What your genes mean for your education
Start thinking about BioEthics, folks
- A study from the U.K. is arguing that they've determined which genes have an impact on your education.
- Pay attention to the terms "twin studies" and "heritability."
- Even after you've had a look at those two terms, there's still some stuff here worth looking at and thinking about.
Zip codes have an impact on educational outcomes. Having a teacher that looks like you has an impact on educational outcomes. Having students that are well fed in a comfortable environment has an impact on educational outcomes. Keeping students away from pollution has an impact on educational outcomes. Class can have an impact on educational outcomes, especially given the relative long-term stability of intergenerational transfer of wealth, as Thomas Piketty flagged in Capital.
But a study recently published in Nature seeks to continue recent research by arguing that genes themselves have an impact on educational outcomes in the U.K. and that 'success' in education is something that can be inherited on from one generation to the next.
Currently existing research seems to suggest that this method of prediction can be difficult to do well: an international team of scientists published a study of over one million individuals of European descent that sought to determine how genes influence how long someone stays in school this summer. Yes, the study was able to statistically predict the achievement of 11% of those surveyed as a collective group — which is an achievement in and of itself — but "when the team tried to use these genetic variants to explain differences in schooling time among African-Americans," Carl Zimmer writes in the Times, "the predictions failed." The predictions also failed — as Ed Young notes in The Atlantic, with handy charts to back all this up — when it came to "predicting the outcome for any specific individual."
Which brings us back to the study of twins by Kaili Rimfeld at King's College London along with others. To study twins is to study genetic difference between two individuals and the impact the environment might have on the twins. (Given how twins share so many traits — they come from the same womb, et. al. — it is easier to track the impact of environmental factors than not.) To examine heritability is to examine the statistical variation of certain traits — i.e., a twenty-percent likelihood that your eyes might be a certain color as opposed to something else. It's also worth noting that there has been long-standing criticism of using twin studies to determine heritability. As was pointed out in 1996 —
" …the 'heritability' estimate – often taken to mean the influence of trait-specific genes – is merely a statistical abstraction derived from a matrix of correlations; this estimate encompasses many buried environmental effects so that 'heritability' does not correspond to any underlying DNA structure."
In the study from Rimfeld and others, they posit that "twin studies have shown that around 60% of individual differences in school achievement are explained by inherited differences in children's DNA sequence."
In explaining how they went about getting these results, the study opts for a path that pre-presumes knowledge. It does not go out of its way to earn any awards for rhetorical lucidity.
So let's go through some of what the study goes through together.
To begin with: the study is probably at its most effective if you think of it as being similar to the study that looked at the linkage between genetic makeup and time spent in school mentioned just a moment ago — that there is a wide-angle lens of statistical truth here that can be examined and mulled over by folks who have a role in education policy.
But, the specifics: when the study speaks of a student's 'school achievement,' the study means to say that they're talking about "teacher ratings, exam performance, and achievement scores."
The study does not make its own case in terms of linking a particular genetic trait to eventual potential intergenerational transmission, which would then give lay readers a better potential understanding of the overall argument being made. It could mention particular studies where a single variation in a single nucleotide — that is, the things that become your DNA and RNA — show certain statistical trend lines of being linked to certain educational outcomes when it comes to reading. The study could then talk about how children born to dyslexic parents can be loosely divided into being at a low-risk of developing dyslexia or at a high-risk and that "dyslexia is influenced by a wide range of environmental and genetic risk factors." The study could then talk about ways in which teachers could engage a student with a learning disability in the hopes of boosting their achievement. The study could then show us how this all plays out at the appropriate level of abstraction.
But this study doesn't do that. Indeed, that isn't this study's purpose or its prerogative. The study's prerogative is to explain how they determined the math that they determined — the specifics of which you can read for yourself here, but which I will summarize as such: they looked at the average of and of variation in traits in five different kinds of twins. The educational estimates they ended up with were similar to or comparable to already existing scores related to "teacher ratings, exam performance, and achievement scores that combined teacher ratings and exam performance." The study also notes that there is a low statistical variation in the kinds of traits one would assume are associated with learning (the study — in this section — doesn't quite make this explicit) amongst twins.
All well and good, more or less, but trouble arises when the study has a go at defining what they mean by 'heritability' —
"The proportion of heritability at each age that is accounted for by genetic effects different from those operating at the previous age can be calculated by dividing the sum of the innovation path squared (Ai) and the age-specific genetic path squared (As) by the overall heritability."
— a definition that only leaves us tempted to leap into the arms of the definition from 1996 once again. "Innovation path" and "age-specific genetic path" each seem to be coined phrases that seek to describe already existing work within the text and don't have a bearing on the nature of the equation the study is using to determine heritability.
Based on the description, one would think that the equation would look like the result of dividing individual performance by each student and the genetic mean associated with each year (perhaps through a compilation of a wide range of various polygenic scores.) But the study also works to incorporate what was learned the year before into the equation as well.
And while working through the math here is — again — all well and good, it's important to remember that — as you go forward reading this; even with certain controls put in place — twins aren't a random sample of the population. Twins are often "born premature" — up to sixty percent! — "have lower birth weights, and are at increased risk for perinatal complications and perinatal death compared with singletons." And though premature births don't necessarily have a negative effect on educational outcomes, that doesn't mean that that's something that should automatically be factored out of eventual analysis determining the role of your genes in assisting your educational outcome, let alone the open question as to how policy can go about seeking to assist this in a positive, proactive way while thoroughly avoiding pop culture Social Darwin implications.
Or, to put it all another way: "Despite the facts that the classical twin studies are still being guided by assumptions made back in the 1920s and that the inherent limitation lies in the study design itself, the results suggested by earlier twin studies have often been confirmed by molecular genetic studies later."
In other words: it might make sense for folks to start thinking about what these results might mean now just in case they might be confirmed by a second similar study in the future.
While legalization has benefits, a new study suggests it may have one big drawback.
- A new study finds that rates of marijuana use and addiction have gone up in states that have recently legalized the drug.
- The problem was most severe for those over age of 26, with cases of addiction rising by a third.
- The findings complicate the debate around legalization.
Cannabis Use Disorder, is that when you get so high you can’t figure out how to smoke anymore?<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="hfrVfwoH" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="0e62d9cb9c0a2361f81e9b5278706614"> <div id="botr_hfrVfwoH_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/hfrVfwoH-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/hfrVfwoH-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/hfrVfwoH-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div> <p><a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK538131/" target="_blank">Cannabis use disorder</a>, also known as CUD or cannabis/marijuana addiction, is a psychological disorder described in DSM 5 as "the continued use of cannabis despite clinically significant impairment." This includes people being unable to cut down on their usage despite wanting to, those who often use it despite finding it severely impairs their ability to function, or those who are putting themselves in danger to secure access to the drug.</p><p>While an understanding that marijuana can be addictive has existed for some time, and the image of the pothead who smokes so much they can hardly function is prevalent in our society, the effects of legalization on addiction rates have somehow gone understudied until now. Importantly, previous studies had failed to consider usage rates amongst populations over the age of 25.</p><p>In the new study, published in <a href="https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamapsychiatry/article-abstract/2755276?utm_campaign=articlePDF%26utm_medium%3darticlePDFlink%26utm_source%3darticlePDF%26utm_content%3djamapsychiatry.2019.3254" target="_blank">JAMA Psychiatry</a>, focused on self-reported data on monthly drug use in four states where marijuana is now legal, Colorado, Washington, Alaska, and Oregon, from both before and after the drug was legalized in each state and compared it to others which have not yet legalized.</p><p>The data gave insights into the drug use habits of the respondents and specifically gave information about if they had smoked at all in the last month, the frequency of their drug use, and if they had ever had issues with how much they were using drugs.The researchers ultimately considered the responses of 505,796 individuals.</p><p>The increase in cannabis usage they found was <a href="https://www.newsweek.com/cannabis-use-disorder-rising-us-states-where-weed-legal-1471170" target="_blank">considerable</a>. The number of respondents over the age of 26 who claimed to have used the drug in the last month went up by 23% compared with their counterparts in states that have yet to legalize. Abuse of the drug by this group rose by 37%. </p><p>Teen usage rose by 25%, and addiction rates rose as well. This increase was small, though, and the authors have suggested it may be due to an unknown factor. The rate of usage or abuse for respondents between the ages of 18 and 25 did not increase at all. </p><p>After breaking the results down by demographics, the primary finding held; adults over the age of 26 are using marijuana more often when it is legalized, and they are starting to use it too much.</p>
The grain of salt<p>As in any study where findings are self-reported, the exact numbers you see here should be taken with a grain of salt. They could be slightly higher or lower. As this study relies on people self-reporting their usage of a drug that is still illegal in many places, it is very possible that the apparent spike in addiction rates is caused by more accurate reporting, as people who live in an area where pot is still illegal may be less likely to report smoking it every day.</p><p>And it should be repeated a thousand times over that correlation and causation are not the same thing. There could be some unknown factor causing these increases in each case. </p><p>Despite these qualifications, the study is still useful in giving us a general sense of what may happen in states that have yet to legalize. </p>
What does this mean for society and drug users?<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="BdVRmwgX" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="d5c2f9e3739c26170f98b48bf07a3444"> <div id="botr_BdVRmwgX_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/BdVRmwgX-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/BdVRmwgX-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/BdVRmwgX-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div> <p>While claims of "reefer madness" are greatly exaggerated, marijuana has several well established and thoroughly studied side <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Long-term_effects_of_cannabis#Mental_health" target="_blank">effects</a>. While occasional use isn't terribly harmful, addiction can be. Lead author Magdalena Cerdá of New York University explains in the study that heavy marijuana use is associated with "psychological and physical health concerns, lower educational attainment, decline in social class, unemployment, and motor vehicle crashes."</p><p>A substantial increase in the number of people who are addicted to the stuff will incur costs to society down the line. <strong></strong></p><p>Of course, a 37% increase in problematic usage means that the percentage of adults smoking too much went from .9% to 1.23% of the population responding to the survey. This makes it far less prevalent than issues with alcohol, which affected around 6% of all Americans in <a href="https://www.verywellmind.com/prevalence-of-alcoholism-in-the-united-states-67876" target="_blank">2018</a>. </p><p>Recently, Big Think's <a href="https://bigthink.com/u/philip-perry" target="_self">Philip Perry</a> wrote a piece about how <a href="https://bigthink.com/want-to-protect-the-health-of-35-million-americans-legalize-cannabis" target="_self">legalization could improve the health of millions</a> by allowing the government to regulate the purity of commercially sold marijuana. This remains true. However, it must be weighed against the findings of this study, which suggests that at least some of these health gains will be wiped out by increased addiction rates.</p>
What does this mean for legalization efforts?<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="bnPA9J9g" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="429e1d17ba031b02d4e79b4f02f54ab5"> <div id="botr_bnPA9J9g_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/bnPA9J9g-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/bnPA9J9g-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/bnPA9J9g-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div> <p>The legalization steamroller will undoubtedly keep rolling along. While health concerns are one factor in the debate over marijuana, it is only one of many. In Illinois, where I live, weed will become legal on January 1<sup>st</sup> of 2020. The legalization campaign and <a href="https://www.chicagotribune.com/politics/ct-met-illinois-recreational-marijuana-legislation-20190531-story.html" target="_blank">legislation</a> were more concerned with issues of social justice, the failures of prohibition, and finding a new source of tax revenue (<a href="https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/breaking/ct-illinois-tickets-collection-agencies-20190703-20190711-gyf77w52mbcdxkaxpleeay277a-story.html" target="_blank">since we're half broke</a>) than with matters of potential addiction.</p><p>As Vox <a href="https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2019/11/13/20962924/marijuana-legalization-use-addiction-study" target="_blank">reports</a>, the authors of the study aren't suggesting that legalization shouldn't take place; that is another, broader debate. They merely wish to present the fact that legalization has a particular side effect that we should be aware of.</p><p>While this study is unlikely to change anybody's stance on if weed should be legalized or not, it does show us a critical element to be considered when discussing drug policy. No drug is perfectly safe, and we have reason to believe that legalizing marijuana will mean that more people will have a hard time with it. Let's hope that legalization proponents keep that in mind as they rack up their victories. </p>
Tea and coffee have known health benefits, but now we know they can work together.
Credit: NIKOLAY OSMACHKO from Pexels
- A new study finds drinking large amounts of coffee and tea lowers the risk of death in some adults by nearly two thirds.
- This is the first study to suggest the known benefits of these drinks are additive.
- The findings are great, but only directly apply to certain people.
Maybe you should enjoy this article with a cup of coffee or tea.<p> The <a href="https://drc.bmj.com/content/8/1/e001252?T=AU" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">study</a> involved 4,923 type 2 diabetics living in Japan. The average participant was 66 years old. All of the participants were taken from the rolls of the Fukuoka Diabetes Registry, a study geared at learning about the effects of new treatments and lifestyle changes on the health of diabetics. <br> <br> The participants filled out questionnaires concerning their health, diet, habits, and other factors. Among the questions were two focused on determining how much green tea or coffee, if any, the participants consumed over the course of a week. The health of the participants was recorded for five years. During this time, 309 of the test subjects died from a variety of causes. <br> <br> Subjects who drank more than one cup of tea or coffee per day demonstrated lower odds of dying than those who had none. Those who consumed the most tea and coffee, more than four and two cups a day, respectively, enjoyed the most significant reductions in their risk of death. This level of consumption was associated with a 40 percent lower risk of <a href="https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/10/201020190129.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">death</a>. </p><p>Most interestingly, the effects of drinking tea and coffee appear to combine to reduce risk even further. Those who reported drinking two or three cups of tea a day and two or more cups of coffee were 51 percent less likely to die during the study, while those who drank a whopping four or more cups of tea and two or more cups of coffee had a 63 percent lower risk of <a href="https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/diabetes-coffee-and-green-tea-might-reduce-death-risk" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">death</a>. </p>
So, should I start swimming in a vat of coffee and green tea?<iframe width="730" height="430" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/LY0E-JQxeoY" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture" allowfullscreen></iframe><p> Not quite. </p><p> The primary takeaway from this study is that Japanese adults with type 2 diabetes who drink a lot of green tea and/or coffee die less often than similar people who do not. If this effect is caused by something in the drink, lifestyle choices people who drink that much tea all make, or something else remains unknown. The finding must be considered an association at this point. <br> <br> The eye-popping reductions in mortality rates are compared to the risk of death of others in the study. The people who died reported drinking less tea and coffee than those who lived. Unless you have several demographic and conditional similarities to the subjects of this study, you probably won't suddenly be at a two-thirds lower risk of death than your peers because you drink green tea. </p><p> Like all studies that depend on self-reporting, it is also possible that people misstated how much they consumed any one item. The study also did not look into other factors like socioeconomic status or education level, also known to impact death rates and potentially linked to coffee and tea consumption. </p><p> However, it is yet another study in the pile that suggests that <a href="https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/top-13-evidence-based-health-benefits-of-coffee" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">coffee</a> and <a href="https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/top-10-evidence-based-health-benefits-of-green-tea" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">green tea</a> are good for you. That much is increasingly <a href="https://www.health.harvard.edu/press_releases/health-benefits-linked-to-drinking-tea" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">agreed</a><a href="https://www.rush.edu/health-wellness/discover-health/health-benefits-coffee" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"> upon</a>. This study also suggests the benefits are additive, which is a new development.</p><p><br> So, while it isn't time to start the IV drip of green tea, a cup or two probably won't <a href="https://www.webmd.com/diabetes/news/20201022/coffee-green-tea-might-extend-life-for-folks-with-type-2-diabetes" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">hurt</a>. </p>
But most city dwellers weren't seeing the science — they were seeing something out of Blade Runner.
On Sept. 9, many West Coast residents looked out their windows and witnessed a post-apocalyptic landscape: silhouetted cars, buildings and people bathed in an overpowering orange light that looked like a jacked-up sunset.