Twin studies, and associated bull….

Aug 27th, 2011 | By | Category: Social & Ethics

So the blowback to the twin studies piece in Slate that Trey discussed earlier is rolling in. Razib Khan did another item on it today, collecting several other posts that addressed some of the flaws in Brian Palmer’s Slate article (one at GenomesUnzipped, and two oddly at economics sites: Jason Collins and Alex Tabarrok).

But so far nobody has figured out why this article is out there, and the direction it took. Well, I have a theory. It’s about the fear of technology.

Razib pointed out that there is a series of articles at Slate on twins–so I went to look at it. Look at the series titles–and see what your sense is of the tone of this:

Looks to me like twins are taking over! and parasites! and are they superior??!? are the take-home messages here. There was a great deal of discomfort over that article in the NYTimes recently that addressed reduction of multiple births. That’s a case of technology changing and resulting in questions about where we’ve come with this.

I think the fear of where the technology is going is the root of the current assault on the twin studies. You can see the other discussions for more details about their technical validity. But I don’t think that’s what that story was about. I think it was rooted in the backlash we are starting to see on genomics.

For me the most telling part of the article was this:

Our knowledge of the human genome is far too superficial for anyone to be making percentage estimates of the extent to which our biology sets our destiny. Consider the unfortunate story of the Texas rancher who cloned his beloved, sweet-natured bull only to find that the new model was the polar opposite in temperament. The clone gored his master repeatedly, dislocated his shoulder, ripped open his scrotum, and fractured his spine.

See, we’ve created Frankenstein bulls!! OMG!!1! Eleventy!!1!!! We’ll be gored at our scrotums!!1! Now, I read a lot of agricultural genomics stuff–I suspect more than a lot of the people who are taking on the twin studies technical aspects–and that’s probably why this piece caught my attention more. There have actually been amazing advances in agricultural genomics–but those are only peripherally affecting the zeitgeist at this point, partly because of the fear of cloned beef, among other things (BBC: cloned cow offspring ‘in UK food chain’). Most people aren’t aware of the whole scope of this right now.

For me this is just another piece of the genomics backlash that’s forming. The first real evidence if this for me came from the environmentalists perspective. These are folks who want you to eat nothing but organic foods and to help them battle teh toxins in our environment (and you can donate to their organizations to do this). Others want to sell you detox potions that will help rid you of teh toxins. Others think the new world order is stealing your DNA for nefarious purposes. And some people are unfortunately mentally ill and using genomics as their focal piece.

I don’t know that we’ll be able to prevent this. I think all we can do is try to get good information out there. But my suspicion is that there will always be a core set of folks who don’t want anything to do with genes and genomics. And we’ll be battling the fears and misinformation for decades.

Edit with new link: another economist blog weighs in. What’s up with that? Are they just such stats geeks? Anyway–here:  http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2011/08/are_twin_studie.html

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