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Scientific responsibility for the dissemination and interpretation of genetic research: lessons from the “warrior gene” controversy

Abstract

This paper discusses the announcement by a team of researchers that they identified a genetic influence for a range of “antisocial” behaviours in the New Zealand Māori population (dubbed the “warrior gene”). The behaviours included criminality, violence, gambling and alcoholism. The reported link between genetics and behaviour met with much controversy. The scientists were described as hiding behind a veneer of supposedly “objective” western science, using it to perpetuate “racist and oppressive discourses”.

In this paper we examine what went wrong in the dissemination of the research. We chose as our framework the debate around the “internal/external” responsibilities of scientists. Using this discourse we argue that when the researchers ventured to explain their research in terms of social phenomena, they assumed a duty to ensure that their findings were placed “in context”. By “in context”, we argue that evidence of any genetic influence on behavioural characteristics should not be reported in isolation, but instead presented alongside other environmental, cultural and socio-economic influences that may also contribute to the studied behaviour. Rather than imposing a new obligation on scientists, we find this duty to contextualise results is in keeping with the spirit of codes of ethics already in place. Lessons from the “warrior gene” controversy may assist researchers elsewhere to identify potential areas of conflict before they jeopardise research relationships, or disseminate findings in a manner that fuels misleading and/or potentially discriminatory attitudes in society.

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