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.



Prepare to have greatness thrust on you, by Kal and Rambo Amadeus:

East Ethnian greetings from Northwest London

Yes, your humble correspondent has not been with you for a while as he begins to get himself settled in [do they really call it The Big Smoke? Why, when smoking is forbidden in most places?]. I have still not found a home, but expect this issue to be resolved soon. Fortunately, the friend at whose place I am staying does not seem inclined to tell me to leave just yet. Work, however, has begun, and I have a lovely office with a panoramic view of the chemistry labs. There is a lot to do, but for the first time, all of it is in my field, so it is hard to be anything other than delighted. And although my experience of the city has been mostly confined to my office and the local pub, this in no way prevents me from making the following observations:
  1. All those people who say the food is bad here are gravely mistaken. In particular, the Phoenicia Market on Kentish Town Road is about as close as we mortals come to paradise. There is also the place with the fine looking fishies, but it always seems to be closed.
  2. This idea that Americans have that other countries have cheap and efficient rail service has been thoroughly debunked, at least if we take England and Serbia as our test cases.
  3. Everybody has the most adorable accent.
  4. I must acquire the middle class male uniform, which would seem to consist of a) striped suit, b) blue shirt, c) no tie, and d) one of those mobile phone contraptions that people strap to their heads.
  5. The pub is the living room of the neighbourhood. This is a good thing.
I think that would be it. Exoticism is a fine cultural practice, and I hope that none of my UK-ish friends will be offended by it.


Proeski killed in car crash

Those of you who follow Balkan pop as avidly as Balkan politics (of which there was a lot at yesterday's meeting of EU foreign ministers in Luxembourg) will be saddened to hear that Tose Proeski -- sorry, no diacritics where I write -- was killed in an accident on the Zagreb-Belgrade highway. He was just 26 years old.


For what it's worth: One Balkan blog fewer

In response to a campaign by net users, news reports say that Google has closed down the blog run by the remarkably atypical Novosadjanin Goran Davidović (although if you ask me, it was right there three minutes ago when I checked). Fans of the jovial little fuhrer can still, if they do not find his blog, visit his personal site or read this little profile bz Milan Laketić in Politika. So no worries, there should always be plenty of Goxy to go around.

My own feelings on the campaign to take the guy off the net are a bit mixed. I don't care for Nazis even a little, and my position on censorship is that it should be reserved for that small category of things that can be proven to be dangerous. Legal standards are vague (for an interesting application to an obscenity case see the exchange between the minority and the majority of the US Supreme Court in Miller v California from 1973). On balance I would have to argue that the "redeeming social importance" of sites by Mr Davidović and people from groups like his is that they provide a source of information about these groups. Of course Google (which runs Blogger, where both this blog and Mr Davidović's blog are hosted) is not a government institution, and is legally free to publish or refuse to publish anything it chooses.