New on ISN: Science and Social Control: Political Paralysis and the Genetics Agenda

Science and Social Control: Political Paralysis and the Genetics Agenda” written by Jonathan Latham PhD, Executive Director of the Bioscience Resource Project, was published on July 31st in Independent Science News.

Synopsis: Over the last twenty years, media accounts of human genetic research [including twin studies, the Human Genome Project, and many thousands of Genome-wide association (GWA) studies] have convinced the public that genetic factors underly most disease and human behavior. Yet in terms of actual scientific findings this massive effort, one of the most expensive scientific undertakings ever conceived, has almost entirely failed to identify the important genes that geneticists predicted, or to account for the occurrence of human illness. Thus the BRCA1 equals breast cancer example, which remains the most cited example of a genetic contribution to common disease, plays a role in less than 10% of all breast cancer cases. For most diseases or behaviors, the identified genetic contribution in total is less than what BRCA1 alone contributes to breast cancer. Moreover, many “predisposing” genes prominently reported in the media, turn out to have been false positives.

This contrast between the hype of genetics and the meager results exposes first a failure of geneticists to ensure their results are accurately reported in both the scientific literature and science media and second a failure of the science media to ask hard questions and put research findings in context. It also adds significance to the fact that human disease genetics first found political favor aided by hundreds of millions of research dollars from the tobacco industry.

Faced with a lung cancer epidemic, the tobacco industry looked to genetic research to shift blame from their product (cigarettes) to individuals (the smoker). While predisposing genes were never found, the search for genetic predispositions to nicotine addiction and lung cancer successfully confounded understanding of the negative health effects of cigarettes and transformed tobacco industry efforts to avoid liability and regulation.

This strategic success positioned human genetics as the go-to science of polluters and of governments disinclined to address politically challenging environmental and social issues. Human genetics conveniently and plausibly offered to locate the blame for unwanted social behaviors, inequality, and disease in the genomes of individuals rather than in their external experiences of unequal opportunity, social stress, and toxic environments. Thus the political impetus of democratic, environmental, and social movements has successfully been blunted even while the the presumed genetic predispositions have never materialized.

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