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Tread Carefully

Studies investigating the link between genetics and intelligences are fraught with ethical issues, as shadows of eugenics may emerge. The Hastings Center has a new report out that examines concerns related to such work.

In the introduction, Hastings' Erik Parens and Columbia University's Paul Appelbaum recount how the series of essays in the report grew out of a dilemma faced by the Center for Talented Youth at Johns Hopkins University. A team of researchers hoping to better understand the role of genetics in intelligence approached the program about its ongoing Study of Exceptional Talent — a study of a pool of students who took the SATs before the age of 13 and scored 700 or above — to see whether they could examine that cohort's DNA. While the Hopkins researchers respected the team that approached them and hoped that such work would eventually benefit their students, they were leery of how else such information could be used. They then turned to Parens and Appelbaum for advice, and the pair set up a workshop from which these essays evolved.

Though attendees were skeptical "about the idea that such research would do anything but further disadvantage people who are already disadvantaged," they said ensuring research into the matter was done in a "trustworthy" way was critical, Parens and Appelbaum write.

Parens and Appelbaum add that "trustworthy research" has three components. First, that the researchers consider the sensitive historical and social context of their work, then that they design a study that will have valid results, and finally, that they recognize the complexity and incompleteness of their results and prevent their study from being "drawn into the vortex of classism and racism."

The 10 essays in the collection further explore this idea of trustworthiness and also delve into the use of such data to predict people's natural talents at birth, whether such knowledge of behavioral genetics could lead to educational reforms, and whether such work can be socially neutral, among other topics.