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When Research Turns Ugly: Beyond Geoffrey Miller’s Fat-Shaming Tweet

• June 05, 2013 • 10:26 AM

After the negative response to a recent tweet, Geoffrey Miller locked his personal account. (TWITTER)

A University of New Mexico evolutionary psychologist ignited a firestorm of angry response with a crude observation that he’s claiming was research. But Miller’s tweet is representative of a bigger problem.

In 2007, a university professor published research inspired by a former strip club manager purporting to show that human women, like other mammals, go into heat. Lap dancers make more money when they’re ovulating, according to the club manager turned evolutionary psychology student, who came to this conclusion by keeping tabs on the women’s tips. The study design (PDF) involved recruiting 18 lap dancers to record their menstrual cycles along with the amount of money earned per shift, and did appear to show that in a flagrantly sexual activity the women were earning more money when their biology suggested they would be the randiest. Extrapolating from the sex industry to the rest of the modern working world proved irresistible for Dr. Geoffrey Miller of the University of New Mexico, the evolutionary psychology professor behind the study. “‘Should women schedule big job interviews during certain weeks of the month? We don’t know. But maybe,” he told the New York Times Magazine.

Such crude advice comes routinely from the field of evolutionary psychology. It’s a discipline that successfully reminds humans of all the ways that we are, in fact, animals. Twitter was only in its infancy at the time Miller’s lap dance study made the media rounds, and though it earned the 2008 “Ig Nobel” for Economics (a prize that recognizes humorous but apparently accurate research), few took notice or offense of his accompanying suggestion for today’s working woman. But 2013 is a different world, one in which Miller could ignite a firestorm of angry response with a similarly crude observation about the workplace and our bodies: “Dear obese PhD applicants: if you didn’t have the willpower to stop eating carbs, you won’t have the willpower to do a dissertation #truth.”

“Dear obese PhD applicants: if you didn’t have the willpower to stop eating carbs, you won’t have the willpower to do a dissertation #truth.”

It’s the kind of observation you might imagine one of Miller’s pupils is studying right now, given his lab’s prior headlines. I certainly don’t doubt that evolutionary psychologists discuss such assertions among themselves, given that their field requires reducing people to our base instincts. And scholars should have the freedom to debate such ideas, but that doesn’t mean they should debase the rest of us by injecting such poison into the culture, then standing back and scoring the results. Twitter represents a real-time conversation with a growing percentage of the world. We find everything on there, including plenty of lowest-common-denominator junk—but most users don’t see that, thanks to selective following. Who would have thought a tenured psychology professor should earn a blip on the recent Twitter map of hate?

Faced with an onslaught of outraged replies accusing him of “fat shaming,” Miller has since deleted the tweet and closed off his Twitter account to public view. The following day, his department chairwoman back in Albuquerque expressed her shock and disclosed Miller’s explanation that he was simply conducting research by gauging Twitter reaction to provocative statements. Nobody appears to be buying that excuse. Were this a research question, based on his prior work, I’m unsurprised this particular hypothesis comes to mind. Weeding out overweight applicants to his field of study should be the least of our concerns.

Miller has written and spoken about his fascination and respect for Chinese eugenics, and—remarkably—he recently disclosed that he participated in its next phase. The country currently employs a kind of economic eugenics by allowing wealthy couples to purchase the right to have more than one child. It is rapidly building its capacity for more detailed genetic selection for traits, including intelligence. BGI Shenzhen, which Miller described to Vice as the largest genetic research center in China, reached out to him requesting a genetic sample along with many other people of Chinese and European descent that they determined must have a high IQ. Miller actually complied, donating his DNA, and said in a recent Edge essay that he didn’t realize the full consequences until after he’d made the donation.* I find that more unbelievable than his claim of Twitter research.

It takes some time and effort to read and respond to the request for your bodily tissue from a Chinese research conglomerate, enough I’d hope to ponder the question, “What are they using this for?” The company’s genetic testing will allow parents to facilitate selective abortions or choose among fertilized embryos before implantation, ending up with a child that’s a little more like Miller. Maybe that’s why he’s not as horrified as I am. Miller urges us to understand rather than push back. “What can we learn from what the Chinese are doing?,” is the correct question, as he sees it. “[H]ow can we help them, and how can they help us to keep up as they create their brave new world?”

Among Miller’s few supporters on Twitter are those who claim the outraged responses to his fat-shaming tweet represent a politically correct thought police. But it is, of course, our social constructs and values that separate us from from our ancestors, and even delineates the Western worldview from others, like China’s. We have evolved to a point where we can appreciate and understand our sexual urges without allowing them to rule our daily existence. While vestigial organs of our past, like gentleman’s clubs and misogynist humor, may hang on in certain nether regions, most of our society has risen to a higher public standard.

Evolutionary psychology research that fails to take our higher values into account can end up making false assumptions, drawing a direct line between the data and real-world application, as Miller has done before. Modern society requires a fairly intensive use of the frontal cortex that puts a check on our basic urges, whether they be sexual conquest or name calling people of different races, genders, or body shapes. Miller’s tweet was impulsive, and not fully vetted by his forebrain—that’s true. But his cocktail chatter is representative of a strain of academic research that we’re better off striving to distinguish ourselves from than accepting as values to live by.

UPDATE (06/07/2013): When writing this essay, I took Miller’s description of BGI Shenzhen’s intelligence project at face value. Subsequently, I discussed the project with Nature writer Ed Yong on Twitter and read his article on the topic. I’d encourage you to read Ed’s original reporting next. As his piece makes clear, the BGI researchers themselves are not motivated by a desire to enable selective births and are not part of a government funded eugenics scheme, but rather they hope to help children already born.

Like all scientists, the BGI team have no control over how wider society ends up using the fruits of their labor. They shouldn’t be condemned for producing knowledge. If genetic markers for features as nebulous as intelligence are ever identified, I expect there will be plenty of people like Miller welcoming their use in child selection. A costly field of endeavor our governments and institutions originally supported in hopes of preventing devastating genetic diseases will spin off an evil twin. The wealthy will select their future heirs at cosmetic fertility clinics. All that stands between us and the dawn of that era, one where humans are chosen for looks and smarts, is our appreciation for the diversity of life.

Ford Vox
Ford Vox is a rehabilitation physician at the nationally-ranked Shepherd Center caring for survivors of acquired brain injury as well as people who have suffered both a spinal cord and brain injury in the same traumatic event. As a journalist and commentator Dr. Vox has written about the practice of medicine and health care policy for for outlets including The Atlantic, Bloomberg, Newsweek, U.S. News, Reuters, and many others. Follow him on Twitter @fordvox.

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