In the last twenty years, the scientific and medical establishment, heavily influenced by the drug companies, have succeeded in persuading the media that mental illness (as well as intelligence and achievement) should be understood as a genetically inherited destiny. That is bizarre, given that the Human Genome Project has virtually proved the opposite during this period. The trusted journals of the establishment, like the British Journal of Psychiatry, continue to publish and endorse very questionable views. The science correspondents in the media, like Tom Fielden of the BBC, continue to give distorted coverage of the findings of studies that, when looked at closely, do not support the exaggerated claims made for them.
I have made several attempts to challenge this situation. For example, on 28th February, 2013, on the BBC Today Programme the presenter Sarah Montagu heralded the publication of a new study in The Lancet medical journal*. She introduced the study as proving that five major psychiatric illnesses ‘all appeared to be caused by variations in just four areas of our genome’. Asking for clarification of the meaning of the study from Tom Fielden, the Science Correspondent, he stated that ‘I think it is really quite an important moment for the whole field of mental health…a handful of the same or similar gene variants or regions on two particular chromosomes are playing a key role in a number of this big five, if you like, mental disorders’.
The idea that this was an important moment for the whole field of mental health turned out to be a grotesque misrepresentation of the significance of this study. In fact, the scientific paper revealed that these variants were able to explain almost nothing. Having the variants was unable to explain hardly any of the difference between mentally ill and mentally healthy people. Yes, these variants were siginficantly commoner in the mentally ill, but they explained hardly any of the reason for the illness.
I raised my objections to the coverage on the BBC Feedback programme on 6th March. No one from the Today Programme was willing to appear with me to defend their coverage.
Meanwhile, as has been happening for ten years, paper after paper continued to be published showing that genes explained either very little or none of why some people are mentally ill. In October 2013, a telling example was published*, entitled ‘No genetic influence for childhood behavior problems from DNA analysis’. This was a remarkable finding, given that the study had taken every imaginable step then possible to identify such DNA differences. When I forwarded it to the Today Programme, asking them to balance their coverage by using this one to publicize the huge numbers of studies finding little or no causal effect of genes, I got a reply from the Dominic Groves, the Assistant Editor. He wrote that ‘I’m afraid we have decided not to pursue the paper you forwarded to us. I would however reiterate that we strongly reject any suggestion of inaccuracy or bias in our coverage on this issue. We shall continue to explore significant new insights and developments in this area as and when they arise’. No further explanation was offered. Why was a paper appearing to prove that genes play no role in Autism, ADHD and conduct disorder not a ‘significant new insight’? Sure enough, the commitment to the misreporting of genetic findings continued with a Today report about an obesity gene on 29th May.
This cannot go on forever. Already there are many books by members of the medical and psychological establishment acknowledging that the ‘genes as destiny’ story has been disproven. It may take a decade but eventually a new, truer story will start to be told and the journalists of the Today Programme and other media will have to tell it like it is.
The Lancet medical journal…Cross-Disorder Group of the Psychiatric Genomics Consortium, 2013, ‘Identification of risk loci with shared effects on five major psychiatric disorders: a genome-wide analysis’, The Lancet, February 28th, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/ S0140-6736(12)62129-1
a telling example was published…Trzaskowski, M et al, 2013, ‘No genetic influence for child behaviour problems from DNA analysis, J of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 52, 1048-1056e.
Oliver James is a Chartered Clinical and Occupational Psychologist, registered with the British Psychological Society. He is registered as a Psychotherapist with the John Bowlby Centre.
Since 1988, has worked as a writer, journalist, broadcaster and television documentary producer and presenter. His books include the best-selling Affluenza, How Not to F*** Them Up and Britain on the Couch, which was also a successful documentary series for Channel 4. He is a trustee of the Alzheimer’s charity, SPECAL and lives in Oxfordshire with his wife and two small children.
Please click here to see more details on the talk he gave as part of the Psychology Cultures Seminar Series.