Scientists whose daughter died at Newtown study biomarkers for violence

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports on the story of Jeremy Richman and Jennifer Hensel, scientists whose 6-year-old daughter was among the children killed at Newtown. The couple hope to prevent violence by learning more about biomarkers for violent behavior the believe could help prevent future acts of mass violence. READ THE REST

Wow, this scares me. At least they nodded back to the usual nature-verses-nurture arguments, but by the time it’s filtered through a few layers of HR morons you can see where it’d go. “Sorry, we can’t hire you. Your spit test says you could become… Ahem… ‘Disgruntled.’” Yeah, I know, that’s alarmist. I just don’t trust this kind of knowledge in the hands of morons looking for shortcuts. And I’m not altogether certain I’m comfortable with it even if it is used as intended: getting psychiatric care for high risk cases. There is still a stigma attached to such care (as unfair and irrational as that stigma might be), especially when forced by an outside entity.

I don’t have any solutions, and my personal uneasiness certainly doesn’t equate to “stop this research now!” even in my own mind. But it’s still scary stuff.


Bumps on the skull, right?


This seems dangerously close to the oh so misguided efforts to identify the ‘gay’ gene. Although I’m sure the motivation for this research is honorable enough it is hard to imagine a positive outcome which could follow from it.

Efforts to identify biological markers which might predispose someone to a particular behavior are dangerous because it almost certainly will lead to discrimination. Insurance companies could use biological markers to deny coverage, law enforcement might use it to justify targeting a specific group of people, legislation might be crafted to put an unfair burden on a particular group of people.

Even if we could reliably establish a genetic profile which predisposes a person to violence, epigenetic factors play such a dominant role in the expression of those features that the profile would likely have almost no predictive power.


That may well be true(though we presently don’t know enough about either the genetics or the epigenetics to really say so); but it does emphasize the fact that the reactions/discrimination based on a ‘biomarker’ would really be more a matter of degree than of kind over the ones that we already have no trouble at all cobbling together out of cultural variables and sheer guesswork, occasionally larded with some questionable statistics we think we remember…

If anything, some sort of biological test would probably lead to wacky mayhem because(unlike time honored socioeconomic “factors” like being a poor urban black or a chav), it would probably show up in all sorts of places, even among the ‘right sort of people’; both by virtue of being weakly predictive, and by virtue of probably having effects modified by socialization.

Just because we don’t have scientific assays for potential violence doesn’t mean we haven’t charged ahead on assorted flimsy grounds, undaunted.

If, of course, Galileo’s optics work had resulted in a campaign of high-precision Astrological Pre-Crime Assessment and selective termination of those born under Capricorn more than two standard deviations more ascendant than the population at large…

(Incidentally, has some astrology-crazed culture or period ever gone off the deep end based on the supposed predictive power thereof? Sort of a Gattaca for Woo enthusiasts?)

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I fear our science is accelerating faster than our society can understand it.

Generally I trust scientists to understand the limitations of their models. It is people without a good education in statistics, (especially politicians and lawmakers) who I fear. Policies based upon a poor understanding of science could have dire consequences.

Maybe if everyone understood that correlation != causation, but until we live in such a mature society I would discourage research targeting inherent biological factors in favor of research which seeks to address environmental factors we can actually influence.

How about someone studies the bio-marker for sheer unadulterated AWESOMENESS. I volunteer a blood sample, as this marker should be very obvious in my genes.

This strikes me as endlessly sad. Turning to science to relieve the pain of grief probably won’t work, and it probably won’t make good science either.

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Visible to the naked eye! (heh…naked)

Oh, I’m no more optimistic about people making good choices based on the available data. My point was merely that, in absence of better data, we don’t refrain from making bad choices, we just make bad choices based on worse data.

We managed to have a huge multinational eugenics fad in the late 19th-mid 20th centuries, on the strength of little more than basic intuitions about animal husbandry with modestly improved record keeping. Sometimes there was a vague pretense of actually chasing something biological, sometimes it was basically just sterilizing the undesirables.

My point is not that better information will have a particularly good shot at leading to better outcomes; but that our probably-rash actions won’t actually be a sea change compared to what we’ve seen in the past. If anything, the Big Door We Haven’t Opened Yet isn’t ‘knowledge’ that will drive us to do something stupid; but knowledge sufficient to actually get the various results that we’ve been tilting blindly at for so long.

Some people are afraid to read Don Quixote, also, too.

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