Science, Art, Policy, and the Importance of Good Science Communication

Although I promised that I was done commenting on the artist-cum-policy wonk who claims to make 3-D “masks” of unknown individuals from their discarded DNA, Matthew Herper of Forbes has taken the criticisms of her (and the media covering her project) articulated by me and others directly to the artist. I confess that her response does not make me feel any better. Even if you’re “only” engaging in art, it seems to me that when that art has an obvious science policy message — indeed, one that you invite — you have some obligation to be clear about how “speculative,” as she puts it, your art is. But when you decide to move from the world of art into the world of science, and to start leading policy discussions based on your speculative art and working with forensic examiners? Then you really have a strong duty to be very clear about what your work can and cannot do. That means, among other things, taking care when talking with the media, and correcting the media if they get it wrong.

Yesterday, the Social Science Genetic Association Consortium, an international consortium that pools and conducts social science research on existing genome-wide association study (GWAS) data, and on whose Advisory Board I sit, published (online ahead of print) the results of its first study in Science. That paper — “GWAS of 126,559 Individuals Identifies Genetic Variants Associated with Educational Attainment” (plus supplemental data) — like much human genetics research, has the potential to be misinterpreted in the lay, policy, and even science worlds. That’s why, in addition to taking care to accurately describe the results in the paper itself, including announcing the small effect sizes of the replicated SNPs in the abstract, being willing to talk to the media (many scientists are not), and engaging in increasingly important “post-publication peer review” conversations on Twitter (yes, really) and elsewhere — we put together this FAQ of what the study does — and, just as important, does not — show. So far, our efforts have been rewarded with responsible journalism that helps keep the study’s limits in the foreground. Perhaps the DNA artist should consider issuing a similar FAQ with her speculative art.

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