calls to Congress people, etc.--would make a huge difference.

The thing I appreciated most about Moore's more than two hours on stage was the passion he was able to muster, even after doing his show for the 75th time last evening, for building a progressive mass movement, the only solution to the tide of reaction and racism that is now sweeping over us. When his critics can match that passion, I might take them more seriously. Until then, Moore, annoying as he may sometimes be, is my role model.




Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Farewell, and some farewells, to Paris

As my friends know, after 29 years living in Paris my wife and I are returning to the USA. Actually, it's a return for me; for my English wife, it's an emigration (that is, as long as her green card comes through in timely manner.)

The reasons are many and complicated, and I will probably write about them at annoying length in future posts, publications, and memoirs. The one reaction I would really like to put to rest, however, is surprise that I would want to return to the US during the Trump administration. As those who know me well are very aware, that's exactly the time I would be likely to come back--when there is a fight I need to be part of.

Anyway, selling our Paris apartment in the 11th arrondissement and shipping all our stuff to the US has taken up most of our time and energy, except for my latest reporting on sexual misconduct in the sciences. (There is more in that genre to come fairly soon.) Now that the international shippers have taken most of our earthly possessions and loaded them onto a ship bound for an East Coast port I will not name here, it's time to clean up and take care of odds and ends. Also time, of course, to say farewell to friends across the city, and local people we have known for much of the time we have been here.

I went to see one of them today. He is the guy who owned and managed Cartooocherie on the avenue de la Republique, one of those places that refills print cartridges (called cartouches in French) and sells them for reasonable prices. I confess that I have forgotten his name now, but I think it was Pierre, because he actually had a blog on the shop's Web site that I just looked at today. We used to live almost right door to the place, and during that time I often exchanged my cartridges there. When we bought an apartment nearby, I got into the habit--another confession--of buying my recycled cartridges from Amazon.

Several months ago, I had so many used cartridges I did not know what to do with them, so I went back to see him. I said, "I haven't seen you for a long time." He said, "But I see you often." I said, "Why didn't you say hello?" He said, "Because you were always rushing somewhere and walking very fast, I didn't want to slow you down."

That last time I saw him, he gave me a good deal in exchange for my cartridges, if I promised to get rid of my old Hewlett-Packard printer that only took two cartridges--black and color--and bought something that used several multicolored cartridges, like one of the new Canons. He didn't make a big deal about my buying it from him, because he must have realized I would go down to Darty and get it cheaper. But boy, could the guy talk printer cartridges. No visit to the shop had ever been less than 20 minutes, as he explained the economics of recycling the cartridges and gave me stern lectures about how I should be managing my printing supply needs. He was passionate about printing, about ink, and he was such a nice man with such a great sense of humor that I never made an excuse to try to get away.

Today I took down a bag of at least 50 cartridges and I had decided not to ask for anything in return. I would do my recycling duty and repay all the advice he had given me over the years.

I walked in and the guy who has worked with him for the past 11 years was at the counter. "Where's the boss?" I asked. "He died a week ago." How, why? A heart attack, sudden, age 59. Family? A wife and an 11 year old son. We talked a bit about how life was short and unpredictable, and then I put the bag of cartridges on the counter, said goodbye, and walked out.

Not much of a memorial, I realize. But perhaps an appropriate one. And yet another goodbye to a nice and funny man who, for me, was an integral part of this beautiful city.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Death to the Socialist Party--Long Live Socialism!

Emmanuel Macron/Wikimedia Commons
I have been a socialist all of my adult life, although what I mean by that has changed over the years. But a minimal definition would certainly have to be a society which strives for equality for all and in which the rich can no longer prey upon the poor--the key feature of nearly all capitalist systems, but particularly that practiced in the United States.

So it might come as a surprise to some when I express the absolute glee with which I greet the near demise of the French Socialist Party in both the presidential and legislative elections this spring. To put it simply, the Socialist Party must die so that socialism in France may one day live.

I have made my principal home in Paris for 29 years now, although I am now organizing a move back to the United States later this year (more in a future post about why I would, at this critical juncture, abandon a country which has rejected reactionary, racist and xenophobic politics for a nation in which a large segment of the population has embraced them.) So I know something about France and French society. I have lived under two Socialist presidents, François Mitterand and François Hollande (the other two presidents were rightists, Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy; Emmanuel Macron was a member and minister in the Socialist Party, but no longer.) Did French society become more egalitarian and more just under Socialist Party presidencies? No. The reasons are both complex and simple at the same time. I will stick with the simple reasons for now.

The Socialist Party has never tried to transform France from a capitalist to a socialist society. Instead, like most social democratic parties worldwide, its main role has been to try to make capitalism more palatable to those who suffer from its injustices, without changing the basic relationship between the wealthy--who control the economy with a vice-like grip--and the rest of the populace. This sleight of hand, which should be obvious to us all, has been perfected in France as in few other places.

No wonder that France has gone back and forth between left and right governments, just as the United States has done. The Socialists (or Democrats) get voted into office on the basis of their promises, which are quickly broken, and the rightists or conservatives take their place promising to make things better, etc and ad infinitum and ad absurdum. This should be obvious, and is to many, but gullibility, stupidity, apathy, and ignorance--qualities encouraged by those who have control over our societies, both explicitly and implicitly--insure that nothing changes.

So now to our new French president, Emmanuel Macron. To me it is remarkable that he has done so well, because in many ways his politics reflect the Socialist Party out of which he came, but with a twist: He wants to make it easier for French capitalists to hire and fire workers, and is well known here for advocating this. This orientation is the main thing that distinguishes him from the Socialists, who have sometimes tried to enact similar policies but always immediately caved to their base, workers and professionals. I sympathize with the hostility to policies that would erode France's important job security guarantees, in large part because employers don't really want to make it easier to hire workers--they only want to make it easier to fire them. We see a parallel in those employers and politicians in the USA who vehemently oppose raising the minimum wage or even oppose having one at all. Jobs, jobs, jobs, they claim to care about, when all they really care about is their profits (and the data shows that raising the minimum wage increases job numbers in most situations, you can Google those studies or I will discuss them in a future post.)

You can tell that I am still a socialist from what I have written above.

But here's the rub: French unemployment is so chronically high, and the French economy and French society in general are so resistant to change of any kind, that with some exceptions the nation can be characterized by a state of stagnation and a serious  lack of dynamism. This is why so many bright young professionals get out if they can. But unless we find a way forward to socialism, the only choice we have is to try to make capitalism work better. And, I hate to say this, but that is probably France's future in the near term.

This is why Macron is so popular right now: In effect he promises to make France's capitalist system work better, while safeguarding social protections such as universal health care, maternal leave, unemployment and disability coverage, etc. The irony of the current situation here, and any comparisons with the USA, is that even the most right-wing parties in France--including Le Pen's National Front--are TO THE LEFT OF THE US DEMOCRATIC PARTY WHEN IT COMES TO SOCIAL PROTECTIONS. I REPEAT: TO THE LEFT OF THE DEMOCRATS. No serious politician in France would suggest repealing them.

I put that last bit in caps because Americans really need to understand how totally retrograde US society is even under the Democratic Party of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. What happened when Bernie Sanders and others argued for universal health care? What was the reaction of Hillary and Barack when progressives advocated for this? You know as well as I do.

Well, it may seem I am off on a tangent now; actually I am not. But I think you get the point. More on these subjects soon. Meanwhile, I wish Macron and his enthusiastic supporters well as they go through this necessary transition, which promises to be a long one.






Tuesday, May 16, 2017

WHAT IS HERITABILITY, REALLY?

The calculated "heritability" for having two hands is essentially zero.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/Leon Brocard
In the May issue of Scientific American, I critique the latest efforts to find genetic variants that provide elevated risk for schizophrenia, the most debilitating of all mental illnesses. The story is behind a paywall, although I hope that readers will be able to get access to it either through personal or institutional subscriptions. I did, however, provide a synopsis of the main points in an interview with John Batchelor, which is available on his podcast feed.

The article included a sidebar about the heritability of schizophrenia, and some common misunderstandings about what heritability actually is. Lack of space made it impossible to go into much detail, but below I provide an expanded version of the text which includes some additional details. I hope readers will find it useful.

                                                                          * * *

Researchers have been searching for schizophrenia related genes for at least 50 years. What makes them think they will find them?  The rationale is spelled out in the introduction to nearly every scientific paper on schizophrenia genetics: The disorder has a high “heritability.” This term is often interpreted—by many researchers and the general public alike—as a measure of the relative role played by genes. Heritability is usually expressed as a percentage between zero and 100%.

Scientists have estimated the heritability of schizophrenia using several approaches, including studies of twins, both identical and fraternal. One oft cited study dates to 2003, when a research team  reported  a “meta-analysis” of 12 previous twin studies.  (In a meta-analysis, the data from earlier studies are pooled to increase statistical power.) The team concluded that schizophrenia had a heritability of 81%.

However, many researchers argue that heritability estimates for schizophrenia and other so-called complex human traits (ranging from disease susceptibility to how tall a person is) can be very misleading. One major debate  is over key assumptions used to simplify the method. One assumption is that genes and the environment do not interact but have only an additive effect; another is that genes  act independently rather than in concert. Still another, called the equal environment assumption (EEA), considers both identical and fraternal twins to be subject to the same environmental influences. Thus if identical twins are more similar than fraternals for a particular trait, that greater similarity must be entirely due to genes. But critics argue that the EEA is violated in a number of ways, including the greater likelihood that identical twins will be treated the same by their parents while they are growing up.

“These basic assumptions are wrong,” says Roar Fosse, a neuroscientist at the Vestre Viken Hospital Trust in Norway, who led a critical assessment of the EEA published in 2015. But twin researchers have mounted a vigorous defense of the approach, countering that even if the EEA and other assumptions are oversimplifications, the methodology is basically sound. “I don’t think it’s likely that current heritability numbers are substantially overestimated,” says Kenneth Kendler, a psychiatrist at Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Medicine.

But some researchers have an even more profound critique of heritability. They argue that it is not truly an indication of the relative role of genes and environment. The actual definition of the term, they point out, is much more technical:  Heritability measures how much the variation of a trait in a particular population—whether height, IQ, or being diagnosed with schizophrenia--is due to genetic variation among the individuals in that population. “Heritability and genetic cause are not the same,” says Mary-Claire King, a geneticist at the University of Seattle. Peter Visscher, a geneticist at the University of Queensland in Australia, agrees. “It is a misconception that a high heritability implies genetic determination. Human height has a heritability of 80%, and yet environmental factors such as childhood nutrition and healthcare can have a big effect on adult height.”

As an example of how misleading heritability estimates can be, Eric Turkheimer, a behavioral geneticist at the University of Virginia, points to the human trait of having two arms. Nearly everyone in a given population has two of them, and there is normally no difference in the number of arms between identical twins—who share 100% of their genes—and fraternal twins, who are assumed to share 50% of their genes. Thus when heritability for arm number is calculated, it comes out to zero. And yet we know that having two arms is almost entirely genetically determined.


Figuring out what heritability for schizophrenia actually means is key, researchers say, because even the most high-powered genetic studies have only identified about a third of the predicted genetic component. A similar predicament faces researchers working on other complex diseases, including diabetes and Crohn’s disease, where an even higher percentage of the heritability remains unaccounted for. Will this so-called “missing heritability” eventually show up in more sophisticated studies—or will it turn out that genes are not playing as big a role as heritability estimates have long predicted? The jury is still out.

Friday, May 12, 2017

RussiaGate is exciting, but don't let it distract from organizing


The revelations of the past week are dramatic and exciting for those who really want to get at the truth about what happened during the 2016 election. Nevertheless, they could have a down side.

My main concern is that some anti-Trump people might be staking too much on evidence turning up of direct collusion between his campaign people (Manafort et al) and the Russians to influence the election. It's one thing for them to have been in touch with the Russians, and it's another thing for the Russians to have "hacked" the election, but the Russians might have been too smart (they are much smarter than Trump and his boys) to leave any traces that this was coordinated. In fact it didn't need to be, the Russians just could have been working all the angles. 

I'm not saying this is the way it was, but if it turns out that way then the investigations are going to fizzle and the Trumpists will be able to claim there was never anything serious there. It's all fine to be focused on it as long as it does not distract from the need to build a mass movement that will have impact on the streets, and in the voting booth late next year (that's still a long way off.)

Unfortunately, too many Democrats hate doing anything that might involve actually changing anybody's mind about political questions. Instead most establishment Demos prefer to slosh donor money around, build machines, and focus on voter turnout, rather than influence political views. The "return" of Hillary Clinton to political life is a bad sign that way--she represents the very worst of Democratic Party machine politics.