A liberal helping of dodgy science

The Mail and The Telegraph are both fairly right-wing papers, so it’s perhaps not surprising that both have seized on a study showing a genetic “cause” for liberal political views; the Mail under the headline “The gene that makes you lean to the Left: How genetic variant determines your political views” and the Telegraph under “Left wing liberals are born not bred” (The Telegraph also has a satirical opinion piece about the study which, with the help of an American cartoon nabbed from Google Images, manages to accuse the Lib Dems of supporting communism).

The theory goes that a certain gene – the “7-repeat” variant of the gene DRD4 – causes an increase in novelty seeking behaviour (though some studies claim this isn’t actually true), and this makes people search out more alternative views on things, broadening their horizons and generally making them more liberal.

The papers aren’t completely misrepresenting the study – the scientists did indeed find that people who had the 7R form of DRD4 and a large social circle tended to self identify as more liberal than people without. However, they clearly missed a very important paragraph of the study:

For most traits, the effects of individual genes are too small to stand out against the combined influence of all other genes and environmental factors. […] Thus, perhaps the most valuable contribution of this study is not to declare that “a gene was found” for anything, but rather, to provide the first evidence for a possible gene-environment interaction for political ideology

The scientists then went on to say

While our finding is statistically significant, the strength of the association is quite small. However, even in a biometric trait such as height, less than 15% of the variation has been attributed to specific genes. Genetic effects take place in complex interaction with other genes and environments, and it is likely the combination of hundreds if not thousands of genes interacting with each other and with external stimuli that influence political attitudes and behavior.

(Emphasis mine)

This gene isn’t the be-all-and-end-all the papers claim it is. Rather, it’s a gene that, if you ignore everything else, may have a small effect on someone’s political views. There is incredibly wide variation in political views among everybody, whether they have the gene or not.

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  1. #1 by Press Not Sorry on Friday, 29th October 2010 - 14:46 UTC

    Brilliant post, although I was quite taken with the idea of being a genetic mutant. ;)

    What astonishes me is that the right wing press seem to think that being broad minded and being capable of considering other human beings is a VERY BAD THING.

  2. #2 by Steve M on Tuesday, 2nd November 2010 - 19:13 UTC

    And there was me thinking my views (that include immigrants add to society, muslims not taking over the UK, our welfare system helps genuine decent people etc etc) were down to me having a semblance of compassion and intelligence, silly me!

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