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How Not to End a Career: The Racism of James D. Watson

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We have enough problems in this country without Nobel Laureate
American scientists pontificating in error about fields of
science outside their own expertise -- especially when the issues
are vital to public policy and when what they say rips the American
social fabric into pieces.


James D. Watson
, of DNA and Double Helix fame, now 79 years old,
was scheduled to give a talk on October 18th at the prestigious British Science Museum. But in an interview with The
Sunday Times, Dr. Watson has
effectively shot himself in the foot and maybe blown his leg off
with some inflammatory comments apparently based on only minimal
knowledge of the science involved.

According to BBC News, in the interview with The Sunday Times,
Watson said he was "inherently gloomy about the prospect of
Africa" because "all our social policies are based on the fact
that their intelligence is the same as ours -- whereas all the
testing says not really." He went on to say he hoped everyone was
equal but that "people who have to deal with black employees find
this is not true."


The British Science Museum
immediately cancelled his planned
talk, saying, "We feel Dr. Watson has gone beyond the point of
acceptable debate."

Yes, indeed. And what "clarification" will come to us tomorrow?
Will he say he's sorry if he offended anyone? Will he say his
words were taken out of context? What the hell can he say to
rectify this ridiculous exposure of an expert who steps outside
his field to talk about another field (to the UK Sunday Times,
no less) without bothering to do his homework before shooting his
mouth off?

It's difficult to imagine that in all his years in science this
is the first time James D. Watson has considered the question of
group differences in so-called "intelligence". So any explanation
that this was a "spur of the moment thought" is unacceptable.
Maybe he'll have an opportunity to "clarify" his remarks in some
debate in Harvard Yard. Maybe. How he tries to wriggle out of
this (if it happens) will be an interesting media show.

Meanwhile, here are some facts:

1) No one has a firm handle on "group" differences in
"intelligence", and the evidence is that variation within any
group is much greater than variation between groups (for example,
see Lewontin et al, Not in Out Genes).

2) No one has a firm idea on what "intelligence" is other than
it's what IQ tests measure. Change the structure and content of
the IQ test and you change the score. Both structure and content
are culture-dependent. "Intelligence" is not a unitary
performance, and the neurological significance of its
"measurement" is more mythology than hard science.

3) No one has proof that the genetic contribution to cognitive
performance is more important than the contribution of a combination of fetal and postnatal environments. Maybe Watson
will tell us he did not mean genes, he meant environmental damage. We'll see, but I don't
think that's what he meant.

4) As for "race", it's a sticky muck that has sucked up more than
one famous scientist -- including Nobel Laureate physicist
William Shockley, the inventor of the transistor who wanted to
sterilize American blacks to prevent corruption of the American
"gene pool". The term "race" generally refers to a human
population distinguished as a more or less distinct group by
genetically transmitted physical characteristics. But which
physical characteristics? And if the question which physical
characteristics is a reasonable question, what is the implication
for any attempt to relate a specific set of physical
characteristics to behavior -- in particular, to something as
nebulous as "intelligence"? In Nazi Germany in the 1930s, a group
of prominent anthropologists devoted their professional careers
to investigating the correlations between what they considered to
be the physical characteristics of the Jewish "race" and what
they considered to be the "inferior" traits of Jews. The Nazis
were out of power only a few decades, when in America a group of
prominent psychologists led by A.R. Jensen began investigating
the correlations between "race" and "general intelligence" in
American subpopulations. Through the remainder of the 20th
century, these psychologists fed the American public the idea
that Asians and Jews are more "intelligent" than non-Jewish
whites, who in turn are more "intelligent" than blacks, and the
idea that these differences are inherited and unchangeable. Is
Jensenism the origin of Watson's ideas about race and
intelligence?

5) Like "intelligence", the term "race" is ill-defined in
science. The extent to which racial classifications of humans
reflect any underlying biological reality is highly controversial
among anthropologists and biologists, and proponents of racial
classification schemes have been unable to agree on the number of
races (proposals range from 3 to more than 100), let alone how
specific populations should be classified.

For more of my views on this, see the chapter on race and IQ in
my book Junk Science. Also, read my Huffington Post piece
entitled, "Genes and IQ" posted on October 9, 2007.

It's an awful problem that James D. Watson, who still holds
several positions that make or influence American science policy,
apparently thinks Africans and African-Americans are less
"intelligent" than whites because of their "race". It's also an
embarrassment.

Maybe Dr. Watson has attended too many back-slapping Harvard
dinner parties with people who have steered him wrong. I cannot
imagine that he's reached his views by a thorough reading of the
scientific literature.