Politics and Science

Barely was the ink dry (pixels glowing, whatever) on  my having posted this to National Review Online:

Politics … corrupts the human sciences, suppressing research in areas where it’s feared results will crash up against what Bill Buckley called “the prevailing structure of taboos”:  widespread entrenched beliefs and emotions — in psychometry, for example, or population genetics.

… than my special issue of The Economist arrived, a survey of “the world in 2010.” The science section of the issue includes a piece by Geoffrey Miller, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of New Mexico, title: “The Looming Crisis in Human Genetics.” After discussing the meager results from genome-wide association studies, Miller turns to the just-over-the-horizon promise of full genome sequencing. (The big comparative sequencing studies to date have dealt with samples typically only 0.03 percent of the genome in size.). Miller:

When sequencing costs drop within a few years below $1,500 per genome, researchers in Europe, China and India will start huge projects with vast sample sizes, sophisticated bioinformatics, diverse trait measures and detailed family structures. (American bioscience will prove too politically squeamish to fund such studies.) …

The trouble is, the resequencing data will reveal much more about human evolutionary history and ethnic differences than they will about disease genes. Once enough DNA is analysed around the world, science will have a panoramic view of human genetic variation across races, ethnicities, and regions. We will start reconstructing a detailed family tree that links all living humans …

We will also identify the many genes that create physical and mental differences across populations, and we will be able to estimate when those genes arose …

If the shift from GWAS to sequencing studies finds evidence of such politically awkward and morally perplexing facts, we can expect the usual range of ideological reactions, including nationalistic retro-racism from conservatives and outraged denial from blank-slate liberals. The few who really understand the genetics will gain a more enlightened, live-and-let-live recognition of the biodiversity within our extraordinary species — including a clearer view of likely comparative advantages between the world’s different economies.

The boldface there is mine. The “we” in subsequent sentences should actually be “they” since, Miller predicts (correctly, I think) that American scientists will be too “politically squeamish” to join in this tremendous exploration.

Perhaps we should just stop doing science altogether; or at least, hand over our bioscience labs to the Discovery Institute.

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