(Taboo) Science, Policy & the Importance of Good Science Communication: Redux

By Michelle Meyer

In late May, I wrote the following:

Yesterday, the Social Science Genetic Association Consortium, an international consortium that pools and conducts social science research on existing genome-wide association study (GWAS) data, and on whose Advisory Board I sit, published (online ahead of print) the results of its first study in Science. That paper — “GWAS of 126,559 Individuals Identifies Genetic Variants Associated with Educational Attainment” — like much human genetics research, has the potential to be misinterpreted in the lay, policy, and even science worlds. That’s why, in addition to taking care to accurately describe the results in the paper itself, including announcing the small effect sizes of the replicated SNPs in the abstract, being willing to talk to the media (many scientists are not), and engaging in increasingly important “post-publication peer review” conversations on Twitter (yes, really) and elsewhere — we put together this FAQ of what the study does — and, just as important, does not — show. So far, our efforts have been rewarded with responsible journalism that helps keep the study’s limits in the foreground.

I had no role in the GWAS itself; that credit goes to SSGAC’s extraordinarily meticulous scientists. I did, however, have a strong hand in the FAQs. And so I am really pleased that in a new editorial, the editors of Nature (not for nothing, Science’s main competitor) highlighted our FAQ as an example of best practices in behavioral genetics research and science communication. They write:

For clarity, scientists would do well to follow the example of the Social Science Genetic Association Consortium. In June, this group published a paper on genetic variants associated with educational attainment (C. A. Rietveld et al. Science 340, 1467–1471; 2013). Accompanying this was a nine-page Frequently Asked Questions document that, in plain, easy-to-understand language, addressed such questions as why the researchers did the study, what they found and what the implications of the work are — and are not (see go.nature.com/7mov2j). The document spelled out that the consortium had not found ‘the gene’ for educational attainment, that each genetic marker found has only a very small effect on length of schooling, and that any policy response based on that single study would be premature.

Scientists cannot be held responsible every time someone misinterprets their work. But simple steps such as these could help to prevent and address some of the potential distortions of behavioural genetics — and could help to ensure that society continues to support the work.

For more on taboo science—including IQ, race, violence, and sexuality—see Erika Check Hayden’s accompanying article, which discusses our Science GWAS in the IQ category and (elsewhere in the article) quotes Duke lawprof (and new Conspirator!) Nita Farahany and Bill of Health guest contributor Yaniv Erlich. Now if we could only get popularizers of science to understand that their lay audience will rarely know that they are “oversimplifying” that science.

[Cross-posted at The Faculty Lounge]

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