Friday, October 4, 2013

Freak of Nature

DNA, Nature
Erika Check Hayden has a thoughtful piece on ethics in this week's issue of Nature, in which she discusses the idea that there might be subjects that some consider taboo for geneticists to study.  Her list includes intelligence ("Taboo level: High"), race ("Taboo level: Very High"), sexuality ("Taboo level: Mild") and  violence ("Taboo level: Mild").

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.


Johan Viklund said...

I think you are over-interpreting what a "no" answer to those questions imply. The no category include everything from being very careful to completely disregarding every possible consequence of such studies. And I interpreted a "yes" as beeing as close to prohibition on asking questions as you can come. I agree with a lot of what you are writing here and still answered no to all of the questions.

Part of the problem might be that when asking questions to scientists you need to be very careful when formulating the question and answers. I answered the question exactly as it was phrased*. When I read your comment on it, it looks as if you are talking about a different question, more along the lines of "Should scientists be careful and think about the ethical consequences when studying X?". If the question was formulated like that, I believe that a majority would vote "yes".

I don't see anything necessarily worrisome with these answers, it could be, but it's impossible to say given this poll.

*Yes, yes, we always interpret the text. But, a strict logical interpretation should be the overriding one in a scientific context.

Ken Weiss said...

You may be right. But any time there is any proposed constraint on research, be it topical or financial, the tribe unites with howls of protest. That's natural, of course, but needs to be understood as such.

In this case, we simply believe, based on history and our own experience with people we know or know of in relevant areas of science, that there should be constraints and even taboos on what is allowed--by universities and, in my view, by the private sector.

I also personally think the rules on animal research are far too lenient (and I do mouse genomics and transgenic experiments in my own lab). Even what we can do to fish and flies can be rather objectionable--they are sentient creatures, too.

If how you vote or whether you deal with social stress well or whether you have the ability for intelligent work can be identified genetically, that means somebody had to decide what the criteria were, and decide for some reason to do the research. Once done, who's to say the results won't plausibly be used to impose 'policy' on its basis?

Anyway, it may be difficult to keep research cats in the bag, especially because many don't agree about what the cats are. But we wanted to express our views about it, in the face of the diverse histrionics and lobbying going on to keep the funds flowing and keep off scientists' agendas.

Anne Buchanan said...

Thanks, Johan. You could be right, but even if not all respondents thought as you did, it's surely true that there were multiple interpretations of these questions and each response may well be responding to a different question. That's true of questionnaires and surveys in general, of course, and particularly online surveys like this one, designed to pull in readers more than to actually collect data.

So, ok, the survey results were a heuristic device for us, but a particularly apt one. I was surprised to see our post, on a not particularly highly visible blog, used as _the _example of objection to what Hayden called taboo genetics. Is it possible that over 90% of scientists don't consider these subjects taboo? The poll made us feel like freaks of Nature. We took the opportunity to expand.

Jim Wood said...

I don't disagree with anything anyone has said thus far, but I would like to point out that there are other possible reasons, less politically or tribally loaded, for a "no" vote. First, scientists don't like being told that anything is off-limits -- and for reasons that are not necessarily self-interested. The whole cosmos is fair game. Second, I probably would have voted "no" on the question about race, despite it's very high "taboo" rating, because I think such research has been essential for exploding the whole concept. Certainly we can (and do) study geographical variation in allele frequencies in humans, and attempts to classify people categorically (i.e. racially) have foundered on the rather continuous nature of spatial variation. And "racial" differences have been shown again and again to be swamped by individual-level variation, much of it environmental in origin. So genetic study of race has mostly been, it seems to me, beneficial -- which is not to say unscrupulous people couldn't use it to vicious ends. Anyway, all I'm saying is that a "no" vote might reflect optimism about what we're ultimately going to find out.

Ken Weiss said...

There are people you and I know who are drooling to show that some races (guess which?) are more intelligent than others, and that some races aren't worth investing in because of this, and they eagerly hunt down any genomic signal they can to prove their point...and ignore arguments to the contrary.

So I disagree with the idea that genetics has dismissed the idea of race in some ways, it has not at all inhibited those who want to make classificatory judgments.

But let's suppose that one group's IQ average is lower than another's, and let's not dally over the definitions of 'group' (or 'race') here. This is an average and there is, by any standard, far more overlap than difference. Any two groups will differ on average, just from sampling considerations alone.

Now what use is _genetic_ information about mean differences if not to make 'scientific' declarations that lead to policy? This has always been a common use by persons in privilege (professors) to be advisers about policy.

So, to me, even if the results were correct and we ignore issues of trait or group definition, and yes, a description of the real world, we do live in a society and similar kinds of information have historically been used in discriminatory ways.

So, while I agree with your comment, to me this is not about science at all, but about politics (resources, power, etc.). Since science is a public activity at present, it is appropriate and wholly fair game for its legitimacy to be judged on sociopolitical grounds.

Anne Buchanan said...

I actually think about the effect of studying ancestry a little bit differently, Jim. It was hard for a lot of social scientists, well-satisfied with the idea that race is a social construct, to know what to do with the fact that it was possible to trace genetic ancestry, to group populations by history of geographic isolation, and even to determine which group/s individuals share ancestry with ("belong to"). I happen to agree with your interpretation of what it has meant, but decoupling markers of geographic history from "race" generally has been a struggle, and not always a successful one, at least among geneticists. Even these kinds of genetic results aren't 'facts', per se. They're interpretable too.