Remembering Constance Holden (1941-2010)
April 14, 2010, 07:39 AM
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The news on Tuesday that Constance Holden, a veteran reporter for Science magazine who died suddenly after being struck on her bike by a National Guard truck on Monday—a truck used in this week’s international nuclear summit—brought back fond memories of her solid reporting on breakthroughs in behavioral genetic research.

Holden’s “Random Samples” column often disclosed interesting information on a range of scientific controversies that surfaced in the news. As an award-winning reporter, she covered the latest developments in IQ research, twin studies, the biological basis of personality, the under-reported twists in the Cyril Burt controversy, and various attempts to suppress scientific inquiry on the genetics of human behavior.

In 1990, Holden offered a sober assessment of the alleged “gains” attributed to the Head Start program. She raised critical questions about the nation’s largest “early intervention” initiative when most reporters either ignored or refused to disclose embarrassing truths about the long-term success of a much-heralded education project.

Holden never passed up an opportunity to offer a candid opinion on controversial scientific matters. She told Charlotte Allen, in a 1992 article on IQ research, "I don't put much stock in what the critics have to say… [t]he critics…have political agendas."

I had a brief conversation with her during the early 1990s. Arthur Jensen was giving a talk on the latest developments in the Cyril Burt “scandal” at the 1992 American Psychological Association in Washington, D.C. (Burt had been accused of faking data on his landmark work on identical twins in the 1970s and new research, led by authors Robert Joynson and the late Ronald Fletcher, working independently, reassessed the credibility of these critical claims.) Holden made herself available and freely answered questions from her avid readers.

Some seven years ahead of The Bell Curve, Holden explained the latest findings from twin and adoption studies in The Washington Post,

“By studying twins and adopted children, scientists have ascertained that genes have a marked effect on cognitive abilities, although this finding is still not accepted by many social scientists. Most behavioral geneticists now agree that the heritability of IQ is somewhere between 50 and 70 percent. But research on the genetics of personality is a more slippery area than IQ because measurements are not as old and well-validated, and personality characteristics are not as stable as IQ. Nonetheless, some provocative findings have emerged.

“As the role of biology in behavior becomes increasingly clear, behavioral genetics is likely to reach out in many directions. The biggest question confronting the field is: What are the mechanisms by which genes influence behavioral characteristics? At this point, according to Harvard sociobiologist E.O. Wilson, the best guess is that such genes regulate "the form and intensity of emotional responses, the thresholds of arousals, the readiness to learn certain stimuli as opposed to others, and the pattern of sensitivity" to environmental factors.

“For behavioral geneticists, the pitting of “nature’ versus “nurture’ is an irrelevant and misleading way to state the issues under investigation. Rather, as Wilson indicates, “nature’ is what determines how the individual responds to “nurture.’”

Holden’s commitment to reporting scientific truths when such truths could easily end one’s journalistic career showed an unswerving dedication to objectively assessing scientific “controversies”, which will be long remembered and forever missed.