Should all genetic research on intelligence be banned?

RResearch on human intelligence tends to be a magnet for controversy, with articles sparking protest and speakers eliciting contempt. A few years ago, a few academics attempted to catalog this history and found 111 incidents since 1956. The discussion of genetics and intelligence is particularly tense due to the way it has been twisted by racists to justify the oppression and violence. Simply typing the words “genes” and “intelligence” in the same sentence may be enough to raise eyebrows.

But should all genetic research affecting intelligence be considered off limits? Including research that has nothing to do with group differences? Specifically, is this the policy of the National Institutes of Health?

In a recent editorial for city ​​newspaper, published by the Manhattan Institute, a right-wing think tank, James Lee, a behavioral geneticist at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, argued that the NIH was restricting access to the genotype and phenotype database , a massive repository of studies on the relationships between genes and traits. Lee wrote that the NIH denied the requests, and even withdrew approval of the studies because they might be “stigmatizing.”

Although the exact stigma is not entirely clear. Lee, who declined to comment for this article, insisted in his op-ed that the research in question had nothing to do with race or gender. He called the rejections a “drastic form of censorship” that “hampers progress on the issues for which these studies were funded.” He blamed “anonymous ideologically motivated bureaucrats”.

Lee is not alone in his frustration. Another researcher, Stuart Ritchie, lecturer at King’s College London and author of Intelligence: everything that matters, wrote in his Substack newsletter that he encountered more or less the same thing. He had wanted to investigate how intelligence test scores might correlate with Alzheimer’s disease, but when he checked the NIH’s Alzheimer’s Disease Genetic Database website, he noticed a ban on using the data for “research on the genetics of intelligence”.

So he emailed the NIH and was told that the organization had in fact endorsed this policy because “the association of genetic data with any of these parameters may be stigmatizing to individuals or groups. of individuals in a particular study. Any kind of stigma that might be associated with genetic data is against NIH policy. How finding associations between intelligence scores and Alzheimer’s diagnoses might be stigmatizing for a particular person or group is not specified. (It should be noted that The the Chronicle recently covered the story of a researcher who cited the Genotype and Phenotype Database in an article on cognitive ability and ancestry, leading to accusations from other researchers that the policy of the NIH could have been violated.)

What was the NIH rationale? Are all these searches prohibited? Is it case by case? Is there a more detailed set of criteria somewhere that details when a legitimate scientific question, such as that posed by Ritchie, is too harmful to consider? The email response I received from the NIH regarding the policy offered general information about the Genotype and Phenotype Database, including that over 14,000 data requests have been approved since January 2021 and that ‘approximately 75% of applications receive the green light. Which is quite interesting but doesn’t address the concerns raised by Lee and Ritchie.

It’s all part of this wave of being very sensitive to what potential findings show, how it might be interpreted negatively, and therefore you shouldn’t allow the research.

These are tough questions, and not just for the NIH. In 2020, Richard Haier, editor of the journal Intelligence, wrote an editorial acknowledging the journal’s critics over the years for publishing studies cited by racists. This had led to the perception, Haier wrote, that the journal was, if not racist itself, then perhaps apathetic towards the consequences of the research it published. On the contrary, Haier wrote that while academic freedom was the journal’s guiding principle, the editors were “not naïve or indifferent to our social responsibilities”.

In a recent interview, Haier said he thought Lee was brave to go public with the database releases. “It’s all part of this wave of being very sensitive to what potential findings show, how it might be interpreted negatively, and therefore you shouldn’t allow the research,” Haier said. “I think it’s a losing proposition, and I think it hurts science.”

As evidence of such a wave, Haier cites an editorial published in Nature Human behavior in August stating that while “academic freedom is fundamental, it is not unlimited”. The editors wrote that they would edit or reject “content that infringes – or could reasonably be perceived to infringe – the rights and dignity of any individual or human group.” In a follow-up last month, the editors clarified that the policy is not intended to censor controversial results, but rather to ensure they are treated with care.

Like the original Nature Human behavior editorial, the NIH’s current position on database access is not easy to analyze. What does it mean to undermine dignity? What qualifies as stigmatizing? With intelligence research, even if the study doesn’t look at differences between groups, the perception may be that something nefarious is afoot. “The thought goes that if you show there is a genetic component to intelligence then automatically people will conclude that there is a genetic component to racial differences and therefore it is best not to support genetic research on intelligence,” Haier said.

It is true that racists have invoked intelligence research to justify their hateful views and violent actions. The gunman accused of killing 10 black people at a supermarket in Buffalo, New York, released a deranged manifesto this year containing references to intelligence research, apparently cut and pasted from online forums , as well as vile conspiracy theories. According to Eric Turkheimer, professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, this massacre is a grim example of why it is important to proceed with caution when conducting research that could fuel distorted narratives. Turkheimer’s research explored how a person’s environment and their genes contribute to various outcomes, and he highlighted how difficult it can be to disentangle the two. “Some jobs are dangerous, and it’s easy to see if someone is modifying viruses and releasing them into the wild, isn’t it?” he said. “But these things can also be socially and psychologically dangerous.”

That said, Turkheimer doesn’t think banning genetic research related to intelligence is the right approach. “I respect that they have to come up with a policy,” he told me. “But if it’s their decision, I don’t agree.”

The NIH situation hits Robert Plomin, a psychologist and geneticist and author of the 2018 book Blueprint: How DNA Makes Us Who We Are, also strange. “I really don’t understand what they mean by stigmatizing,” he told me. “Who decides what is stigmatizing? Plomin is known for his widely cited studies of twins and, more recently, for trying to explain the value of genetics to those who view it as irrelevant or threatening. Plomin told me that when he meets people with a negative view of genetics, he usually finds that their impression is not based on a thorough understanding of the field. “It’s ‘bad genetics, good environment,’ and they want that to be the end of the story,” he said. “I find you can often talk to them – or at least make them realize that we’re not all demons doing this work.”

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