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Sunday, October 07, 2012

My "controversial views"

This Lansing State Journal article covers my recent appointment as VP of Research and Graduate studies at MSU. It's journalism, so as you can expect they emphasized potentially controversial topics like my work in genomics. (I expend about 10% of my research effort on this work, but it's much more titillating than the quantum mechanics of black holes!)

In order to set the record straight I have excerpted from the article and added my own comments.
... He is working with BGI-Shenzhen, a Chinese company that runs one of the world’s largest gene-sequencing operations, on a project to identify the genetic basis of intelligence.

The company’s leaders “just want to do science,” he said Friday during a lecture on campus. In other forums, he hasn’t shied away from talking about possible practical applications in genetically engineering a smarter population, someday allowing parents to choose the sperm and egg — or fertilized embryo — that would give them the best odds of having a high IQ kid.

“I hope that progressive governments will make this procedure free for everyone,” he wrote in July on his blog, Information Processing.

“The benefits from increased economic output, decreased welfare and criminality rates,” he added, would more than outweigh the costs.
The lecture referred to is listed here, with a link to the slides. The blog comments referred to appear here. The context is possible future technologies (in my rough estimation, genetic prediction for humans is probably 10 years out, zygote selection possibly 20 years out). This kind of discussion is also known as science fiction (we were discussing the movie Gattaca; see also here) and is a common pastime among geeky types. As I emphasized to the reporter, scientists discover new things and invent new technologies, but in a democratic society like ours it's the electorate that sets policies governing those technologies. My personal position is: IF genetic enhancement becomes possible, THEN it is better for governments to make it free rather than let it remain an option only for the rich.
Shortly after the start of classes this fall, Daniel HoSang, a professor of political science and ethnic studies at the University of Oregon, sent an email to a handful of faculty. Hsu, he wrote, “has taken a keen personal and professional interest in projects with strong Eugenicist overtones.” Because of Hsu’s position of authority at MSU, he said, he felt compelled to warn them.

His concerns were equally about positions Hsu had taken in his blog five years ago: that race is “clearly” a valid biological concept, that whether there are more-than-superficial differences between groups (in areas such as cognitive ability, personality and athletic prowess) is an open question.

Those positions aren’t outside the mainstream discourse of geneticists, though they’re not uncontested. They certainly run counter to the long-held conviction in the social sciences that race is more a social category than a biological one, formed around a distorted idea of human difference. If advances in genetic science have changed the terms of that debate, they have not ended it.

In an interview and email, Hsu said his position on the existence of significant group differences is “I don’t know” and that scientists should be incredibly careful about claiming that such differences do exist “because we have a bad history.”

He also said that, with the rapid recent advances in genetic science, he worries about the gap between what geneticists know and what everyone else does. “That is something that has to be really carefully talked about,” he said, “but we can’t talk about it if only the scientists understand the results and the social scientists refuse to actually try to understand the results.”
Then Assistant Professor HoSang once publicly stated (during a social science seminar at Oregon I attended) that he would "do everything in his power" to oppose another (Sociology) faculty member's effort to explain recent genetic results to the broader field. I found this statement so odd that it stuck in my memory. The paper that elicited the threat is published here. The story behind the publication of the paper (which took something like 4 years; I have read the actual referee reports), authored by a faculty member who has held tenured positions at both Oregon and Dartmouth, is shocking and contributed to my comments in the last paragraph above.

Genetic clustering of human populations by ancestry or geographical origin (also referred to as "population structure"; not something I work directly on) is uncontroversial in genomics. It is illustrated, e.g., here (figure from a paper in Science, obtained via a blog at Discover Magazine -- hardly hotbeds of controversy), and explained a bit more mathematically here. See also this Nature article describing Eigenstrat, a standard software tool used to correct for population structure in genetic studies (yes, it's really there -- we can't wish it away).

In response to the reporter's queries about my opinions on group differences, I wrote
As a physicist I am used to a high level of scientific rigor. Statistical certainty of 99.9% is not sufficient, in our field, to claim a discovery (e.g., a new elementary particle). Thus, the correct answer to many questions (e.g., do electrons have substructure?) is "I do not know".

In addition, I feel it is ill-advised to speculate because of our difficult history with race.

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