From Michael Pollan:
Michael Pollan and his flock became all aerated the other day when Michael tweeted this tidbit. It links to a story with quite the title:
The Great DNA Data Deficit: Are Genes for Disease a Mirage?
Srsly. That’s what it says.
What do I think this is? The second case of gene denialism that I have observed. (The first was a group disputing autism genes.)
I knew that after the genome came along there would be woo. I knew that snake-oil salesmen would be pitching purchases that would work with your skin genes. I knew there would be anti-aging compounds that work with your genes. I know there’s already a DNA diet, and vitamins sold to you based on your DNA. I’ve seen DNA dating. But honestly, I didn’t expect the DNA deniers.
Probably I should have seen it coming. I’ve followed a couple of different topics that flow with anti-science woo: anti-vaxxers and anti-GMOsters. There is overlap between these groups, but it’s not complete. But there is remarkable coincidence between their argument styles. Both groups make big claims, mostly unsourced–or if sourced are cherry-picked points or entirely misused. And when the science isn’t going their way, they deny the science, and then they move the goal posts.
This article–which purportedly blows away the connection between genes and disease–is appallingly mistaken. Let me be clear: genes can influence disease risk. Period. Of course environment may influence biology. Diet and exercise can affect health, certainly. Exposure to natural or man-made carcinogens can trigger cancer. And even the hardest core gene jocks know this. But this desire to sever the connection between genes and diabetes–or prostate cancer, or Crohn’s disease–because they haven’t found a single smoking gun gene yet, using one kind of study? That’s just bizarre and twisted. There are numerous examples of leads on complex disorders that are quite strong, insights into disease pathways and mechanisms, and we’ve really just started. And new technologies are opening new paths as well. A nice article on this was in Nature this fall: Genomics: The search for association.
Sure, we’ve wanted more data and stronger signals from GWAS (genome-wide association studies). But it turns out humans are inveterate outbreeders and it’s hard to tease out strong pointers from them.
Probably if you are a regular reader of this blog I don’t need to convince you of that. But for anyone else who stumbles across this let me offer some resources:
What I can’t quite figure out is why the authors of that post attempt to discredit all the work and all of the discoveries that have been made so far–and those we are going to unearth. As a relatively new strategy, and as we refine the tools, the populations study groups, and build on new knowledge, we are going to find more. And much had been done–check out the GWAS Catalog for an overview. Scroll down. And keep scrolling. As it says on that page: “As of 12/09/10, this table includes 725 publications and 3606 SNPs.”
And I also can’t figure out why Pollan’s minions are celebrating this. Here are samples of the responses to this:
If this was true (which it certainly isn’t), why would this be a reason to chuckle? Why celebrate? I honestly don’t get it. The actual emotion ought to be embarrassment for the credulity.
But ok, you aren’t down with the human GWAS data right now–let’s look at other GWAS and see what’s coming out of that. There have been some really stunning examples of these studies in dogs. There was a talk a couple of years back that we watched: Genes for Complex Traits in the Domestic Dog. You can watch that online to learn more. An advantage of working with dogs is that they are highly inbred. A professor of mine in grad school once snarked that we can’t do that with humans–although that was part of the purpose of the Ivy League, he claimed–a couple of hundred years of intensive breeding and good pedigree records make gene hunting in the canine genome somewhat easier than it is in the messy human populations. Here’s another recent article on dog traits in Nature. If you think that genes don’t cause complex disorders, you have to dispute that some dog breeds are prone to anxiety due to their genes. And that some are prone to deafness–it’s clearly the Dalmatian lifestyle, right? Or that dobermans are bringing their narcolepsy on themselves somehow. [Seriously--they are narcoleptic? Who knew....]
Clearly the authors have an agenda. At the end they make their case:
Nevertheless, most governments cooperate far more, for example, with their food industries than with those who wish to eat a healthy diet. The laying to rest of genetic determinism for disease, however, provides an opportunity to shift this cynical political calculus. It raises the stakes by confronting policy-makers as never before with the fact that they have every opportunity, through promoting food labeling, taxing junk food, or funding unbiased research, to help their electorates make enormously positive lifestyle choices.
Author Latham goes further at HuffPo (home to mucho woo of many stripes) emphasis mine:
That means environment must be the entire cause of ill health, i.e. junk food, pollution, lack of exercise, etc. The reason we wrote an article about human genetics (when we are a food and agriculture website) is that we believe that if people live right, agriculture and therefore the planet will more or less fix itself.
I don’t care if you want to discredit the food industry and if you hate Big Ag and want to say so on your own blog. But misusing and discrediting science and the efforts of scientists that have nothing to do with that is a stupid and flawed strategy. And Michael Pollan: please use better judgment before hitching your agenda to deniers.
This piece of tripe is one of those sorts of sciency-ness things that Mike the Mad Biologist once hailed as having The Asymmetric Advantage of Bullsh-t. It has multiple levels of crap. And there isn’t a comment feature on it, so you can’t discuss it over at their site. I will look for other responses to this item and collect them here if I find them, or add them in the comments if you have them. Anyway, I’m sure someone will take on the #FAIL in other parts of that post–there are plenty of opportunities. I wanted to address the denial aspect. I agree with Deanna–wow–and I’d love to see a good Fisking by Genomes Unzipped–and it may be coming.
Top tweet on this so far goes to @emmecola:
But scientists, my plea to you: don’t let the DNA deniers get a foothold on this topic. We’ve seen what happened with anti-vaxxers. Like that group, this could affect the public health if people start dismissing real risks of colon cancer and subsequent screenings, or forgoing treatment for their psychiatric disorders because someone told them they could fix it with an organic carrot. There are real consequences to this.
Baker, M. (2010). Genomics: The search for association Nature, 467 (7319), 1135-1138 DOI: 10.1038/4671135a
Cyranoski, D. (2010). Genetics: Pet project Nature, 466 (7310), 1036-1038 DOI: 10.1038/4661036a
1. Here’s a take on it from Genomes Unzipped: Estimating Heritability Using Twins
2. Here’s a take at HuffPo–fount of crap science: Is There a Genie in the Genome? I am embarrassed to link to it, but did think this bit was funny: “suggests that genomics is one part boondoggle, one part conspiracy by the military-industrial establishment.” Snorf.
3. Oh, my–look what the twitter fairies just dropped on my desk. An evidence-based review of diabetes: Genomics, Type 2 Diabetes, and Obesity and be sure to look especially at Table 1.
4. Another discussion of it from Mike at ScienceBlogs: GWAS FIGHT! (Hiss! Snarl!): Déja Vu All Over Again and check out Daniel MacArthur’s comment over there #FTW. (Hat tip to GenomeWeb).
5. Oh, FFS: Marion Nestle catches teh stupid too. And Marion–this is not a “study”. It’s a polemic. You should know better than that. You have an appropriate degree. Pollan I can sorta cut some slack–he’s got an English art degree. 6. And Daniel brings the shredder. This is great: Bioscience Resource Project critique of modern genomics: a missed opportunity
7. ROFL: Keith snarks it up with this title: The Great Health Data Deficit: Are Environmental causes for Disease a Mirage? That was a fun start to my day.
8. my GenomiX summarizes the conflama with La complessità dei viventi è un dato di fatto. Teh Google tells me this says “The complexity of living beings is a fact”. Sì. (By the way, translators are getting much better–I think. That looked great to me.)
9. Mary Carmichael #FTW–she does a multi-media smackdown of “environmental determinism” with a great essay and accompanying video.
10. Mike the Mad Biologist weighs in with: On Genetic Denialism