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Below are the 2 most recent journal entries recorded in genemyth's LiveJournal:

Sunday, November 6th, 2005
3:59 pm

delete this if it's not relevant please.

I've started a community about gender studies called gender_theory. philosophy of science and of the natural in the formation of gender and the formation of normalcy and queering that normalcy are going to be obvious topics of debate. all are welcome and you don't need to be a phd/bacherlor to join and we're open to the built-in idea that theory is foundational in activism and that opening it up is part of the feminist project/anti-racist project.

thanks for your attention!
Sunday, January 18th, 2004
6:07 pm
This is an excerpt from chapter one of the wonderful book Exploding the Gene Myth: How Genetic Information Is Produced and Manipulated by Scientists, Physicians, Employers, Insurance Companies, Educators, and Law Enforcers by Ruth Hubbard and Elijah Wald:
While most people have never heard of the Genome Project, no one can miss the flood of gene stories in the popular press. For instance, one day's "Medical Notebook" section in the Boston Globe contained these four headlines: "Genetic link hinted in smoking cancers." "Schizophrenia gene remains elusive." "A gene that causes pure deafness found." "Do the depressed bring on problems?"

Once, this emphasis on genes would have seemed surprising, but in the last few years such stories have become commonplace. We all see the articles, but we do not always bother to read them. For most of us, genetics remains something complicated, scientific, and a bit boring. And yet, the subjects being discussed are often very close to home. They include alcoholism, cancer, learning problems, mental illness, sex differences, and such basic processes as aging.

The four Globe stories are typical of most current reporting on genetics, both in the mass media and in scientific journals. They contain a mix of interesting facts, unsupported conjectures, and wild exaggerations of the importance of genes in our lives. A striking thing about much of this writing is its vagueness. In the first headline, for example, a "link" to smoking cancers is "hinted." The story itself says "a report released this week . . . suggests certain individuals may carry a gene that makes them especially vulnerable to smoking-related cancers (italics mine [Hubbard's]). It then tells us that the researcher estimates that 52 percent of the population "may" have such a gene, "if it exists." In other words, it is possible that slightly more than half of us are particularly susceptible to lung cancer if we smoke. The remaining 48 percent of us may be less susceptible, although smokers are still at significantly greater risk than nonsmokers.

Even if such a "cancer gene" were isolated, that would not change the fact that smoking is harmful, nor would it help people to quit smoking or doctors to treat cancer. This information would therefore not be useful to most newspaper readers, even if the article contained valid scientific conclusions. So why is it published? One reason is that both genes and the dangers of smoking currently are of interest to a lot of people. Another is that such information could be extremely useful to cigarette companies. As people with lung cancer are beginning to sue these companies, the companies would love to be able to blame the cancers on people's genetic "susceptibilities." If the people bringing suit turned out to be in a special high-risk group, the companies could disclaim responsibility. If that high-risk group contains over half the population, that is not the companies' problem.

Many new genetic breakthroughs are like this. They do not make people healthier; they merely blame genes for conditions that have traditionally been thought to have societal, environmental, or psychological causes. News reports about such studies fuel the widely held perception that our health problems originate inside us and draw attention away from outside factors that need to be addressed. Scientists did not create this perception, but they contribute to it when their interest in genes keeps them from emphasizing, or even admitting, that there are other ways to explain our health problems.

Witness the next piece in the "Medical Notebook." It begins, "A series of attempts to confirm the existence of a gene for schizophrenia have failed, three years after the announcement of an apparent gene link caused a stir among mental health researchers." If a link cannot be confirmed after repeated attempts, that would seem to suggest that the condition is not genetic. However, the column quotes a psychologist named Irving Gottesman as saying that "studies continue to indicate that a gene or genes creates 'risk-enhancing factors' for schizophrenia."

The studies he refers to show that people who have schizophrenic siblings are somewhat more likely to be schizophrenic than people who don't. Since many psychiatrists think that schizophrenia is caused by family problems, this result is not at all surprising. To call it "evidence" of genetic factors is at the very least misleading.

Like the smoking study, this is a story built on air. Such articles suggest that genes are involved in all sorts of conditions and behaviors, but all they really tell us is that a lot of money is being spent on genetic research. The grandiose nature of the claims disguises the fact that the research is not particularly newsworthy.

The next Globe story gives an example of the more responsible kind of genetic research. Scientists have identified "a gene that causes pure deafness," the first such gene to be found. All the people with this particular form of deafness are members of one extended family in Costa Rica. The fact that this gene has been isolated may help scientists to understand other kinds of deafness as well, though that remains to be seen.

This sort of basic research increases our body of knowledge and can be useful. However, it is not the sort of story that normally gets into the daily papers. It is in the Globe because it is a gene story and, unpretentious as it is, adds solid facts to the featherweight claims in the other stories.

The myth of the all-powerful gene is based on flawed science that discounts the environmental context in which we and our genes exist. It has many dangers, as it can lead to genetic discrimination and hazardous medical manipulations. The last Globe piece is an extreme example of the dangerous and unwarranted conclusions that are sometimes drawn from genetic research. It reports a survey by Lincoln Eaves, a behavioral geneticist, of research by various investigators on twelve hundred pairs of female twins whom the investigators considered to be prone to depression. Eaves said he found evidence of genetic causes for this depression, though the evidence is not provided in the article.

Eaves also administered a questionnaire "asking whether the volunteers has suffered traumatic events, such as rape, assault, being fired from a job, and so forth." He found that the women who were chronically depressed had suffered more traumatic events than those who weren't.

Now, if he were not assuming that their depression was genetic, he might suspect tht they were depressed because of the bad things that had happened to them. However, his interest is genetics. So, the article continues, Eaves "suggested that [the women's] depressive outlook and manner may have made such random troubles more likely to happen."

What kind of reasoning is that? The women had been raped, assaulted, or fired from their jobs, and they were depressed. The more traumatic events they had experienced, the more chronic the depression. This suggests that depression brings on problems? If Dr. Eaves had found that football players frequently get fractures, would he have suggested that brittle bones make people play football? It might have been worth looking for a genetic link if he had found that depression was not related to any life experience. But once he found a clear correlation between traumatic events and depression, why look for a genetic explanation?

Ridiculous as this research may be, the press reports it with a straight face. At present, genes are newsworthy and virtually any theorizing about them is taken seriously. This is not the fault of the media. Science, government, and business are all hailing genetics and biotechnology as the wave of the future.
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