Wednesday, 27 November 2013

A Disagreement with Oliver James

On October 12th 2010, Guardian regular Oliver James posted thisComment is Free web-article on the role of genes in psychology.

This was around the same time I became aware of the many criticisms online of Oliver James. He appears to be to psychology what Patrick Holford is to nutrition – a vocal and popular individual whose every utterance has scientists up in arms.

I read many of the comments underneath the article and found the arguments fascinating. I was surprised at just how many people were scathingly critical of James, not realising then as I now do that mistrust of his claims is rather widespread. In my opinion this is deservedly so and I was pleased to see that many others share my criticisms yet frustrated to read several comments supporting or going even further than James. So on October 14th 2010 I posted the following under the username Pumellhorne:

Is anyone still taking Oliver James seriously? His work is dubious at best and his research is flawed.
If anyone can show me an example of genetics which doesn't occur in an environment, or environmental factors which affect a person without genes I'll start listening to these arguments of convenience.

Later that day someone calling themselves Badmonkey posted this:

ill informed, not what has been stated and most of all boring

To which I replied:
Incorrect, aggressive and most of all laughable.

Badmonkey then perhaps decided to attempt a more reasonable post:

It seems pretty clear that you have a lot of hate for OJ, but on a basis that he says it is all environment, that is not what he is saying....?
I am puzzled by your vitriol for someone who has not stated what you claim.
May i suggest some "love bombing".
Infact i think OJ is trying to keep it balanced between the two as you (and i for that matter want) but the way that it is balanced by the evidence is 70% - 30% in the environments favour thats all not 100% either way and you can't expect to get always nice 50-50 splits i'm afraid it is not the way the world works.

All this was, of course, interspersed with many other posts by people both for and against James’ view. I decided to spend some lunch hours responding to this person (see below) who felt in a position to comment on my feelings based on so little information.  Badmonkey did not reply. The whole thing was then made rather interesting when Oliver James himself popped up and commented on the many negative posts about him and taking the opportunity to tell us he thought he’d “nailed” Stephen Pinker in a live debate. Not what Stephen Pinker said incidentally and I’ve quoted Pinker’s comment below. I took the opportunity to question Mr. James, but much like Badmonkey, he seemed intent only on firing off a noisy salvo before retreating to safety. Here is my lengthy response to Badmonkey:

1) It seems pretty clear that you have a lot of hate for OJ,
2)…but on a basis that he says it is all environment, that is not what he is saying....?
3) May i suggest some "love bombing".
4) I am puzzled by your vitriol for someone who has not stated what you claim.
5) In fact i think OJ is trying to keep it balanced between the two as you (and i for that matter want) but the way that it is balanced by the evidence is 70% - 30% in the environments favour thats all not 100% either way and you can't expect to get always nice 50-50 splits i'm afraid it is not the way the world works.

1) How on Earth do you interpret this: “Is anyone still taking Oliver James seriously? His work is dubious at best and his research is flawed” as “a lot of hate”? Perhaps it says something of your own belligerence that you took it that way.

2) No, on the basis that he is unscientific and that he makes claims without doing enough research. He sells books on highly emotive subjects that play on and exacerbate a particular set of stereotypically left-wing, middle-class fears and I have quite recently become aware of how often he is wrong. Yet still he somehow manages to retain people’s respect.  Also because, as Stephen Pinker put it:
He is in at the end of a declining field and he is desperately trying to prop it up. He is rather a boorish individual. He had a tantrum on air.'”

Whether Pinker is right about the declining field or not I don’t presume to say, but he’s not the first person to talk about James losing it in a live debate.

3) May I first remind you that you entered into debate with me with an aggressive post that attempted to comment, inaccurately, on the level of my knowledge. Any effort by you to sound reasonable now will inevitably be tempered by that start.

With wikipedia defining “love bombing” as: “the deliberate show of affection or friendship by an individual or a group of people toward another individual” it would seem inappropriate advice for this situation. I can only assume it’s an attempt at humour by referencing terms previously used. How drole. If you’re attempting to suggest I’ve been detrimentally affected by a loveless environment in my childhood and that I’m taking it out on James I hope you can see how ironic that would be. Perhaps you might also want to consider how vicious and out of place it is to make allegations about my parents, especially as your comments are based only on the two very short comments I made and that you and I are complete strangers.

4) Can something be vitriolic and boring? And I managed it in just 3 sentences? Amazing!

What is it that you think I’m claiming? Perhaps I was too minimal. My ‘claim’ would be that the variables psychologists are trying to remove for empirical study of their theories (genes from one side of the argument, environment from the other) cannot be removed and that serious confounding variables will always remain. They are, by necessity, in vivo studies and due to the factors I’ve mentioned I don’t believe they can properly be called empirical scientific experiments.

5) Who said it was supposed to be a 50-50 split? Where are you conjuring that figure from? The only people I’m hearing saying it’s 100-0 splits are some of the people posting on this thread and my comment was as much aimed at them as at fans of James. Your continuous extruding of my short sentences into more sinister, bold and inaccurate claims shows a deep misunderstanding and failure to engage with what’s been presented to you in small chunks.

Thanks for telling me "how the world works" though. Very kind of you. And your qualification for this is what exactly? That you live in it? How unbelievably arrogant and boorish of you.

Although I fail to see how you’ve reached the erroneous conclusions you’ve based your rebuttal on, I suppose my original comment could have been a little misleading due to the sparsity of detail I presented about my opinions, level of education, upbringing (all of which you seem to have a desire to comment on) so I could forgive your mistakes, if not your unpleasant attitude. Instead I’ll offer you some assistance in understanding what I’m saying.

Throwing stats out into the argument like 70% of this and 30% of that is a nonsense. First let’s consider what you’re trying to measure. How do you define 70% of a person’s development? As 70% of their age? Of their brain cells? Of the number of factors which affected them in childhood? Can you not see how ludicrous that is? How can someone possibly make a claim that ‘x = y% of z’ when z is as undefined, unique and stubbornly unfathomable as personality? Do you think Pinker or James fully understand how the mind is formed? What cognition amounts to? What consciousness is? What goes into the making up of you or me in childhood? They don’t. No one does.

Discrete numbers are lovely though, aren’t they? They fit into nice neat rows and you can use them to justify any argument you want with just a bit of framing and being economic with your input and output. Unfortunately real people aren’t divided into percentages of development and can’t be split like that.

Up until Judith Dunn kicked off the research into sibling psychology in the 1970s the established view was that all children from the same family were pretty much psychologically identical due to shared socio-economic conditions. Prof Dunn’s own children didn’t fit this view and she wondered why. When she found no prior research on the differences of siblings she started her own. 40 years later there are well-respected people making a living out of attempts to slice up how much siblings respond to an environment, sometimes as if they were the same person in separate situations. I’m saying this is wrong-thinking by James, Pinker and those people on here arguing about nature vs. nurture as if it could be ‘proved’ either way.

Pinker is wrong because, despite using a scientific approach, he isn’t allowing for the fact that any studies will inevitably still occur in a family environment and that the number of confounding variables in the study will skew any results no matter how much twins look and dress alike or whether they both married a travel agent named Janet. James is wrong because no matter how hard he looks at the family environment, which he has made a living from for a long time now and has a huge vested interest in, there will always be genetic factors that can’t be isolated. If he was proved wrong he’d be utterly discredited.

I would say, if pushed, that the whole argument is flawed and that money is being made on both sides because it’s such an emotive and marketable issue and that it’s best to treat the whole thing with suspicion. Time would be better spent on research into how genes and environment interact and what factors are present in situations of interest to society. For an example of how environment and physiology (although not necessarily genes in this case) interact, you might want to look at this TED video of Jim Fallon.

I’m passionate about psychology and I’m frequently reminded of the barriers that remain between a fundamental issue of psychology (i.e. that it is a factor in everything we do) and those it could help (i.e. everybody). Too many people are held up as experts but are no more than quacks. I don’t hate quacks, I simply have no respect for them and I dislike the way they subvert progress to line their own pockets.

I think I’ve been more civil with you than you have a right to expect, Badmonkey, because it’s not my intention to cause rifts for my own pleasure. I hope to see an end one day to quackery and I hope this clears up some of your misconceptions.


Here is Oliver James’ post in the comments:

·         Those who mention The Blank Slate and my Radio 3 argument with Steven Pinker should listen to it again on
I believe that on that occasion I nailed him as unable to produce any evidence from twin or adoption studies that criminal violence has a genetic component. Yet in his book, he stated that it does.
Nailing him did take quite a bit of work because he refused to address my question.
For those who maintain that I am saying everything is nurture, I would point out that I accepted that the Thaper study found genes played a role in 16% of cases (though that needs to be replicated).
Those saying I ignore epigenetics are ignoring the point I make about the depression variant in my article - the purest epigenetic finding so far in this field, and looking increasingly as if it does not hold up.

Oliver James

My question to him was this:

But isn't this a case of oversimplification for the sake of taking a stance?
What is inescapable is that 100% of those with ADHD in Thapar's study possess genes and are also constantly immersed in environmental factors. It's a false dichotomy.
I'm not being facetious, I genuinely fail to see how you, Stephen Pinker or anyone else can realistically claim to be isolating your chosen variables sufficiently to say how much they influence development.

Unsurprisingly, there was no reply from him. Another contributor to the thread, Daen, posted the following, which very nicely (very technically) addresses some of the issues with Oliver James’ alleged expertise:

            OWJames: I presume that the depression paper you refer to is Risch et al, "Interaction between the serotonin transporter gene (5-HTTLPR), stressful life events, and risk of depression: a meta-analysis" (JAMA. 2009 Jun 17;301(23):2462-71). That paper simply considers allelic variation of the serotonin transporter gene (the SS, SL, or LL genotypes), and not epigenetic modification at all! It demonstrates considerable confusion on your behalf that you believe that these things are equivalent.
A search of PubMed for "epigenetic depression" gives the recently-published paper from Olivier et al "The age-dependent effects of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors in humans and rodents: A review" (Prog Neuropsychopharmacol Biol Psychiatry. 2010 Sep 25), which considers the huge gap in therapeutic indices between adults and children for the SSRI drug fluoxetine.
From the same search: yet another relevant and recent paper on epigenetic effects in stress-induced psychiatric disorders comes from Uddin et al, "Epigenetic and inflammatory marker profiles associated with depression in a community-based epidemiologic sample" (Psychol Med. 2010 Sep 14:1-11).
And another from Xu and Andreassi, "Reversible histone methylation regulates brain gene expression and behavior" (Horm Behav. 2010 Sep 15).
And so on, and so on.
Please, Dr James: you are evidently deeply unclear about some important aspects of genetics and should absolutely steer clear of commenting so definitively upon such an important and potentially controversial area, especially with a political agenda, until you have gained sufficient knowledge of the subject to comment precisely and accurately upon it.
And one more which does a very good job of demolishing your argument, from Plazas-Mayorca and Vrana, "Proteomic Investigation of Epigenetics in Neuropsychiatric Disorders: A Missing Link between Genetics and Behavior?" (J Proteome Res. 2010 Sep 9). I felt this was relevant enough to include the abstract.
Neuropsychiatric disorders affect a large segment of the human population and result in large costs to society. The majority of such disorders have unknown underlying causes. Recent evidence suggests an important role for epigenetic regulation in the emergence of neuropsychiatric disease. Epigenetics may provide a link between genetic and environmental factors and behavior. Epigenetic signaling involves changes on the structure of chromatin; such changes are often triggered and maintained by the post-translational modification of chromatin proteins and/or DNA. Recent proteomic technologies have enabled the study of epigenetic mechanisms in a high-throughput manner. This review will provide an overview of the major epigenetic pathways and modern techniques for their study, before focusing on experimental evidence supporting a strong role for epigenetics in selected psychiatric disorders such as depression, schizophrenia, and drug addiction. These results highlight a great need for the inclusion of the proteomic characterization of epigenetic mechanisms in the study of gene/disease associations in psychiatric disorders.

The next day I spotted this article by Bob O’Hara (in the Grrl Scientist blog) in which O’Hara cuts James’ argument to pieces and where James himself wades in again on the comments thread, but once again declines to enter into debate after (perhaps a bit aggressively) saying his piece.

The thread of comments under it is fascinating too. If you’re interested in how and why inexpert people appear in the press as scientific experts  I urge you to read the thread and follow the links.
Oliver James has repeatedly been criticised for constructing and demolishing straw men and for failing to research his topics properly. Yet still he sells books, writes popular articles for national newspapers and is invited to take part in important and influential debates.
I’m not going to question how he’s managing to do this, that issue is dealt with very well elsewhere. Instead I’ll use this space to make a point.
It’s time we started taking responsibility for the experts that fill our book shelves and our airwaves. We choose them by buying the newspapers they work for, by buying the books they write on subjects of which we care deeply about but know little, by watching the TV shows offering them opportunities to tell us how they think things are, and also by failing to register our dissatisfaction with what they tell us. The internet has given us the power and the responsibility to check the facts before signing up for them. We should call out any person who’s argument isn’t backed up by the research in that field, write to the people employing them or comment on their websites to make our dissatisfaction known,  and always, always question what they tell us. Don’t passively accept everything, even from a trusted channel or paper. And perhaps above all question what the day-job is of the person being paid to tell you these ‘facts’. 

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