Pop Goes the Media

At the Critical Neurosciences meeting in Montreal, Laurence Kirmayer brought up a great example of how research gets transformed and bastardized by the popular media. Here we have sociological research on the complex dynamics behind delinquency becoming the “biology-causes-everything” story.

The original article is entitled “The Integration of Genetic Propensities into Social-Control Models of Delinquency and Violence among Male Youths” (big pdf; supplementary methods materials here) by Guang Guo, Michael Roettger and Tianji Chi at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill.

As a featured article in the American Sociological Review, the flagship journal of the American Sociological Association, this article had both a press release and an abstract prepared specially for the media. In other words, there were already digested materials ready for the media! No “misreading” of the original paper allowed.

The press release reads “Sociological Research Shows Combined Impact of Genetics, Social Factors on Delinquency,” with a minor highlight that indicates “Study is among first to tie molecular genetic variants to male delinquency.” The first sentence goes: “[this] sociological research… identifies three genetic predictors—of serious and violent delinquency—that gain predictive precision when considered together with social influences, such as family, friends and school processes.”

The media abstract is even clearer: “[The] genetic effects are conditional and interact with family processes, school processes, and friendship networks. ‘A stronger social-control influence of family, school, or social networks,’ the authors explain, ‘reduces the delinquency-increasing effect of a genetic variant, whereas a weaker social-control influence of family, school, and social networks amplifies the delinquency-increasing effect of a genetic variant’.”

Guang Guo goes on in the ASA media release: “Positive social influences appear to reduce the delinquency-increasing effect of a genetic variant, whereas the effect of these genetic variants is amplified in the absence of social controls. Our research confirms that genetic effects are not deterministic. Gene expression may depend heavily on the environment.”

So how does Reuters, one of the premier reporting services in the world, present the article? “Study finds genetic link to violence, delinquency” reads the title. I’ve included the accompanying photo that comes directly below the title. The Reuters piece got posted at Scientific American, Yahoo and other places, while an even worse photo appears at a “European descent” site.

Here is the beginning to the Reuters article:

Three genes may play a strong role in determining why some young men raised in rough neighborhoods or deprived families become violent criminals, while others do not, U.S. researchers reported on Monday.

One gene called MAOA that played an especially strong role has been shown in other studies to affect antisocial behavior — and it was disturbingly common, the team at the University of North Carolina reported.

People with a particular variation of the MAOA gene called 2R were very prone to criminal and delinquent behavior, said sociology professor Guang Guo, who led the study.

“I don’t want to say it is a crime gene, but 1 percent of people have it and scored very high in violence and delinquency,” Guo said in a telephone interview.

Only about half way through do we get clearer indications of the social side of things, when the article states “the links [with other factors] were very specific,” such as school failure, genetic repeats, and family meals. The general power of genetics is not questioned.

But of course not, for look at the concluding blurb by the journalists: “Guo said it was far too early to explore whether drugs might be developed to protect a young man. He also was unsure if criminals might use a ‘genetic defense’ in court.”

In other words, this is how the reporter chose to frame the research—possibilities of drug interventions and genetic defenses, which emphasize the biological nature of delinquency even when considering social interventions and regulation.

So, to sum up, we get the reductionism and determinism tied into biology, all with a look at what might count as popular—biological explanations for behavior, drug interventions, genes-made-me-do-it defenses. The social science side is treated as “specific” and secondary. In other words: there is still a lot of work for the critical neurosciences and every other related field to do.

Still, Kirmayer pointed out that all is not lost. The Canadian newspaper Globe and Mail emphasized something completely different. Their title reads: “Good parenting overrides bad-behaviour genes

And it’s still the same Reuters article by Maggie Fox! I’ll let you guess which final parts got left out.

5 thoughts on “Pop Goes the Media

  1. Pretty amazing stuff, Daniel. And the link to NewsNet14, news for people of European descent, was just jaw dropping. I had no idea that this media channel even existed, and the format and look of the thing conceals just how flat out bonkers the thing is.
    You’re right though on many levels. The Reuters piece focuses immediately on drugs for ‘delinquency prevention’ — has no one learned anything from the disaster of mass ritalin prescription or the scandal surrounding psychiatrist Joseph Biederman’s receipt of money from drug companies to encourage en masse diagnosis of childhood ‘psychiatric disorders’?!
    There’s something deeply wrong with science literacy when even science reporters can’t get basic facts straight and jump to the most ridiculous conclusions from half-baked understandings of basic research. Obviously, there are exceptions (I tend to really enjoy Carl Zimmer and Gina Kolata, for example), but it so often seems like science illiterates are writing science news. Maybe the Canadians do a better job of writing headlines, but if the feed from Reuters is such a mess, it would be hard to make a silk purse from a sow’s ear. Nothing like having mass distributed misperception. Thanks Reuters — you’re helping folks like NewsNet14, news for white people, do their job.

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  3. It isn’t difficult to imagine a set of genes tied to aggressive behavior. A person with those genes might, for instance, function best in an entirely different kind of classroom than someone without them. End up in different professions. Stuffing everyone into a one-size-fits-all education and lifestyle is asking for some bad outcomes.

    News articles on scientific themes often leave me sputtering, though. There’s no lower limit to the simplification that reporters on deadline will apply to a story.

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