Nature or nurture or Good intentions

There is a saying that the “road to hell is paved with good intentions.

I was thinking of this when I heard that Oliver James was being interviewed on a local radio station. You can listen below if you like. The talk gave James a chance to talk about his ideas (and the new book) there was no real questioning going on. It starts off in interesting territory but as James continues the end conclusion is somewhat alarming.

At its best the argument is in favour of therapy for (mental) health and offers up the hope that you are not somehow doomed by a genetic factor. And that change is possible. However the idea that parents somehow cause the most damage to their children is not a welcome one at all. Unless of course it is a way to use guilt to sell more books. Which of itself is not a tactic I could support at all.

Professor Marcus Munafo disagrees with Oliver James. Genetic denialism is unhelpful – genes play a role in who we are

“How should we interpret these findings? First, genetic influences capture the molecular hand we are dealt at birth, but these effects are not fixed. Developmental processes can compensate for some of these inherited differences (a process known as canalization), and these genetic effects will not operate in isolation – they will both influence and be influenced by our environment, from conception onwards.
Second, these influences only capture a proportion of risk for an outcome, and this only makes sense when we are talking about a population. People will lie somewhere along a continuum of genetic risk (with most people somewhere in the middle), but even those lying at one end of the distribution will not have a guaranteed outcome.”

Deborah Orr writes in Oliver James is dangerously wrong to blame parents for their children’s mental illness

“James’s misinterpretations and mistakes were pointed out to him before his book was published. In a letter to the British Psychological Society’s periodical, the Psychologist, Stuart Ritchie of the University of Edinburgh responded robustly to a paper James submitted on the same themes as his book. Ritchie pointed out that Plomin’s quote, and therefore James’s thinking, was out of date. “Genome-wide association studies in 2014 and 2015 have uncovered specific genes related to educational performance, to IQ and to the personality trait of neuroticism.”

Of course this is a rerun of the old debate about nature versus nurture and how we get to be the way we are. The complexity of the science has stepped up a few notches but the ability for most readers to follow the arguments easily leads to more book sales for all the wrong reasons.

Our intentions are good but we have bought the story and while something good may come out of that it is quite likely that a great deal more analysis is needed.

I was thinking the Oliver James story and the rebuttals when I came across a post about Mother Teresa. In essence the romanticised story about her was very much that. The reality was quite different and in some research called Mother Teresa: Anything but a saint… there is much more detail.

For some context back in the late 70’s I organised a charity concert for a musician – the proceeds of which went to the Mother Teresa mission. In 1979 it was very much pre-internet and we had no real way of easily verifying stories but it seemed like a great idea at the time.

All of us at that event wanted to see positive changes happen. We had bought the myth because we didn’t know it was a myth. On the other hand a lot of people believed that Mother Teresa achieved a great deal. Does it really matter if the reality was different? Maybe.

Paradoxically it is very likely that myth actually created a good deal of positive change. As the researchers note under the heading – Positive effect of the Mother Teresa myth

“Despite Mother Teresa’s dubious way of caring for the sick by glorifying their suffering instead of relieving it, Serge Larivée and his colleagues point out the positive effect of the Mother Teresa myth: “If the extraordinary image of Mother Teresa conveyed in the collective imagination has encouraged humanitarian initiatives that are genuinely engaged with those crushed by poverty, we can only rejoice. It is likely that she has inspired many humanitarian workers whose actions have truly relieved the suffering of the destitute and addressed the causes of poverty and isolation without being extolled by the media. Nevertheless, the media coverage of Mother Theresa could have been a little more rigorous.”