Avoid cretinous people: Lessons of a life in decontextualised science

Say what, Dr Watson? The fellow who, together with Francis Crick, received a Nobel prize for writing up the research of Rosalind Franklin, wants to stay in the public eye until it notices him, then wants to run away. He has had several rounds of controversy over the years for such things as going around the world suggesting to people which pregnancies, in his opinion, ought to be terminated. This time he has really put his mitochondria in it too. Here is the passage behind the latest inflammation, from Charlotte Hunt-Grubbe's profile of Watson in last Sunday's Times:
He says that he is “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”, and I know that this “hot potato” is going to be difficult to address. His hope is that everyone is equal, but he counters that “people who have to deal with black employees find this not true”. He says that you should not discriminate on the basis of colour, because “there are many people of colour who are very talented, but don’t promote them when they haven’t succeeded at the lower level”. He writes that “there is no firm reason to anticipate that the intellectual capacities of peoples geographically separated in their evolution should prove to have evolved identically. Our wanting to reserve equal powers of reason as some universal heritage of humanity will not be enough to make it so”.
To the surprise of absolutely nobody but Watson himself, the remarks resulted in charges of racism. Institutions in England, where he was on a speaking tour to promote his book Avoid Boring People: And Other Lessons from a Life in Science, have cancelled his appearances. Then he got booted from his job, and has now fled England with his vestigial tail between his legs.

So as my dear friend would say in response to this sort of situation (actually: almost any situation), WTF? These are ideas that have been abandoned by everyone except a few professional provocateurs. Even if they were viable ideas, the relationship between "intelligence" and almost anything else -- such as skill, judgment, charm, decency -- is sadly pretty much nonexistent. And to see an eminent scientist going around promoting them, apparently not having dedicated a second's thought to their sources or implications? Has the world turned into the sort of place where people put fruit on pizza?

There are a couple of things going on here. The first of them is the constipated belief that a willingness to put forward ill-informed, foolish, extreme or merely offensive hypotheses can somehow be confused with "openmindedness." This belief is certainly widely held, especially among people who have never been compelled to confront the consequences of what they say or submit it to review (or who, like Watson and perhaps Marlon Brando, have been exempt from review for years because of their celebrity). The second is an approach more confined to intellectuals working in narrow fields -- I would be happy to say that this is a syndrome only among physical and natural scientists but of course it is not -- in which the criteria of that field are taken as the only ones that matter, even with regard to topics that have nothing to do with the field. In my research area, maybe this is best represented by lawyers' views on history and morality (sorry lawyers, but think about it, you wouldn't want these things constructed according to legal principles either). And for Watson, of course, it is treating highly dubious and very much predetermined findings about "intelligence" as though they were falsifiable lab results.

To offer a concrete example: can we attribute Watson's casual and ignorant racism to his DNA? It would be hard to think of any way that this could be achieved. In Watson's own words, "I cannot understand how I could have said what I am quoted as having said." Rather, it is a result of his warped values and intellectual laziness, encouraged by a scientific community that subjects some of its members to peer review while treating others as if they were peerless.

It is certainly true, for reasons having not only to do with genetics, that nobody can control how they are born. Those people who are very fortunate can influence, if not how they die, at least how they might be remembered when they do. This might be elementary, even if not to Watson.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The New York Times
October 25, 2007

James Watson Retires After Racial Remarks


James D. Watson, the eminent biologist who ignited an uproar last week with remarks about the intelligence of people of African descent, retired today as chancellor of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island and from its board.

In a statement, he noted that, at 79, he is “overdue” to surrender leadership positions at the lab, which he joined as director in 1968 and served as president until 2003. But he said the circumstances of his resignation “are not those which I could ever have anticipated or desired.”

Dr. Watson, who shared the 1962 Nobel Prize for describing the double-helix structure of DNA, and later headed the American government’s part in the international Human Genome Project, was quoted in The Times of London last week as suggesting that, overall, people of African descent are not as intelligent as people of European descent. In the ensuing uproar, he issued a statement apologizing “unreservedly” for the comments, adding “there is no scientific basis for such a belief.”

But Dr. Watson, who has a reputation for making sometimes incendiary off-the-cuff remarks, did not say he had been misquoted.

Within days, the Cold Spring board had relieved him of the administrative responsibilities of the chancellor’s job. In that position, a spokesman for the laboratory said, he was most involved with educational efforts and fund-raising.

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