Book Review: Misbehaving Science: Controversy and the Development of Behavior Genetics

Misbehaving Science: Controversy and the Development of Behavior Genetics. Aaron Panofsky, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014, 320 pp.

Behavior genetics is a field that has generated many controversies, some of which medical anthropologists and sociologists have participated in. Aaron Panofsky attempts to move beyond critiques of the field’s assumptions and methods or speculations on the potential social consequences of this research. Instead, Misbehaving Science examines how scientists position themselves in relation to these debates and how scientists’ responses to controversy have shaped the structure of the field. In doing so, Panofsky offers novel ways of understanding collective patterns of action in biomedical research.

“Misbehaving science” is Panofsky’s organizing concept, which he defines as a state where scientific controversy is “persistent and ungovernable … settlements are temporary and unstable; disputes are liable to flare up again and again” (p. 8). He questions the received logic that scientists always work toward the resolution of debates and shows how some behavior geneticists have made careers for themselves by being deliberately provocative.

Drawing on Bourdieu and Durkheim, Panofsky describes this unusual situation as a product of “partial anomie” (p. 9), where the core set of scientists lack the authority to enforce norms of conduct. Consequently, the field has taken on an “archipelagic” (p. 15) structure, consisting of relatively isolated “islands” of different approaches that only loosely cohere under the banner of behavior genetics. The lack of clear boundaries around the field is a potential analytical problem that Panofsky nicely turns into a set of new analytical resources. Ethnographers who struggle to situate their local field sites in vaguely defined, interdisciplinary biomedical fields will find helpful things to think with here.

By paying attention to the dynamics within and between scientific collectives, Panofsky offers new insights into the behavior of behavior geneticists. He considers but ultimately sets aside explanations that rely on individual scientists’ political leanings or putative racist beliefs in his attempt to understand the persistence of controversy. He argues instead that the answers are to be found at the field level. Only by considering the relationship between behavior geneticists and outside critics, for example, do we understand how left-leaning practitioners came to tolerate and even protect fellow researchers whose views they found distasteful. Panofsky argues that critics’ tendencies to denounce the entire behavior genetics enterprise rather than particular studies or practitioners encouraged behavior geneticists to “circle the wagons” (p. 118) and defend embattled their colleagues, lest the entire field sink under the weight of public protest.

Likewise, Panofsky uses field-level analysis to explain why behavior geneticists have been poorly able to police members of the field who repeatedly engage in media sensationalism, or why they defend against practitioners from neighboring scientific fields who use behavior genetics techniques to make questionable claims. While some responded to criticism by aggressively defending their approaches, others pursued a more conciliatory strategy of making their tools and expertise available to other scientists to demonstrate their value. This strategy of “giving the field away” (p. 154) may have extended the reach of behavior genetics but at the cost of maintaining authority over its interpretation and use. The conclusions Panofsky reaches are specific to the field of behavior genetics, but his approach offers insights that are potentially applicable to many other fields. His exemplary handling of different levels of analysis would make this text especially useful for a graduate- level methods course.

Panofsky takes a historical sociological approach rather than an ethnographic one, but his interviews with practitioners offer insights into their understandings of controversial events and their fallout. For example, Panofsky offers a document- based account in Chapter Three of the firestorm generated by Arthur Jensen’s now infamous 1969 article on heredity, race, and intelligence; but the interview material he draws on in Chapter Four nicely captures researchers’ sense of shock and dismay at those same events. It is tempting to slip into reading these passages ethnographically to extract some sense of what the social world of behavior genetics is like, but this must be avoided to properly understand what this book is aiming for. Practitioners’ proximate responses to key events such as Jensen’s publication are crucial to Panofsky’s argument, but he ultimately aims to explain how the behavior genetics field evolved over several decades, not weeks or years. Without this time frame firmly in mind, readers may get the misleading sense that controversy is all-consuming for behavior geneticists, rather than something that periodically disrupts their day-to-day work.

Misbehaving Science raises intriguing questions about the role that analysts play in shaping biomedical fields. Panofsky examines how behavior geneticists have positioned themselves in ongoing disputes as defenders of the right to ask controversial scientific questions, and his accessible discussion of these issues in Chapter Seven would be useful for generating discussion in undergraduate courses on what it means to be a responsible scientist. But he does not address what responsibility means for the outside critics who play such an important role in his analysis. This topic seems especially pertinent, given that the likely audiences for this book—medical anthropologists, medical sociologists, and scholars in science and technology studies and social studies of genetics—are also likely participants in past and present debates about the social significance of genetic findings.

If ongoing protests against geneticization are one of the things that incentivizes some behavior geneticists to continue making provocative public statements, is it time to rethink the form of our critiques? Panofsky does not take up questions of this kind, but his book certainly provides ample opportunities for such scholarly self-reflections.

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