Independent Science News | Food, Health and Agriculture Bioscience News
Science and Social Control: Political Paralysis and the Genetics Agenda
August 3, 2013
By Jonathan Latham, PhD
(Originally posted July 31st and lost after a DDOS (electronic) attack).
Variations in individual "educational attainment" (essentially, whether
students complete high school or college) cannot be attributed to
inherited genetic differences. That is the finding of a new study
reported in Science magazine (Rietveld et al.  2013). According to
this research, fully 98% of all variation in educational attainment is
accounted for by factors other than a person's simple genetic makeup.
This implies that most of student success is a consequence of
potentially alterable social or environmental factors. This is an
important and perhaps surprising observation, of high interest to
parents, teachers, and policymakers alike; but it did not make the
The likely reason is that the authors of the study failed to mention
the 98% figure in the title, or in the summary. Nor was it mentioned in
the accompanying press release .
Instead, their discussion and interest focused almost entirely on a
different aspect of their findings: that three gene variants each
contribute just 0.02% (one part in 5,000) to variation in educational
attainment. Thus the final sentence of the summary concluded not with a
plea to find effective ways to help all young people to reach their
full potential but instead proposed that these three gene variants
"provide promising candidate SNPs (DNA markers) for follow-up work".
This is as spectacular a misdescription of a scientific finding as is
to be found anywhere in the scientific literature. But the question is
why? Why did the more than two hundred authors decide to highlight the
unimpressive 0.02% and bury the 98%? The easy answer is that the
authors are geneticists and that geneticists will not have
distinguished careers if variation in genes is irrelevant to health and
human achievement. The full answer, however, is considerably more
interesting, and much more significant, than simple conflicts of
The broader explanation, which needs to account, for example, for the
fact that Science  magazine would publish such a discrepant
conclusion, is that the science of human biology is in the grip of
hidden political forces. These forces are powerful enough to enable
(this and other) comprehensively misrepresented genetic studies to
evade the corrective potential of the scientific peer review process,
and be published in the foremost journals of science.
How money and politics can dictate the conclusions of a scientific study
The easiest starting point to explain this miscarriage of science is to
begin with funding. The Rietveld research, we know for a fact, was part
of a genetic epidemiology project called the Social Science Genetic
Association Consortium (SSGAC ). The consortium obtains its money
almost entirely from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the
National Science Foundation, i.e. the US government.
The self-described funding premise of SSGAC is that:
"for most outcomes in life, over half the resemblance of two biological
siblings reared in the same family stems from their genetic similarity"
(Benjamin et al.  2012).
In other words, SSGAC believed even before Rietveld was published that
inherited genetic predispositions make the dominant contribution to
ones' lifetime achievements, in education and apparently "most" spheres
of human behavior. Consequently, the aim of all its projects is to
physically locate these specific genetic factors on human DNA.
But the actual Rietveld result implies that such genetic
predispositions are pretty much irrelevant, at least as far as
educational attainment is concerned. Moreover, SSGAC had previously
searched for gene variants associated with "general intelligence", and
"economic and political preferences" (such as risk-aversion and trust).
For all these traits the search was again unsuccessful; in only one
instance did project members find a genetic variant that reached the
threshold of statistical significance (which is itself far below what
might be considered important as a predisposing factor) (Benjamin et
al.  2012; Chabris et al.  2012). Thus we can say that SSGACs'
founding premise is not in alignment with the data.
But that just brings the question back one stage further: why is the US
government funding excessively genetic determinist projects such as
this in the first place?
The probable answer is that the US education system has many problems,
which are exemplified by its low rankings  on international scales.
There is a danger that blame for these problems might be laid at the
door of the secretary for education, the administration, or the
President. This possibility could be neatly sidestepped, however, if
educational attainment was genetically fated.
Essentially the same political logic applies to any human disease or
disorder, or even any social complaint. If the disorder, for example
autism, can be shown (or even just suggested) to have a partial genetic
origin then a barn door is opened for any accused vaccine maker, or
polluter, or policymaker, to evade the blame?both legally and in the
perception of the public.
This opportunity within biology to make inequality (not just of wealth)
look 'natural' has been recognized for a long time. Harvard Geneticist
Richard Lewontin summed it up his 1992 book 'The Doctrine of DNA:
Biology as Ideology' :
"The notion that the lower classes are biologically inferior to the
upper classes........is meant to legitimate the structures of
inequality in our society by putting a biological gloss on them"
Recognition that this reasoning aligns the interests of both
corporations and governments has coincided with the extraordinary
funding opportunities for scientists willing to apply DNA analysis and
genomic approaches to vast areas of mental and physical health. Precise
figures are not available, but over the last fifteen years close to
half the budget of the NIH has gone to genetic analysis of human
populations. That is likely in excess of $100 billion dollars in the US
The financial outlay is ongoing: the same SSGAC consortium is also
researching the possibility of genetic factors in "subjective
well-being" (happiness) and "fertility". Furthermore, the scope of the
search for genetic predispositions is widening. In 2004 science writer
John Horgan noted  that (unsuccessful) searches have been made for
"attention-deficit disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, manic
depression, schizophrenia, autism, dyslexia, alcoholism, heroin
addiction, high IQ, male homosexuality, sadness, extroversion,
introversion, novelty seeking, impulsivity, violent aggression,
anxiety, anorexia, seasonal affective disorder, and pathological
Since he compiled that list the field of "behavioral economics" has
been added to the list of genetic searches considered worthy of public
support. For example, a 2013 publication in the journal PLOS one (with
68 authors) goes by the title "The Molecular Genetic Architecture of
Self-Employment" (van der Loos et al . 2013). Meanwhile, the US
National Human Genome Research Institute last year put out a call for
evidence  asking geneticists to support a search for
predispositions to "behavioral adherence" to expert advice (i.e.
Thus there is operating within the disciplines of medicine, public
health, social science, and now economics, a research framework that,
if successful, would locate the causes of negative human outcomes
internally. At fault will be genes and not circumstances. It is an
officially sanctioned and scientific version of "blame the victim".
Three major strands of evidence support this thesis.
Big tobacco and the origins of human genetics
Most directly of all, there is clear evidence that the search for
genetic predispositions is the centerpiece of a longterm corporate
agenda whose purpose is to sway public opinion. It began in the 1960s
with the tobacco industry at a time when smoking was first implicated
in lung cancer. The strategic purpose was to deflect the public fear of
smoking, minimize the likely policy responses, and eliminate potential
legal expenses, by funding, encouraging, and then exploiting, human
genetic research. This could be done, so the industry thought, by
building from scratch a science of genetic risk factors.
This agenda operated until the late 1980s when the tobacco industry
became politically too controversial for medical organizations to
maintain formal relations. According to research  by Helen Wallace
of the UK non-profit GeneWatch , the tobacco industry by 1994 had
awarded around 1,000 researchers ?225 million ($370 million) to nurture
research in human genetics (Wallace  2009). This tobacco research
money was directed in particular to searches for genetic associations
with lung cancer.
As early as 1965, this strategy was sowing uncertainty about the causes
of lung cancer. As Dr. George L. Saiger, a consultant paid over $50,000
by the tobacco industry, testified before the US Senate Commerce
"There is strong reason to believe that the constitutional hypothesis
fits the evidence appearing in the Report of the Surgeon General's
Committee at least as well as the cigarette hypothesis..."
Proof that this statement was part of a conscious program to build the
credibility of a "constitutional hypothesis" (i.e. the existence of
genetic predispositions to lung cancer) was subsequently confirmed by
searches of the Legacy Tobacco Documents (Gundle et al. 2010 ).
These are internal documents of the tobacco industry, now kept by the
University of California, San Francisco, that the industry was
compelled to release in a lawsuit settlement.
The tobacco industry also pioneered 'behavioral genetics'. The idea
that even addiction to cigarettes was a genetic phenomenon (and not a
characteristic of cigarettes or tobacco) originated with the tobacco
industry. The consistent aim behind promoting genetics, according to a
memo written by Fred R. Panzer, Vice President of Public Relations for
the Tobacco Institute, was to change the focus of attention "from one
product to a type of person".
The tobacco industry was still actively pursuing the same public
relations (PR) strategy when, for example, senior tobacco executives
met with geneticist and Nobel Laureate Sydney Brenner in 1988, just a
month before he set up the Human Genome Organization (HUGO) (Wallace
2009). HUGO was the organization formed to oversee the Human Genome
Human genetics is not public health
The second important point of evidence is that the public interest
justification for identifying gene variants is hard to discern. For
example, even if predispositions for educational attainment were to be
found, it is not clear how public welfare would benefit. For example,
it wouldn't affect at all the need for high quality education, either
for individuals found wanting, or for those of average or higher
ability. This crucial point is glossed over by proponents of genetic
explanations who, according to Chaufan and Joseph (2013), merely assume
that genetic knowledge
"will necessarily improve the prediction, diagnosis, prevention, or
treatment of common disorders."
As these weaknesses have become clearer, it has become more common for
public health professionals to question the utility of these studies
and argue that, at a minimum:
"advocates of genomic medicine should be much more modest"
about the likely impacts on public health (Hall, Mathews, and Morley
The genetic evidence deficit
The third reason to suspect that a political and not a scientific
agenda underlies the continued push for genetic research is that the
money has continued to flow even in the face of  a tsunami of
evidence  against its major predictions. As Hall and colleagues
also wrote, geneticists:
"have not identified major susceptibility alleles (gene variants) for
most common diseases." (Hall, Mathews, and Morley  2010).
Even the findings that have been claimed (which are modest) have
consistently not stood up to retrospective replication (Ioannidis and
Panagiotou  2011). The absence of evidence is now so clear that
even leaders in the field of human genetics sometimes find an
acknowledgement is necessary (though only in the context of a request
for more funding) (Manolio et al . 2009).
As the evidence for genetic causations has continuously and stubbornly
refused to appear, critics have grown bolder. Chaufan and Joseph in
2013 felt confident enough to write:
"these variants have not been found because they do not exist" (Chaufan
and Joseph 2013 ).
It is important, nevertheless, to acknowledge that there are
exceptions. The breast cancer mutations of the BRCA1 gene are one class
of exception. But even BRCA1 is an exception that proves the rule.
BRCA1 is well known precisely because it remains an almost unique
example of a prominent genetic predisposition to a common disease. Yet
even BRCA1 is oversold. More than 90% of all breast cancer cases are
unrelated to it (Gage et al . 2012).
The other class of exceptions are those relatively rare disorders for
which there is clear evidence of a simple genetic cause. Cystic
fibrosis is an example of such a disease; Huntington's disease is
However, to return to the main point, for common physical and mental
health conditions, such as heart disease, cancer, autism and
schizophrenia, the situation has proven very different. The
epidemiological and genetic evidence suggests that genetic risk is at
most a minor contributing component. For behavioral and economic traits
the lack of positive genetic data is even more apparent.
Consequently, an extra-scientific explanation is required to explain
why very large sums of taxpayer money have funded human genetic
research in the face of such negative results.
Human genetics: a PR success built on a scientific failure
In purely research terms, the search for human genetic predispositions
has foundered. Yet this failure has done curiously little to prevent
medical and behavioral genetics from being an overwhelming PR success.
Thanks to the tobacco industry (joined later by the chemical industry
, the food industry , the pharmaceutical industry , all the
way to the gambling industry ), "genes for" any disease, or talent,
or human oddity, is nowadays a standard topic of adult conversation.
This was not always the case. When the geneticist Mary-Claire King
(co-discoverer of the BRCA1 gene) was interviewed recently in New
Scientist, she was at pains to remind the interviewer that in the 1980s
convincing funders to explore an inherited genetic basis for cancer was
"The main experience of the period was that people completely ignored
me" (Powerful genes  New Scientist 22 June 2013).
It is hard to be certain but it is likely that this sea change in
public opinion did indeed protect the tobacco industry, which continues
to thrive. It also, we have previously argued , played a key role
in protecting polluters and politicians of all kinds from facing
regulations and responsibility. Much of the explanation for our
societies' generic failure to address social and environmental problems
can probably be attributed to the simple overreliance on genetic
Yet beyond the example of BRCA1, few scientists or lay people could
name a specific discovery to back up their genetic suppositions. This
discrepancy, between the failure of the science program itself and its
success as a PR project is truly a sobering testament to the power of
modern public relations. It is also an indictment of science journalism
and the inadequacy of the science media as a whole.
Free enquiry vs directed science
The above analysis proposes that it is a mistake to ascribe
responsibility for their conclusions solely to authors of papers such
as Rietveld et al. Equally culpable is the operating system within
which these researchers find themselves. Science magazine and its
editors and reviewers, for example, are clearly complicit in publishing
misleading conclusions. Funding agencies are complicit in awarding
public funds to speculative gene hunting projects at the expense of
pressing public health questions. The evidence thus points to a broad
Not sufficiently understood by outsiders is the fact that most of
science is essentially now a top-down project. There persists a
romantic notion (retained by many scientists) that science is a process
of free enquiry. In this view, the endless grant applications and the
requests for applications  are merely quality control measures, or
irritants imposed by bureaucrats.
But free enquiry in science is all but extinct. In reality, only a tiny
proportion of research in biology gets done outside of straightjackets
imposed by funding agencies. Researchers design their projects around
funding programs; universities organize their hiring around them, and
every experiment is carefully designed to bolster the next grant
The consequences of this dynamic are that individual scientists have
negligible power within the system; but more importantly it opens a
route by which powerful political or commercial forces can
surreptitiously set the science agenda from above.
In the case of medical genetics that power has been used to deform our
understanding of human nature itself. Thus public money has bought not
scientific 'progress' but the domination of intellectual enquiry by an
entirely malevolent project, conceived fully outside of science. This
project was intended only to ensure political paralysis and the
consolidation of economic power and whatever agenda scientists thought
they were following was entirely incidental. What we observe is in fact
a full-blown enlightenment malfunction.
Nevertheless, despite the almost daily PR barrage of genetic
determinist headlines, our fate is not written in our DNA and the state
of public understanding can in principle be reversed. The hopeful truth
is that there are compelling reasons to remove subsidies for junk food,
pesticides from the food and water, toxins from the workplace, and
social and economic injustices from society, and that when we do,
things will improve.
- Benjamin et al. (2012) The Promises and Pitfalls of Genoeconomics
Annual Review of Economics  4: 627-662.
- Benjamin D et al. (2012) The genetic architecture of economic and
political preferences . Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. 109: 8026?8031.
- Chabris CF, et al. (2012) Most reported genetic associations with
general intelligence are probably false positives . Psychol Sci. 23:
- Dermitzakis E.T. and Clark A.G. (2009) Life after GWA studies.
Science 326: 239-240.
- Gage M, Wattendorf D, Henry LR. (2012) Translational advances
regarding hereditary breast cancer syndromes . J Surg Oncol. 105:
444-51. doi: 10.1002/jso.21856.
- Gundle KR. Dingel, M and Barbara A. Koenig (2010) "To Prove This is
the Industry's Best Hope": Big Tobacco's Support of Research on the
Genetics of Nicotine.  Addiction. 105: 974?983. doi:
- Hall WD, Mathews R, Morley KI (2010) Being More Realistic about the
Public Health Impact of Genomic Medicine.  PLoS Med 7(10):
- Ioannidis JP and Panagiotou O (2011) Comparison of Effect Sizes
Associated With Biomarkers Reported in Highly Cited Individual Articles
and in Subsequent Meta-analyses . J. Am. Med. Assoc. 305: 2200-2210.
- Chaufan C and Joseph J (2013) The 'Missing Heritability' of Common
Disorders: Should Health Researchers Care?  International Journal
of Health Services 43: 281?303
- Manolio T. et al. (2009) Finding the missing heritability of complex
diseases . Nature 461: 747-753.
- Rietveld et al. (2013) GWAS of 126,559 individuals identifies genetic
variants associated with educational attainment.  Science, 340,
1467-1471, . doi:10.1126/science.1235488
- van der Loos MJHM, Rietveld CA, Eklund N, Koellinger PD, Rivadeneira
F, et al. (2013) The Molecular Genetic Architecture of Self-Employment
. PLoS ONE 8(4): e60542. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0060542
- Wallace H (2009) Big tobacco and the human genome: Driving the
scientific bandwagon?  Genomics, Society and Policy 5: 1-54.
URLs in this post:
 Rietveld et al.: https://www.sciencemag.org/content/340/6139/1467.short
 press release:
 Science: https://www.sciencemag.org/
 SSGAC: http://www.ssgac.org/Home.php
 Benjamin et al.: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3592970/
 Benjamin et al.: http://www.pnas.org/content/109/21/8026.short
 Chabris et al.: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23012269
 low rankings:
 The Doctrine of DNA: Biology as Ideology':
 van der Loos et al:
 call for evidence:
 research: http://www.lsspjournal.com/content/pdf/1746-5354-5-1-1.pdf
 GeneWatch: http://www.genewatch.org/
 Wallace: http://www.hss.ed.ac.uk/genomics/V5N1/documents/Wallace.pdf
 Gundle et al. 2010: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2911634/
 Hall, Mathews, and Morley:
 in the face of:
 tsunami of evidence:
 Ioannidis and Panagiotou:
 Manolio et al: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2831613/
 Chaufan and Joseph 2013:
 Gage et al: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22441895
 food industry:
 pharmaceutical industry:
 gambling industry:
 Powerful genes:
 requests for applications:
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New URL for: Science and Social Control: Political Paralysis and the
By admin | Published: August 4, 2013
"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
A Denial of Service Attack shut down the ISN website for several days.
ISN is now back online and "Science and Social Control: Political
Paralysis and the Genetics Agenda" has been republished on a new URL:
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