But it's not clear how the taboo levels were assigned because readers are given the opportunity to vote on whether they think each of these subjects should be studied, and as of Thursday morning, Oct 3, the votes were running over 90% in favor of studying at least 3 of them. Though it's true that there's a touch more caution with regard to studying race; a mere 88% of respondents believe it's fair game.
Yes, all due caveats to online surveys; self-selected respondents, biased readers of Nature in the first place, but are we wrong to conclude that it's apparently not scientists who think there are ethical issues involved in studying these issues? No, this exercise looks an awful lot like scientists circling their wagons, defending their tribe and their belief system so they can plow ahead, no questions asked. Their usual arguments are to promise near miracles in social improvement, and that watch-dogging is society's job; meanwhile, science should be given free rein.
We do have to come clean here. Hayden writes that there are some who aren't happy with studies of the genetics of intelligence.
But not everyone buys that potential misuses of the information can be divorced from gathering it. Anthropologist Anne Buchanan at Pennsylvania State University in University Park wrote on the blog The Mermaid's Tale that rather than being purely academic and detached, such studies are “dangerously immoral”.We did say this, but really, it's better in context, here in the original post last July about a heavily hyped GWAS reporting 3 genes that the authors claimed are associated with staying in school for an extra month. Are we really the outliers we seem to be, cautioning that there's a thin line between studying a subject simply for scientific interest and the excesses of eugenics? Do most scientists believe that every subject is fair game, consequences be damned? Or is it that they believe we've learned our lesson and the same consequences of earlier eugenics eras just can't happen again?
We prefer to err on the side of caution. Genetic determinism is all around us (we made this point, yet again, in an essay for Aeon in April). Despite the evidence, people are primed to accept that there are genes for any trait you can think of, including race, whatever that is, and intelligence, whatever that is. In our view, scientists should be the first to be cautious about stirring up the racist, classist, hornet's nest that is the genetics of such laden traits. Instead, apparently, they're among the last.
Yes, we know that there are some things that are off-base: we can't actually torture people to answer research questions (so we have to use mice instead). But prohibition of torture is a trivial example. Or is it? Is it torture to put people in freezing water to see how much their body can stand? Or give disease to people (or deny treatment) to see how the disease works? These things have been done, and by leading lights of the research and medical communities, all piously stated to be for the good of society.
We've been here before, and more than once. The major iconic example was the eugenics era. We note that eugenics was not just due to the awful despotism of the Nazis, but much of it was conceived of and done right here before that, and indeed the Nazis learned some tricks from us. But it's not just eugenics, of course, but other kinds of unethical research -- think about Tuskegee, and AIDs and syphilis experiments. and drug studies and so forth that we, naturally, do overseas.
Taxpayers of all types pay for research, and they have every right to put constraints on it. Each person draws the line for him or herself -- our taboo list includes not just prohibiting torture, but topics whose impact is foreseeably likely to be used to favor one group in our society over another. Studies of race traits, as an obvious example, which can be used to justify racism; studies of inherent intelligence, that can be used to justify preferential distribution of resources among groups. Of course, we won't exactly repeat the eugenics era, and some good may ensue from 'taboo' research, as we can always proclaim in retrospect. But the potential for harm should temper what we allow in the first place.
When things are going well, it may truly be that research is just benign or even salubrious curiosity. Or that the prurient and nosy side of science, poking into everything scientists decide would be fun to look at, will do no harm. But put society under stress and people turn on each other in all the ways they can think of, and use whatever technology and rationales they can think of. Even when not under stress, the privileged use every trick and tactic they can to get ahead, and certainly many are looking to genetics to provide some relevant therapy so Suzie can get into Stanford or Johnnie can play for the Yankees.
There are certainly difficult issues in circumscribing studies of subjects, even proven sensitive ones like the genetics of intelligence. These issues include understanding and remediating pathological conditions that affect mental function. They even include agreeing on the definition of intelligence in the first place. There's no easy answer. But we don't apologize for saying that there are plenty of real, unarguable serious problems in this world, limited funds, legitimate ethical issues, and a long, long history of abuse that suggest we should be circumspect about where research investment can be made.