Nature | Editorial

Dangerous work

Behavioural geneticists must tread carefully to prevent their research being misinterpreted.

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Intelligence tests were first devised in the early twentieth century as a way to identify children who needed extra help in school. It was only later that the growing eugenics movement began to promote use of the tests to weed out the less intelligent and eliminate them from society, sparking a debate over the appropriateness of the study of intelligence that carries on to this day. But it was not the research that was problematic: it was the intended use of the results.

As the News Feature on page 26 details, this history is never far from the minds of scientists who work in the most fraught areas of behavioural genetics. Although the ability to investigate the genetic factors that underlie the heritability of traits such as intelligence, violent behaviour, race and sexual orientation is new, arguments and attitudes about the significance of these traits are not. Scientists have a responsibility to do what they can to prevent abuses of their work, including the way it is communicated. Here are some pointers.

First: be patient. Do not speculate about the possibility of finding certain results, or about the implications of those results, before your data have even been analysed. The BGI Cognitive Genomics group in Shenzhen, China, is studying thousands of people to find genes that underlie intelligence, but group members sparked a furore by predicting that studies such as theirs could one day let parents select embryos with genetic predispositions to high intelligence. Many other geneticists are sceptical that the project will even find genes linked to this trait.

Second: be accurate. Researchers should design studies on the basis of sound scientific reasoning. For instance, in light of increasing evidence that race is biologically meaningless, research into genetic traits that underlie differences in intelligence between races, or that predispose some races to act more aggressively than others, will produce little. Furthermore, it is common for small studies of behavioural genetics to go unreplicated, and there are increasing concerns that the science of behaviour more generally suffers from poor practice, exaggeration and irreproducibility (see Nature http://doi.org/n2m; 2013). Scientists should refrain from claiming that they have found a basis for any complex trait until the results have been replicated and confirmed in large, definitive studies, such as multiple meta-analyses.

“Scientists have a responsibility to do what they can to prevent abuses of their work.”

Third: be sensitive. Even if scientists have truly honourable intentions, they must realize how easy it can be for studies on socially favoured groups to seem self-serving. For instance, BGI’s study of exceptionally intelligent individuals is itself led by people who are unusually bright, even in the cognitively enriched domain of science: there is a child prodigy who dropped out of high school to work on genomics; a physicist who graduated from university at age 19; and an International Mathematical Olympiad gold medallist. When such people make statements in favour of selecting embryos for intelligence, it can seem to the public as if the researchers think that society would benefit from the birth of more people just like them — even if this is not what they have in mind.

Nature special: The human genome at ten

Finally: be proactive. Once scientists are sure of their results, they usually do their best to explain the significance of their work in academic publications. But these texts are often impenetrable to the public and may include technical terms that can be misinterpreted by non-specialists. To provide clarity, scientists would do well to follow the example of the Social Science Genetic Association Consortium. In June, this group published a paper on genetic variants associated with educational attainment (C. A. Rietveld et al. Science 340, 1467–1471; 2013). Accompanying this was a nine-page Frequently Asked Questions document that, in plain, easy-to-understand language, addressed such questions as why the researchers did the study, what they found and what the implications of the work are — and are not (see go.nature.com/7mov2j). The document spelled out that the consortium had not found ‘the gene’ for educational attainment, that each genetic marker found has only a very small effect on length of schooling, and that any policy response based on that single study would be premature.

Scientists cannot be held responsible every time someone misinterprets their work. But simple steps such as these could help to prevent and address some of the potential distortions of behavioural genetics — and could help to ensure that society continues to support the work.

Journal name:
Nature
Volume:
502,
Pages:
5–6
Date published:
()
DOI:
doi:10.1038/502005b

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