The Trickle Down (political) Economy of Genetics Research

I’ve been really intrigued by the argument that genetics research would make research in the social sciences ‘more robust.’ That is, the idea that social science research is missing a key factor that could be compounding results: genetics. Using education as an example, I’ve heard the argument that in the high-stakes educational environment we find ourselves in now, a teacher’s efficacy may not necessarily result from the teacher’s ability to teach but from the genetic make-up of their classroom. Perhaps that teacher who is recognized for their ability to produce high test scores simply had the ‘luck of the (genetic) lottery.’ How could research into student achievement and the role of teachers in influencing that achievement truly be able to identify the teacher impact if genetics are not taken into account? I am in no way endorsing this or the idea of precision education, but I have noticed that it is a growing conversation. It has me worried. What message do these arguments send about accountability?

I am sure that if many behavior geneticists were to read this they would scoff at this question and deny that they are in any way saying people should be held less accountable. But, it goes back to the bigger picture, which is that like it or not we tend to think of genetics in essentialist ways – we learn about Mendelian traits when we first enter a biology class, we hear about monogenetic conditions or chromosomal deficiencies that directly lead to an observed outcome. Moreover, we have researchers like Robert Plomin coming out with books like “Blueprint, How DNA Makes Us Who We Are.” In this context, is it understandable that we would see genetics in a certain way.

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The social sciences are thought to align more with the ‘nurture’ side of the ‘nature’ vs ‘nurture’ debate (a debate which really should not even exist). We have scholars, among whom I place myself, that are focused on environmental ramifications and intended and unintended consequences of a development or phenomenon or historical legacy. I get worried over little things, like how a word is used, the context in which a piece of information appears, how it might be interpreted and by whom. I’m constantly thinking about where the power structures lie.

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I recently had someone ask me about how I could advocate for adversarial collaboration when doing so would give too much purchase to these ‘newgenecists.’  I replied with the following”:

I see a problem with how we are doing things right now when it comes to this charged topic. Currently, we (social scientists) find ourselves commenting on the dangers of this research often after it has already been completed. What I am advocating for is having social scientists present from the very beginning of the research process to challenge those in the hard sciences. The debate on the origins of intelligence and the misuse of these findings is longstanding. I believe it is time we works towards more constructive solutions, otherwise I fear we are bound to repeat the historical patterns of yelling at each other from across the aisles with little headway. You are correct, that it would likely be easier to enact ethical regulations around the use of genetic data in schools, but what would help make those enactments possible are social scientists able to vouch for what the ethical concerns are and who have earned some understanding from behavior genetics researchers who might be more willing to hear their arguments. From my experiences, many in the hard sciences feel that social scientists do not really understand the Science and what it is saying, or the methodological techniques used to make their findings. I think part of the reason those in the hard sciences won’t listen to us social scientists, is because they think we don’t really ‘get it’.

We cannot stop the production of this research unless we can present very good arguments for the danger, both physical and psychological that it has caused or could cause. Unfortunately, the onus is on us to prove this and to prove these genetics researchers otherwise. I understand this may sound naive to you. I also have thought deeply about how some might think that by engaging with these researchers I am giving them too much purchase. However, I firmly believe that the floodgates of genetic data have opened. It will be immensely difficult to stop this research – I’m not even sure if it will be possible. This is why I think we need to acknowledge that this research is being produced and to be working to try and make it socially-responsible, to temper big claims, and to enact ethical regulations.

There are several reasons why I think this would be incredibly difficult to stop. The first is that public schools in the UK or private schools in the US would be some of the first to potentially implement genetic information; they receive less federal oversight. In the US for example, private schools don’t have to adhere to the Students with Disabilities Act. I am of the opinion that state schools would never truly be able to use genetic data, at least not to the same extent as public (UK)/private (US) schools, because they are so overwhelmed and constrained by bureaucracy. Second, there seems to be wider support (at least from my research findings) of using genetic information to identify learning disabilities. I can see a world within which policy-makers might let genotyping for learning disabilities into schools but stop at intelligence. We need social scientists present therefore from the beginning to temper claims, to voice caution, and to hold genetics researchers accountable for how they talk about and disseminate this research. We do not want a repeat of what companies like 23AndMe have done will false advertising. What I am trying to convey is that there is a spectrum of what individuals think of socially-acceptable and I believe this means that despite best efforts some aspects of genetics research will likely enter schools, most likely UK public or US private. Therefore, it is time to have a systematic conversation about what this means and could mean, particularly around questions of equity and social justice.

I understand also that you likely still do not see how it would be possible to work with these researchers on ethics. I do not agree with you that it would be going backwards on race. I am a Black woman. If I thought engaging with this work was going backwards on race, I would be directly harming myself. The reason I don’t think it would is because their current work does not explicitly genetically racialise education. In fact, as Gillborn talks about, it is the racial inexplicitness that is so dangerous. In speaking with researchers like *****, I’ve been told they don’t talk about the social implications of race and racism because it’s not assalient an issue in the UK (of course, this is in no way reality). The real danger, in my opinion, is that we have a history of geneticizing race. Even if researchers are not explicitly doing so, we’ve come to form viewpoints that maintain this racialization and by not talking about race at all we perpetuate them.

At the moment, most researchers in behavior genetics research are not even touching the topic of group differences, they’re only looking at individual differences. In fact, a number have come out against people like Charles Murray and accused him of peddling race science (https://www.vox.com/the-big-idea/2017/5/18/15655638/charles-murray-race-iq-sam-harris-science-free-speech). Unfortunately there are others who are making big claims and overgeneralizing – talking too much in terms of the future rather than the information practically available at the moment; but how these claims trickle down and the unintended consequences those claims have are serious. It is why these researchers need not only to be called out, but to stopped from making such claims from the very beginning by social scientists who are present and working alongside them and questioning them. What I believe allowed those individuals to come out against Charles Murray was the fact that they have a history of having ethicists, social scientists, and philosophers on board working alongside them, asking tough questions and making them realize that their work does not exist in a political or social vacuum, nor is it outside the confines of politics, nor is it as revolutionary or actionable as they might have originally believed it to be.

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