Adversarial Collaboration

Dorothy Robert argues that behavior genetics researchers have a social responsibility to think about the context in which their work is produced (Dorothy Roberts, 2015).

To facilitate more socially-responsible research, I advocate for ‘adversarial collaboration.’ I first came across this term at a Special Interest Group meeting at the 2017 American Educational Research Association annual meeting. I had never heard it before, but it made sense – it gave me a term to describe the kinds of collaborations I had been advocating for (see this blog post I wrote for the Center for Genetics and Society in autumn 2016).

Adversarial collaboration brings together individuals from different, and at times opposing, disciplines. The focus is not necessarily on results, but on encouraging a process that leads to a deeper understanding of an issue (Kahneman, 2003). I believe collaborations such as this will help move the conversation on the utility or dangers of genetics research on social outcomes and behaviors past critique to a more constructive process. Social scientists should be in the ‘lab’ working alongside and challenging genetics researchers. In the current scenario, many of those concerned with the implications of scientific research are commenting on processes that have already begun or even been completed. Addressing challenges associated with the introduction of genetics into education could drive policy makers to table efforts aimed at tackling inequality, including racial and income segregation and stark differences in school funding and quality in the United States (B. D. Baker, Sciarra, & Farrie, 2014).

Adversarial collaborations would work to ensure that equity remains a focus in educational policy; it involves a shift towards having social scientists and ethicists present from the very beginning of the research process, able to proactively raise and address concerns rather than retrospectively. As an example of where adversarial collaboration might have been useful “G is for Genes” had a chapter titled “Mind the Gap: Social Status and School Quality.” In it, the authors discussed the impacts of low-income status, poor parenting, and teacher quality on a child’s success in the classroom. Race was absent from the picture. Engaging in adversarial collaboration with social science researchers might have encouraged the authors to acknowledge the role of race and racism in education outcomes.[1]

A greater number of researchers are beginning to advocate for these kinds of collaborative discussions in order to combat the misinterpretation of research. I also think some scientific researchers are beginning to more publicly denounce research they believe to be methodologically or logically flawed and dangerous, particularly when it comes to genetic essentialism and race (Kahn et al., 2018; Turkheimer, Harden, & Nisbett, 2017). More direct discussion of the ethics of research and what it can and cannot say about charged concepts is growing. For example, the Social Science Genetic Association Consortium (SSGAC) compiled a list of FAQs pertaining to their GWAS on educational attainment. One question asked: “Did you find “the gene” for educational attainment?” to which the researchers responded:

No. We did not find “the gene” for educational attainment, cognitive function—or anything else. Educational attainment, like most complex behaviors and outcomes, is influenced by myriad genes, each with effects that are likely to be tiny (as well as a huge host of environmental factors) (Social Science Genetic Association Consortium, n.d.).

The direction we are heading in is a positive one. Education policy makers and teachers will need to engage with information that refrains from over generalization and is clear about what it can and cannot say; adversarial collaboration will help different disciplines produce more trustworthy research.

[1] Researchers need to recognize that racism and differential access to resources on the basis of race affects educational outcomes. However, this is markedly different from trying to study racial differences in the extent to which educational outcomes are influenced by genetics, which enables historically racist discourses.

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