Home Education Scholars must consider the risk of racist misappropriation of research

Scholars must consider the risk of racist misappropriation of research


No researcher with good intentions expects their work to be used to justify violence. But followed racist massacre of 10 innocent African Americans at a Buffalo supermarket in New York City on May 14, one of us experienced just that. We join other researchers condemning any use of genetics to justify racism or hatred.

In a chaotic 180-page calculation posted online just before the shooting, Buffalo Shooter seems to be writing to emulate an academic monograph. He cites recent developments in human molecular genetics to falsely claim that there are innate biological differences between races in an attempt to confirm his hated white worldview. Although the abuse of science to support bigotry not newthis is the latest atrocity – another alarm bell for geneticists and the scientific community as a whole to reflect on how we conduct and transmit science – and how we can do it better.

First, let’s fix the science record. In his paper, the shooter distorts numerous scientific studies, including conclusions genetic research 2018 co-authored with one of us (Wedow) to try to “prove” that white people have a genetic intellectual advantage over black people. The 2018 study, cited by the shooter, aimed to find genetic changes associated with years of completed schooling and cognition. He collected the DNA of one million people of predominantly European genetic descent and sought to identify genetic variants associated with outcomes such as years of school completion and cognitive ability. Importantly, the genetic variants identified in this study, like any genomic study of a complex outcome, are time and context dependent. At other times, place and social structure, another set of options may be statistically related. Genes do not predetermine one person to go through fewer years of schooling than another, or one person to get higher scores on a cognitive activity test than another. The 2018 study concluded that the environment plays a significant role in shaping these results.

The arrow document deceptively extracts data from the 2018 survey, combining them with another genetic study present statistical artifacts to corroborate false arrow statements. If the original study had been conducted on a million individuals of African genetic descent, then based on their erroneous exercises the shooter could have concluded that black people have a genetic intellectual advantage over whites. Even if we discard the inaccurate and dangerous mixing of genetic origin and race, the arrow argument is just a bad, completely invalid science. There is absolutely no evidence that there are genetic differences in cognitive abilities between racial, ethnic, or genetic groups of human ancestors.

Although the 2018 genomic study makes no claim about genetic differences between racial groups or any groups, for that matter, the results of the study do not prevent others from constructing alternative realities. Buffalo Shooter is one of many people who have appropriated genetic research; he probably did not come up with his own interpretation of the study in vain. Instead, it is part of a long, dark and cruel story. Genetics has been used again and again for the purpose of white supremacy. The inability to place the arrow document in this broader context makes it too easy for the scientific community to point the finger at something else.

All of us, scientists, might view the 2018 study as nothing more than a failed choice of weapon for a domestic terrorist driven by deception rather than facts. However, this provides a level of moral emancipation that will no longer reduce it. We live in an age of mistrust, misinformation and deep polarization. Researchers cannot assume that the rigor and reproducibility of their research will withstand this storm or lead to a single interpretation. No matter how difficult it may be, and it will certainly be difficult, scientists must consider their moral responsibility as the producers of this study. Otherwise, we remain deluded that science can speak for itself.

Ethical research requires careful weighing of risks and benefits. When this weighting occurs, the risks to the individual are taken into account in the equation, but broader risks to society are rare. The scientific community was encouraged to delegate existing regulations and review boards to conduct these calculations. Any study involving people must be approved by the Institutional Review Commission (IRB), and researchers working with people in the United States are subject to federal policies such as The general rule. However, these safeguards alone cannot guarantee that research maximizes benefits and minimizes harm. There are no regulatory mechanisms that explicitly take into account the social risks of research. In fact, the IRB is prohibited from considering broader social implications, focusing only on risks at the individual level.

Most genomic studies are not extensively evaluated for potential risks and benefits. These studies use deidentified genomic data – data that are not tied to a name or other identifying characteristic – and are therefore not considered studies in human subjects. These studies generally do not require IRB approval and do not fall under the general rule. Although there is minimal immediate risk for individual participants presenting their DNA for these studies, the results and information about what happens to their DNA can clearly affect real people in the real world.

We are not in favor of academic censorship here. Scientists cannot and should not be expected to anticipate all possible risks or misuse of their research. This burden is too great to be borne by one community. However, as the arrow document illustrates, minimizing responsibility for mitigating the social risks of a number of studies does not allow these risks to disappear.

Scientists who are funded by taxpayers’ money have the task of discovering the truth and innovating to support the prosperity of all people. To achieve this goal, it is time to reconsider how we weigh the risks and benefits of research. For example, what if we encourage future generations of scientists to prioritize the social risks of their work just as they make a scientific impact? What if financial institutions that help manage research, deciding who and what to fund, regularly require researchers to develop plans to reduce potential social risks? And what if we teach genetics in schools in a way that reflects real human variations rather than incorrectly reflecting determinism?

The subtleties of scientific interpretation can have unintended consequences. The cost of continuing as is is just too high.

This is an article of opinion and analysis, and opinions expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily opinions Scientific American.

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