Racism is a serious problem in the United States. Research has shown that the biology curriculum can affect how students think about race. It can lead students to believe more strongly in three misconceptions:
Individuals often justify racism with these misconceptions by arguing that it is pointless to try and reduce social inequality, because race biologically determines ability.
How can such beliefs be (un)learned through biology education?
Teaching about human difference is not socially neutral.
Insights from our research have begun to illustrate how biology education affects the development of racism, for better or worse. We’ve learned:
In sum, the humane genetics research project is beginning to suggest that genetics education can create humane or inhumane outcomes depending on how it addresses human difference. If this hypothesis is correct, then learning about the social and quantitative complexities of human genetic variation research could prepare students to become informed participants in a society where human genetics is invoked as a rationale in sociopolitical debates concerning racial inequality.
At present, genetics education does very little to address how information about human genetic difference is distorted by racialist ideologues (The New York Times) . Instead, our scholarship suggests that genetics curricula could actually contribute to harmful racial ideologies (The Atlantic) . The kind of genetics education that we envision would promote human welfare by exposing the scientific flaws in biological justifications of racism and sexism. Our research and development explores how to bring that kind of education into existence.
What are the important ideas to teach students?
To learn about the content of a humane genetics education click here .
It is difficult to predict the potential impact of implementing a more humane genetics education in all school settings because we have not yet studied our intervention using a nationally representative sample of schools. Nevertheless, we can make some predictions about the clinical significance of implementing a more humane genetics education using statistics from our recent field experiments in 8th-12th grade biology classrooms, such as the one below:
Donovan, B. M., Semmens, R., Keck, P., Brimhall, E., Busch, K. C., Weindling, M., Salazar, B. (2019). Towards a More Humane Genetics Education: Learning about the social and quantitative complexities of human genetic variation research could reduce racial bias in adolescent and adult populations. Science Education, 1–32. https://doi.org/DOI: 10.1002/sce.21506
For example, using data from this most recent publication we can calculate the number needed to treat, which tells us how many people need to receive an intervention in order to prevent one additional case of a disease. The disease we are trying to prevent through our research is racism. Studies have found that racism is a public health problem because it is significantly associated with mortality in African Americans (e.g. read this study ). The racially biased beliefs we have attempted to prevent through our intervention research are the following:
Changing these beliefs through genetics education is important because previous studies have found that people use these beliefs to justify racially prejudiced policies.
To calculate the number needed to treat one merely takes the inverse of the absolute risk reduction (or 1/ARR). We found that our humane genetics intervention reduced the risk that students developed a racially biased perception of genetic variation by 16.2%, and this risk reduction was statistically significant (p < 0.05). Likewise, we found that our humane genetics intervention resulted in a 6.6%, statistically-significant, reduction in the risk of students believing that racial groups differ cognitively and behaviorally simply because of their genes.
Our results therefore suggest that for every six students who learn from our intervention, we can prevent one additional student from developing the misperception that there is more genetic variation between races than there is within them. Furthermore, for every 15 students who learn from our intervention, our results suggest that we can prevent one additional student from agreeing that racial groups differ cognitively and behaviorally because of genetic differences between races. Altogether, if a biology classroom has 30 students, then our results suggest that implementing a more humane genetics education could prevent five students from developing the misperception that there is more genetic variation between races than within them and two of these students may also be prevented from believing that racial groups differ cognitively and behaviorally because of genes.
For a deeper dive into our line of research, review our research statement and published papers below. Click here to watch a video of the presentation, Towards a More Humane Genetics Education, or here to watch a video of the presentation, Genomics Literacy Matters.
Watch the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) 2019 briefing, Better Biology Instruction for a More Equitable Society, here (the presentations begin at 9 minutes and 18 seconds).