This month, I am taking an introductory sociology class in preparation for the “Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior” section of the new MCAT, and it has got me thinking a lot about how genetics and sociology seem to face a lot of the same challenges when it comes to obtaining certain types of data largely due to moral and ethical considerations. After the completion of the Human Genome Project in 2003, the arduous process of genome annotation began. Since it’s not socially acceptable to force people to mate with each other and we can’t always find people who happen to breed in an informative way, we oftentimes use population data over time, genome-wide association studies being a good example of such an approach, to examine individual markers for possible associations between genotypes and phenotypes. Unfortunately, GWAS often fails to employ random sampling, and 96% of subjects included in GWAS have been people of European descent, as of 2013. Generally speaking, scientific disciplines (and others as well, I suspect) often disproportionately sample from WEIRD (western, education, industrialized, rich, democratic) countries, whether studying genetic diseases or human gut microbiota.
While sociology and the sciences have much in common, I’ve also noticed some major differences. The sociological notion of race, for instance, has no scientific basis. I have oftentimes heard the argument that race must exist because people look different and these kinds of differences can be clustered into broad groups, but the genetic signatures that correlate with large land masses are neither exclusive nor unique to any particular group of people. The idea of race serves to reflect patterns of social and economic inequity; race is socially constructed, not biologically based.
An op-ed published in the New York Times yesterday reminded me of some of our assigned reading from Best and Horiuchi on urban legends and Schuman‘s mention of “Newton and his apple in legends about scientific discovery.” In his piece, Mlodinow argues that urban myths surrounding scientific discoveries trivialize the scientific process and its complexities. The author concludes by citing the need for instant gratification among the negative effects of the media today, as such needs are diametrically opposed to the thoroughness of the scientific method. However, some education experts like Lilian Katz argue that the immediacy of social media provides an effective, incentivized social learning tool for teenagers, as the reward of dopamine release is thought to help solidify memories and enhance motivation. As with anything else, the instant gratification aspect of social media appears to be a two headed coin, a double edged sword.