Having been raised a good child of modernity, Science(!), and the Enlightenment, my instinctive reaction to the question “should we ban research on X?” is “of course not!” Much as we know (hope, believe) that more speech is the right response to harmful speech, we know that the solution to bad, racist, sexist research is better, emancipatory research. But just as critical scholars of race and law have recognized that free speech and equality offer “conflicting promises“, philosopher Janet Kourany argues in a forthcoming Philosophy of Science piece that freedom of research may also conflict with the principle of equality.
Kourany briefly rehearses how 3+ centuries of biological differences research has been constantly put to racist and sexist ends, despite offering evidence that (in retrospect) sucks. Modern iterations of this paradigm focus on cognitive and brain differences:
And now, in the beginning of the twenty-first century, the claims continue: that women’s brains are smaller than men’s brains, even correcting for differences of body mass; that women’s brains have less white matter; that women’s brains have less focused cortical activity (lower “neural efficiency”); that women’s brains have lower cortical processing speed (lower conduction velocity in their white matter’s axons); and so on.
As shoddy as this research has historically been, and likely continues to be, the effect of this research is chilling: “For example, studies have documented the harm done to women and girls by the publication of scientific claims suggesting an innate female deficit in mathematics.” Given the proven harms of publishing and promoting (likely to be overturned) race and gender cognitive differences research, should we just go ahead and ban that research?
Kourany turns to other recent debates about scientific ethics for insight. She notes that the freedom to research has been restricted when it comes to scientists method of inquiry, as in the rise of rules for the ethical treatment of human subjects. But she also draws on recent examples from synthetic biology, where scholars and policymakers have argued that some knowledge is in fact too dangerous. Researchers in the past 20 years have recreated deadly viruses like the 1918 Spanish Flu, and designed synthetic smallpox that seems to resist existing vaccines. Given how devastating the release of one of these viruses would be, should we ban or restrict this research? Some moves have been made in just this direction. In other words, the freedom to research is not absolute.
If we’re willing to restrict the creation of vaccine-resistant smallpox, should we also restrict cognitive differences research? Kourany proposes that we should:
So, on the one hand, synthetic genomics research unconstrained may cause serious harm to various groups of people. On the other hand, cognitive differences research unconstrained, as previously stated, has already been shown to cause significant harm, though lesser harm than a serious illness, but for much longer periods than the length of an illness, to lots more people—to all the people whose self esteem and self-efficacy and ambitions and successes are lessened as a result of direct or indirect exposure to the research or aspects of the research (e.g., its results or even just its questions), to all the people whose self esteem and self-efficacy and ambitions and successes are lessened as a result of the treatment they receive from others who have been directly or indirectly exposed to the research or aspects of the research, and so on; in short, to all or most women and, in the United States at least, to most minority men…
Kourany ends by arguing that if we spent less time trying to find innate differences between men and women, or white people and black people, we might spend more time on research that recognizes power and social locations as a springboard for improving education, self-esteem, and so on:
When we look at some of the newer work in child development in minority populations in the United States, how the old genetic deficit models and cultural deficit models of minority child development are being replaced by models that foreground and seek to build upon minority competencies and strengths and resourcefulness in the context of racism and poverty; or when we look at some of the work in feminist science studies over the last 30 years, how the old doubts whether women can make the same contributions to science as men have been replaced by studies showing the importantly different critical and constructive contributions to the sciences women have made—when we look at such work, we get a hint of what this new discourse and these new benefits can be…
I’m not sure I’m 100% convinced by the argument, but I wonder if there might be a useful moderate version of it. Given that any individual cognitive differences study cannot have the same world-shattering impact as a supervirus, there’s less of a pressing need to completely ban or restrict research. But there’s also very little need to fund such research, it seems. So what if we (the collective, political we) simply stopped funding it? What if the NIH and etc. said, “we’re no longer going to fund research like this because it hasn’t panned out for a few hundred years and also seems to be doing active harm to vulnerable groups”? Would you support or oppose such a policy? Why or why not? Is Kourany persuasive in her claim that the freedom to research must be constrained by the right to equality – and that this constraint may take the form of prohibitions on producing certain knowledge, not just on methods for producing it?
Side note: if you want to be a mad scientist, apparently synthetic biology is where it’s at!