The 18-year-old gunman suspected of carrying out a racist attack that killed 10 and injured three people in Buffalo, N.Y., last weekend left no questions about why he drove 200 miles to a supermarket in a predominantly Black neighborhood and opened fire. A 180-page document he allegedly posted online detailed the white supremacist ideologies that motivated his plan to target and murder Black Americans.
But for the genetics researchers who discovered their work cited in the screed as justification for the bloodshed, there are only questions — how did this happen? Could we have done more to prevent it? And what needs to change to stop it from happening again?
“I’m horrified,” said Daniel Benjamin, a behavioral economist at the University of California, Los Angeles, and co-founder of the Social Science Genetic Association Consortium (SSGAC). Formed in 2011 and funded in part by the National Institutes of Health, the group aims to find links between genes and outcomes that interest social scientists. Beginning in 2013, they began to publish a series of bigger and bigger studies about the genetic underpinnings of staying in school, the third installment of which the Buffalo shooter referenced in his rant as proof of a racial hierarchy written into the human genome. In fact, the researchers found no such thing.
“It’s a complete and total distortion in so many ways,” said Benjamin. The study didn’t look at differences in educational attainment between different racial groups, for one thing. And it found that at the population level, genes played only a small role. About 85-90% of educational attainment was explained by the environment. Benjamin and his collaborators explained this and much more in a lengthy FAQ document intended to head off any potential misinterpretations of the research by the general public.
“It’s just very frustrating that we spend so much time thinking about these things and worrying and working hard to prevent them and still someone goes off and kills a bunch of people,” said Benjamin. “It’s very depressing. But I wouldn’t be doing this work if I didn’t think that it had tremendous potential positive value.”
Misinterpreting research toward racist ends is an age-old practice. But experts who track the far-right say today’s efforts are uniquely troublesome, and not just because of the ease at which such ideas now speed around the world to anyone with an internet connection. Gobs of genomic data are now readily accessible to anyone with an academic affiliation, and a new field of science is using it to explore possible connections between genes and behavior — an endeavor one critic likened to “playing with dynamite.” Some believe that these databases should be placing stricter limits on access and that researchers leveraging that data to explore explosive issues need to exercise more care in how they communicate findings.
“The original intent of these biobanks wasn’t to do this kind of behavioral research,” said Catherine Bliss, a sociologist at Rutgers University who chronicled the rise of sociogenomics in her book “Social by Nature.” “I don’t think that anyone saw this coming.”
In the two decades following the sequencing of the first human genome, millions of people have gotten their DNA decoded — either through genetic testing companies like 23andMe, or as part of a biomedical research project. In one of the largest of these, the U.K. Biobank, 500,000 British citizens donated blood, brain scans, health records, and detailed sociodemographic information.
This boom in big DNA data hasn’t just pushed forward the development of new drugs and diagnostics. It’s also generated the raw fuel now powering an unprecedented probing of the connections between people’s genes and almost every facet of their lives — things like what kinds of jobs people take, how they vote, who they’re sexually attracted to, whether or not they commit crimes, and even when they lose their virginity.
This new field of sociogenomics, populated mostly by sociologists, economists, and political scientists armed with genome-crunching algorithms isn’t so concerned with hypotheses and experiments, scientific methods that could tell you something about causes and effects. It’s essentially a mining operation — setting loose statistical analyses on vast reams of DNA data generated by others. What they churn out are associations — patterns of genetic variations, or SNPs, that tend to cluster around a trait. And because there are so many SNPs (literally billions) in the human genome, and the possible combinations of them are so large, finding links between them and any given trait is practically assured. And the more genomes you have to compare, the more links you’re likely to net.
The goal of all this, according to leaders like Benjamin, is to find a reliable measure of the heritable influence on different traits, so that other economists and sociologists and political scientists can control for genetics in their own experiments. Say they want to test out a new education policy or anti-smoking public health campaign. Knowing how well it worked means minimizing confounding variables, like socioeconomic status or ZIP code. Benjamin and his colleagues say they want to make it possible to do the same thing for genetic predispositions to certain behaviors.
The trouble comes when scientists, and journal editors, oversell these findings, said Eric Turkheimer, a psychologist at the University of Virginia. All of the SSGAC’s educational attainment studies were widely covered by mainstream media.
“All of those things did not happen because it was being presented as a technical exercise in constructing background variables that might help educational policy researchers do a slightly better job in their program evaluation research,” Turkheimer said. It got publicity, he explained, because the investigators, at some level, were presenting the data as a step toward understanding the genetic reasons why some people get more education than others, thereby rooting it in a long tradition of hereditarian social science with foundations in the American eugenics movement. And those types of exaggerations can have dire consequences.
“This research is playing with dynamite,” Turkheimer said. “If you so much as hint that we understand how genes affect brains in ways that make people more educable, that is going to get picked up by really bad actors.”
Often, that path is circuitous, said Aaron Panofsky, a sociologist of science at the UCLA who wrote a history of the field of behavioral genetics and has studied how its findings get co-opted by far-right groups. He found that research from groups like SSGAC get willfully misinterpreted by amateur hereditarian psychologists in open-source journals, whose specious conclusions then wind their way into fringe blogs and online forums like 4chan.
Panofsky has observed a division in the sociogenomics field about what to do about the problem. One camp wants to confront the misuse of their research head-on. The other says any restrictions on what they publish would be censorship and maintains they can’t be blamed because motivated racist thinkers will find anything to support their views, he said. Panofksy points out that the Buffalo shooter (and other white supremacists espousing similar views who carried out attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand, and El Paso, Texas) didn’t just grasp at any ideas, though.
“Of all the ancient racist tropes they could have drawn from, they picked this pseudoscientific package of ideas about genetics and replacement theory,” Panofsky said, referring to the conspiracy theory that white people are being slowly and intentionally replaced by immigrants and people of color. “It’s this language of science and genetics that they find empowering and convincing, and which they think legitimates their perspective. So that’s why I think we can’t just throw up our hands.”
How to fix the issue is an area of active debate.
Critics like Bliss believe the responsibility is best laid at the gatekeepers to the world’s trove of genomic data. Logistically, it’s likely to be easier and more effective than telling scientists to stop being curious about the things that make humans tick. She suggests databases like the U.K. Biobank adopt policies limiting use of participant information to the study of terminal medical conditions. That wouldn’t impinge research toward finding cures, more closely adhering to the mission of the project as it was initially pitched to volunteers, while making it harder to study issues ready-made for weaponization by violent political agendas.
“A lot of damage has been done, but at the same time, it’s better to make limitations and set the tone for what’s acceptable,” said Bliss. “I think there’s still time to course-correct.”
A U.K. Biobank spokesperson confirmed that the SSGAC’s educational attainment research was reviewed and approved as being consistent with the biobank’s access procedures. “It is highly distressing and most regrettable that the perpetrator of the Buffalo shooting has attempted to link his own warped ideology to this legitimate research and misappropriate its conclusions as justification for his appalling actions,” the spokesperson told STAT via email. “We extend our sincere condolences to the families of the victims of this horrific crime.”
A spokesperson for the consumer genetic-testing company 23andMe referred STAT to a statement made by SSGAC on Twitter, which acknowledged that sociogenomics doesn’t exist in a vacuum. “Researchers have a responsibility to consider how they present their findings to the scientific community and the world,” it said. “We try hard to communicate in ways that won’t be misunderstood, but we have more work to do.”
“A lot of people have responsibilities here, and I don’t think any one cancels out the other,” said I. Glenn Cohen, director of Harvard Law School’s Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics. When it comes to conducting these kinds of genome-wide association studies, or GWAS, that might have significant social implications for distinct racial or ethnic groups, Cohen believes more care is required, on the part of funders, researchers, and data providers. Among the most stringent remedies would be for databases like the U.K. Biobank to require researchers to contact potential participants and secure an additional form of specific consent.
Currently, if scientists want to use U.K. Biobank data for a GWAS study, they apply for access with a short description of their research aims. Those only have to fit under the very large umbrella of “health-related research that is in the public interest,” according to U.K. Biobank policy. The vetting process mostly consists of checking to ensure that the data are being released to “bona fide” researchers at legitimate research institutions.
To date, more than 30,000 researchers have gained access to U.K. Biobank data, a spokesperson told STAT. These data have been stripped of identifying details, and so in most cases, don’t require additional ethics approvals to work with, because the studies fall outside the bounds of human subjects research.
“A lot of the existing safeguards and regulations don’t apply when you’re just running a GWAS,” said Daphne Oluwaseun Martschenko, who studies the social impacts of genetic research as a postdoctoral research fellow at the Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics. “So there is not as much attention devoted to the potential harms of that kind of research to individuals.”
Martschenko spends a lot of time thinking about the ways modern behavioral genomics can reinforce unfounded ideas about race as a biological category. “But as an African American woman myself, to see what I spend a lot of time cautioning against come to life at a supermarket in Buffalo, New York, that made it all the more real for me,” she said.
She believes potential fixes lie beyond any individual actor, and will require shifting the balance of incentives in the field of sociogenomics more broadly — away from high-impact publications to more self-reflection. She’s advocated for funding agencies to require scientists to write societal impact statements as part of the grant application process. And for publishers to require positionality statements, a common feature of ethnographic research, in which scientists describe their personal lens and what motivates them to pursue their particular area of study. “These are things that could be done outside the formal realms of regulations that still push people toward their own responsibilities of producing research with strong potential to be misused and cause harm,” Martschenko said.
Panofsky believes that until sociogenomics as a field develops stronger scientific standards and ethical norms, controversies like this will wax and wane, occasionally exploding into full view, but never fully resolving and always threatening to reappear. That’s why he has been pushing for solutions outside the field — namely more education about genetics at younger ages, so that teenagers encountering misinformation online are more resistant to radicalization.
Benjamin agrees that early education is key. “Once someone is on 4chan and becoming an extremist, I think it’s too late to reach them through those channels,” he said. “And right now we do a terrible job of teaching genetics in schools; it’s Mendel’s pea plants, which are pretty irrelevant to the modern work on polygenic traits, which barely come up in the curriculum at all.”
But he’s also been pushing for changes from within. Up until this year, SSGAC made all of the results of the group’s many GWAS studies available free for anyone to download. This reflected both a foundational tenet of the group toward open science, and the U.K. Biobank’s policies preventing any recipients of its data from restricting access to the results of any analyses performed on it. But in January, SSGAC moved those results behind a digital wall, requiring users to read the American Society of Human Genetics statement rejecting racial supremacy and sign a terms-of-use document indicating they won’t misuse the data for cross-ancestry types of comparisons.
“The reality is it’s just really, really hard with groups that are not interested in what the science says,” said Benjamin. But he recognized that sociogenomics researchers have a moral obligation to mitigate against potential harms as much as possible, and said they would be looking hard at how to do that better. One effort already underway involves interviewing genetics-research participants to find out how they feel about their data being used to study social traits rather than medical ones.
“I think we need to be thinking creatively about all sorts of possible safeguards,” said Benjamin. “And probably the more the better.”
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