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Via Steve, A Family Tree in Every Gene. Hits many of the major talking points, A. W. F. Edwards & correlation structure, a multidimensional topographical analogy, the use of populational information in medicine and the rejection of the typological strawman. If the middle-brow-journal-of-record publishes it…well, it’s only a matter of time.

Posted by razib at 11:05 PM | | TrackBack The New SAT

Chris Correa offers up a nice compendium of reactions to, and analysis of, the new SAT with a 25 minute essay section.

Among the articles he references is this editorial from the New York Times which questions the value of dropping analogies in favor of a 25 minute essay:

We are living in the age of the false, and often shameless, analogy. A slick advertising campaign compares the politicians working to dismantle Social Security to Franklin D. Roosevelt. In a new documentary, “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” Kenneth Lay compares attacks on his company to the terrorist attacks on the United States.

Intentionally misleading comparisons are becoming the dominant mode of public discourse. The ability to tell true analogies from false ones has never been more important. But to make room for the new essay portion of the SAT that was rolled out this weekend with much fanfare, the College Board has unceremoniously dropped the test’s analogy questions, saying blandly that analogical reasoning will still be assessed “in the short and long reading passages.”

The funniest part of Chris’s post was when he linked to this Seattle Times report which highlighted the requirement of the essay being written in cursive, not in print:

“We were all laughing,” Jenkins said. “Most high-school students do not remember cursive. We learned it in fourth or fifth grade and have not been required to use it. This was definitely the hardest thing on the test!”

Seeing how we’re entering the Age of the Blog perhaps it is appropriate that students write a 25 minute essay on something they know absolutely nothing about.

Posted by TangoMan at 07:25 PM | | TrackBack The Yuck! Factor

Razib’s been kind enough to let me guest blog here at GNXP, so I thought I’d comment on his post on Headless Humans

But first, let me get the blatant self promotion out of the way! I’m the author of a new book titled More Than Human which I’ve also recently been blogging about. The book’s about using biotech for human enhancement – gene therapy, genetic engineering, smart drugs, brain computer interfaces, that kind of thing. It also looks at the ethics and social consequences. You can buy a copy at Amazon.

What does this have to with headless humans? Razib rightly calls out that there’s no more logical reason to object to brainless bodies grown as organ farms than there is to object to individual organs grown on lab scaffoldings.

I agree. The “Yuck!” reaction towards headless humans is instinctive, not logical. At the same time, that doesn’t mean it can be ignored.

My personal suspicion is that the Yuck! factor is the single most powerful force that holds back adoption of new biotech advances – far larger than the moral or theological arguments of Leon Kass and other bioluddites.

History, I think, bears this out. A huge number of new biomedical techniques have been initially regarded as disgusting, immoral, or otherwise yucky. For instance, when Jenner introduced the smallpox vaccine, his critics seized on the fact that it had been cultivated from cowpox, and editorial cartoons appeared showing cow / human hybrids. The Catholic Church denounced the vaccine as a dangerous heresy – man messing with powers he did not understand. Malthus, a contemporary of Jenner, voiced that if the vaccine did work it would lead to uncontrollable population growth that would strip the world of all of its resources.

Yet less than two years later, Jenner was a hero. The vaccine worked, and that simple fact won the day. The moral arguments of the Church and social projections of Malthus hadn’t really mattered at all. What had held people back was just the yuckiness of being injected with pus from a sick cow’s sores. But people get over things that are yucky in time, and the best neutralizers of Yuck! are familiarity and any concrete benefits that derive from the product being offered.

Another example I posted about yesterday is in-vitro fertilization. When IVF was first introduced, there was a huge public outcry and people found the idea of “test tube babies” just a little repugnant. It was probably quite fortunate that Louise Joy Brown, the first IVF child, was a cute little blonde girl who grew up with no problems. That, plus the fact that the technique obviously did help infertile couples have children, quickly dispelled the Yuck! factor. It hasn’t dispelled the qualms of critics like Leon Kass, who disliked IVF then on moral grounds and still dislikes it. But with the public acclimated to it, his moral objections no longer hold much weight.

The lessons here, I think, are

1) Even if two things are perfectly logically equivalent from an ethical viewpoint, the less yucky one is going to find easier adoption.

2) The best way to dispel yuck is to deliver value. Once people start having their lives saved by organ transplants from cloned organ banks, cloning is going to look a lot more prosaic, and will start to be thought of like vaccinations, blood transfusions, IVF, and all those other once repugnant technologies.

Addendum from Razib: I haven’t finished Ramez’s book yet-so that’s why no comment from me, but, it’s very informative and entertaining so far. I will point readers to GNXP regular NuSapiens weblog, where he has both a review and interview with Ramez.

Posted by ramez at 02:57 PM | | TrackBack The precautionary principle’s utility….

I have observed before that the Left and Right appeal to the precautionary principle in selective manners. Many environmentalist liberals will appeal to the complexity of natural systems, which evolved over millions of years, to argue against “development” and change. Similarly, conservatives will often suggest that organically developed social institutions achieved through a process of trial and error should not be tinkered with because we do not truly understand the complexity of the system and the ramifications of deleting customs and traditions which we assume must be unreasoning spandrels extraneous to functional considerations (the same unive
rsal acid
at work).

Evolutionary biology and sociology are both complex sciences (broadly speaking) which rely on probability and statistics because of their evasion of deterministic universal laws on any level of granularity. One could contrast this with the physical sciences, where deterministic reductionism has been much more influential (though at its heart the basic quantum level of organization is probabilistic). Though both environmentalists and conservatives do express some caution about mechanical innovation, in general it does not seem to be as great a concern.

But…of course the physical & information sciences in the grand-scheme-of-things undergirds the life and social sciences. Is the distinction truly relevant? After all, the development of the technology usually has important consequences for both the environment and society. There are obvious “sexy” causes like stem cells or SUVs, but it seems likely to me that the internet and cell phone technologies have reshaped human social interaction and their likely impact on the environment to a far greater extent than stem cells or SUVs will for at least a generation.

How should we exactly trot out the precautionary principle? Should we ignore it as a principle and simply accept that its implementation will be ad hoc and contingent upon norms and values?

Addendum: On second thought, I want to make explicit I know that I am not being totally fair to social conservatives and environmentalists, they do often point out the acidic effect of the modern world on human life in a general sense, but in terms of specific activism, they seem to focus on “sexy” topics like the Kyoto Protocols or gay marriage, which seem ancillary to the root problems that modernity confronts those who adhere to the precautionary principle with. Granted, gay marriage or the Kyoto Protocols are issues which have legislative solutions, and legal fiat is relatively easy to manipulate. Nevertheless, I don’t think it undermines my general point, the modern present tears apart the time tested fabric wrought by the past with an unprecedented rapidity.

Posted by razib at 01:01 PM | | TrackBack Education and ethnic groups in England

In a previous post I discussed educational performance in England by different ethnic groups in 2002. Razib recently drew attention to some new statistics. These go up to 2004, and are available in full here (490Kb pdf file). A document covering 2002 and 2003 is available here (254Kb).

Since 2002 there have been two interesting changes. In 2003 the statistics began to include results for mixed-race children, and for 2004 they also include results for qualifications at age 18, whereas previously they only went up to 16.

There is a lot of complicated information in these reports, so I have tried to extract some key points most useful for ethnic comparisons…

For the benefit of readers outside the UK, education here is compulsory for children from ages 5 to 16. There are some differences in the education system and qualifications between England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. The data discussed here relate only to England. In England the progress of children is assessed at the end of three Key Stages, at roughly ages 7, 11 and 14. In the last year of compulsory education (age 15/16) nearly all children take examinations for the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE). After age 16 a majority of children continue in education for at least another two years. At around age 18 most of these take examinations for the General Certificate of Education (Advanced) (the A-level), usually in 2 to 4 subjects. A-levels or equivalent qualifications are normally required for entry to universities.

The data for 2004 cover all of these levels (except Key Stage 3, results for which have been delayed). I have selected data for Key Stage 1, as this is the earliest measure of achievement; for GSCE, which is the last stage for which the data covers a complete age cohort; and for A-levels.

Two limitations of coverage should be noted. First, the data cover only children in state-funded schools. About 6% of children in England attend private (independent) schools and are therefore not included. These are mainly children of parents with high income. The data are therefore probably somewhat depleted in the higher levels of children’s ability. It is possible that this affects different ethnic groups to different extents. It might be supposed that private education would be disproportionately ’white’, but this cannot safely be assumed. Black and Asian middle-class parents are keen on private education, especially as it is often the only way of getting good discipline and/or single-sex schooling.

The second limitation of coverage is that the A-level data only relate to those children who stay in school to take A-levels. They exclude those who do not take A-levels at all, and those who leave school but take A-levels in post-16 colleges. This may introduce some distortion with respect to ethnic groups.

As to the content of the various qualifications, I cannot claim to know much about them. The Key Stage tests assess the achievement of ‘expected’ levels of progress at each stage. It is intended that with good teaching the great majority of normal children should be able to pass the Key Stage tests, and the proportions reaching the target levels are in fact over 80%. In other words, the ’hurdles’ are set relatively low. One consequence of this is that the range of pass rates for different ethnic groups is rather restricted (from around 75% to 90%). GCSE is somewhat more selective. GCSEs are graded from F to A (with starred A* recently introduced as a mark of excellence). The usual measure of ‘satisfactory’ performance is to get passes in at least 5 subjects at Grade C or higher. For GCE A-levels there is a complicated ‘points’ system depending on the number of passes at each grade. See the pdf file for more details.

Like all academic qualifications, one would expect performance on Key Stage tests, GCSEs, and A-levels to be positively correlated with IQ. However, IQ is certainly not the only factor involved in performance, as is shown by the fact that in the educational tests girls perform substantially better than boys, although the average IQ of boys and girls is much the same (see N. Mackintosh IQ and Human Intelligence, pp.182-98 for discussion). Another indicator is the fact that ‘traveller’ children (gypsies, etc), whose education is frequently disrupted, perform far below other ethnic groups. So the educational data give at best a very imperfect guide to IQ levels.

I will extract data for the following ethnic groups:

W = White (n1)
W/BC = Mixed White and Black Caribbean
W/BA = Mixed White and Black African
W/A = Mixed White and Asian
A = Asian (n2)
I = Indian
P = Pakistani
Ba = Bangladeshi
Bl = Black (n3)
BC = Black Caribbean
BA = Black African
C = Chinese (n4)
All = average for all children

n1: in the full data ’White’ is subdivided into White British and several other smaller groups.
n2: ’Asian’ covers Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and ’other Asian’. ’Other Asian’ covers miscellaneous groups (Vietnamese, etc), but not Chinese. Middle Easterners (Arabs, Turks, etc) may be included in ’other Asian’, but in the 2001 Census most of them seem to classify themselves as ’White’. People of Asian origin via the Caribbean or east Africa usually give ‘Indi
an’ as their self-identified ethnicity.
n3: ’Black’ includes Black African, Black Caribbean, and ’Black Other’. ’Black Other’ may include some mixed-race children, but those who are known to have a White parent should be counted under W/BC or W/BA.
n4: ethnic Chinese people in Britain are mainly of Hong Kong origin. They are traditionally counted separately from other Asians in British statistics.

Now, at last, some statistics. For Key Stage 1 I have averaged the pass rates for the three tests (Reading, Writing and Mathematics) covered in the full data. For GCSE, the figures give the percentages of children at age 15/16 getting passes in at least 5 subjects at Grade C or higher. For GCE A-level, the figures give average aggregate points per student who attempts A-levels. As performance is so different for boys and girls, I have given data for boys, girls, and the average for both sexes. Percentages are given to one decimal place.



*I have averaged the pass rates for the three subjects using percentages for each subject rounded to the nearest point. The average therefore necessarily terminates in .0, .3 (i.e. .333… rounded down), or .7 (i.e. .666… rounded up). Anyone who wants to calculate the averages more precisely from the raw data is welcome to do so!





It may be of interest to put these results in rank order of ethnic groups. For simplicity I will only use the combined boy-girl data.


1. C________91.0
2. I_________89.0
3. W/A______88.7
4. W_______86.3
5. W/BA____84.0
6. W/BC____83.3
7. A________81.7
8. BC______80.3
9. Bl_______79.0
10. BA______78.3
11(=) P_____77.7
11(=) Ba____77.7


1. C________74.2
2. I_________66.6
3. W/A______65.7
4. A________55.3
5. W_______52.3
6. Ba_______48.4
7. W/BA_____47.1
8. P________45.2
9. BA_______43.3
10. W/BC____39.7
11. Bl_______39.0
12. BC______35.7


1. C________315
2. W/A______301
3. W________277
4. W/BA_____268
5. I_________257
6. W/BC_____247
7. A_________244
8. BA________223
9. P_________218
10. Bl________217
11. Ba_______216
12. BC_______203

Ignoring the mixed-race data for the moment, the other ethnic groups show few surprises as compared with the earlier data. The rank order is not very different at the different stages. The Chinese are consistently at the top, Indians are high, and Black Caribbeans are low. But note that Pakistanis and Bangladeshis start at the very bottom in Key Stage 1, and improve somewhat in later stages. Black Africans also improve from a low starting position. I suspect that in both cases this is due to an initial English language deficit, which they later overcome. The other slight anomaly is that Indians slip back somewhat from their high position when they get to A-level. Bearing in mind that the A-level rankings are based only on those children who take A-levels, it is possible that Indian children are under greater social and parental pressure than other ethnic groups to take A-levels, as a prerequisite for university entry, even when they are less academically able. This would depress the average score of Indian candidates. Of course, this suggestion would need to be explored more fully.

Turning to the mixed-race results, the performance of White-Black Caribbean and White-Black African children is intermediate between that of children from the relevant unmixed groups. This is what we would expect if the factors underlying academic performance have a large genetic component. No doubt one could also find a purely environmental explanation, though it is not obvious (to me, anyway) that children of White and Black parents would have a quality of environment somewhere in between that of ‘pure’ White and Black children. But in any case the neat pattern is spoiled by the mixed White-Asian group, who have performance better than that of either of the parent groups (unless we suppose that the Asian parent is nearly always Indian, which is not the case). I suppose it might be suggested that this is due to ‘hybrid vigour’, but I think this hypothesis is ’more ingenious than sound’. It is necessary to remember that mixed-race partnerships are not a random sample of the parent populations, so there could be bias either upward or downward in the genetic and environmental endowment of mixed-race children, relative to the average of the parent ethnic groups. I didn’t expect to find any useful facts on the subject, but I was pleased to find some interesting recent research by Reya Muttarak of the University of Oxford. Indeed it is so interesting that I will devote a future post to it! For the moment, the main point to note is that in Britain mixed-race partnerships are on average associated with higher-than-average educational attainment and social class (relative to the relevant group averages) of both partners. The correlation is particularly strong for Asians, fairly strong for Black women, but less clear-cut for Black men. The high performance of White-Asian children therefore correlates with the relatively high average educational and social level of both their parents. Obviously this correlation could be given either a genetic or an environmental explanation.

I had intended also to discuss the links, if any, between poverty, ethnic group, and educational performance, but I will save that for another post.

Posted by David B at 07:35 AM | | TrackBack

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• Category: Science