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“Not a choice” != “genetic”

- July 14, 2011

Political scientists have a pretty clear understanding that we our decisions are influenced in many ways. Just ‘cos something runs in the family, it doesn’t mean it’s genetic. Twin studies etc. I became aware of the distinctions several years ago when teaching a class on left-handedness. According to the statistics we saw, identical twins do not have to have the same handedness, and it’s hypothesized that handedness is determined in the fetal environment. Lots of important things happen during those first nine months.

It’s worth remembering, though, that these distinctions are often lost on the general public and their representatives. Here’s Republican presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty on TV, responding to interviewer David Gregory’s question if “being gay [is] a choice”:

PAWLENTY: Well, the science in that regard is in dispute. I mean, scientists work on that and try to figure out if it’s behavioral or if it’s partly genetic –

GREGORY: What do you think?

PAWLENTY: Well, I defer to the scientists in that regard.

GREGORY: So you think it’s not a choice? That you are, as Lady Gaga says, you’re born that way.

PAWLENTY: There’s no scientific conclusion that it’s genetic. We don’t know that.

My point here is not to mock Pawlenty–after all, you could probably dig up a candidate or two who disputes the theory of evolution, which would pretty much shoot down the idea of asking the advice of scientists on anything. And I seem to recall that Jimmy Carter saw a UFO once. And didn’t Ronald Reagan schedule some important meeting based on the advice of his wife’s astrologer? Let’s just hope John Travolta and Tom Cruise never run for office. . . .

Anyway, as I was saying before I got distracted, my goal is not to mock but rather to emphasize that, to the great uneducated masses out there, people think of “genetic” as just another word for who they are in their bones. As researchers, we should be aware of this confusion.