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Genetics as an Omitted Variable in Psychology and Social Science

Here’s the abstract of an article by Frank Schmidt in the Archives of Scientific Psychology:

Governments often base social intervention programs on studies done by psychologists and other social scientists.Often these studies fail to mention other research suggesting that such interventions may have a limited chance of actually working. The omitted research that is not mentioned often shows that the behaviors and performances targeted for improvement by the environmental intervention programs are mostly caused by genetic differences between people and for that reason may be more difficult to change than implied in these studies. This is particularly true when the goal is to greatly reduce or eliminate differences between people in such domains as school achievement, impulsive behaviors, or intelligence. This problem of omitted research creates two problems. It tends to call into question the credibility of all social science research, even the studies that do not omit relevant research.And from an applied point of view, it leads to the expenditure of taxpayer dollars on programs that are unlikely to produce the desired outcomes.

Here are a few paragraphs from early in the article:

The first area of problem research focuses on the ostensible effects of life experiences on life outcomes. This broad area includes many research areas and topics in different psychological specialties. The aspect of much of this research that is problematic is the common failure to acknowledge the relevant findings in the field of behavior genetics.

These findings show that virtually all tendencies, traits, behaviors, and life outcomes have a substantial genetic basis (cf.Bouchard, 1997a, 1997b, 2004; Colarelli & Arvey, 2015; Lee & McGue, 2016; McGue & Bouchard, 1998; Plomin, DeFries, Knopik,& Neiderhiser, 2013; Plomin, DeFries, Knopik, & Neiderhaise, 2016; Plomin, Owen, & McGuffin, 1994; Turkheimer, 2000). Even day-to-day variability in positive and negative affect has been shown to be substantially heritable (Zheng, Plomin, & von Stumm, 2016).Research has further shown that most supposedly purely environmental variables (such as the number of books and magazines in the home) that are often concluded to be environmental causes of later life outcomes are themselves genetically influenced (e.g., see Plomin & Bergman, 1991; Plomin et al., 2016). That is, they are substantially influenced by the genetic makeup of the parents in the home, whose genes are passed on to their offspring.

Research also indicates that people seek out and create their own environments based on their genetically influenced proclivities and interests (Scarr, 1996; Scarr,1989; Scarr & McCartney, 1983).The forgoing is a very brief overview but is believed to be sufficient to establish the main point. These behavior genetics findings do not mean that experiences of people do not have any effect on their later life outcomes. But they do mean that failure to even mention potential or likely genetic influences on these outcomes is a serious problem, one that reduces the credibility of the research. The following are some examples of studies that fail to acknowledge these well-established research findings.

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The Economics of History, Douthat-Style

I try not to pay attention—and not provide a direct link—to the NYT’s Stupidest Conservative. It’s one of the greatest advantages of having Susan of Texas around: you can go there and see anything I might write, done better, and (in this case) with cute graphics.

But when Brad DeLong falls down on the job—dealing well with the social, but not at all with the economic, aspect—it is time to go once (and, I hope, only once) into the breach.

Douthat, as quoted by DeLong:

Prior to 1973, 20 percent of births to white, unmarried women (and 9 percent of unwed births over all) led to an adoption. Today, just 1 percent of babies born to unwed mothers are adopted, and would-be adoptive parents face a waiting list that has lengthened beyond reason.

First thing to note: these are not necessarily comparable sets, for reasons detailed by Amanda Marcotte (op. cit. DeLong as well). Since the babies of today are conceived more voluntarily (in concept; my perpetual caveat about access certainly abides here), you would expect those eligible to be adopted to decline as well. That is, the 19% drop (or 95% drop in percentage terms) in white babies being adopted (or maybe it’s a 8% drop from 9% to 1%, which would be 89% in percentage terms) is the effect you would expect with fewer “unwanted” births. People don’t offer children for adoption unless they can’t raise them.

So Douthat’s statistics do, if anything, show that overall life is improved since 1973. We can agree that fewer unwanted babies is a good thing, no?

But if I’m reading Douthat’s prose correctly, there’s a far greater structural problem. Concentrating only on “white” babies— that is, conceding that Douthat is considering a bare majority, if that, of the country—we see that the system he fondly remembers produced a 20% surplus of children born out of wedlock for whom the state or its equivalents needed to care.

Even ignoring the conditions under which many of those births occurred, that basically means that for one in every five children born out of wedlock, no more than four were successfully adopted.

The odds are that the ratio is much higher: after all, “births to white, unmarried women” is a large set. Some of those were likely by choice. Some of those likely were followed soon thereafter by marriage. Some of them had “pre-arranged” adoption within the family (or de facto adoption by the woman’s extended family; see Palin, Bristol, for a contemporary example).

I don’t know the numbers, but if you told me that the above accounted for slightly more than half of the category, I wouldn’t be surprised.

But that leaves about 40% of those babies needing to be adopted. And by Douthat’s own data, only 20% of them were.

So the best-case scenario is that, for each one of us who was adopted, there was a minimum of 1/4 of a person who wasn’t—and probably closer to a 1:1 ratio.

In Douthat’s world, women are supposed to feel guilty ex post because they made a decision. Does that mean that adoptees in the U.S. are supposed to feel guilty because they were adopted and someone else wasn’t? Or that our parents should feel guilty because they chose us, and not someone else?

From an economic analysis, the pre-1973 situation was one of significant excess supply, and the current 1% adoption rate is beneficial to the chances of a potential adoptee being adopted, while the “would-be adoptive parents [who] face a waiting list” have both an abundant opportunity to provide a relatively better lifestyle for children born in developing economies and to take interim steps such as fostering to ensure that they really want to change their lifestyle enough to raise children.

No economist in his right mind would consider the pre-1973 environment romanced by Douthat to be more optimal than the current one, unless he really loves human suffering and wasting human capital.

UPDATE: Tom Levenson at Balloon Juice went out and found some numbers that—to no one’s surprise, I trust—don’t support Douthat’s Delusion either.

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