Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Pulling the Empty Chair on Dr. Kevin Beaver

I laughed out loud when Bill O’Reilly walked out of an interview with Terry Gross in 2003. The NPR Ombudsman, Jeffrey Dvorkin, rebuked her for conducting an “empty chair interview” after O’Reilly left by asking the questions that he did not let her finish. I had never heard of the term “empty chair interview” before that instance, and while it seems to be a violation of journalist ethics, Gross never apologized to my knowledge, and NPR played the occurrence, even though it was not live.

Well, I have decided to release this empty chair interview with Dr. Kevin Beaver, PhD. Dr. Beaver is a famous criminologist at Florida State University and the author and co-author of numerous published studies and academic texts on biosocial criminology. Mainstream media outlets frequently seek comments from him whenever news breaks about the genetics of violence, and I have cited his research from the beginning of this blog. I briefly shared an email exchange with him that was always cordial and professional, and I requested that he answer a list of questions about his research and this field of study for me to post here. Without objecting to the questions, he refused to answer the questions after seeing this blog because he could not endorse the views contained therein. As a man who spent the greater part of my life getting educated at liberal institutions, I completely understand and sympathize, and I expected this response. I hope that nothing I write ever harms his career or research. Perhaps noting his unwillingness to be associated with this blog will convince whichever would-be detractors he might have that he is well-intentioned and a team player.

I have listed the questions I posed to him below with added links to provide additional background. It is worth a read because I premised the questions with some quick summary points of some of the accomplishments and controversies of the research, where I suspect the research might be going, and criticisms I have of Dr. Beaver’s own research methodologies. I welcome any critical comments of my journalistic ethics or otherwise. Of course, many differences exist between this post and the NPR example that I mentioned. First of all, I am not a journalist, and I am not remunerated as Gross is. Secondly, my questions are more informative and required more research than Gross reading from People magazine. Lastly, Dr. Beaver received a copy of all questions and is exercising his prerogative to not respond at all.

In defense of the blog, itself, I do not consider my writings to be mean-spirited or racist. In fact, I have on multiple occasions made an effort to debunk the views of those whom I would label as “white nationalists.” I make no apologies for confronting the pseudo-controversies regarding the validity of IQ, the usefulness of “race” in medical research, and, indeed, the inherently sensitive subjects that Dr. Beaver broaches in his work. In each case, I see a matter of life-and-death importance, and I shall expound on that characterization in future posts. I think a fair assessment of this blog would label it the least radical of the many “human biodiversity” or “race realist” sites. Among these I would include Gene Expression, which carries the imprimatur of Discovery Communications and the Unz Foundation. Its author, Razib Khan, regularly interviews noted academics and authors, and his status seems undiminished by his somewhat outside-the-traditional-mainstream takes on eugenics and whether egalitarian policies should end due to the high heritability of IQ. Oh, and I have never called any of my commenters a “retard.”

Perhaps a savvy reporter will review this page next time before seeking a sound bite from Dr. Beaver. If not, I am glad that I brought these unrequited inquiries to a researcher’s attention, and I insist on interpreting the reticence as a testament to the need for a blog titled The Unsilenced Science.

A June New York Times article that quoted you also mentioned a forensic science panel on creating a genetic database during the first day of the National Institute of Justice conference. How can we obtain more information about the panel discussion? Are minutes available? Will the database allow public viewing?

The New York Times article said that you agreed with the view that “hundreds or thousands of genes” contribute to aggressive behavior as is the case for many complex behaviors. Why should we consider aggression a complex behavior?

Does this view discourage you from studying small numbers of genes, as you have been doing?

The only genome-wide association study of which I am aware related to psychopathy was Viding et al, “In search of genes associated with risk for psychopathic tendencies in children: a two-stage genome-wide association study of pooled DNA.” Are you aware of other such studies that have or will be published?

Do you have any plans to participate in making a genome-wide association study?

Viding et al did not find major genetic loci for psychopathic tendencies in children. Do you expect that aggressive behavior has no especially important genetic loci?

It is my understanding that genome-wide association studies cannot address VNTR components. Therefore, they would not compare the most studied variants of genes like MAOA. How should we reconcile research of such genes with studies like Viding et al?

Do you see any kind of study like a genome-wide association study actually taking VNTR into account in the future?

In your studies of MAOA, you used the convention of including the 2-repeat and 3-repeat alleles in the category MAOA-L, but Guo et al “The integration of genetic propensities into social-control models of delinquency and violence among male youths” and Guo et al “The VNTR 2 repeat in MAOA and delinquent behavior in adolescence and young adulthood: associations and MAOA promoter activity” found that the 2-repeat allele had twice as much effect on violent delinquency as either the 3-repeat or 4-repeat alleles and that the 2-repeat allele had more effect than the dopamine genes DAT1 and DRD2. How do you justify following the MAOA-L convention rather than studying the 2-repeat allele separately?

In your study “Genetic risk, parent-child relations, and antisocial phenotypes in a sample of African-American males” you studied MAOA and four autosomal genes. You created an index with the maximum score of 9. Is it correct, therefore, that the X-chromosome MAOA allele was counted as equal to only one allele of an autosomal pair of alleles? Would not the hemizygosity of the X-chromosome allow for increased impact of its alleles?

Why did you decide to not calculate constants to differentially weight genes in this study, as you suggested be studied in the discussion?

Table 4 showed a statistically significant p-value for your genetic index affecting adult violent delinquency but not for parent-child relations. Why did you not highlight this finding in the abstract? Is it wrong to view this as evidence that “nature” has more impact than “nurture”?

According to Scopus, only five studies have cited this study, and all five were by you and your research team. Do you have any thoughts regarding why so few other researcher teams are currently building upon your work?

Why did you decide to exclude the genes MAOA and 5-HTTLPR from the genetic index that you created in “The association between genetic risk and contact with the criminal justice system in a sample of Hispanics”?

According to my PubMed searches, research on MAOA and aggression or antisocial personality disorder has been published at a slower rate since about the time that you started publishing studies on the subject. Have you noticed this, and, if so, do you have any thoughts on the matter?

Much of the research on MAOA seemed to be in response to the Caspi et al study “Role of genotype in the cycle of violence in maltreated children.” His team published a similar study on 5-HTTLPR and depression, which seemed to produce a backlash against all candidate gene research as evidenced by Risch et al “Interaction between the serotonin transporter gene (5-HTTLPR), stressful life events, and risk of depression.” The Uher et al study “Serotonin transporter gene moderates childhood maltreatment’s effects on persistent but not single-episode depression: replications and implications for resolving inconsistent results” seemed to try to counter this sentiment in press reports. Have you noticed that this back-and-forth has had any impact on how your candidate gene research is received?

Is violent behavior a disease?

A disproportionate number of studies on MAOA and antisocial personality disorder were negative (Saito et al, Koller et al, Parsian et al, Lu et al, and Prichard et al). Why should antisocial personality disorder be a focus of genetic research? Should not the aggression or impulsive criteria of antisocial personality disorder be considered separately in genetic studies?

Why have you never studied the genetics of intermittent explosive disorder?

Do you see the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) as adequate in addressing these subjects?

Have you been in contact with anyone regarding the shaping of DSM-V?

Other studies (Chakrovorty and Halbreich, Chevillard et al, Gundlah et al, Klaiber et al, Luine et al, Ma et al, Ou et al, Redmond et al, Sjoberg et al, and Smith et al) suggest MAOA interacts with the hormones testosterone, estradiol, and cortisol. Why have you chosen to not include hormonal factors in your research? Could not an index that includes multiple aggression-associated genes, hormone levels, and hormone receptor genetic alleles produce more powerful results?

Fowler et al “Brain monoamine oxidase A inhibition in cigarette smokers” found that smoking lowers brain MAOA. Why have you not included smoking status as a factor in your studies—or have I missed you doing so?

You appeared in the National Geographic documentary on MAOA. Have you seen the completed version, and would you care to comment on it?

When this documentary came out, the Dr. Phil program also dedicated an episode to MAOA. Have you seen that, and would you care to comment on it?

You opposed the decision by an Italian court to reduce the sentence of Abdelmalek Bayout, but the testimony of Dr. William Bernet helped do something similar for Bradley Waldroup in Tennessee. Did Dr. Bernet act irresponsibly?

What steps would you recommend that our criminal justice system take regarding exculpatory genetic evidence of this sort?

Should the insanity defense be expanded or contracted based on your research?

How, if at all, have the controversies associated with biosocial criminology impeded your work?

Prior to your research on MAOA, some studies and editorials cited Widom and Brzustowicz “MAOA and the ‘cycle of violence:’ childhood abuse and neglect, MAOA genotype, and risk for violent and antisocial behavior” that questioned “the suitability of using the MAOA promoter VNTR polymorphism as a proxy for MAOA levels in non-white populations” based on a comparison between whites and non-whites of unrevealed ethnic proportions and without taking gender into account. Would you say that your research has upset the potential for racial harmony on this issue and made studying the genetics of violence more difficult?

Are you familiar with the controversy surrounding Dr. Rod Lea, the New Zealand scientist who was quoted as saying that his research on MAOA “has implications suggesting links with criminality among Maori people”? Do you have an opinion on how he or the media acted during that controversy?

In general, Asian societies like Japan have low rates of violent crime, but East Asians have higher rates of violence-associated alleles, including the 3-repeat allele of MAOA, the short allele of 5-HTTLPR, and the 10R allele of DAT1. Do those facts seem contradictory to you, or do you see a possible explanation?

Chiao and Blizinsky in “Culture-gene coevolution of individualism-collectivism and the serotonin transporter gene” suggested that culture evolves with specific alleles to prevent side effects like depression in those with the short allele of 5-HTTLPR. Do you have thoughts on this hypothesis, and have you considered conducting research related to culture-gene coevolution and aggression?

Has the decline in crime rates made your work in biosocial criminology more or less challenging and in what ways?

What plans do you have for future research on the genetics of aggression?

Are there additional candidate genes that you would like to include in future research?

Are you planning on studying or have interest in searching for individuals with Brunner syndrome?

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