How do geneticists try to thwart racists from misusing their research?
March 22, 2021 6:19 PM   Subscribe

An article I read within the past couple years (sorry, can’t remember the source) mentioned a human genetics conference in the US. At this conference there was apparently not enough support for convening a panel to discuss the problem of racists who appropriate and disseminate twisted interpretations of legitimate research. So I have several questions:

Why would there have been a reluctance to discuss this problem, which seems like it should encompass not just bad faith readings by racists, but also science journalists misinterpreting and miscommunicating the content of scientific papers? To what extent do scientists in general —and human geneticists in particular— think about ways to thwart bad takes on their findings? And finally, what tactics have actually been tried and seem to be beneficial?
posted by theory to Science & Nature (8 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I have seen geneticists and others writing gentle "pushback" articles which they can then send to people sending inquiries about things that are pseudoscience at best. Here is one. I think part of the issue is that giving any actual public platform to racists, especially pseudoscientific racists, is usually seen as counterproductive, like even to talk about the things they misunderstand and get wrong, is giving weight to the idea of "race" itself which, as that article says, just isn't really something that is a term that modern-day scientists even use to discuss population-level phenomena.
posted by jessamyn at 7:28 PM on March 22 [2 favorites]

Best answer: This brings to mind the final points raised by David Suzuki (a geneticist) in 1989 when he debated Phillipe Rushton, a smug bullshit Canadian white supremacist professor of psychology (there seems to be a type, huh?) who was involved with and beloved by a number of white supremacist and neo-Nazi organizations, and who had published a book linking race and intelligence in profoundly stupid ways. And of course, this was fairly contemporaneous with Herrnstein and Murray's racial bullshit.

The general media coverage at the time was "Well, Suzuki probably won the debate, but he didn't do it with scientific arguments."

The whole thing is on YouTube. 1989 video quality, the uploader seems like someone who's not in the Rushton camp, but, as always, the comments are garbage because most of them are from people who are in said camp.

Here's what Suzuki had to say. I've done a little transcription:

I do not believe we should dignify this man and his ideas in public debate. I am deeply concerned as a broadcaster with the media's frenzy that have provided Rushton with an audience for ideas that simply do not qualify as science. I am outraged that students on this campus could not find a single professor at Western who would debate this man here. They could find no psychologists, no academics, who would counter these monstrous claims. Instead, they were told "This is an academic matter, not a public matter."

Suzuki's summation at the debate with Rushton:

I just wanted to make a little comment here that I feel, having gone through this exercise, I feel a great deal of pain as an academic myself, because to think that in 1989 an academic can claim that he's "Just searching for truth," and that the responsibility for what is done with that truth is society's. I mean, we've heard this for a long time. Since physicists saw the result of theoretical physics and nuclear bombs, since we've seen chemical and biological warfare, scientists have realized many of them, you simply can't deal or act as if you're dealing with research in a vacuum. You're getting public funding to do this work, and the implications are enormous. And the idea that "I'm just searching for truth," and what you do with that in a society in which racism is rampant -- I'm not saying he's a racist, I don't know -- but in a society where racism is rampant, to suggest that it's my right as an academic to simply give you the "truth" is something we ought to think about. I think every academic here, I challenge you -- you see the pain coming out in these questions. These are not trivial conclusions he's coming to. There are not trivial suggestions. They impinge on people's lives and they affect them, and their children, and I call on academics to stand up.

Suzuki, as someone who was interned as a Japanese Canadian at the age of six (along with his entire family), ripped Rushton's mask off at the end there, in a refutation of the whole "I'm just asking questions because X is 'true,' oh, no I never said 'superior'" shtick. What Suzuki was saying, of course, was the simple truth that THIS IS RACIST BULLSHIT. FULL STOP.

The editorial pages at the time intoned "Well, Suzuki just got mad. He didn't address Rushton's scientific arguments." The problem, of course, was that Rushton had none.

In an alternate universe, if Rushton was still alive, he'd likely have joined forces with another shitty psych prof from a city that's two hours away from where he lived, and they'd be beloved and embraced by the far right, and they'd cash in and...

...we'd still get "Well, the people refuting them are just angry and opposed to free speech..."

But Suzuki's frustration in the initial remarks above is the context of this debate, he's pissed that nobody else will stand up and do it, so he's got to do it.

And he's right. But there you go.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 10:04 PM on March 22 [16 favorites]

Not genetics, but the subreddit r/askhistorians is a tightly moderated "ask" forum where answers must be of scholar-level quality. Because asking is open to anyone, there are lots of questions about the Holocaust and other genocides that are often springboards for denialist perspectives looking for a platform. The sub has a zero tolerance of genocide denial, and denialist questions and comments result in instant deletions and bans. But sometimes, what they do is to stick a comment on top that gives the basic facts and provides a reading list.
posted by elgilito at 2:15 AM on March 23 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Why would there have been a reluctance to discuss this problem, which seems like it should encompass not just bad faith readings by racists, but also science journalists misinterpreting and miscommunicating the content of scientific papers?

Because science is dominated by people coming from groups (like white people) who feel profoundly uncomfortable talking about race. Furthermore STEM disciplines in general are filled to the brim with people who consider themselves "colorblind" and logical and how dare you imply their discipline might be affected by bias!

Awareness of racism in STEM is only something that has just started to become a thing. Many scientists prefer to believe they're above it.

To what extent do scientists in general —and human geneticists in particular— think about ways to thwart bad takes on their findings?

Most don't. I don't think it is malicious. It's a very human reaction to a topic that's uncomfortable and embarrassing for them. Which doesn't condone ignoring it, of course.
posted by schroedinger at 5:08 AM on March 23 [5 favorites]

Related: The forthcoming (Sept 2021) The Genetic Lottery: Why DNA Matters for Social Equality. "In The Genetic Lottery, Harden introduces readers to the latest genetic science, dismantling dangerous ideas about racial superiority and challenging us to grapple with what equality really means in a world where people are born different. Weaving together personal stories with scientific evidence, Harden shows why our refusal to recognize the power of DNA perpetuates the myth of meritocracy, and argues that we must acknowledge the role of genetic luck if we are ever to create a fair society."

David Epstein's book The Sports Gene touches on this question. It is more work to acknowledge that some genetic characteristics are disproportionately common in certain populations - as obvious as that is for some characteristics - yet explain that does not mean that different groups are "superior" or "inferior." Therefore, some scientists he spoke to chose to avoid the discussion entirely - and directly engaging with racists would be even more difficult.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 7:52 AM on March 23

Best answer: I can't speak to the article you read, but I can say that there is a lot of pushback from within genetics, and even more from allied disciplines including history & sociology of science, against the racist misappropriation of genetics. In many ways this is similar to the situation in climate science: a large group of researchers who broadly agree (in this case on the lack of any genetic justification for racist arguments or even the concept of 'race') being drowned out by a few vocal and insistent trolls.

There are hundreds of publications denouncing the misuse of genetics in racist arguments and the misuse of the category of 'race' in genetics. Here's one published this month in Genetics in Medicine that proposes "eight principles that are both scientifically grounded and antiracist that we hope will serve as a foundation for the development of policies by publishers and editorial boards that address the unique needs of the field of genetics and genomics." Here's one from 2016 in Science. Here's a book from 2018. Social scientists including Troy Duster have published many articles in the scientific literature, social scientific literature, and popular press on the topic. This 2007 article in the American Journal of Medical Genetics cites dozens of others.

In 2018, the American Society for Human Genetics issued a statement denouncing the "misuse of genetics to feed racist ideologies" and pledging to "focus in the public arena on contributing new fundamental knowledge to the societal dialog about ancestry, supporting greater diversity in research, continuing to engage the field and public to build genetic literacy, and addressing misconceptions of genetics and ancestry." Other professional societies have issued statements critiquing the use of racial categories in scientific research: for example, here's the one from the American Society of Physical Anthropologists.

I think the current problem is sort of the inverse of the Suzuki story quoted above. In 1989 it was indeed true that few scientists were willing to take a public stand against white supremacy. Now there are many, but in the public arena they continue to be drowned out by racist trolls. A recent-ish example is the publication of journalist Nicholas Wade's A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race, and Human History(2014), which badly misappropriated genetics in service of racist arguments. The book was met with a ton of pushback, including a letter signed by 100 population geneticists and evolutionary biologists. But the book made a huge splash nonetheless. Media and social media continue to profit off of controversy and outrage, so every new absurd pseudoscientific racist claim is covered, regardless of merit, and the pushback often gets less coverage.

Finally, as jessamyn says (and similar to other fields like climate science), some scientists worry that publicly pushing back against absurd racist misappropriation of genetics winds up validating the seriousness of their claims - i.e., don't feed the trolls. There is also some exhaustion among scientists and journalists at having to beat down each new racist brush fire. Sound-bite-friendly pseudoscientific racism continues to get way more clicks than thoughtful rebuttals on the misuse of genetics and the differences between 'race' and 'ancestry'.
posted by googly at 8:08 AM on March 23 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I don't know if this is the article, but I think the conference was the 2018 American Society of Human Genetics [ASHG] meeting: Why White Supremacists Are Chugging Milk (and Why Geneticists Are Alarmed) (NYT, October 17, 2018) Nowhere on the agenda of the annual meeting of the American Society of Human Genetics, being held in San Diego this week, is a topic plaguing many of its members: the recurring appropriation of the field’s research in the name of white supremacy. [...] But the specter of the field’s ignominious past, which includes support for the American eugenics movement, looms large for many geneticists in light of today’s white identity politics. They also worry about how new tools that are allowing them to home in on the genetic basis of hot-button traits like intelligence will be misconstrued to fit racist ideologies.

A couple of examples of scientists trying to combat the problem, from the above article: Anticipating misinterpretations of a recent study on how genes associated with high education attainment, identified in Europeans, varied in different populations around the world, the lead author, Fernando Racimo, created his own “frequently asked questions” document for nonscientists, which he posted on Twitter. And in a commentary that accompanied the paper in the journal Genetics, Dr. Novembre [co-author of the 'milk' study referenced in the NYT article's title] warned that such research is “wrapped in numerous caveats” that are likely to get lost in translation.

Recent "opinion and analysis" article: Human Genetics Needs an Antiracism Plan (Scientific American, March 17, 2021) [H]uman geneticists of today are perfectly positioned to push back on the myth that race has any basis in biology, a myth that was ingrained by the flawed forefathers of our field. Some modern day geneticists are already devoted to this work. Others routinely, if naïvely, perpetuate the scientifically inappropriate conflation of race and ancestry. The trouble is that most human geneticists know very little about race. Scholars in sociology, anthropology, critical race theory, gender studies, etc. who have a far more sophisticated understanding of the origins of race and racism, have so much to teach us.

American Society of Human Genetics Statement Regarding Concepts of “Good Genes” and Human Genetics (September 24, 2020) The American Society of Human Genetics (ASHG) affirms the biological reality that we are one people, one species, and one humanity. As a community of researchers, clinicians, and others dedicated to advancing human genetics, ASHG is committed to the ethical use of valid genetic knowledge to advance science, improve health, and benefit people everywhere. Thus, as we did most recently in the 2018 Society-wide statement ASHG Denounces Attempts to Link Genetics and White Supremacy, we reiterate our strong opposition to efforts that warp genetics knowledge for social or political ends.

Genetics demonstrates that humans cannot be divided into biologically distinct subcategories or races, and any efforts to claim the superiority of humans based on any genetic ancestry have no scientific evidence. Moreover, it is inaccurate to claim genetics as the determinative factor in human strengths or outcomes when education, environment, wealth, and health care access are often more potent factors. There is no factual basis for attempts to define communities or regions of people with “good” or “bad” genes and a century of science has debunked such claims, which can feed discredited views and racist ideologies. Unchecked, unethical application of false genetic “theories” have resulted in past atrocities from forced sterilizations to the Holocaust and can still fuel unethical social policies worldwide today. Over the decades, our field also has reflected on its own role in such now-condemned ideas, and we speak out vocally as a community and as individuals to combat their resurgence. [...]

ASHG's 2021 meeting (October 18-22) will be held virtually; it will include "Dedicated programming on diversity, equity, and inclusion, and strategies to address systemic racism in research."
posted by Iris Gambol at 10:56 AM on March 23 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I would think that there is a misuse of science in EVERY discipline by both scientists AND civilians, not just genetics. People misinterpreting science for their own gains is nothing new.

I don't have anything specific to genetics, but I did find an article in "Frontiers in Bioengineering and Biotechnology" that was indexed on PubMed by Oeschger and Jenal where the Swiss Academy of Sciences came up with a brochure about this subject, that is a bit short of "code of conduct".
posted by kschang at 3:37 PM on March 23 [1 favorite]

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