Genetics and the Popular Imagination

Every time I see a tweet, news article, or Facebook post related to genetics and intelligence, I save it. I’ve got a pretty extensive folder at this point, but it sits on my computer, unused and untouched. After my last post I decided to take a deeper dive into that folder. Today I want to share what I’ve found.

It is clear to me, as I am sure it is to many others, that intelligence is a socially-valued concept. Parents bend over backwards to get their children into gifted education programs. Children are praised for being ‘smart’ or ‘bright’. When people make bad choices, we call their actions “stupid mistakes” or we call them “stupid” or “fools.”

To be intelligent is a compliment.

Give this, it is no wonder that the media picks up so readily on all things IQ. Learning more about intelligence is akin to saying more about how successful someone is – at least this is the association we’ve formed in Western Society.

It is true that those who are regarded as intelligent are more likely to find themselves in academically accelerated courses (e.g. Honors, IB, AP). Being in an academically accelerated course increases your chances of being admitted to a elite private institution. Attending an elite private institution opens up a plethora of opportunities, including expanding one’s social network, increasing one’s social capital, and making you more attractive to potential employers. As difficult as it might be to say out loud, intelligence does map onto success in life.

The issue is not that intelligence helps predict life success. The issue is how we see intelligence and who we consider to be intelligent.

Who do you first picture when you think of someone you consider to be intelligent? Is it a man or a woman? Is it a person of color or is it someone who is White? Is it someone who is low-income or someone who is comfortable financially?

We associate intelligence with certain kinds of individuals and certain forms of behavior.

Before I go on let’s take a look at some media pieces below.

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While factually, this heading is not entirely true, many lay people would not know. This is an example of how gross over-generalization and misinterpretation takes root so easily. The impact of this is much more significant when it is as charged and symbolically-weighty as ‘cleverness.’

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Western political leaders and their views on the role of genetics for socially-valued behaviors and outcomes like intelligence or socioeconomic status garner a lot of media attention, particularly when there is the idea of genetic determinism or essentialism. Consider the significance of fatalistic statements on something like economic equality when it comes from a public figure. Whose job is it to counter claims that are factually incorrect or an over-generalization? Whose job is it to counter media reports that have misinterpreted scientific research?

The onus, in my opinion, falls on the researcher. It is a mammoth task no doubt. However, publishing research that tempers claims and is painfully explicit in what it can and cannot say is a meaningful first step. So is writing for the public in a way that provides information from the source directly. It will be critical to make sure that the way we convey information to the public is rooted in the information we have available to us currently including the limitations. We need to proactively address areas for possible misinterpretation BEFORE our studies and arguments come out – this is true in any field, but most especially in ones with deep historical baggage.

Next post, will be on how we might work to proactively address ethical issues and the possibilities of misinterpretation.

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