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Is the Sequencer Half Full or Half Empty?

How people think about certain scientific advances is often linked with whether the person is conservative or liberal, say Maya Sen and Jennifer Hochschild from Harvard University at the Washington Post, with conservatives typically thought of as being distrustful and liberals more accepting of science and technology. But in a new ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science paper, the duo says that how people view genomics is better associated with whether they are an optimist or a pessimist.

Sen and Hochschild interviewed scientific and medical experts about genomics and analyzed some 750 articles written by social scientists, law professors, and biologists about genomics. As they report in their paper and write at the Post, twice as many of the articles they reviewed were optimistic rather than pessimistic about genomics.

However, articles from left-leaning disciplines like anthropology, sociology, and cultural studies were more likely to be pessimistic about genomics.

"[I]n the aggregate, social scientists and humanists are both more liberal and more concerned about the risks of genomics than are hard scientists," Sen and Hochschild write in their paper. They note that social scientists and humanists particularly seem concerned about ignoring the role of environmental factors on disease as well as the potential for the revival of eugenics.

Right-leaning academics, the duo notes, focused more on the potential crime-fighting benefits of genomics through the use of forensic databases and its potential economic benefits.

This, they note, doesn't conform to usual findings that liberals are more supportive of science than conservatives.

"So, if politics doesn't always explain attitudes on science, then what does?" the researchers say at the Post. "What our study shows is that not only can attitudes on science depend on the particular scientific arena, but that optimism and pessimism can be stronger driving forces than are political beliefs."