5 Things (forensic science, survivorship bias, neanderthals, gay genes, internet hoaxes)

1.Forensic Science

I blame Val McDermid. I read her excellent book Forensics – The Anatomy of Crime earlier this year. Since then I’ve developed a bit of a fascination with the gruesome subject. I really enjoyed Gabriel Weston’s thoughtful BBC documentary series, Catching History’s Criminals – The Forensics Story.  All very reassuring, but forensic science has its sinister side too. This essay about Forensic DNA Phenotyping shows how racist ideology can underlie (and be reproduced by) what appears to be a scientific breakthrough in fighting crime: Sci-Fi Crime Drama with a Strong Black Lead.

2. Survivorship Bias

This entertaining TED Talk  by David McRaney makes me wish that someone had introduced me to survivorship bias back when I was around twenty one years old.  ‘Survivorship bias’ refers to our human tendency to favour examples of survivorship – in the broadest sense – and to ignore the usually far greater evidence of failure. This is a problem because survivors are pretty rare and seeking advice from them results in a seriously skewed perception of reality. People who want to open restaurants will pay attention to the successful restaurants in town, but fail to research the more numerous restaurants that shut down. Whatever the survivors might claim, its difficult to identify the real source of their success. Perhaps they were just lucky. McRaney argues that the failures can often provide us with more useful information. There’s a longer essay available on his website if you’re interested.

3. Neanderthal DNA

I’ve mentioned my fondness for Neanderthals in a previous ‘5 Things’ post. Last time it was fictional stories about Neanderthals. This time it’s the science of Neanderthals, specifically, the question of how a small percentage of their DNA ended up in modern Europeans. This TED Talk and this NOVA documentary have a go at the answer (short version: we shagged them).

4. Gay Genes (or lack of them)

I’ve been enjoying the recent push back against the theory of a genetic basis for sexual orientation. This is an interesting interview with Lisa Diamond, a developmental psychologist who researches sexuality: Sexuality is Fluid – it’s time to get past born this way.  This article by Shamis Khan argues that being ‘born gay’ is a dangerous idea and should be rejected: Not Born this Way. But, you might say, didn’t they just find a genetic link in a recent twin study? Not according to the Atlantic: No, scientists have not found the gay gene. But my favourite take on all of this comes from science fiction and fantasy critic,Cheryl Morgan: Stop Worrying and Ditch the Binaries.

5. People who fake illness on the internet

I discovered this phenomenon via my friend’s newsletter Threeweeks (go subscribe). The Lying Disease is an essay so compelling that I had to stay up late to finish reading it. It’s horribly disturbing stuff, but there’s something so fascinating about the lengths these people will go to to perpetuate their hoaxes. There’s the teenage girl who buys hospital equipment and gets her mother to pose with her in photographs. There’s another young woman who spends years creating numerous fake Facebook profiles to draw people into her story about a dying child. The victims become deeply involved in the stories, offering money, gifts and hours of support. The perpetrators can’t really explain why they did it. Some express shame and remorse, but when you’re dealing with people who lie all the time, it’s a bit difficult to believe them.