Slate, science, and Brian Palmer

By Razib Khan | August 26, 2011 10:07 pm

I’m still scratching my head over the rather atrocious Brian Palmer piece in Slate, Double Inanity: Twin studies are pretty much useless. It’s of a quality which would make it appropriate for WorldNetDaily. Here are the responses of Jason Collins, Daniel MacArthur, and Alex Tabarrok. The comments at Slate were rather scathing too. I observed over at Genomes Unzipped that many of the assertions in the piece were in the “not even wrong/what does that even mean?” class. Palmer is apparently a freelancer at Slate, and they’re doing a bunch of stories on twins this week. I wonder if they just sent him the assignment with instructions on the slant, and he took it a little too far. Even if it was a polemic it was a shoddy and embarrassing one. My main concern is that many people perceive Slate to be an organ which publishes “smart” and well researched pieces, and they’ll take Palmer’s screed at face value.

The scientific problems with the article are legion. But still: how does something like this get published in a relatively high-end publication? Brian Palmer has editors presumably. If the copy was an undergraduate paper the prose would be relatively polished, but the overall structure of the argument and the naked guilt by association are marks of hurried sloppiness. The attempt to smear twin studies by association with Francis Galton was pathetic and childish. What next, turn against the concept of statistical correlation because Galton introduced it? There has to be more to this story than what we know. Or perhaps the people at Slate just don’t know anything about science.

  • Mary

    The Tabarrok link is borked for me. I will google, but wanted to let you know.

  • Mary

    Here’s my theory (I expounded a bit at GenomesUnzipped too). This is part of a genomics backlash we are starting to see. I think that the technology seems to be moving too quickly for people who don’t understand it. The discomfort with what is going to be coming out of the genome data–and how it affects individuals–is making them nervous. And fearful.

    One thing I haven’t seen picked at yet is the “scare story” about the bull. See–this sweet-natured bull was cloned and became Frankenstein. I spend more time than a lot of the twin-heritability commenters on agricultural genomics, I suspect. My twitter feed is full every day of agricultural animal (and plant) genomics projects, successes, and farmer’s desires to improve their stocks and seeds. There’s a lot going on here, they are in some ways further than human genomics, but you only got the fear version in Brian’s story.

    For me this is just another piece of the pushback that we’ve been seeing, like the environmentalist versions (Jonathan Latham), and the newborn-screening stuff (Mary Carmichael’s article). I’m not linking because I’ll wind up in spam hell. But that’s where I think this comes from.

  • Jim Ancona
  • dufu

    Speaking of weak and absurd arguments, have a look at this article from the BBC:

    “Is it wrong to note 100m winners are always black?,” by Matthew Syed.

  • Sandgroper

    It’s weird – indigenous players are very over-represented in Australian football, and no one in Oz has any problem with putting that down to the ‘natural ability’ of the indigenous players.

  • juan

    The main thing I read from Slate with any regularity is The Explainer. I actually have that subscribed in my rss reader. And, yeah, my mental model of Slate is that it’s the type of site that well-educated, left-wingers would read. Years ago I read it regularly, less so now, but I still do check in occasionally to see what they are putting out.

    It’s a very Stuff-White-People-Like, NPR-class type of site.

  • lemmy caution

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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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