As I observed before, modern medicine is subject to some of the same statistical issues as social science in its tendency to put unwarranted spotlight on preferred false positive results. Trials and Errors – Why Science Is Failing Us:
This doesn’t mean that nothing can be known or that every causal story is equally problematic. Some explanations clearly work better than others, which is why, thanks largely to improvements in public health, the average lifespan in the developed world continues to increase. (According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, things like clean water and improved sanitation—and not necessarily advances in medical technology—accounted for at least 25 of the more than 30 years added to the lifespan of Americans during the 20th century.) Although our reliance on statistical correlations has strict constraints—which limit modern research—those correlations have still managed to identify many essential risk factors, such as smoking and bad diets.
The Pith: Even traits where most of the variation you see around you is controlled by genes still exhibit a lot of variation within families. That’s why there are siblings of very different heights or intellectual aptitudes.
In a post below I played fast and loose with the term correlation and caused some confusion. Correlation is obviously a set of precise statistical terms, but it also has a colloquial connotation. Additionally, I regularly talk about heritability. Heritability is in short the proportion of phenotypic variance which can be explained by genetic variance. In other words, if heritability is ~1 almost all the variation in the trait is due to variation in genes, while if heritability is ~0 almost none of it is. Correlation and heritability of traits across generations are obviously related, but they’re not the same.
This post is to clarify a few of these confusions, and sharpen some intuitions. Or perhaps more accurately, banish them.