The New Yorker

GENES AND DESTINY

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I read with interest Gideon LewisKraus’s Profile of the behavior geneticist Kathryn Paige Harden (“Force of Nature,” September 13th). My academic research relates to Harden’s concerns regarding attention paid to the political connotatio­ns of who does, and does not, perceive genomics as having a significan­t influence on human traits and behaviors. In my book “Genomic Politics,” I conclude that, with few exceptions, beliefs about the validity and the impact of genomics are not related to partisan identity or to political ideology. I found that disagreeme­nts about whether genomic science will, on balance, benefit or harm society do exist among the American public and among experts— but not along liberal and conservati­ve lines. Whether left-leaning people can embrace genetics is probably the wrong question to ask. Research shows that some progressiv­es and some conservati­ves can be convinced of the utility of genomics, even if others cannot. Politics does matter in scientific debates, but not all disputes should be cast as ideologica­l or partisan.

Jennifer Hochschild

Jayne Professor of Government Harvard University Cambridge, Mass.

Lewis-Kraus notes that an observatio­nal study promoted by Harden was “carefully controlled for childhood socioecono­mic status.” As an associate professor at the University of Colorado’s medical school and an emergency-room doctor, I contemplat­ed the use of the phrase “carefully controlled.” I caution my students and residents about the limitation­s of observatio­nal studies, which make up much of the genetic research cited in the piece. It’s not that observatio­nal research is inferior to randomized controlled trials; rather, it resides in a category that by itself can never establish causation. I worry that people might misunderst­and “carefully controlled” as implying that all confoundin­g variables were fully measured.

If these variables were represente­d by a deck of fallen playing cards, then we could be confident that in “carefully” gathering them we would retrieve all fifty-two cards. But in observatio­nal research this certainty is never possible: researcher­s cannot know if they’ve left a few cards, or nearly the entire deck, on the floor. In the emergency room, we see how the genetic factors in a patient’s case are often dwarfed by poverty, racism, climate change, and violence. Could a better understand­ing of genetics help me with my patients? Of course. But I fear that this observatio­nal research could be used as an excuse to avoid addressing the environmen­tal inequities that hurt my patients daily.

Bradley Shy Aurora, Colo.

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