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Exploring Origins and Impacts of Beliefs about Genetic Causation

May 18, 2023 - 2:00 pm

Annual Conference 

Thursday, May 18, 2023 •  2pm-6pm ET 

Watch PART 1: Introduction and Session 1: The Landscape of Causal Attributions

Watch PART 2: Session 2: Origins and Impacts of Genetic Causal Attributions: Empirical Evidence, Summary and Final Discussion

Genomic research has fueled hopes that genetic findings will lead the way to precision medicine. But whether patients seek and use genetic information will depend on how they understand the link between genetics and health. This conference addresses the psychological processes involved in seeking explanations and how they apply to understanding the causal role of genetics. Speakers also describe empirical research on the types of phenomena most readily attributed to genetics by members of the general population, and the psychosocial impacts of receiving disease-related genomic information among people affected by or at risk of disease.


2:00-2:10 – Welcome and Introduction to the Conference • Paul Appelbaum, MD and Ruth Ottman, PhD

Session 1. The Landscape of Causal Attributions

2:10-2:40 – The Human Drive to Explain: Lessons from Developmental and Cognitive Psychology”  •  Tania Lombrozo, PhD

2:40-2:55 – Discussion

2:55-3:25 – “The Meaning of Cause in Genetics”  •  Kate E. Lynch, PhD

3:25-3:40 – Discussion

3:40-3:55  –  Break

Session 2. Origins and Impacts of Genetic Causal Attributions: Empirical Evidence

3:55-4:25  –  Beliefs about Genetic Causation of Positively and Negatively Valenced Phenotypes •  Matthew S. Lebowitz, PhD

4:25-4:40 – Discussion

4:40-5:10  –  “What Have We Learned about the Psychosocial Impacts of Receiving Genomic Information?” •  Erik Parens, PhD

5:10-5:25 – Discussion

5:25-5:30 –Summary of today’s presentations Josephine Johnston, LLB, MBHL

5:30-6:00 –Final Discussion • All speakers and attendees, moderated by Josephine Johnston, LLB, MBHL

Speaker Bios

Paul S. Appelbaum, MD, is the Elizabeth K. Dollard Professor of Psychiatry, Medicine and Law, and Director, Center for Research on Ethical, Legal & Social Implications of Psychiatric, Neurologic & Behavioral Genetics, in the Department of Psychiatry at Columbia. Dr. Appelbaum’s research interests span a wide range of topics, from informed consent to the ethical, legal, and social implications of advances in genetics. Dr. Appelbaum is a member of the National Academy of Medicine.

Ruth Ottman, PhD, is professor of epidemiology (in Neurology and the Sergievsky Center), deputy director for Research, Sergievsky Center, Columbia University; and research scientist, Division of Translational Epidemiology and Mental Health Equity, New York State Psychiatric Institute. She is also deputy director of the Columbia Center for Research on Ethical, Legal, & Social Implications of Psychiatric, Neurologic, and Behavioral Genetics. Dr. Ottman is a genetic epidemiologist whose research addresses the role of inherited factors in susceptibility to neurologic disorders, primarily focusing on epilepsy. She is currently investigating the psychosocial impacts of genetic conceptualizations and of receiving genetic information among people affected with, or at risk for, neurologic disorders.

Professor Tania Lombrozo’s research aims to address foundational questions about human cognition using the empirical tools of cognitive psychology and the conceptual tools of analytic philosophy. One major focus of her research has been the human drive to explain, including the role of explanation in learning and inference. Why are humans such explanation-seeking creatures? When do our explanatory proclivities support effective learning and inference, and when do hey lead us astray? Her research has also explored conceptual representation, social cognition, and the nature of belief.

Kate E. Lynch, PhD, is a philosopher of science interested in causation, explanation, and causal reasoning. She is interested in biological causal relationships including those involving genetics, microbes, and causes of disease. Her work focuses on understanding the nature of causal relationships investigated by different research methods; and how research results are causally interpreted by scientists, media, and the public.

Matthew Lebowitz, PhD, is assistant professor of Medical Psychology (in Psychiatry) at Columbia University and affiliated with Columbia’s Center for Research on Ethical, Legal & Social Implications of Psychiatric, Neurologic & Behavioral Genetics. His research focuses on how people reason about and react to genetic and other biomedical explanations for human health, behavior, and identity. Dr. Lebowitz studies how social attitudes and health beliefs relate to causal reasoning and similar psychological processes.

Erik Parens, PhD, is a senior research scholar at The Hastings Center and Director of the Center’s Initiative in Bioethics and the Humanities. His first ELSI project, in the 1990s, offered a sympathetic and critical examination of the disability rights critique of prenatal testing. In the 2000s, he directed an ELSI project that produced a book of essays called “Wrestling with Behavioral Genetics,” and he has recently completed a project called, “Wrestling with Social and Behavioral Genomics.” As a founding member of Columbia’s NIH-funded Center for Excellence in ELSI research, he has been involved in several projects exploring the psychosocial implications of genomic information.

Josephine Johnston, LLB, MBHL, studies the ethical, legal, and policy implications of biomedical technologies, particularly as used in human reproduction, psychiatry, genetics, and neuroscience. Recent studies have addressed human-nonhuman animal chimeric science, prenatal genetic tests, gene editing, and the use of sequencing technology in newborns. She is a member of Columbia CEER. In addition to scholarly publications, her commentaries have appeared in STAT, New Republic, Time, Washington Post, and Scientific American. Ms Johnston is a New Zealand-trained lawyer with a master’s degree in bioethics and health law from University of Otago, where she teaches medical law to medical, dental and pharmacy students.