The recent article in the New York Times entitled "Genetic Basis for Crime: A New Look" justifiably raised a backlash of criticism for its unsubstantiated implication that criminal behavior is in our genes. Just four months earlier, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reassigned the case of defendant Gary Cossey from Northern District Judge Gary Sharpe after finding the judge committed plain error by ordering a longer sentence because he said Mr. Cossey had a genetic propensity to re-offend.
But as this small sampling of recent news headlines demonstrates, these incidents can hardly be seen as an aberration. Rather, they come from a long history of reductionist thinking that proposes that people can be fundamentally understood through their genetic makeup. And it is such thinking that has fertilized the zeitgeist from which these incidents sprang.
Its certainly easy (and obvious) to blame the press, often rushing to report the latest genetic "breakthrough" but too often failing to cover disproven studies or studies showing statistically insignificant causal relationships. For many in the media establishment, genetic causation is conceptually simple to understand and explain to an uninformed public, even if such reporting puts them completely at odds with the incremental nature of scientific advancement. But journalists, who usually have no scientific training or experience, often get their stories and information from press releases published by industry, government or interest groups rather than from the scientists themselves. The "spin," then, usually begins long before the press begins to report.
Ultimately, though, it is the scientists and researchers themselves who bear much of the responsibility. The current system for assessing research productivity, combined with the demands to publish and attract both private and governmental research funding, puts enormous pressure on researchers to make, publicize and defend "breakthrough" discoveries. This is compounded by the added pressure of journals to publish "impact" papers. As a result, few genomics researchers publicly speak out against reductionist thought. Scientists must become their own best advocates if they are interested in an informed and unbiased coverage of their work and its implications for society.