A recent op-ed in The New York Times by geneticist David Reich touched off a heated public debate about race and genetics. In response, The Atlantic weighed in with an essay from the biologist Ian Holmes, taking on the accusation “that truculent and overly PC anthropologists, unobstructed by timid geneticists, are suppressing discussion of genetic variation.” Holmes wrote, contra Reich, that “scientists have continued to explore human variation, outside the grips of any orthodoxy.”
“Talking about race and genetic differences has always been a lightning rod,” Sarah Zhang, who covers science for The Atlantic, told me. And even beyond political controversies, there are a number of tripwires scientists have to navigate. In today’s issue, we’ll hear more from our science reporter, Sarah, about the factors that limit scientific inquiry. And Karen Yuan reviews what can happen when policymakers get genetics wrong.
Are There Things You Can’t Say About Science?
I talked to Sarah Zhang about some of the issues raised in the debate over Reich’s op-ed. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Caroline Kitchener: Would you say that the scientific research being conducted today is more or less restricted than it’s been in the past?
Sarah Zhang: The question of what science is interested in has always been bounded by what society is interested in. Science attempts to be neutral, but because everyone comes to it with their own personal biases, it’s not. Take genetics as an example. It’s a field that has, traditionally, been dominated by white men, so it has been concerned primarily with the concerns of white men. To study genetics, white people—overwhelmingly, Americans and Europeans—have gone out to places like Africa … they’ve also spent a lot of time studying Native Americans. A lot of people see that as problematic.
Caroline: As more women and people of color enter scientific fields, could we see a broadening of topics covered by scientific research?
Sarah: I don't want to think of it as "limiting" or "broadening"—more like a reorientation of where science wants to be. We might be seeing more conflict because new people with different kinds of backgrounds are coming into science … so the consensus that once was might not be the same.
Caroline: Are scientists today more free than their predecessors to pursue all kinds of research?
Sarah: I think there are two different parts to this question: One, can you get funding for your research? Two, do you get angry emails? I’ll start with that first question. Even in areas that are not political, there are going to be things that the mainstream doesn’t believe, so funding agencies are less likely to fund the researcht. For a long time, for example, people did not think genetics mattered in cancer research, and people who studied that were not taken seriously. This was the dogma of the field, so it was harder to get funding. But, as a society, we are constantly reevaluating what questions are even worth asking.
Caroline: What kinds of research do scientists today struggle to get funding for?
Sarah: Gun violence can be really hard to study because the Center for Disease Control doesn’t think it can fund that research. There was the Dickey Amendment, pushed through by the NRA, that said the CDC was not allowed to advocate for gun restrictions. While the amendment doesn’t specifically prohibit the CDC from conducting research, gun violence research has become so politicized that the CDC has also just been scared to fund that kind of research. A lot of people say that has held back the field.
We also don’t collect the data on gun violence that we do on, say, car accidents. With car accidents, you know what time of day it was, what the weather conditions were, who was in the car, who was driving, who was wearing a seatbelt. We don’t have any of that for guns. So gun violence is just not easy to study.
Caroline: Let’s talk about your second question. Are there things that people don’t study because they’re afraid of the public response? Of angry emails?
Sarah: Anyone who is a GMO researcher has probably gotten angry emails about their work. Some have had their crop fields destroyed by activists. I’m sure there are people who shy away from that field because they don’t want to deal with politics, or with being harassed by activists, or having their emails FOIA-ed. You decide you just don’t want to deal with that, so you do something else instead.
What Geneticists Mean By “Race”
Here’s a little bit more from Ian Holmes on how geneticists talk about “race”:
Race is a concept defined by society, not by genes. It’s true that people around the world differ genetically due to their ancestry, and that people’s racial identity may be statistically correlated with their ancestry, albeit unreliably. But “race” does not mean “ancestry,” and it’s a loaded term for scientific outreach: Biological races are not a current scientific concept and often reinforce historical biases.
When Bad Science Creates Bad Policies
Karen Yuan spoke with a historian of genetics about the ways genetic research has been repurposed for racist politics throughout history.
Politicians have exploited bad science about genes to justify racist policies and views throughout history. “You have to be on guard,” Michael Dietrich, a historian of genetics at the University of Pittsburgh, told me. “Scientists are encouraged by institutions to make scholarship more available to the public, but there’s always danger in that.”
In the 1910s, for example, the plant geneticist Edward East, who developed hybrid corn, was also a supporter of eugenics. He found that interbreeding different types of corn would produce a new type of corn that grew better. But when it came to humans, East made the opposite argument—that people of different races shouldn’t be together, because they’d have inferior children. He and other geneticists used this theory to justify state laws that banned “miscegenation,” or interracial marriage, until the mid-’60s.
Dietrich saw a familiar argument, drawn from bad science, in President Trump’s request earlier this year for more immigrants from Norway. “The minute Trump said that about Norwegians, every historian was like, ‘Oh, we’ve heard that before,’” Dietrich said, referring to what he called the “Nordic hypothesis.” In World War I, nearly two million American draftees took intelligence tests. The results showed, misleadingly, that men from Eastern and Southern Europe scored lower, while men from Northern Europe scored higher. Analyzing the results, the psychologist Carl Brigham feared more immigration from the former region would decrease national intelligence. He prescribed to policymakers, “Immigration should not only be restrictive, but highly selective.”
Congress put his recommendations in practice by passing the Immigration Act of 1924, which set quotas based on a decades-old census taken when few Southern and Eastern Europeans lived in America. There was a clear line of influence from the Army tests to the Act: In the committee hearings leading up to the Act’s passage, the tests were mentioned three times.
However, there had been a flaw in the research: The researchers had ignored how the test scores correlated with how long the men had lived in America. Those who knew less English had a harder time understanding the test, which was written in the language. So Southern and Eastern Europeans, because they were more recent immigrants than Northern Europeans, scored lower.
Today’s Wrap Up
Question of the Day: To the scientists in our audience, tell us your experience of relating your work outside your field. Have you seen your field misrepresented to the public?
What’s Coming: Tomorrow is The Atlantic’s annual education summit in Washington, D.C. On Wednesday, we’ll bring you a special dispatch from the event.
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