Turok of the North

Recently a paper by Justin Sandefur came up with a way of calibrating the results of a math test taken by a number of African countries that don’t participate in PISA and other international assessments – from overlapping questions, and from a few countries that took both. So now we have fairly good estimates of the math proficiency of those poorly-reported African countries [Mauritius, Kenya, Seychelles, Mozambique, Swaziland, Tanzania, Botswana, Uganda, South Africa, Zanzibar, Lesotho, Malawi,Zambia, and Namibia]

Average pupils score below the fifth percentile for most developed countries.

Neil Turok is a theoretical physicist from South Africa, currently at (and running) the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Canada. He’s a smart cookie, well thought of: he won the Maxwell Medal in 1992, and took the chair of mathematical physics in Cambridge in 1997.

He gives TED talks (ominous already!) about the search for an African Einstein. from Wired: “Turok, 54, sees conditions in Africa today as comparative to those of eastern Europe 100 years ago: then, ambitious young Jews were suddenly granted access to education, and went on to make significant discoveries and advances in science.

Now it is the turn of Africans. “Einstein came from a very disadvantaged community, which had been completely excluded from university until the second half of the 19th century,” he says in his office in Ontario, Canada, where he runs the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics. “But once they got into university, that first generation, you start having Jacobi, Einstein, Bohr, Pauli.

This group completely revolutionised physics.”

He founded, and convinced Bill Gates to fund, AIMS – the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences. How’s that search for African Einsteins going?

I mentioned that he was a smart guy. He’s also crazy. He thinks that sub-Saharan Africans today are analogous to Ashkenazi Jews in 1850 or so – ready to explode into the intellectual world and tear it a new asshole.

Wanna bet? With African math scores at the 5th percentile? With their IQ scores two standard deviations below those of Europeans, three below the Askenazim? That low average tremendously suppresses the fraction above a high threshold. With every event in life its own self consistent with those statistics – not just in Africa, but everywhere in the African diaspora?

And he has no excuse [other than his commie family history]. He grew up in South Africa: there are plenty of things he would have seen if this picture of the world were true, and he’s never seen any of them. Did black kids out-argue him, beat him at chess, win the math competitions even though their parents were poor as synagogue mice? No sirree.

Of course Bill Gates is also a smart guy, but he’s crazy too. His craziness has had negative impact on the success of the Gates Foundation, which is too bad. If you compare Gates Foundation achievements with those of the Rockefeller Foundation in its youth [defeat of hookworm, elucidation of the composition of DNA, many other things] it’s downright embarrassing. Sometimes they’ve been crazy ( everything they’ve touched in educational reform), sometimes perhaps too ambitious [ malaria vaccine – technically hard. Maybe too hard?]. Probably Warren Buffet should have put his charitable money elsewhere.

That craziness is not rare among people smart enough to do theoretical physics, or even write a Basic interpreter. Dumb people don’t originate much, smart people are susceptible to all kinds of ideological craziness. Oh, what a world.

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There exists a weird kind of cancer called a teratoma, whose cells seem to think that they are in an embryo. These cancers differentiate; develop hair, teeth, skin, all manner of messy things. They exist in humans and animals. Some very odd guy wondered if teratoma cells, which seem to want to be an embryo, would actually become one if given a favorable environment. He implanted teratoma cells into an early-stage rat embryo; the teratoma cells there experienced the proper chemical cues and developed into part of a rat. He ended up with a piebald rat – some of the cells had a regular rat mom and dad, while other parts were descended from a cancer propagated in a tissue culture. The rat was fine. I first ran into this report the very same afternoon that I read The Boys from Brazil.

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The Marching Morons

There’s a new paper out on how the frequency of variants that affect educational achievement (which also affect IQ) have been changing over time in Iceland. Naturally, things are getting worse.
We don’t have all those variants identified yet, but from the fraction we do know and the rate of change, they estimate that genetic potential for IQ is dropping about 0.30 point per decade – 3 points per century, about a point a generation. In Iceland.

Sounds reasonable, in the same ballpark as demography-based estimates.

It would be interesting to look at moderately recent aDNA and see when this trend started – I doubt if has been going on very long.

This is the most dangerous threat the human race faces.

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The effectiveness of unreasonable physicists

Now and then physicists have invaded other fields with success, sometimes embarrassing the natives. For example, Max Delbruck and the phage group, Crick and DNA, Seymour Benzer, Walter Gilbert, Alvarez and the K-T extinction, etc.

But sometimes it doesn’t turn out so well. I remember a physicist who thought he had invented the perfect weight-loss diet: you drank lots of cold water, which require lots of calories to warm up, and thus you would lose weight. Problem was, he hadn’t noticed that there is a differences between gram calories (the amount of energy required to raise the temperature of one gram of water by one degree C) and food calories, the amount of energy required to raise the temperature of one kilogram of water by one degree.

His diet worked, but you had to drink a thousand times more cold water than in his original estimate, which made for an inordinate number of pit stops.

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Dodging a bullet

Back in the 1950s, Sabin and Salk developed polio vaccines. Salk’s vaccine was inactivated. Sabin’s vaccine was live, but used a weakened strain, strong enough to cause an immune reaction, but weak enough not to cause polio. The live version was also infectious, which amplified its protective effect in the community.

The virus was weakened by passage through a number of cell cultures (live monkey, monkey testicular cultures, monkey kidney cells, etc).

Being a virus, it was grown in cell culture, derived from rhesus monkeys. The problem with all those live cell cultures was the possibility of picking up some other monkey virus. And that happened: 10-30 million Americans received vaccine contaminated with SV40 (Simian vacuolating virus 40) between 1955 and 1963. It is suspected that versions of the vaccine produced produced in the East Bloc may have been contaminated far longer, as late as 1980, which could have exposed several hundred million more people to SV40.

SV40 is pretty good at causing cancer in hamsters: there it causes sarcomas.

Does it cause cancer in humans? Some people claim to have found it in some cases of osteosarcoma, non-Hodgkins lymphoma, and mesothelioma (similar to the kinds of cancer in infected hamsters).

Currently it’s not clear whether SV40 causes cancer in humans – but it is clear that at worst, it causes very few such cancers.

It could have been worse. What if the contaminant had been HIV, instead of SV-40?

It wouldn’t have killed everybody. A fair fraction of people contracting HIV have flu-like symptoms a few weeks after. Usually the serious immune deficiency does not develop for at least three years – if the contaminant had been HIV, presumably the powers that be would have realized that something had gone wrong within a couple of years after the beginning of mass administration, because of the relatively few but dramatic early immunodeficiency cases. Even allowing for frantic defensive nonsense emitted by those people that stood to look bad from such a disaster. It might have been detected in the Francis Field Trial, in 1954 and 1955, where about 440,000 people were injected. I doubt if it would have killed more than a million people – mostly kids. No more than 10, 20 million killed, tops. I’m not counting later cases resulting from transmission via needle-sharing and sodomy.

The risk of picking up an unknown virus from cell culture had been discussed. Salk and Sabin were not as careful as they should have been. Overeager. Ambitious. Polio was scary and well worth fighting, but the potential downside went way, way down.

This does show that the price of insufficient medical vigilance can be very high.

Probably the largest existing example of death-by-medical-oopsie is the very high incidence of Hepatitis C in Egypt, which was spread by a mass anti-schistosomiasis campaign between 1960 and 1980, in which a goodly fraction of everyone in Egypt (~15%) seem to have been inoculated with the same needle, setting them up for cirrhosis and liver cancer.

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Freedom of medicine

There are people that think that we could have much faster medical progress via a basically libertarian approach: decrease or abolish government regulation of drug development. Or permit companies to market new drugs without first proving that they work.

Nutritional and herbal supplements are barely regulated at all: so by this argument there should be all kinds of medical progress stemming from that area. But it hasn’t happened. supplements are mostly useless, yet people buy them anyhow. There’s very little regulation of medical developments in third world countries – why aren’t they a a fount of medical progress? But that’s an unfair comparison: we know why they’re not.

So why is drug development harder than making a better cellphone or laptop?

People are complicated, evolved rather than designed, product of a recipe rather than a spec. We know something about human biochemistry and physiology, but far from everything. We know enough that some ( a few) of our new ideas about treating disease work – but most don’t, including most of those that everybody involved just knew had to work. It’s fair to say that we don’t have a good interface spec.

Next, the consequences of failures can be considerably more serious. The equivalent of the blue screen of death is .. death. Developing a new drug is more like developing avionics than apps: we don’t want planes to crash, and we’ve succeeded – but not through a unregulated market.

Knowing some history gives perspective. In 1900, few of the drugs in the pharmocopoeia actually worked. Doctors were not yet in the African-American. Why did they have customers? Why did doctors even exist? Why did literally thousands of years of low regulation result in almost no progress? The Romam Empire had low marginal tax rates too, and good security of private property most of the time – why so little progress?

Mostly, as far as I can tell, doctors existed was because people didn’t understand regression to the mean. You go to the doctor when you feel worse than average: after he does something you are eventually closer to average. Or if he did nothing, which was safer. Big pharma started out as frauds – they had nothing better. But being a fraud worked, and it still works. One of my correspondents had an MD tell him that the pharmaceutical industry was rotten to the core, doctoring all kinds of studies, and spinning results. True.

Nobody regulated psychologists, so the free market scotched Freudian analysis – in your dreams.

Anyhow, it is surely possible to materially improve the efficacy of drug development, of medical research as a whole. We’re doing better than we did 500 years ago – although probably worse than we did 50 years ago. But I would approach it by learning as much as possible about medical history, demographics, epidemiology, evolutionary medicine, theory of senescence, genetics, etc. Read Koch, not Hayek. There is no royal road to medical progress.

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Every now and then a group secedes from general society and goes its own way. Sometimes they end up living a very different kind of life. Less often, that different way of life persists.

I’m thinking of the Puritans, the Quakers, the Amish, the Oneida Community, the Nation of Islam, California communes, and of course the Harshmanites.

Do those different ways of life influence intelligence? According to the sociologists they could, and maybe should. According to the psychometricians and behavioral geneticists, they could if they had differential recruitment [ immediate results] , or if they were reproductive isolated and had different internal selective pressures [ slow ].

Has there been such a change caused by the new social environment? In other words, could such a subsociety just decide to be smarter?

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