Should All Genetics Research on Intelligence Be Off Limits?

Research on human intelligence tends to be a magnet for controversy, with papers leading to protests and speakers drawing scorn. A few years back, a couple of academics attempted to catalog that history and found 111 incidents since 1956. Discussion of genetics and intelligence is particularly fraught because of how it’s been twisted by racists to justify oppression and violence. Simply typing the words “genes” and “intelligence” in the same sentence can be enough to raise eyebrows.

But should any genetics research touching on intelligence be considered out of bounds? Including research that has nothing to do with group differences? More specifically, is that the policy of the National Institutes of Health?

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

Though how exactly it’s stigmatizing isn’t entirely clear. Lee, who declined to comment for this article, insisted in his op-ed that the research in question had nothing to do with race or with sex. He called the rejections a “drastic form of censorship” that “stymies progress on the problems these studies were funded to address.” He put the blame on “anonymous bureaucrats with ideological motivations.”

Lee is not alone in his frustration. Another researcher, Stuart Ritchie, a senior lecturer at King’s College London and author of 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 scores might be correlated with Alzheimer’s disease, but when he looked at the website for the NIH’s genetics of Alzheimer’s database, he noticed a prohibition against using the data for “research into the genetics of intelligence.”

So he emailed the NIH and was told that the organization did, in fact, endorse that policy because “the association of genetic data with any of these parameters can be stigmatizing to the individuals or groups of individuals in a particular study. Any type of stigmatization that could be associated with genetic data is contrary to NIH policy.” How finding associations between intelligence scores and Alzheimer’s diagnoses might be stigmatizing to a particular person or group isn’t spelled out. (It’s worth noting that The Chronicle recently covered the story of a researcher who cited the Database of Genotypes and Phenotypes in a paper on cognitive ability and ancestry, which led to accusations from other researchers that NIH policy may have been violated.)

What was the NIH’s rationale? Is all such research banned? Is it case by case? Is there a more detailed set of criteria somewhere that details when a legitimate scientific question, such as the one Ritchie was asking, is too harmful to entertain? The emailed response I received from the NIH about the policy offered general information about the Database of Genotypes and Phenotypes, including that more than 14,000 requests for data have been approved since January 2021 and that about 75 percent of requests receive the green light. Which is interesting enough but doesn’t address the concerns raised by Lee and Ritchie.

This is all part of this wave of being very sensitive to what potential findings show, how they might be interpreted in a negative way, and therefore you shouldn’t allow the research.

These are tough issues, and not just for the NIH. In 2020, Richard Haier, editor of the journal Intelligence, wrote an editorial that acknowledged criticisms of the journal over the years for publishing studies that had been cited by racists. That had led to a perception, Haier wrote, that the journal was, if not racist itself, then perhaps apathetic toward the consequences of the research it published. On the contrary, Haier wrote that while academic freedom was the journal’s guiding principle, the editors were “not naive or indifferent about our social responsibilities.”

In a recent interview, Haier said he thought that Lee was brave for going public about the database rejections. “This is all part of this wave of being very sensitive to what potential findings show, how they might be interpreted in a negative way, and therefore you shouldn’t allow the research,” Haier said. “I think that’s a losing proposition, and I think it hurts science.”

As evidence of such a wave, Haier points to an editorial published in Nature Human Behaviour in August asserting that while “academic freedom is fundamental, it is not unbounded.” The editors wrote that they would modify or reject “content that undermines — or could reasonably be perceived to undermine — the rights and dignities of an individual or human group.” In a follow-up last month, the editors clarified that the policy isn’t intended to censor controversial results but rather to make sure they are handled with care.

Like the original Nature Human Behaviour editorial, the NIH’s current stance on database access isn’t easy to parse. What does it mean to undermine dignity? What qualifies as stigmatizing? With intelligence research, even if the study doesn’t delve into group differences, the perception can be that something nefarious is afoot. “The thinking goes that if you show that there’s a genetic component to intelligence, then automatically people will conclude that there is a genetic component to race differences and therefore it’s best not to support genetic research on intelligence,” Haier said.

It is true that racists have pointed to intelligence research as justification for their hateful views and violent actions. The gunman accused of killing 10 Black people in a Buffalo, N.Y., supermarket this year published a deranged manifesto that contained references to intelligence research, apparently copy-pasted from online forums, along with vile conspiracy theories. That massacre is a grim example of why it’s important to proceed with caution when pursuing research that could feed distorted narratives, according to Eric Turkheimer, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia. Turkheimer’s research has explored how both a person’s environment and their genes contribute to various outcomes, and he has emphasized how difficult it can be to untangle the two. “Some work is dangerous, and that’s easy to see if somebody is modifying viruses and releasing them into the wild, right?” he said. “But these things can also be socially and psychologically dangerous too.”

That said, Turkheimer doesn’t believe that forbidding genetics research that has to do with intelligence is the right approach. “I respect that they have to come up with a policy,” he told me. “But if that’s their decision, I disagree with it.”

The NIH situation strikes Robert Plomin, a psychologist and geneticist and the author of the 2018 book Blueprint: How DNA Makes Us Who We Are, as odd. “I really don’t understand what they mean by stigmatizing,” he told me. “Who decides what’s stigmatizing?” Plomin is known for his widely cited studies on twins and, lately, for attempting to explain the value of genetics to those who regard it as irrelevant or threatening. Plomin told me that when he encounters people with a negative opinion of genetics, he usually finds that their impression isn’t grounded in 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 you can often talk them around — or at least make them realize we’re not all devils who do this work.”

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