Kathryn Paige Harden

Disappointingly, rather than addressing this problem, many scientists in the fields of education, psychology, and sociology simply pretend it doesn’t apply to them. The sociologist Jeremy Freese summarized the situation as follows:

Currently, many quarters of social science still practice a kind of epistemological tacit collusion, in which genetic confounding potentially poses significant problems for inference but investigators do not address it in their own work or raise it in evaluating the work of others. Such practice involves wishful assumptions if our world is one in which “everything is heritable.”

Freese was writing in 2008, but the situation now is no different. Open almost any issue of a scientific journal in education or developmental psychology or sociology, and you will find paper after paper announcing correlations between parental characteristics and child development outcomes. Parental income and child brain structure. Maternal depression and child intelligence. Each of these papers represents a massive amount of investigator time and public investment in the research process, and each of these papers has, in Freese’s words, an “incisive, significant, and easily explained flaw”—that differences in children’s environments are entangled with the genetic differences between them, but no serious effort is being expended toward disentangling them.

The tacit collusion among many social scientists to ignore genetics is motivated, I believe, by well-intentioned but ultimately misguided fears—the fear that even considering the possibility of genetic influence implies a biodeterminism or genetic reductionism they would find abhorrent, the fear that genetic data will inexorably be misused to classify people in ways that strip them of rights and opportunities. Certainly, there are misuses of genetic data that need to be guarded against […]. But while researchers might have good intentions, the widespread practice of ignoring genetics in social science research has significant costs.

In the past few years, the field of psychology has been rocked by a “replication crisis,” in which it has become clear that many of the field’s splashy findings, published in the top journals, could not be reproduced and are likely to be false. Writing about the methodological practices that led to the mass production of illusory findings (practices known as “p-hacking”), the psychologist Joseph Simmons and his colleagues wrote that “everyone knew [p-hacking] was wrong, but they thought it was wrong the way it is wrong to jaywalk.” Really, however, “it was wrong the way it is wrong to rob a bank.”

Like p-hacking, the tacit collusion in some areas of the social science to ignore genetic differences between people is not wrong in the way that jaywalking is wrong. Researchers are not taking a victimless shortcut by ignoring something (genetics) that is only marginally relevant to their work. It’s wrong in the way that robbing banks is wrong. It’s stealing. It’s stealing people’s time when researchers work to churn out critically flawed scientific papers, and other researchers chase false leads that will go nowhere. It’s stealing people’s money when taxpayers and private foundations support policies premised on the shakiest of causal foundations. Failing to take genetics seriously is a scientific practice that pervasively undermines our stated goal of understanding society so that we can improve it.

Kathryn Paige Harden, The Genetic Lottery: Why DNA Matters for Social Equality, Princeton, 2021, pp. 185–186