Junk Tobacco Anthropology

One of our great contributors, an industrial chemist of great knowledge and experience, smart guy, sends this item from the UK Telegraph.

The claim made is stress and cigarette smoking produces more homosexual boy children.

As Milloy would say, this is junkscience because. . .



Observational (ecological) epidemiological studies are plagued by uncertainties and unknowns. Data dredging for a positive association is a constant danger in the biz of mining and dredging for publishable papers that bring money, advancement, grants and publicity.

Suffice it to say, the guy picked subjects that would get him some publicity and how you gonna stop him from getting his next grant?

11 responses to “Junk Tobacco Anthropology

  1. They always forget to test how smoking affects fly boys and mouse boys.

  2. I guess not enough people quit after hearing it would make their children weak, sickly, asthmatic, and stupid. Of course you have to ignore all environmental and sociological factors of sexuality and take it on faith that homosexuality is a genetic condition. It also implies that having a homosexual child is a terrible consequence. This is just a new face on an old evil. Eugenicists have been trying to convince us that our sins will be visited upon our children via genetic predeterminism for more than 150 years now. The methods have changed a bit, and they’re certainly less open, but the simple assertion that bad people have bad children still remains.

  3. Well, I for one am just glad that as long as I don’t stress my kids out I can blow smoke in their face all I like without them turning gay.


  4. Doubting Thomas

    Just a couple of amateur observations.

    If stress and smoking are big factors in producing homsexuals, then blacks and the poor in general should show the largest growth in homosexuality, since being poor is a huge stresser and the majority of smokers are less affluent. I don’t think this bears out.

    Also, as cigarette smoking decreases, as it has for the last several decades, then the incidence of homosexuality should be decreasing, if this were indeed a significant factor. If anything, I believe the percentage of homsexuals is on the rise. This would suggest that social factors play a larger role in determining sexual preference than genetic or environmental factors.

    Granted, the perceived rise in homosexuality may be due to a greater willingness to self-identify, or just a perception due to the media’s increasing focus on this group.

    • Well, yes, we’re talking about effects that are hard to define, let alone measure with enough certainty to tell what’s on the rise and what isn’t.

      However, the range of estimated prevalence of homosexual behaviour (whatever it is) is about the same in all animals that have sex, no matter what they are smoking or how stressed they are. The range is anywhere between “conspicuous” and “very common”.


      Lots of junk science there, especially where easily accessible endocrinological evidence is cited to obfuscate the role of genetics or physiology (look at neurotransmitters and receptor proteins, dudes!)

      Nonetheless, there are some insights to be gained from this type of research:

      “No species has been found in which homosexual behaviour has not been shown to exist, with the exception of species that never have sex at all”

      • Small issue with the fact that much of that behavior is observed under unnatural, captive conditions. Other claims of homosexual behavior are misrepresentations of play behavior and displays of dominance. To equate that to human sexuality is a big stretch. At best they’re saying that the behavior of prisoners is indicative of natural behavior.

        The assertion that ““No species has been found in which homosexual behavior has not been shown to exist” is patently false. There are a multitude of species that have barely been observed at all. Of the well documented species only about 500 species have “well documented” homosexual behavior. Of some note is the fact that homosexual behavior in this context includes “courtship, affection, pair bonding, or parenting”. All behaviors that are not necessarily considered homosexual in humans. To equate these behaviors to homosexuality is a slanted form of anthropomorphization.

        This myth was started as an attempt to prove to a homophobic world that homosexuality is natural. The assertion that homosexuality is genetic was an attempt to claim that sexuality was beyond the individuals control, an understandable desire seeing how homosexuals are often treated. Unfortunately the plan has backfired and many now use this reasoning to claim that homosexuals are genetic aberrations driven by animalistic instinct that their intellect cannot control, as “natural” as a sixth toe.

        • This line of debate inevitably leads into a more general discussion of what’s natural and what isn not, and then on to what’s life and what is not. In such discussions, it is easy to remain correct, but they lose purpose and meaning real fast. Yes, crystals are alive; we can move one to something more meaningful.

          To me, natural is something that had not been observed until I or my mates made it. Ephedrine is natural. Amphetamine is not. The differences between them are so slight that any effort to maintain the distinction for the sake of consistency seems silly. They act in the same manner and act on the same things. Now, is the mechanism of amphetamine action is natural or unnatural.

          The debate about homosexuality is a linguistic exercise. It has no biological meaning without proper context. Which of the following statements is relevant to biology?

          * I had a homosexual handshake with a visitor yesterday.
          * Today my boss and I will have a homosexual discussion of why I am missing all my deadlines.
          * If my boss and I were jointly raising an orphan, we would be considered homosexual parents.
          * The mail beetle sticks his tool into another male’s anus to achieve a homosexual release of stale sperm.

          It does not matter a bit that the observed animals are captive, and not all are. We do need to work on captive beetles (and eventually destroy them, perhaps) to assess the viability of their sperm. We do that if we want to go into details about the biological significance of their behaviour that we have already observed in the wild. Then, while in captivity, not all individuals behave in the same way, so generally you can’t use captivity to explain all observed interactions.

          Philosophy is just not productive. Observations can be.

          • I’m using the typical definition “existing in or caused by nature; not made or caused by humankind.” The issue of captivity is relevant because the hypothesis proposed is that the behavior observed in confined conditions also occurs in nature without human intervention. Similar problems have been discovered with theories of mate or offspring cannibalism. Biologists observe behavior in captive and confined animals that are living under conditions not found in the wild and then assume the behavior is typical of the species when it is not.

            You are correct to say the issue is semantics. It is about using the strictly literal definition of the roots of the word homosexual in one situation and using that to draw a false comparison to the usual definition of the word homosexual “sexually attracted to people of one’s own sex.” One might say that a group of young boys had a homosexual birthday party because no girls were allowed. You could argue that the word is semantically true, but I don’t believe you could honestly argue that you are unaware of the important difference in connotation. It is not only unscientific but dishonest to switch the term “sex” from meaning gender to intercourse in the middle of a paragraph. Two males working together to care for a child has nothing to do with sexual orientation. If your boss and you were jointly raising an orphan, you would not be considered homosexual by anyone who isn’t deliberately trying to obfuscate their meaning by choosing to use an archaic definition of the word that was never the most common usage. For example, the show Two and a Half Men was not widely regarded to be a show about a homosexual couple.

            Even worse semantic abuse is committed when the term is applied to animals that do not even experience gender in the same way that humans do. A species that is all female and reproduces by parthenogenesis is not, strictly speaking, homosexual. It is asexual.

            I agree that observations are much more useful than philosophy, but the issue I am contesting is not what has been observed but how certain people misrepresent what they have observed to support a social or political agenda. That is the very essence of junk science.

            • Misrepresenting observations to support a political agenda is just one form of junk science. There are other self-sustaining forms of corruption in science; not all of them are politically motivated. For some bizarre reason, falsifications, misrepresentations and baseless virtuality are more attractive than factual knowledge. Another powerful source of junk is the widespread belief that knowing wrong is somehow less uncool than not knowing (“We know this theory is junk but we teach it because it’s all we’ve got”).

              There are also areas where ignorance is preferred. Ethology is one. It has been consistently ignored or suppressed by societies, either by authoritarian rule or by voluntary neglect. The communist rulers of Russia continued to label ethology “anti-science” and “anti-social” long after they had abandoned their persecution of geneticists. I could never figure out why, but from that fact and from occasional discussions like this, I get the sense that societies want to remain inscrutable.

            • I’m with you, Feynman said and I agree that we should be our own most difficult skeptics and have a little humility. You he said quantum mechanics is not understood.
              I think he could live with a little ignorance and uncertainty, so can we all. In the social sciences, psych and neuro it may be that a brain is not big enough to understand consciousness–or the gigantic and complex things.

              You are a close reader of the site, recall the biochemical structure described for Alcohol dehydrogenase, that’ll bring on some humility–how could such a thing be put together to work at the same time all the other things had to be put together to work in a living thing? Enzymes with molecular weights in the tens of thousands created by codons that make RNA that tells the organelles to make the stuff out of small molecules like amino acids? I am a little humble about that–there is a big jump from doing the physical chemistry to get the 3D structure, but how did it come to be?

            • John, you strike a conversational goldmine every time you wonder about life. I have learned to avoid it, like I avoid overeating, or else there is no end to it and no useful work gets done (I admit I am not too good at either kind of avoidance).

              So what is it that humiliates you more: the mass of alcohol dehydrogenase, its structure, the way it was put together, or all other things like it? We can have fun with all that. Let’s start with molecular mass. We could spend days looking at molecular masses of different alcohol dehydrogenases of different origin, but I will lose my job if we do it properly. So let’s just have a peek at the extremes:

              (hope the table comes out right)

              Phanerochaete chrysosporium | 2.80e+05
              Desulfovibrio sp.           | 2.63e+05
              Desulfovibrio sp.           | 2.51e+05
              Moraxella sp.               | 2.40e+05
              Entamoeba histolytica       | >2.00e+05
              Rhodococcus erythropolis    | 2.00e+05
              Methanogenium liminatans    | 2.00e+05
              Saccharomyces cerevisiae    | 2.00e+05
              Drosophila melanogaster     | 2.00e+05
              Sulfolobus solfataricus     | 2.00e+05
              Thermoanaerobium brockii    | 2.00e+05
              Zymomonas mobilis           | 2.00e+05
              * * * *
              Rhodococcus rhodochrous     | 8.60e4
              Mus musculus                | 8.50e4
              Homo sapiens                | 8.40e4
              Equus caballus              | 8.40e4
              Pseudomonas putida          | 8.40e4
              * * * *
              Homo sapiens                | 3.25e4
              Gallus gallus               | 3.20e4
              Rattus norvegicus           | 3.20e4
              Sporobolomyces salmonicolor | 3.20e4
              Pseudomonas sp.             | 3.10e4
              Sus scrofa                  | 3.00e4 .. 3.04e4
              Gallus gallus               | 3.00e4
              Drosophila melanogaster     | 2.70e4
              Rhodopseudomonas acidophila | 2.70e4

              Those in the tens of thousands are closer to the bottom of the list; near the top we see hundreds of thousands. A spread of an order of magnitude. Of course, you can wonder how can such a thing be put together, but first ask yourself: which one?

              I suggest we delay humility until we’ve looked at all of those things — without any particular goal in mind. Our first question should be: what’s up with that?

              This table alone can lead a curious mind on a lot of tangents. Hey, did you know ADM uses Zymomonas to make alcohol, while everybody else uses yeast?

              Anyways, molecular mass. Don’t forget, they are polymers. There is almost no limit on how long they can be, and it is about as easy to make a 100kDa protein as it is to make 1kDa because they are built using the same principle. The question is, how much of that mass is important? Important for what? If there are parts that are more important than others, how do they vary? Are there any parts that can be knocked out without the loss of function? Why does each of the living things use multiple versions of alcohol dehydrogenase? Why do we have multifunctional enzymes? How specific is each of the forms used — will it work equally well with all alcohols, or just one, or several? Those forms we see at work now — are they perfect or can they be improved? What’s that subunit business? Why would some organisms have tetrameric, octameric or even decameric ADH, while we can make do with a mere dimer? I mean, just writing down such off-hand questions can take a whole day.

              I think if you are obsessed with humility, you don’t get to ask too many useful (over just interesting) questions. Never mind learning the answers.

              Just sample a few:


              Now imagine, we needed to build a database of about 23,000 enzymology papers (all experimental works, all pre-2000), just to scope the range of things out there — and that’s just a droplet in the sea of information potentially available but unfortunately not yet easily accessible. Of those 23k papers, about 400 are about EC (one of the most studied enzymes).

              Usually, biologists don’t start focussing on evolution too much until they’ve learnt a lot of facts, and once they do know their way around, they are likely to acquire evolutionary insights without much focus, anyway. It’s all in the data. The only problem is, by the time you’ve learnt enough to have insights worth bragging about, you’re kind of old. And then you turn senile. Biology is slow.

              Sorry, I’ve got to scoot. I’ll see if I can make any *simple* comments on your ADH post later.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s