Cognitive Daily readers know that we generally shy away from political issues on our blog. The goal of this blog is to show readers what science is all about, through the example of the fantastic research being done cognitive psychology.
But when James Watson made his most recent comments about race and intelligence, we took notice. James Watson, renowned for his role in discovering the structure of DNA, is also the adviser to the Seed Media Group Board of Directors. The Seed Media Group owns ScienceBlogs.com, which hosts Cognitive Daily.
That’s why were troubled last fall, when Watson was reported as saying 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.
Watson has apologized for the remarks, and indeed, if the remarks hadn’t been a part of a long pattern of biased and ignorant statements, perhaps his apology would have been enough.
This time, we don’t think it’s enough.
In 2000 in a guest lecture at the University of California at Berkeley, Watson claimed that sexual urges were caused by exposure to sunshine, which is “why you have Latin lovers,” but “only an English Patient.” He was criticized by Berkeley professor Thomas Cline as having “crossed the line” by not separating his bald conjecture from conclusions supported by research. Even a Watson defender, Michael Botchan, said that Watson’s remarks were “crude and sexist and possibly racist.”
In his book The Double Helix, he sought to undermine the important work of a colleague, Rosalind Franklin, not only by denigrating her important contributions to the discovery of the structure of DNA, but also by describing her with additional sexist remarks:
By choice she did not emphasize her feminine qualities. . . . There was never lipstick to contrast with her straight black hair, while at the age of thirty-one her dresses showed all the imagination of English blue-stocking adolescents. So it was quite easy to imagine her the product of an unsatisfied mother who unduly stressed the desirability of professional careers that could save bright girls from marriages to dull men. . . . Clearly Rosy had to go or be put in her place. The former was obviously preferable because, given her belligerent moods, it would be very difficult for Maurice [Wilkins] to maintain a dominant position that would allow him to think unhindered about DNA. . . . The thought could not be avoided that the best home for a feminist was in another person’s lab.
He has stated that “Whenever you interview fat people, you feel bad, because you know you’re not going to hire them.”
Time and time again, Watson has made the mistake of judging people by their surface qualities and the shallowest social stereotypes, instead of seeking the detailed information that would allow him to come to a thoughtful conclusion. Time and time again, he has been given a pass because of his impressive scientific resume. But now that we see that these acts are not isolated incidents, but parts of a pattern of unreasoned and bigoted behavior, should they not, too, be incorporated into our judgment of him?
Watson is the only scientist advising Seed’s Board, and yet his attitude toward the science of human genetics and intelligence is cavalier, arrogant, and thoughtless. In an environment that values deliberation, transparency, and reasoned analysis of the available data, he offers trite generalizations tainted by generations of social conditioning.
In 1981, in his book The Mismeasure of Man, Steven Jay Gould deconstructed the tired arguments of eugenicists and others who claimed that intelligence was solely or predominantly determined by genetic inheritance. In 1993, Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray “reopened” the debate with their publication of The Bell Curve. But as Gould pointed out in his masterful 1994 review of that work, Herrnstein and Murray merely rehash the same arguments Gould had defeated a decade before: There’s no evidence that humans can be accurately “ranked” by a single factor such as g, and the heritability of g doesn’t preclude other factors in determining intelligence:
Suppose that I measured the heights of adult males in a poor Indian village beset with nutritional deprivation, and suppose the average height of adult males is five feet six inches. Heritability within the village is high, which is to say that tall fathers (they may average five feet eight inches) tend to have tall sons, while short fathers (five feet four inches on average) tend to have short sons. But this high heritability within the village does not mean that better nutrition might not raise average height to five feet ten inches in a few generations. Similarly, the well-documented fifteen-point average difference in IQ between blacks and whites in America, with substantial heritability of IQ in family lines within each group, permits no automatic conclusion that truly equal opportunity might not raise the black average enough to equal or surpass the white mean.
There are those who suggest that Watson’s remarks should be a springboard for true scientific discussion on the heritability and racial differences in IQ, but we say, enough is enough. These aren’t new arguments, and the discussion isn’t productive, especially when what counts for “discussion” are bigoted remarks to a newspaper reporter. We don’t think James Watson should be anyone’s science adviser — and we especially don’t think he should be advising those responsible for the system hosting our blog.