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Genomic Science: Skeptics Are Angry and Rejecters Opt-Out

How Americans explain their views of the use of genomic science in society.

Key points

  • Americans’ views of genomics’ societal use are poorly explained.
  • An attitudinal study examined if participants would be willing to contribute a DNA sample to a medical biobank.
  • More Americans are enthusiastic or hopeful about the benefits of genomic science than are skeptical about or rejecting of it.

It is no secret that a small but perhaps increasing share of Americans is deeply angry at many if not all societal and political institutions. On the right, reasons for fury include fear of racial or gender replacement, belief that the 2020 presidential election was stolen, anxiety about chances for economic improvement, and fear that America’s international dominance is slipping away.

On the left, reasons for fury include perceptions that white or male supremacy is overpowering and unchanging, that the state is repressive and violent rather than liberal or democratic, and that people care only about themselves and nothing for others.

Leftists talk of fascism and Naziism. People on the right talk of communism and socialism; there seems to be nothing new under the sun, at least in Americans’ terms of opprobrium.

My contribution to this anguished non-dialogue is to extend it to something genuinely new–ways in which Americans explain their views of the use of genomic science in society.

A previous post on our complicated views pointed out that Americans’ views of genomics’ societal use are poorly explained by partisanship or ideology, race or gender, education or science knowledge, religion or religiosity, or other characteristics that social scientists use to explain variation in attitudes.

Instead, views fall into four essentially psychological categories: Enthusiasts perceive genomic science to be important in explaining human behavior and full of promise; the Hopeful see genetics as not very important but nonetheless see benefits of science; Skeptics perceive genetics to be important but worry about its risks; and Rejecters neither see genetics as important nor anticipate benefits from science.

The organization of views through this typology emerged out of two large representative online surveys of American adults in 2011 and 2018. In them, I posed parallel sets of questions about views on medical biobanks and forensic DNA databases (not using those terms). After respondents read a brief explanation and answered a few attitudinal questions about medical biobanks, the survey asked if they would be willing to contribute a DNA sample to one. Respondents then saw a text box asking why they would be willing [or unwilling, depending on the prior response] to contribute. The same procedure is followed for forensic DNA databases.

I expected a few hundred comments that I could analyze for an article and sprinkle through the book as illuminating vignettes. Instead, across the two surveys and two questions, I received close to 10,000 responses. Some were un-codable or irrelevant, but over several years, a small army of research assistants and I coded almost 8,000 according to several schemes. One coding scheme reveals a great deal about Americans’ anger.

Skimming over details, about three-fifths of Americans are Enthusiasts, of whom over two-thirds would contribute to medical or forensic DNA databases or both. Over a quarter of Americans are Hopeful, of whom about three-fifths would contribute. About 6 percent are Skeptics, and another 6 percent are Rejectors; close to a third of Skeptics and about a quarter of Rejectors would contribute.

In short, many more Americans are enthusiastic about the benefits of genomic science, or at least hopeful, than are skeptical about genomics’ use or rejecting of the whole scientific enterprise. The most enthusiastic are the most willing to contribute, while the strongest objectors are least willing; not a surprise, but reassuring about the validity of my categories (which were derived from totally separate indices). Now come the most interesting points: How do people explain their position?

Enthusiasts stand out for their commitment to medical research and legal justice. They say: I would contribute “to advance humanity’s understanding of the human body and genome.“ Or, “If it shows the differences in DNA to rightfully convict someone, I would be willing to donate my DNA.” Fully 11 percent of Enthusiasts use the word “help” in their comments.

The Hopeful also want to foster research, which is a bit puzzling since they are much more skeptical of genomics’ impact on human phenotypes. But their distinguishing characteristic is technology optimism, more or less regardless of which science it derives from: “Any research that can help us understand each other better, where we come from and how it affects [sic] us all is important. If all it takes is a swab from me to support that effort, then I am willing.” They are also curious: “Para enterarme de una experiencia nueva.”

Skeptics not only are less willing to contribute, but also their whole tone differs. Many are, which is where I started, angry: “Snoop. snoop. snoop. It's bad enough that companies keep track of my shopping information just so that I can save a nickel on a bar of soap.” Or, “None Of Any Bodies Business,” or, “I think that the government has way too much liberty as it is. We (the people) are not slaves nor owned by them. It should be illegal for them to have that much control over people.”

Here is another puzzle: The latter answer, which is frequent, addresses medical biobanks, which have no clear link to the government and were explained in terms of “scientists,” “disease,” and “organizations.” But a quarter of Skeptics refer to the government in explaining unwillingness to contribute to a scientific biobank. Their hostility to “Big Brother” is even more significant in the legal arena: “I just don't trust the government and law enforcement in these matters. I, paranoidically admit, see a Hitler and medical experimentation and future control of who lives or dies being based on this sort of thing.” After all, “those who speak out often are framed or disappear entirely.”

Again, there are both left and right versions of this viewpoint.

Finally, if Skeptics are furious at their powerlessness and vulnerability, the modal Rejecter simply opts out—of societal involvement as well as the survey’s invitation to engage. The portrait that emerges is that Skeptics see a lot of danger in using genomic science and are motivated to fight it. In contrast, Rejecters dismiss the whole enterprise as a waste of time and effort in which they have no stake. They say little about privacy or mistrust; their distinguishing characteristic is a global, terse, indeterminate refusal to communicate.

Typical comments are “not interested.” “I Do Not Care.” “Por que no megustaria hacer eso.” “No.” “Nothing.” “Not going to do it.” Rejecters may be rejecting society and interpersonal exchanges, as well as technology and genomics.

Anger can have many manifestations—political mobilization, hunkering down, opting out. Even in the relatively non-politicized and unknown arena of genomic science, it manifests in distinct ways. Analyzing who excitedly contributes to research or wants to help, who sees Hitler around the corner, who completely disengages, and why might give us clues about how to chip away at the dismal state of American politics and society in which we currently live.

References

See Genomic Politics, 2021.

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