Forbidden Questions – Marginal REVOLUTION

It is extremly disturbing that major scientific organizations are forbidding the publication of research that offends some political sensibilities. Indeed, roadblocks are being put into place to even investigate some questions. Here is James Lee, a behavioral geneticist at the University of Minnesota, talking about the NIH’s restrictions on behavioural science:

A policy of deliberate ignorance has corrupted top scientific institutions in the West. It’s been an open secret for years that prestigious journals will often reject submissions that offend prevailing political orthodoxies—especially if they involve controversial aspects of human biology and behavior—no matter how scientifically sound the work might be. The leading journal Nature Human Behaviour recently made this practice official in an editorial effectively announcing that it will not publish studies that show the wrong kind of differences between human groups.

American geneticists now face an even more drastic form of censorship: exclusion from access to the data necessary to conduct analyses, let alone publish results. Case in point: the National Institutes of Health now withholds access to an important database if it thinks a scientist’s research may wander into forbidden territory. The source at issue, the Database of Genotypes and Phenotypes (dbGaP), is an exceptional tool, combining genome scans of several million individuals with extensive data about health, education, occupation, and income. It is indispensable for research on how genes and environments combine to affect human traits. No other widely accessible American database comes close in terms of scientific utility.

My colleagues at other universities and I have run into problems involving applications to study the relationships among intelligence, education, and health outcomes. Sometimes, NIH denies access to some of the attributes that I have just mentioned, on the grounds that studying their genetic basis is “stigmatizing.” Sometimes, it demands updates about ongoing research, with the implied threat that it could withdraw usage if it doesn’t receive satisfactory answers. In some cases, NIH has retroactively withdrawn access for research it had previously approved.

…The federal government was under no obligation to assemble the magnificent database that is the dbGaP. Now that it has done so at taxpayer expense, however, it does have an obligation to provide access to that database evenhandedly—not to allow it for some and deny it to others, based on the content of their research.

Keep in mind that when science is politicized the questions that can be asked and the answers that can be given change as politics changes. Science isn’t natural–science, like free speech, democracy, and the rule of law relies on supporting universal norms of open inquiry–open questions, open questioners, open answers–but these universal norms run against our baser instincts and as such require sustaining cooperation in a prisoner’s dilemma where defection to our tribe is the dominant strategy.

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