Should all genetic research on intelligence be borderless?

RThe study of human intelligence tends to generate controversy, with papers leading to protests and speakers scorned. A few years ago, a couple of academics tried to catalog this history and discovered 111 cases since 1956. The genetics vs. intelligence debate is particularly heated because racists have twisted it to justify oppression and violence. Just writing the words “genes” and “intelligence” in the same sentence can be enough to raise eyebrows.

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

In a recent op-ed for City magazine, published by the right-leaning think tank the Manhattan Institute, James Lee, a behavioral geneticist at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, argued that the NIH is restricting access to the Genotypes and Phenotypes Database, a vast repository of research on the relationships between genes and traits. Lee wrote that the NIH has rejected applications and even withdrawn approval of studies because they could be “stigmatizing.”

Although exactly how it is stigmatizing is not entirely clear. Lee, who declined to comment for this article, stressed in his opinion that the study in question had nothing to do with race or sex. He called the rejections “a drastic form of censorship” that “impedes the progress of these studies in solving these problems.” He blamed “anonymous ideologically motivated bureaucrats”.

Lee is not alone in his frustration. Another researcher, Stuart Ritchie, senior lecturer at King’s College London and author of the book Intelligence: All That Matters, wrote in his Substack newsletter that he had encountered more or less the same thing. He had wanted to study how intelligence test results might be related to Alzheimer’s disease, but when he looked at the genetics website of the NIH Alzheimer’s Disease Database, he noticed a ban on using the data to “study the genetics of intelligence.”

So he emailed the NIH and was told that the organization supported the policy because “associating genetic data with any of these parameters may stigmatize individuals or groups of individuals participating in a particular study. Any stigma that may be associated with genetic data is contrary to NIH policy. How finding associations between intelligence scores and Alzheimer’s diagnoses might stigmatize a particular individual or group has not been made clear. (It is worth noting that The Chronicle (recently covered the story of a researcher who cited a database of genotypes and phenotypes in a paper on cognitive abilities and ancestry, leading to accusations by other researchers that NIH policy may have been violated.)

What was the NIH’s reasoning? Are all such studies prohibited? Is it case by case? Is there a more detailed set of criteria somewhere that specifies when a legitimate scientific question, such as the one Ritchie posed, is too harmful for entertainment? An email response from the NIH about the policy provided general information about the Genotypes and Phenotypes database, including that more than 14,000 data requests have been approved since January 2021, and about 75 percent of the requests are getting the green light. Which is interesting enough, but doesn’t address the concerns raised by Lee and Ritchie.

It’s all part of this wave of being very sensitive about potential findings, how they might be interpreted negatively, and therefore you shouldn’t allow the study.

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

In a recent interview, Haier said he thought it was brave of Lee to disclose the rejection of the database. “It’s all part of this wave of being very sensitive to what potential findings show, how to interpret them negatively, and therefore you shouldn’t allow studies,” Haier said. “I think it’s a losing proposition, and I think it hurts science.”

As proof of such a wave, Haier points to an editorial published in Nature Human behavior in August, asserting that while “academic freedom is fundamental, it is not unlimited.” The editors wrote that they would edit or reject “content that undermines or can reasonably be believed to undermine the rights and dignity of an individual or group of people.” In a follow-up last month, the editors explained that the policy is not meant to censor controversial results, but rather to ensure they are handled carefully.

Like the original Nature Human behavior Editorial, 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 delve into group differences, there can be a perception that something unusual is going on. “The thinking is that if you show that there is a genetic component to intelligence, people will automatically conclude that there is a genetic component to racial differences, and therefore it is better not to support genetic research on intelligence,” Haier said.

It is true that racists have pointed to intelligence studies as justification for their hateful views and violent actions. The gunman accused of killing 10 black people in a supermarket in Buffalo, New York, released a confusing manifesto this year that included references to intelligence studies apparently copied from online forums and vile conspiracy theories. According to University of Virginia psychology professor Eric Turkheimer, the massacre is a grim example of why it’s important to be careful about research that can feed distorted narratives. Turkheimer’s research has explored how both a person’s environment and their genes contribute to different outcomes, and he has 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, right?” he said. “But these things can also be socially and psychologically dangerous.”

Still, Turkheimer doesn’t believe banning genetic research on 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 with it.”

Robert Plomin, a psychologist and geneticist and author of a 2018 book, is struck by the NIH situation Blueprint: How DNA Makes Us Who We Are, like weird. “I really don’t understand what they mean by stigma,” she told me. “Who decides what stigmatizes?” Plomin is known for his widely cited research on twins and, more recently, for his efforts to explain the value of genetics to those who see it as irrelevant or threatening. Plomin told me that when he encounters people who have a negative opinion of genetics, he usually finds that their impression is not based on a deep understanding of the field. “It’s ‘genetics bad, environment good,’ and they want that to be the end of the story,” he said. “I find that you can often talk to them – or at least make them understand that we’re not all devils doing this job.”

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