Twenty First Century Eugenics?*
Posted by Miriam Gordon on September 10, 2008
Last night I came across a blog entry by Matthew Brown (http://www.scientificblogging.com/scientific_notation/self_control_is_to_sudoku_can_you_end_addiction_with_analogies), which discussed data from the laboratory of Dr. Jeremy Gray and others on the inverse correlation of intelligence and self-control. Immediately, I thought wow, if I’m fat because of a lack of self control, does that mean I’m less intelligent than someone who is free of compulsive behaviors?* Despite my initial reaction of shock and horror to this blog entry, I decided to give the scientists a chance to explain themselves. Instead of launching into a rant on my blog, I sent a simple and polite email to the lab requesting a reprint of their latest review article: Green, A. E., Munafo, M. E., DeYoung, C. G., Fossella, J., Fan, J. A., & Gray, J. R. (in press). Using genetic data in cognitive neuroscience: From growing pains to genuine insight. Nature Reviews Neuroscience. I am now reading one of Dr. Gray’s earlier review articles, in an effort to give him the benefit of the doubt. By necessity and probably in order to protect himself, I imagine that this guy has become as skilled as any human being possibly can (without doing any cognitive, psychometric, genetic and fMRI studies on him) at tiptoeing through the proverbial minefield.
My initial reaction to Matthew Brown’s blog entry about the work of Dr. Gray’s lab brought to mind the recent imbroglio that got James Watson booted from his post as the Chancellor of Cold Spring Harbor laboratory in response to comments he made about the genetic basis of intelligence in black people (see the recent New York Times article by Cornelia Dean). Anything that biological scientists, particularly those who are prominent and high profile, say about the biological basis of intelligence is incendiary in the extreme because of the inevitable and very unfortunate consequences for many, many people. The real danger in the scientist’s statements lies in the subjective interpretation of these ideas by idiots (for example, the principal of my high school) who have enough power over people’s lives to determine their future. This, in turn, highlights the essential nature of communicating science to laypersons in a way that is accurate, understandable, and sensitive. The more successfully science journalists are able to do this, the less abuse will result, and the more positive impact they can have on society. This is something that I am striving to work for in addressing the science of obesity.
As with all scientific studies, the key to really taking away the true message conveyed by the data is an understanding of the quality and reproducibility of the data and the experimental designs, the limitations on the conclusions that can be drawn based on the experimental methodology used, and how the new data fit into the existing literature. Unfortunately, only trained scientists, or those who have written about science for many years, can handle the information on this level. This ability is narrowed down even further by their respective specialties. It is very easy for someone with ulterior motives to manipulate the results of a scientific study or series of studies to suit his/her own purposes (in one of the most extreme and vile cases, read Hitler and the Eugenics movement). So how to solve this problem? I believe that the ideal combination of science and journalism would include an explanation of the scientific method with the reporting of any scientific study. Somehow, the public needs to be educated, through engaging and easily readable material, that one study does not make anything fact. They must understand that science progresses only through constantly challenging existing theories based on a growing body of high quality experimental evidence, and therefore, they must always leave room for further questioning.
*Note added in proof, December 20, 2009 – This post was written when I was just starting to learn about the Health at Every Size philosophy and thus contains material that some would find offensive. I am leaving the post in on purpose, to demonstrate how deeply ingrained fat hatred is in the minds of those raised in our society. The association I make here between being fat and lack of self-control is an unfortunate manifestation of these almost instinctive thoughts.