Not enough focus on the nurture element of educational success

What struck me first about Okbay et al. 2016 was the sheer number of people who had worked on it–2 pages worth of authors and affiliations! Now, having lots of authors can be great because:
1) they can collect TONS of data
b) they bring together complementary expertise/resources

BUT science is expensive and there are limited resources ($$$, time, lab space, research positions, etc.) to go around so we need think about how we’re allocating those precious dollars.

So let’s decide whether the extraordinary amount of money that must have been spent on this study was worth it.

This article was called Genome-wide association study identifies 74 loci associated with educational attainment. What was this study about?

These biologists were looking for sequences in the genome that varied between those individuals that had little education and those who had finished many years of school. These sequence changes are called single nucleotide polymorphisms or SNPs (pronounced “snips”).

Say hypothetically that the scientists had found a gene in which most people who had a PhD had a T in one specific spot whereas most people who hadn’t finished high school had a G. This would be great evidence that that gene affects educational success and that changing that specific letter in the gene affects something in the body (probably the brain) that drives an individual along their educational path.

The authors identified 74 gene sequence changes that seemed to make a difference for education. On its face, that’s quite exciting! But how much can we actually predict by knowing what sequences someone has in these 74 genes?

What did these authors actually look at? They were testing a variable called educational attainment, which is number of years of schooling. They found that together the 74 genes sequences can predict about 3-9 weeks worth of educational attainment.

This is troubling for at least 2 reasons:
1) Number of years of schooling is only one measure of educational success. Did these students learn? Did they remember and apply the knowledge? Did they think critically and learn to communicate effectively?
2) 3-9 weeks is not a meaningful amount of time. If we care about education, it’s because people can achieve more with more education. And sure, people with a college diploma tend to do better than people who didn’t graduate high school. But is 9 weeks (which was their upper range!) going to make a substantial difference in one’s earnings/meaningfulness/ability to give back to society?

And sure, if there was a single gene that predicted 3-9 weeks worth of achievement, fine, perhaps that would be something interesting. But these are 74 genes that you have to combine to even see this measly effect.

Other potential problems (a couple extra are described in the video):
1) This study was done on white guys, all over 30 years old. Let’s just set aside for a minute the fact that this is in no way representative of the general population. Instead, as Bill Nye (who I once hugged!) would say:

When we think about education, we’re trying to help the next generation. So how relevant are these findings to a population that grew up in a totally different environment? (just one example: Today’s kids are born holding a smartphone and that access to technology is totally changing education!)

2) These findings are statistically significant but not meaningful. This is a complicated topic that you can learn more about here, but the takeaway is that the statistics here say that while these findings are likely reliable (=you’ll see them over and over again if you keep testing the same question), they don’t actually matter. That is, the independent variable only predicts a small amount (~3%) of the dependent variable. (And that’s not even getting into the fact that this is a correlative study not a causative one, so the words “independent” and “dependent” are pretty questionable.)

3) The authors found that the implicated genes are mostly involved with neural development, but there’s no indication of whether that was their hypothesis or whether they just tested all the possible pathways and only showed us the ones involved in neural development? Deciding ahead of time what hypotheses to test is important for avoid introducing common statistical biases, and we don’t know if the authors did that.

4) If it’s true that this collection of genes makes a difference for how the brain develops, how is it that this difference only changes educational attainment by a few months? How are cells changing their function in a way that has such a small effect?

Are you convinced that 9 weeks worth of extra education is something to get excited about? To pile this many resources into? To publish in Nature, which is a big deal?

And here’s the catch: it was already known going into this study that >80% of educational success is predicted by nurture, not nature. So why aren’t we pouring more resources into understanding and solving the environmental factors that affect education in a huge way? Especially since we’re going to be hard-pressed to change people’s genes large-scale (even if we wanted to), but we can do a hell of a lot to change their environment.

Please chime in with thoughts, corrections, criticisms, or thoughts about:
a) educational studies
b) allocation of resources
c) publishing in Nature
d) nature vs. nurture
e) statistics
f) anything else!


down fifty means a new post!


It’s official: I’ve lost 50 pounds! This means I’ve achieved my second weight loss goal (my first was 25 pounds, my second was 50 pounds down). I’ve decided to make my next goal 65 pounds down, and then to see where I stand. I might stop before or after that, or choose a lower number, but it’s hard to decide that until I’m closer.

My concern before summer started was that with summer would come laziness and perhaps a lack of motivation. Luckily, my plan to keep myself busy has been working well: I’ve been going the gym almost every morning, and not spending a whole lot of time just vegging out in front of the television. But actually there have been plenty of days when I’ve spent quite a bit of time watching television or in front of the computer, and even then, I found it pretty easy to avoid eating constantly. I went to the doctor at the beginning of the summer, and she told me that at the weight I was then (which was when I had lost about 40 pounds), I’m basically at a healthy place. She said I could lose more if I want, or stay where I am, and that at this point, it’s up to me. That’s very reassuring!

Other indicators of the fact that my weight loss has gone very well:

1) My prom dress is now definitely way too big for me. Which means I’ve now lost all of the weight that I gained in college, as well as plenty more.

2) It is SO much easier going up stairs and hills. I barely even notice them now!

3) A trip to the store a few weeks ago showed me that I now can comfortably wear a smaller dress size than I’ve ever worn (or at least smaller than since middle school)! In fact, I found the same dress that I had bought a few months ago (which I bought partly to celebrate having lost a bunch of weight) in a smaller size, and when I tried that on, it totally fit! I didn’t buy it though, since it makes more sense to just tailor the bigger one to make it smaller.

Another thing I wanted to mention: A lot of you know that I recently went to the conference The Amazing Meeting 9, since I just posted pictures and I’ve posted about my excitement. One of the cool things about it is you get to meet a lot of really amazing scientists, authors, and bloggers. For example, I got to meet Bill Nye and thank him for his show, which got me and so many other kids pumped about science! I also met Steve Novella, and thanked him for being such an amazing model of how you can be incredibly successful professionally and still have hobbies and have a family (he is a neurologist and professor at Yale, and runs multiple blogs and podcasts as well as many other projects). But despite these incredible introductions, I had an even more memorable meeting at the conference: I met Greta Christina, whose blog post was what got me started on losing weight. I found out when I was already there that she would be there, and decided I wanted to meet her and thank her. I did: I introduced myself and told her how back in January, I came across her blog, and it completely changed my perspective on weight loss, and since that time I’ve lost 50 pounds. I thanked her for saving my health, my life, and my happiness. And then I hugged her and we took a picture together. It felt so amazing to be able to thank someone who unintentionally had such a direct and vital effect on my life, and I will always remember that.

A few people have recently asked me what it is that actually changed my perspective on losing weight, and made it possible. You can read the article that did this here:

and make sure to read Part 2 and Part 3 as well. But to summarize, the things I read on there that did it for me are the following.

1) First, not thinking about food as good or bad. Attaching morality to food leads to (or is the result of) an unhealthy relationship with it. So, as the blog suggests, I’ve been thinking about food in terms of a budget: I set a budget for the day (the number of calories I can eat) and then think of food as either calorically expensive or inexpensive. So eating chocolate cake isn’t sinful; it just means that I’ll have less calories in my budget for the rest of the day. Which means I can eat a smaller amount of a calorically expensive food, because I get both the delicious flavor as well as the knowledge that taking just a small amount means that I’ll have more calories to eat later.

2) Doing a cost/benefit analysis about whether losing weight is a worthwhile thing. For many people, it may be more worthwhile to not lose weight and to instead change how they feel about their current weight (which is a big part of the fat acceptance movement). So if a person would be happier in the long-term accepting how they look and feel at a heavy weight, as long they are willing to accept the risks (increased chance of many diseases, shorter lifespan), then that should be their choice. But a cost/benefit analysis should be done, instead of just ignoring the risks or pretending they don’t exist.

3) The idea to talk openly about losing weight. So I’ve had the Lose it program post all of my exercise on Facebook, as well as weight changes and when I’ve received their motivational badges. Also, notes such as this one, where I get a lot of ideas from you guys, as well as feedback. SO HELPFUL! I think another big thing about this is that often when someone is losing weight, people aren’t sure whether they are allowed to mention it or not. So posting about all of this stuff has let people know that I’m generally open to comments and questions about losing weight.

4) I learned about Lose It from the blog post, which is an application that has been INCREDIBLY instrumental to this. It just makes keeping track of food and exercise easy and fun, as well as other helpful features like a forum, social network, the ability to look at trends in your calories, exercise, nutritional intake, weight, etc. Which is awesome for nerdy people who like graphs. Oh and another amazing feature is the fact that you get motivational badges, which gives you fun things to aim for.

5) Thinking about this as a lifestyle change instead of a diet, and planning to behave in the same way on the day I hit my goal as I have on every other day, so that I don’t just go back to my old habits.

6) Doing exercise that is fun. Most of my exercise the first few months was just getting up in the morning and playing Just Dance 2 on the Wii. It got me moving and burned calories and never felt difficult! It also helped that sometimes my roommates would join me which made it extra fun!

7) Not letting myself get ravenously hungry, and remembering that for the rest of my life I will never let myself get ravenously hungry.

So reading the things I just mentioned on her blog are pretty much what got me started on this. If you think you might be interested, definitely click the link I posted above.

A final thing I wanted to address is something that has been on my mind a lot lately. During this whole weight loss process, I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback. Since people can’t see the health benefits of weight loss but can see the appearance benefits, it makes sense that that’s what people have mentioned (“you’re looking so slim lately!” sounds way less weird than “I bet your cholesterol levels are within a healthy range now!”). And it’s been really amazing to have people tell me that I look good. It’s something I barely had growing up, so to have that now is a shock to my brain, and is perhaps making up for lost time. But the problem is, it’s happening at the time in my life when I need the least reassurance. I look in the mirror now and I see that I’m slimmer, and I do think I look better now; I never had any of this positive feedback when I hated what I saw in the mirror, which is when I really needed it. Growing up, the one physical compliment I got was that I had great hair. So essentially my self-esteem regarding my appearance was built around that one trait, a trait that I knew wasn’t really all that important to most people. I guess I just wish I could have had that kind of positive feedback when I really needed it. I notice that this paragraph of the note is a lot more rambling and less straightforward than the rest of it, so that might tell you that it’s something that I feel emotional about, and that I don’t really know how to explain. But I wanted to try anyway.

Well, I believe those are all of the main things I wanted to address. I can always write another note if something else comes up. And as I said, I’m continuing all of this with the new goal of getting to approximately 65 pounds lost. Onward!

And my most recent before/after picture, because those are always fun. 😀