Paper discussion

Are genius and madness genetically connected? Image: Vincent van Gogh

When you are likely to get schizophrenia, you might be creative – or not.

Are creative people likely to carry a genetic risk for mental diseases? A recent study published in Nature Neuroscience, indeed concluded that the genetically carried “risk scores for schizophrenia and bipolar disorder predict creativity”. This study is based on a widely carried collection of genetic samples of the population in Iceland. Living in Iceland, I experienced the discussion about that “data mining” and I also found a sample-donation kit in my mailbox.

My DNA donation kit, 2014.

I don’t want to address the fact that deCODE, the company collecting the DNA samples from about 100,000 Icelanders (which is a bit less than 1/3 of the population) used staff members from the national rescue team to go from door to door and ask people if they want to donate their DNA to a private company for unclear reasons. But in my opinion, there are several things wrong in that partial study derived from the donations:

First, this study addresses about 3% of the population, comparing them with ca. 30% of the countries’ total number. It seemlingly only takes into account Icelanders working in a profession considered by the authors to be “creative”. The icelandic population is quite remotely located, which is exactly why it is so attractive for massively genetic analyses as done by deCODE. Other populations might not be comparable with the icelandic one, since Iceland is a special case.

Second, the definition of creativity that is made by the authors is (and has to be) arbitrary:

Creative individuals were defined as those belonging to the national artistic societies of actors, dancers, musicians, visual artists and writers (n = 1,024 […]).

Are genius and madness genetically connected? Image: Vincent van Gogh

Are genius and madness genetically connected? Image: Vincent van Gogh

I fully agree to that in a study about creativity, that term needs to be defined. The choice of considering members of the artistic societies also seems to be also quite reasonable, but I see there one major issue: Not every creative person might work in a creative job. And vice versa, not every person working in a creative area might be actually creative. This point is also very nicely addressed in the hyperallergic blog, together with an interpretation of the observed correlation between the genetic risk and working in a creative environment:

If the distance between me, the least artistic person you are going to meet, and an actual artist is one mile, these variants appear to collectively explain 13 feet of the distance – David Cutler, geneticist at Emory University

Especially Iceland is famous for its vivid independent music scene and Icelanders are famous for writing and making music – besides working in all kinds of professions. About 10% of all Icelanders are likely to publish a book in their lives, but the study considers only 194 writers. On the other hand, creativity might not be the only prerequisite to work in a creative profession. Artists, actors, musicians and dancers also need a high degree of discipline, passion and self-confidence to persist in those fields.

That being said, I think that this study is a perfect case for positivistic interpretation of a result, suggesting that creativeness is linked to schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. This result can only be valid for people who 1) are Icelanders, 2) participated in the DNA collection and 3) are member of a national artistic society. For all other creative people that primarily work as bus drivers, teachers, farmers, etc., this study does not draw any conclusion. My opinion.

flyingspaghettimonster

Confessional science**

In the beginning of this month, a blog hosted by the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung* reported about a scientific april fool hoax: On the pre-publishing platform arXiv.org, the author Ali Frolop published what was called “A Farewell to Falsifiability“, where one of the main criteria for scientific theories is questioned. The publication date and the author name (“Ali Frolop” = “April Fool”) make clear that this is actually a joke. However, having read that quite amusing text, it appeared to me more than a seriously meant satire, than just a cheap fooling joke.

Astrology is falsifiable, and there is nothing magic about this demarcation criteria.

The concept of Falsifiability is, in my opinion, on of the most important aspects that separates science from religion. In brief, it means that a theory must allow a prove that can contradict it. Is the sun always going down every day? (Living in Iceland with the summer coming closer, I would argue about that.) The Frolop paper gives also a good overview about other criteria for scientific theories, of course putting them into question: repeatability, simplicity and a testable correctness.

So what is going on in science? The trigger for this ongoing discussion is the string theory and the resulting multiverse theory. While the string theory can be used to explain observations, it can neither be falsified, nor predict observations, which are major disadvantages for a good theory. The same is true for universes other than ours, which also are not observable yet and allow any explanation to describe a maybe not-yet-known reality.

I agree with George Ellis and Joe Silk, who rise serious concerns about the reputation of science, when the criteria for theories are weakened. For example, the theory that there is a god, is also not falsifiable, nor is it sufficient to make predictions. Which is exactly is the purpose of religion. One danger that arises from mixing these aspects of science and religion is already there: Very often, defenders of a creationist god refer to the evolutional theory as just a theory. This is absolutely correct, since evolution is testable, repeatable and simple. The hypothesis that a concious super-powerful being willingly created and altered life, is neither of them. In so far, the Frolop paper might be less a hoax than a serious concern.

This battle for the heart and soul of physics is opening up at a time when scientific results – in topics from climate change to the theory of evolution – are being questioned by some politicians and religious fundamentalists.


* I have to excuse myself for referring so frequently to the german media. I also follow international news, but my native language is closer to me.

** My acknowlegdment goes to Philipp Scharf, who showed me the article in the Planckton blog.

Curing AIDS: The first 25 years

As Retraction Watch observed in the last week, the dutch scientist Henk Buck delivered new insights about his publication in Science that was retracted in 1990. In the original paper, the authors claimed nothing less than the successful inhibition of HIV infectivity, allowing for a cure of AIDS.

Four separate investigations turned up faked data, manipulated images, and highly selective reporting designed to obscure the fact that HIV-fighting molecules never existed.

Having this in mind, I think that this new publication 25 years later might leave many people speechless. When I read the recent publication, the originally retracted paper and the retraction, I wanted to give this new interpretation a fair chance. At least, it is a discussion of the data, so what could be wrong with that? Apparently, quite a lot: First, of course the fact that Buck was proven guilty of scientific fraud. In addition to that comes the journal owned by Scientific Research Publishing (SCIRP), registered in Delaware and located in China and its questionable reputation.

Now, the two big questions are: Why? And why now?
I am keeping my fingers crossed that Retraction Watch receives an answer from the author, as this might be the beginning (or a very late continuation) of an interesting story.

Scientific worth and culture

In their editorial in Disease Models & Mechanisms, Natalie Matosin and coworkers from the University of Wollongong and the Schizophrenia Research Institute in Syndey, Australia, are giving an excellent overview about the current view on negative results and the related issue of publication bias.

After showing some famous examples (e.g. the Wakefield-publication about vaccination and autism that was retracted not earlier than after twelve years), they also mention the time-comsuming attempts of the Australian Professor David Vaux to retract his own “News and Views” article in Nature.

From their own experiences, the authors describe the impact of negative findings in their own research and the criticism they encountered when they reported their findings in conferences.

A negative result is in response to a positive question. If you rephrased to a negative question, does that mean you have a positive finding?

In my opinion, and also judging from the described reactions from the scientific community, the authors’ reaction towards those negative findings is rather unusual: I hypothesize that if scientists encounter a null result, they are very likely to switch their topic, keeping the “unpublishable” result in fact unpublished (the so-called „file-drawer effect“).

To raise the sensitivity for negative outcomes, the authors refer to he various journals that are dedicated to publishing negative research outcomes, even if they consider the low attraction that these journals suffer from.

At the core, it is our duty as scientists to both: (1) publish all data, no matter what the outcome, because a negative finding is still an important finding; and (2) have a hypothesis to explain the finding.

Again, this publication describes a deep underlying problem in the scientific culture that needs rethinking.

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Show me your data sets!

Are authors of a scientific publication really more unwilling to share their raw data when their reported evidence is not too strong? This question was recently addressed in the subject of psychology, unsurprisingly published in the open-access journal PLoS ONE. Jelte Wicherts, Marjan Bakker and Dylan Molenaar from the Psychology Department of the University of Amsterdam, indeed came to that conclusion. Their study included 1149 results from 49 papers. It is interesting that in 28 of the considered 49 papers, the respective co-authors did not share their research data, even if they had agreed on that before.

Distribution of reporting errors per paper for papers from which data were shared and from which no data were shared. From DOI 10.1371/journal.pone.0026828

Distribution of reporting errors per paper for papers from which data were shared and from which no data were shared. From DOI 10.1371/journal.pone.0026828

However, one might argue that the authors of this interesting “meta”-study walk on a difficult terrain, as they are trying to draw a correlation about the accuracy of other scientists’ correlations. But I think, their paper makes it clear enough that they were very much aware of that issue.