Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Report from the frozen north

I have just returned from co-teaching a course, that we call Logical Reasoning in Human Genetics, in Helsinki, Finland.  As mentioned in an earlier post about 10 days ago, I have done this jointly with Joe Terwilliger several times before, 3 of them also in Helsinki, but also in Berlin, Maricaibo, and Madrid.  There have been some additional lecturers in most of these--this time Joe Lee from Columbia, Markus Perola and Tero Hiekkailinna from Finland.

Our point is to explain why approaches to understanding the nature of genomic causation have run into the difficulties that all but the most glassy-eyed advocate or know-nothing ostriches are willing to acknowledge.  Complexity has evolutionary and mechanistic origins, and the challenge to identify causal elements in this context is serious.  Confirmation criteria, so fundamental to science, are problematic because different samples have different evolutionary  histories and most genetic variants that affect the kinds of disease and behavior traits we want to understand are rare and have individually very small effects.  Standard scientific methods that rest on repeatability and statistical significance criteria are often stymied by these facts.

The 60 students in the mini-course, of various levels of seniority including post-docs, and professionals as well as graduate students, seemed to find the lectures we gave conceptually eye-opening.  If we did our job, the effect reported is because many in biomedical genetics do not have a very sophisticated understanding of evolutionary genetics, and because wishful thinking has led to many types of biased reporting or inadequately interpreted studies.  Also, of course, there is stress on those results that are successful, at the expense of the much greater studies that find very  little of relevance.

We have, of course, our own view of this field, and we post that view often.  But many people seem simply to be unaware of  the issues involved and their implications.  So we think there is merit to continue to critique the field (in the proper sense of the term, meaning to provide as objective an evaluation of strengths and weaknesses, successes and failures, as we can).

This will happen again only after the jet-lag is over!


Mikko L said...

Thanks for the excellent course! That was how the week went - At least I learned a lot. My favorite slogan was, and from now on is, "if it works, it works". Best regards from still freezing Hki!

Ken Weiss said...

You're most welcome! It's very cold here today (-15 degrees C). Seems like I never left Finland!

I prefer the summer in Helsinki.