I may have caused a little stir recently within the International Society of Intelligence Research (ISIR). I was asked to deliver a keynote lecture at their annual conference. A few colleagues warned me beforehand that ISIR was regarded by some to be a controversial society, because it also attracted some malevolent figures that were a little too interested in race differences in IQ. Like flies to a picnic. I do notice their presence and usually try to ignore them. Since long before I discovered these darker corners of intelligence research, I found intelligence to be an intriguing human trait. Although it is only one of many aspects that make us human, our intelligence has been a major contributor to the success of our species and has helped us make many exciting discoveries about who we are, where we came from, and where we could be going. I did not want the thought of some potentially racist figures being interested in the same trait, for different reasons, make me stop being fascinated by intelligence, or stop interacting with other intelligence researchers.
Two weeks before the ISIR conference, the preliminary speaker program was shared with the speakers. I noticed that one of the scheduled speakers was a notorious individual, known for an unhealthy obsession for trying to prove that race differences in IQ and other social traits were due to inborn and immutable genetic differences. Besides a reputation for sloppy scientific work in dubious journals, he was also well known for an obnoxious social media presence, regularly posting messages and memes denigrating a wide range of marginalized groups. This behavior has garnered him a large following of, largely anonymous, online fans. He is a leading figure and major contributor to the bad reputation of intelligence and genetics research. On top of this reputation, this individual has never been part of any credible research program, PhD program, or university, which made it all the more surprising to me that he was invited to speak at the same academic conference as me. I decided to publicly cancel my talk, as I did not want to be associated with this individual. I did not want his reputation to negatively affect mine, or my reputation to positively affect his. I felt obligated, both as a scientist and a second generation immigrant (I’ve seen him specifically target my own minority group as well), to distance myself from this malevolent force. Eventually, my action caused multiple other complaints, including a student petition, after which the ISIR board decided to remove this person from the speaker list, after which I re-joined the conference.
My self-cancellation stirred up some debate within the ISIR organization. I was told that it even made them consider putting a temporary ban on studies on population differences in intelligence. I do agree that these kinds of studies can be harmful, because they can (and do) get interpreted as an investigation into the superiority of one group over another. As ISIR themselves state “Although scores on many measures, including intelligence-type tests, can be ranked from low to high, these ranks do not apply to people, nor to their value”. My aim, however, has never been to ban particular topics from investigation.
It does bother me to see such individuals so eager to analyze population differences in genetic variants associated with educational attainment in order to draw strong conclusions about the genetic nature of these differences. Besides disregarding the depth, breadth, and complexity of what it means to be part of a human population, it is not yet practically feasible to conduct such analyses reliably. Studies on these topics should be conducted by professionals with care, patience, and great attention for the potential pitfalls and nuances. And when we ever do reach the point of more reliable results, these results should, however they turn out, be interpreted within the multi-faceted context of what it means to be human (as far as we are able to understand that), and be communicated with care and empathy for the complex individual lives of the people involved. Scientific conclusions about groups of people have effects on many individual lives. I don’t trust people who are so eager to prove the hypothesis that Africans are born less intelligent than Europeans, a hypothesis used to justify the pillaging of the African continent and the enslavement of her inhabitants for centuries. Today, such hypotheses could still very well be continued to be misused to justify the position and difficulty of the lives of marginalized groups, and make their situation worse, which would in turn further confirm the prejudice about what causes their marginalized position, further strengthening this vicious circle. These worries are not unfounded. These kinds of studies have been referenced recently in the manifesto of the Buffalo mass shooter to justify killing as many black inhabitants as possible, traumatizing yet another community.
Banning certain topics from scientific investigation will probably not prove a viable solution to these social threats. They will still be conducted by malevolent actors, and whether the science supports their hypotheses or not, I don’t think racists are likely to change their attitudes and behaviors. We should continue to call out bad actors where we can, avoid giving them bigger platforms, and, most importantly, take the lead in conducting and communicating the science in a more rigorous and responsible way. It is important for academics to have the freedom to do good research on sensitive topics. If a topic elicits emotions, it probably does so because people find something about it important. Emotions evolved to emphasize that which is deserving of our attention.
I enjoy doing research on the genetics of many complex traits, including intelligence, and I like doing population genetics. Because of the reasons mentioned above, however, I do not feel the need to combine these two interests to study population differences in intelligence. I can imagine, however, that studying population differences in the genetics of other complex traits can be both important and interesting for a variety of reasons, especially for medical outcomes. Our lack of understanding population differences in common diseases could become a public health issue. For example, one of the promises of genetics research is the potential of so-called polygenic scores, which are DNA measures that can predict someone’s disease risk. These polygenic scores are based on genetic effect estimates from genome-wide association studies (GWAS), a study design that has been spectacularly successful in finding many genes associated with a wide range of physical and mental health outcomes. These polygenic scores are getting more predictive of disease risks as these studies grow. About 90% of the data in these studies, however, consist of individuals with a European ancestry. If we build polygenic scores that are based on studies of Europeans, these polygenic scores do a much worse job at predicting the same outcome in non-Europeans. The lack of transferability of these polygenic scores between populations will become a problem when they become clinically viable. If only Europeans can benefit from genetic risk prediction, this could exacerbate health inequalities between different populations.
The reason that discoveries about genetics in Europeans do not translate well to non-Europeans is due to both genetic and environmental differences between populations. For example, when genetic effects are estimated, there are certain assumptions that are made about the correlation between genetic variants within a population. When we try to locate genes that influence disease risk, we cannot scan every genetic variant, because it is very expensive to measure the entire genome. Instead, we rely on the correlation between genetic variants to approximately locate risk-increasing variants. The way that parents pass down segments of DNA to their offspring makes certain groups of genetic variants more correlated in a population than others. When the correlational structure of the genome differs between populations (which it does, due to different population histories), the genetic effect estimates will differ as well. Another reason that makes genetic effect estimates translate badly between populations is the difference in environmental circumstances between populations. Genes and environment act in concert to create living beings. For example, genetic effects that influence certain behaviors also influence the environments that people get exposed to, and those environments in turn can affect a wide range of heritable outcomes. These gene-environment correlations were the subject of the study that I presented at the ISIR conference and is scheduled to be published soon in one of my favorite journals (update: the study has now been published). We show in this study that these gene-environment correlations affect a wide range of physical and mental health outcomes, and that they differ between geographic regions. This study was conducted in ~250,000 individuals with a European ancestry from Great Britain. If these environmental differences affect genetic effect estimates within populations, their confounding effects are expected to be much stronger when comparing different populations, because of the long history of social, cultural, and economic differences between ethnic groups.
It may take some time, but we will eventually improve our capability to compare populations genetically. This kind of research is very difficult, both methodologically and socially, and thus requires great care in both its execution and its communication. We also have to realize that, as the methodological issues get solved, certain people will be eager to apply these research methods to social outcomes and intelligence. We already see in our research that the kind of confounding factors that make it difficult to compare populations genetically, affect social outcomes like educational attainment or intelligence much more strongly than other health outcomes. Someone’s education or income has a much greater impact on which environment one gets exposed to, mainly because it determines whether someone can afford to live in a healthier environment. This makes it harder for us to separate genetic from environmental effects for these outcomes. I do not expect everyone to be as patient as the researchers that are working to resolve these issues for health outcomes. I worry about individuals that will try to apply our methods prematurely on social outcomes in order to claim that they have found evidence for genetic population differences in intelligence (as they are already doing). I am not exactly sure what to do about this, but perhaps just expressing my worry might be a good start. I hope that I will not get too pre-occupied with battling online racists though, I can think of much more enjoyable and fruitful ways to spend my limited mental energy. I will therefore probably choose to ignore these darker corners of intelligence research again for a while and continue to focus on what I enjoy most, which is trying to better understand the origins and future of humanity in all its diversity.