Aaron Panofsky Explores Controversies in “Misbehaving Science” The Public Policy professor's book explores the roots of simmering battles in science


Aaron Panofsky, a professor of public policy with an appointment at the Institute for Society and Genetics, recently published his book “Misbehaving Science: Controversy and the Development of Behavior Genetics.” The book analyzes the causes and consequences of controversies surrounding behavioral genetics, often leading to debates about race and inequality.

In a recent interview with UCLA Luksin, Panofsky discusses his findings and how science and policy come to be at odds with one another, tracing behavior genetics to its origins and analyzing five major controversies in the field.

Panofsky will discuss the book in an April 30 webcast.

Your book, “Misbehaving Science,” looks at the field of behavioral genetics as a way of showing how scientific consensus — or the lack thereof — and cross-disciplinary relationships can influence the progress of knowledge. What made behavioral genetics the right topic for this kind of study?

At some level, controversy is inherent to science, that’s what distinguishes it from other forms of culture. Scientists propose findings, explanations, and theories, and others try to tear these down. Historians and sociologists have focused on occasions when this process fails to go smoothly. For example, perhaps what’s at stake is not a fact but what counts as a fact, what a method is capable of demonstrating, what evidence is meaningful, or who is even a legitimate participant in a scientific debate. On such occasions…there is a breakdown in the mutual trust and common standards necessary for Popper’s machine to keep running smoothly. So sociologists and historians have been interested in the social processes that get the scientific machine running again.

Behavior genetics—the field devoted to studying genetic influences on intelligence, personality, mental illnesses, criminal behavior, etc.—is interesting from this perspective because it has remained controversial since its founding as a field fifty years ago. The field’s researchers have managed to have productive careers despite there being across this entire period fundamental disagreements across science about the validity of the scientific tools behavior geneticists use and the inferences they make. Behavior genetics is thus an anomaly from the tradition above—controversies must either be resolved or science will grind to a halt. In behavior genetics the scientific machine keeps turning though controversy persists, and my book tries to explain why.

Why is behavioral genetics such a controversial field of study?

The effort to link behavior to biology has always been controversial because it is political. If social status is linked to biology, perhaps inequality is natural rather than caused by exploitative relationships. These ideas are associated with eugenics and scientific racism. Perhaps social problems can be addressed through genetic testing and differential treatment, or perhaps there’s very little to be done and investments in school and social welfare are just wasted money.

Behavior genetics was founded in the 1960s (with) the hope that (it) could be studied separate from politics, racism, and eugenics. But in 1969, educational psychologist launched a national debate… to argue that programs to decrease racial inequality like Project Head Start were doomed to fail because genetically determined differences in intelligence. That controversy…turned a once-cooperative multidisciplinary space into an archipelago of mutually distrusting groups of scientists with opposed scientific purposes.

Many people have suggested that behavior genetics has inherently controversial ideas. But other fields…neuroscience, for example, have much more successfully resisted politicization. I argue that behavior genetics’ problem is due to this unfortunate history, which (fragmented the scientific community and) led to ambiguous intellectual and scientific norms.

Have recent technologies such as genetic sequencing and computer modeling reduced the chaos or further fanned the flames?

Behavior genetics…have long been based on studies using twins and adoptees to separate effects of “nature and nurture” without ever measuring DNA. Molecular technologies were supposed to correlate DNA directly to behavior, but…there have been no discoveries of genes for normal range behaviors accepted widely by scientists. Instead (these molecular methods) have gained importance and have been used to warrant increased investments in costly molecular research. At the same time, facing the highly reductionist approach of molecular geneticists, behavior geneticists have moderated their approach and spoken more of environmental effects on behavior. This new focus has made their research more acceptable to a wider population of social scientists—but fundamental disputes about the field’s methods (haven’t) been resolved.

What lessons can this episode teach us about other areas where policy and science intersect?

Behavior genetics is a high public profile…but its direct policy impact has been limited thus far. As far as I’m aware, there are no implemented behavior genetics informed educational or child welfare policies. I think this is a good thing because the idea that genes limit what societies might do to reduce inequality or improve education is at best too controversial to act upon responsibly.

But I worry that behavior genetics may culturally influence the ways people think about policy objectives in less than salutary ways. There’s evidence that behavior genetics findings could make people more fatalistic about the effectiveness of interventions and diminish their support whether or not the intervention might actually be effective.

Behavior genetics has also helped promote the idea that interventions might affect individuals in different ways. Some have argued that this suggests giving individuals more choices could be more effective than necessarily investing more in problem areas. This too could lead to a kind of policy fatalism. The direct and indirect impacts of behavior genetics ideas on policy are another area I hope to think about more in the future.

How can policy makers and the public help the scientific community avoid these pitfalls and advance knowledge?

One of my basic arguments is that…whether scientists in a specialty take seriously the mutual scientific competition with each other and the cultivation of social ties, boundaries, policing, etc. affects the style and quality of research and commitments to group responsibility. I worry that trends in the management of science…may be pushing scientific fields in the wrong direction. Interdisciplinary science may promote innovation through novel combinations of expertise, but it may also undermine the kinds of disciplinary structures that help build robust fields in the long run. The rush to promote interdisciplinarity may lead fields to experience problems like behavior genetics has faced over the long term.

What perspectives have your colleagues in science shared with you about this research?

Not many yet! I look forward to their feedback as more people get to read the book.

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