Tag Archives: evidence

The Word Of The Day Is Epigenetics

I just finished reading a fascinating–and provocative–book: Pleased to Meet Me, by Bill Sullivan. Sullivan is a professor of pharmacology and microbiology at IU’s Medical School, and unlike most research scientists I know–sorry, guys and gals– is a gifted (and witty) writer. The book is actually fun to read.

The chapter titles give a clue to the book’s approach: “Meet Your Maker,” “Meet Your Tastes,” “Meet Your…Moods, Addictions, Demons, Beliefs, Future…etc.”  Each of the chapters adds to the story of how we have come to be the person we are, thanks to the complicated role played by the genes we’ve inherited, and the mechanisms that support or depress the expression of those genes.

Whether and why a gene “expresses itself” or is “turned off” is what epigenetics is all about.

Epigenetics–I now understand–is the study of changes in organisms caused by modification of genes expressions rather than alteration of the genetic code itself. As Sullivan puts it, epigenetics is the study of the “means by which the outside world interplays with our genes.”

After reading this book, I also understand why attributing any characteristic to a single gene, or even several genes, is likely to be inaccurate. It’s incomplete.

Not only can genes be switched on or off, or dimmed, their expression–i.e., the work that they do–interacts with environmental factors. Sullivan explains in great detail (and with funny analogies) why pregnant women shouldn’t drink, for example–and more surprisingly, why fathers who booze it up prior to baby-making can also have a negative effect on the fetus. (I had my children before the negative effects of drinking while pregnant were known–now I wonder whether their tendencies to be smart-asses is a result of my tippling….)

Sullivan doesn’t just want us to understand what science has discovered about our minds and bodies, he also wants us to appreciate the importance of the scientific method that led to those discoveries, and to base our personal and collective decisions on evidence. What science has to tell us should inform public policy. (Obviously, that won’t happen while Trump is in the White House–this is the most anti-science administration in American history.)

In fact, a Pew study confirms a significant partisan divide when it comes to science.

The partisan gap in Americans’ views of government spending for scientific research has grown over the long term. In 2001, there was no significant divide between the parties on this issue. This year, 62% of Democrats support increased spending for scientific research, compared with 40% of Republicans.

Sullivan has a chapter on genetic differences between conservatives and liberals that helps explain this…

If social policy were informed by what scientists now know about the effects of poverty on children, for example, America’s “safety net” (note quotation marks) would look very different. Studies have shown genetic methylation in adults who suffered economic challenges in childhood. (Methylation–another new word for me– changes the activity of a DNA sequence without changing the DNA itself. It’s all pretty complicated.) Underprivileged children don’t just suffer from unfortunate social conditions while they’re experiencing them–they also suffer observable, permanent biological damage.

The most important contribution of this very readable book isn’t the illumination it provides to non-scientists about the operation of our genetic inheritances, although that is certainly a plus. It is the recognition that scientific evidence should–must–inform government policies. Americans have always had an unfortunate habit of creating information silos, of failing to see the relevance of  information we have walled off into specialized domains to other areas of our lives.

Granted, it’s no longer possible to be Renaissance men or women. There is too much information for anyone to be an expert in everything. We can, however, reform our political system to ensure that it recognizes  the existence and importance of expertise. We can insist  that lawmakers base public policies on evidence offered by credible authorities who possess specialized understandings.

But first, we have to elect people who know what they don’t know, who aren’t threatened by people who do know, and who are willing to listen and learn.

 

 

 

Minimum Wage Again

It has long been a GOP article of faith that raising the minimum wage is a recipe for disaster–that businesses will fire some workers in order to raise the pay of others, and that the increased wages will be passed along to consumers and that the higher prices will depress demand.

That last warning has been especially shrill when the effort to raise the minimum wage has focused upon food service workers. (Five cents more for a McDonald’s hamburger? No one will buy it!)

It doesn’t matter that in places that have ignored the naysayers and raised the minimum wage, these disasters have failed to materialize– ideology ignores evidence. (There’s an analogy between the hysteria over raising the minimum wage and the equally fervent belief that cutting taxes on rich people will generate job growth, despite the fact that it has never, ever happened.)

A recent article from Business Insider–not one of those “socialist” publications–confirms the hollowness of these economic chestnuts.

New York City restaurant workers saw their pay increase by 20% after a $15 minimum-wage hike, and a new report says business is booming despite warnings that the boost would devastate the city’s restaurant industry.

As New York raised the minimum wage to $15 this year from $7.25 in 2013, its restaurant industry outperformed the rest of the US in job growth and expansion, a new study found.

The study, by researchers from the New School and the New York think tank National Employment Law Project, found no negative employment effects of the city increasing its minimum wage to $15.

The article noted that numerous restaurant workers saw a pay increase of 20% to 28% as a result of the raise in the minimum wage, and that it represented the largest increase for  low-wage workers since the 1960s. New York’s decision to raise the minimum wage had been met with considerable skepticism and warnings of dire consequences.

Across the US, the restaurant industry has the most to lose from a $15 hike. The Bureau of Labor Statistics found that in 2016 the food-preparation and serving industry employed the most workers paid at or below the minimum wage, at 1.1 million. Sales, the industry with the next-highest low-wage workforce, employed 200,000 such workers.

“New York City’s restaurant industry has flourished overall,” the study said.

Excuse me while I repeat–once again–my mantra: public policies should be based on evidence. Theories are fine–they’re even necessary–but when evidence demonstrates that a theory is flawed, the evidence should prompt revision of the theory.

Apparently, however, that’s just too painful…..

Guns

I don’t post often about America’s insane gun culture, because the lines have been drawn for a very long time, and the combatants’ feet are firmly in cement.

I could share innumerable facts: how many people die by gun each year, the margin by which the thousands domestic gun deaths exceed deaths in war, how guns facilitate suicide…on and on. It wouldn’t matter to the relative minority of gun owners who stockpile weapons and foam at the mouth at any suggestion that we withhold firearms from wife-beaters, crazy people or people on the terrorist watch-list.

Unfortunately, the foaming-mouth folks can rely upon the congressional GOP to ignore any and all facts, and block efforts to fund research into gun violence.

Research does exist, however, and rational people will find it persuasive. The Guardian recently reported on data from an experiment in the Bay Area.

For each new millionaire household the San Francisco Bay Area has produced, there are at least four new people living below the poverty level. San Francisco’s property crime rate has spiked to the highest in the nation. Many people – tech newcomers and longtime residents alike – complain of feeling unsafe.

At the same time, with little fanfare, the Bay Area has seen a dramatic drop in its homicide rate, driven by a considerable decrease in deadly shootings.
Across the region, the overall gun homicide rate has dropped 30% in the past decade, a Guardian investigation of homicide data across more than 100 cities has found.

The study analyzed homicide data across California’s Bay Area from 2007 to 2017. During that time, gun homicide rates fell across all racial groups, but the decrease was largest for black residents.

What was particularly striking about these findings was that the dramatic drop came at the same time as criminal justice reforms in California reduced the number of people in the state’s jails and prisons.

The reduction came as cities like Oakland and Richmond did what a number of scholars have recommended: they changed their approach to the problem, investing tens of millions of dollars in public health approaches to gun violence.

The study considered–and dismissed–the possibility that gentrification was the reason violence subsided.

Three cities that are undergoing intense gentrification saw the biggest drops in gun homicides. But outlying suburbs – the towns where many residents forced out by gentrification have moved – did not see a corresponding increase in violence…

The Bay Area still sees nearly 300 gun homicides each year. But these changes are profound. The majority of America’s gun homicide victims are black, killed in everyday shootings in segregated, economically struggling neighborhoods in cities such as Oakland and Richmond. It’s this everyday toll of violence, not mass shooting casualties, that drives America’s gun homicide rate 25 times higher than those of other wealthy countries.

The article noted that cities that once ranked among the nation’s deadliest have seen enormous decreases, and emphasized that these decreases spanned a decade– they weren’t single-year drops. The declines persisted over the years.

California has the strongest gun laws in the country, and it has enacted more than 30 new gun control laws since 2009 alone. The Guardian credited those constraints, together with the change in approach to violence prevention, for the reduction in gun homicides.

There’s early evidence that local violence prevention strategies – including a refocused, more community-driven “Ceasefire” policing strategy, and intensive support programs that do not involve law enforcement at all – were a “key change” contributing to these huge decreases.

As the article concedes, there are still plenty of problems in the Bay Area. (Police shootings haven’t declined, for example.) But there is a lesson here.

Of course, lessons are lost on people determined not to learn them.

If Evidence Mattered…

I post fairly frequently about my multiple problems with school voucher programs, and I apologize for the repetition, but really!

Vouchers tend to be a “work around” the First Amendment–a mechanism for transferring tax dollars to religious schools; they steal critical resources from public schools that need those resources; they are re-segregating the schools…I could go on.

Vouchers were marketed as a mechanism allowing poor kids to escape from failing public systems and enroll instead in private schools that would give them a much better education. Proponents also argued that having to compete for students would lead to the improvement of the public schools.

It hasn’t worked out that way. Vouchers are increasingly used by families that would have and could have sent their children to parochial schools with or without them (in Indiana, families making up to 100,000 a year); meanwhile, starving public schools of resources doesn’t exactly help them improve.

Most significantly, research consistently shows that those “superior” private/parochial schools have failed to improve the educational outcomes of the children who use vouchers to attend them.

Brookings recently added to the available evidence

Four recent rigorous studies—in the District of Columbia, Louisiana, Indiana, and Ohio—used different research designs and reached the same result: on average, students that use vouchers to attend private schools do less well on tests than similar students that do not attend private schools. The Louisiana and Indiana studies offer some hints that negative effects may diminish over time. Whether effects ever will become positive is unclear.

The four different studies analyzed by Brookings used four different methodologies, but arrived at the same conclusion: on average, students that use vouchers to attend private schools do less well on tests than similar students who do not attend private schools. The four recent studies thus replicated the results of eight previous research projects, which Brookings also referenced.

The Trump Administration–and especially Betsy DeVos, Secretary of Education–have been pushing voucher expansion. DeVos was largely responsible for the expansion of charter and voucher schools in Michigan, and does not appear to be deterred by the fact that student performance declined dramatically. An article in a Michigan newspaper, reproduced in the Washington Post, reported

In Detroit, parents of school-age children have plenty of choices, thanks to the nation’s largest urban network of charter schools.

What remains in short supply is quality.

In Brightmoor, the only high school left is Detroit Community Schools, a charter boasting more than a decade of abysmal test scores and, until recently, a superintendent who earned $130,000 a year despite a dearth of educational experience or credentials.

On the west side, another charter school, Hope Academy, has been serving the community around Grand River and Livernois for 20 years. Its test scores have been among the lowest in the state throughout those two decades; in 2013 the school ranked in the first percentile, the absolute bottom for academic performance. Two years later, its charter was renewed.

Or if you live downtown, you could try Woodward Academy, a charter that has limped along near the bottom of school achievement since 1998, while its operator has been allowed to expand into other communities.

This deeply dysfunctional educational landscape — where failure is rewarded with opportunities for expansion and “choice” means the opposite for tens of thousands of children — is no accident. It was created by an ideological lobby that has zealously championed free-market education reform for decades, with little regard for the outcome.

And at the center of that lobby is Betsy DeVos, the west Michigan advocate whose family has contributed millions of dollars to the cause of school choice and unregulated charter expansion throughout Michigan.

There is much more, and I encourage anyone interested in DeVos’ success in destroying Michigan education to click through, or to Google the numerous other articles chronicling the decline.

As the Brookings article notes, it used to be rare for policy initiatives to be expanded in the face of evidence that those initiatives are having negative effects on key outcomes. But this is an anti-evidence administration. Zealotry, religious convictions and (in Trump’s case) gut instinct–seasoned with breathtaking ignorance– are what guide policy prescriptions in Trump’s Washington.

 

If Evidence Mattered….

It’s a depressing time to be teaching public policy.

As I tell my students, there is an analytical process that should be followed by lawmakers who are considering legislation to address a problem, questions that need to be answered before a bill is introduced, let alone voted on.

To wit:

Is this a problem that government can or should address, or is it more properly left to the private and/or nonprofit sector? If it is appropriate for government action, is it the sort of issue that should be handled by government’s own employees, or is it appropriate for contracting out? (There are a number of additional questions we ask to determine that–and judging from the problems that have arisen with “privatization,” it would appear that those questions are seldom asked). Are there potential negative outcomes of the proposed solution(s), and if so, what are they? Do the anticipated benefits of the proposal outweigh the likely costs?

And finally, what do we know about this issue? What does the evidence say?

It may seem obvious that this sort of analysis should always precede policymaking, but too often, laws are based upon ideology rather than a consideration of the available evidence. The recent tax bill is an example. Those who voted for it evidently never heard of Kansas.

School voucher programs are another example.

At the beginning of the voucher experiments, it may have been reasonable to hope that taking poor children out of poorly performing public schools and giving them vouchers to attend private ones would somehow overcome the barriers that make it difficult for poor children in public school classrooms. But as evidence to the contrary has accumulated, policymakers with ideological fixations have ignored or discounted it.

Scholars at the University of Virginia conducted one of the more recent investigations.

For this new study, researchers analyzed data collected from a group of 1,097 kids in nine states who were followed from birth through age 15. The scholars looked at how many had attended private school between kindergarten and their freshman year of high school. They also looked at how the kids performed as ninth graders on a range of benchmarks, including test scores.

When the scholars did a simple comparison, they learned that students who had attended private school at any time in their academic career performed better on most benchmarks than students who only attended public school. But when the scholars controlled for factors related to family resources — the household income-to-needs ratio, for example — they got a very different picture.

They discovered that kids who went to private school and those who only attended public school performed equally as well in the ninth grade in terms of math achievement, literacy, grade-point averages and working memory. They were just as likely to take more rigorous math and science courses, expect to go to college, have behavioral problems and engage in risky behavior such as fighting and smoking.

In other words, the apparent ‘advantages’ of private school education–the academic results that led early voucher proponents to theorize that the private schools were somehow doing something different, something that produced better results –were really due to the socioeconomic advantages of the children whose parents placed them in these schools, not to what went on in the classroom.

In states with voucher programs, desperately-needed resources are being siphoned from the public schools and sent to private, mostly religious schools. This is problematic both fiscally and constitutionally. These programs have been justified by claims that they will improve the academic achievement of children who would otherwise be “trapped” in “failing” public schools. The evidence simply does not support those claims.

it would be comforting to think that the growing body of research–virtually all of which has reached the same conclusion as the Virginia study–would result in policy change.

It would be comforting, but inaccurate. As a friend of mine used to say, you can’t reason people out of positions they didn’t reason themselves into.