Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Brave Scientists

Good scientists observe carefully and theorize brilliantly, but great scientists are also tenacious and brave enough to buck the consensus. Here are two examples.

Ulcer Bacteria

Until the early 1980s, the medical consensus was that peptic ulcers - one of the most common afflictions of mankind - were caused by stress and poor lifestyle. Sufferers were told to relax and change their diets, but mostly went on suffering.

Then, against the entrenched insistence of their colleagues, two researchers decided to actually look at what was happening in the stomachs of sufferers. They were treated as dangerous cranks, but after repeated attempts discovered a previously unknown bacterium - helicobacter pylori - and showed that it was present in almost all ulcer sufferers. Finding a fix was easy, and the lives of millions were transformed for the better:

"Thanks to the pioneering discovery by Marshall and Warren, peptic ulcer disease is no longer a chronic, frequently disabling condition, but a disease that can be cured by a short regimen of antibiotics and acid secretion inhibitors."

The quote is from the announcement of Marshall and Warren's richly deserved award of the 2005 Nobel Prize in medicine.

The Bell Curve

Last year, the President of Harvard was pilloried by the gender lefties for observing that men and women have different competencies in of mathematics and sciences. This was the latest in a series of attacks by the gender and race lobbies on any science that undermines their positions.

Back in 1994, I feared that the lobbies had won, when a massive media blitz consigned Herrnstein and Murray's book "The Bell Curve" to crank status. But the WSJ today summarizes a fascinating study by Murray that shows that the good work has gone on, and now offers powerful insights into the differences between the mental wring of different groups of mankind. The scientists have achieved these advances by risking their careers.

The Orwellian disinformation about innate group differences is not wholly the media's fault. Many academics who are familiar with the state of knowledge are afraid to go on the record. Talking publicly can dry up research funding for senior professors and can cost assistant professors their jobs.

The brave and the best have found out using MRI exactly how male and female brains differ, and how that translates into different mental abilities; they've shown that people of the same race have identical genetic markers; that there are clear differences between blacks and whites in tests measuring a factor known as "g", and comparatively little difference in tests that measure memory and knowledge. And that g relates to the structure of the brain: has been determined that a highly significant relationship exists between g and the volume of gray matter in specific areas of the frontal cortex, and that the magnitude of the volume is under tight genetic control.

Difference between groups does not mean that one group is superior to another, just that they are different - the environment determines which differences are of value. So understanding black/white differences can help black Americans improve their lot in a white society.

And the more we understand groups, the more we understand ourselves. Why are Scotsmen so miserable, and is it a useful characteristic? Why does the half the Gandalf tribe heal twice as fast as most? Are high and low trust social characteristics determined by group genetics?

Thanks to these brave folks risking their careers and funding, eventually, we'll know.