THE BLOG
05/27/2008 04:12 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Gene-Mongering in the New York Times : How to Twist Science to Suit Your Fancy

The May 27, 2008 editorial column in the New York Times contains a six paragraph ditty entitled, "It's the Genes, Stupid."

Since the New York Times bills itself as the "newspaper of record", you look, you read, your head shakes in disbelief.

According to the editorial, "there is tempting evidence of a hereditary component in political choices."

Sorry, it's not true. Every study that purports to show such an hereditary component involves conclusions based on problematic assumptions about the meaning of "heredity." No tempting evidence.

According to the editorial, an example of evidence for a hereditary component of political choices is "a strong correlation between the partisan choices of parents and children."

Sorry, it's a myth that familial social preferences imply genetic causes of those preferences.

According to the editorial, studies comparing identical and fraternal twins suggest that genes are at work alongside the social and psychological influences of parents.

Sorry, the only evidence that "genes are at work" involves genes in the work of physiology and biochemistry, not the work of political choice. Try thinking how you get from one to the other. As for twins identical and fraternal, there's a raging debate about the significance of such studies, a debate largely ignored by the press.

According to the editorial, political scientists at the University of California San Diego have identified specific genes associated with voter participation and partisanship.

Sorry, what was "identified" were different alleles of two genes, and as the authors state in a footnote in the preprint, the identification is not specific because other genes may instead be involved via linkage disequilibrium.

According to the editorial, the political-scientist researchers tell us how their "identified" genes work in terms of release of neurotransmitters mediated by stress. According to the Times, "people who are better at handling stress deal better with the conflicts and strains inherent in forming political opinions and voting."

Sorry, the speculation about mechanism is just that -- speculation. And in this case, it's speculation about problematic gene identifications couple with simplistic assumptions about the effects of stress on political choices.

In general, genes involved in neurotransmitter synthesis or breakdown are also involved in every damn thing going on in the brain. It's also true that the expression of genes is affected by development and environment, so it's difficult to know what we're looking at when we see a correlation between some molecular genetic data and some psychosocial survey.

Which brings up what's not mentioned in the Times editorial: the people in this survey were in the age group 18 to 26 only (average age 22), and they were asked whether or not they voted in the election of 2000. Is that a basis for grand political speculations?

Finally a terminology error for the Times editors: 5HTT stands for 5-hydroxytryptamine transporter. You don't write it as "5HTT transporter" -- because "transporter" is already given by the second T. Editorials in the newspaper of record need to be as precise about science as about anything else in the newspaper.

At least we can hope for that.