Tuesday, July 22, 2008


One of the most problematic trends in the social sciences is the current fetishization of biology, genetics, and neuroscience. Bio-social science is the next frontier of research. Like many new and trendy subdisciplines that borrow from other fields, it risks superficiality. Few political scientists, historians, and even psychologists are adequately trained in molecular biology, genetics, and neurology. First-rate interdisciplinary work requires rigorous training that is too time-consuming and demanding for all but a few. But that has not stopped many scholars from using insights from those fields simplistically and unpersuasively. Some academics, eager to reach a wide audience (nothing wrong with that--so long as it is done carefully and responsibly), put their half-baked ideas into clever journalistic packages. And journalists on the make glom onto the next "hot" academic trend, hawking dubious scholarship to a wide audience that it does not, for the most part, have the critical faculties to evaluate and critique it.

The most dangerous trend in recent years has been the infiltration of genetic and racial essentialism into medical and genetic research. For those insecure social scientists hoping to burnish their scientific credentials, the racial-genetic turn is seductive. But given the long history of the misuse of genetics in public policy, the dangers are greater a few shoddy articles getting published for the sake of novelty. Racial determinism has already trickled down to the general public in such respectable journals as Slate (where the best--or worst--example of the genre can be found in William Saletan's ill-informed screeds on race and intelligence). Every once in a while the MSM gets it right (for example the New Republic deserves credit for giving space to a young historian of public health who offered one of the most learned and persuasive critiques of the misuse of racial biology that has appeared in a popular periodical to date). But, unfortunately, uncritical references to race and genetics are the norm, not the exception, in the press.

As an antidote to the rise of bad racial science and its popularization, the journal Genome Biology has released a very simple, very sensible guide for scientists and non-scientists writing about the alleged connections between race and genetics. Compiled by a group of scientists and social scientists at Stanford, the nation's leading center for genomic research, it is indispensable. All scientists who use race as a variable in their research should consult this list before proceeding. All social scientists who uncritically borrow from genetics and biology should memorize it. And all journalists who report on race and genetics should tape it to their computers.

Here is the list abbreviated by the New Scientist for lay readers (though you scholars reading this should read the whole piece in Genome Biology):

1. All races are created equal

No genetic data has ever shown that one group of people is inherently superior to another. Equality is a moral value central to the idea of human rights; discrimination against any group should never be tolerated.

2. An Argentinian and an Australian are more likely to have differences in their DNA than two Argentinians

Groups of human beings have moved around throughout history. Those that share the same culture, language or location tend to have different genetic variations than other groups. This is becoming less true, though, as populations mix.

3. A person's history isn't written only in his or her genes

Everyone's genetic material carries a useful, though incomplete, map of his or her ancestors' travels. Studies looking for health disparities between individuals shouldn't rely solely on this identity. They should also consider a person's cultural background.

4: Members of the same race may have different underlying genetics

Social definitions of what it means to be "Hispanic" or "black" have changed over time. People who claim the same race may actually have very different genetic histories.

5. Both nature and nurture play important parts in our behaviors and abilities

Trying to use genetic differences between groups to show differences in intelligence, violent behaviors or the ability to throw a ball is an oversimplification of much more complicated interactions between genetics and environment.

6. Researchers should be careful about using racial groups when designing experiments

When scientists decide to divide their subjects into groups based on ethnicity, they need to be clear about why and how these divisions are made to avoid contributing to stereotypes.

7. Medicine should focus on the individual, not the race

Although some diseases are connected to genetic markers, these markers tend to be found in many different racial groups. Overemphasising genetics may promote racist views or focus attention on a group when it should be on the individual.

8. The study of genetics requires cooperation between experts in many different fields

Human disease is the product of a mishmash of factors: genetic, cultural, economic and behavioral. Interdisciplinary efforts that involve the social sciences are more likely to be successful.

9. Oversimplified science feeds popular misconceptions

Policy makers should be careful about simplifying and politicising scientific data. When presenting science to the public, the media should address the limitations of race-related research.

10. Genetics 101 should include a history of racism


1 comment:

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