Just for fun. A repost of something that floated to the top several months ago. October 17th 2007 to be exact. There is a reason I’m reposting this. For now, I’ll let you guess.
It is now time to kick James Watson’s ass.
The man is a terrible embarrassment to us all. (“Us” being scientists and rational types.) It is said by the press that Watson “makes his colleagues cringe when he goes off script” or “is known for making controversial remarks” and so on. Fine. But these are not apt descriptors for James Watson’s most recent remarks or, for that matter, many of his earlier remarks. No, not at all. These descriptors make Watson sound like a somewhat crazy free thinking guy who doesn’t care if he pisses off a few people with what he says. But that is not what he is at all.
No. James Watson is, simply put, a moron. I want to take a moment to explain why I think that.
Here is the story, as reported in The Independent:
One of the world’s most eminent scientists was embroiled in an extraordinary row last night after he claimed that black people were less intelligent than white people and the idea that “equal powers of reason” were shared across racial groups was a delusion.
James Watson, … reopened the explosive debate about race and science in a newspaper interview in which he said Western policies towards African countries were wrongly based on an assumption that black people were as clever as their white counterparts when “testing” suggested the contrary. He claimed genes responsible for creating differences in human intelligence could be found within a decade.
… Dr Watson told The Sunday Times that 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 said there was a natural desire that all human beings should be equal but “people who have to deal with black employees find this not true”.
His views are also reflected in a book published next week, in which he writes: “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.”
… Dr Watson has frequently courted controversy with some of his views on politics, sexuality and race. The respected journal Science wrote in 1990: “To many in the scientific community, Watson has long been something of a wild man, and his colleagues tend to hold their collective breath whenever he veers from the script.”
In 1997, he told a British newspaper that a woman should have the right to abort her unborn child if tests could determine it would be homosexual. …. He has also suggested a link between skin colour and sex drive, positing the theory that black people have higher libidos, and argued in favour of genetic screening and engineering on the basis that ” stupidity” could one day be cured. He has claimed that beauty could be genetically manufactured, saying: “People say it would be terrible if we made all girls pretty. I think it would great.”
The Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory said yesterday that Dr Watson could not be contacted to comment on his remarks.
OK, first, the science. There has been a lot of systematic testing of people divided into “racial groups” (including “Asian,” “African,” “Hispanic,” and “White” and so on). In the US it is found that “African” or “Black” categories test, in terms of IQ, a consistent 20 points, more or less, below, “Whites” as a group. On further examination, it is found that socioeconomic status (SES) and home environment predict IQ as well. When you analyze the data, you find that the latter — SES and Home Environment — are the main predictors of IQ across a given contemporary population, not skin color. It happens that skin color and SES and skin color and Home Environment, in the US and over the last few decades, are intertwined realities. The cause of the state of the SES and Home Environment variables is not IQ … it is cultural variation and, predominantly, racism. The IQ difference we see is the end product.
It is also the case that IQ varies across time in a way that is about as astounding as variation across time in stature in some populations … a group of American “Whites” brought forward in a time machine from the 1920s would test perhaps 20 points lower than a matched comparative set of “Whites” living in the first decade of the 21st century. That is not a genetic change … it is not the case that all the stupid people died any more than it is the case that all of the short people dying off, causing the secular increase in stature over the same time period (see “Tall Gene”). Rather, it is some other kind of change that has not been satisfactorily explained, but probably relates to factors like Home Environment and the vagaries of this kind of testing.
So, there is a problem. It is a social problem, an economic problem, and a problem linked in many different, insidious, ways to racism.
I assert, here and now, that Dr. Watson’s remarks indicate that he is of substandard intelligence. I say this because he must know better … he is a scientist who has worked in ancillary areas, and there is simply no way that he is not familiar with the relevant scientific literature. Therefore, he must be stupid. At least, that is what the empirical evidence strongly suggests at this point.
It is time to stop fooling ourselves about James Watson. Anyone who has keep up with his remarks will tell you this.
It may seem odd that the guy who, with others, “discovered DNA” could be a moron, but a brief analysis suggests that this is in fact quite possible. There are at least three factors that could explain James Watson’s obvious dullness, in spite of his professed brilliance: The Nature of the Academic Free Market; the Swinging Dead Cat Phenomenon; and the Benefits of Teamwork.
The Nature of the Academic Free Market
Watson’s work was done in the post-war era of the mid to late 1950s and the early 1960s. Although we all know that the launch of Sputnik in October 1957 was an event that galvanized the United States into a major effort to build up academic capacity (see this for more commentary), it is also true that there was a general building of universities and scientific and technological capacities as part of a more general post WW II phenomenon. In those days, therefore, there was a shortage of trained university academics (professors, researchers) and an increasing demand for individuals to fill these positions. Those were the days when you could get a job running a physics department with a masters degree in auto mechanics, get tenure, and relax for the rest of your life. And I’m only slightly exaggerating. As we speak, myriad mediocre members of the academy from this era of high demand and undersupply have recently, are just now, or are about to retire. These gentlemen (and they were all gentlemen, or at least, men) were hired some time between about 1955 and 1967, often rising to important positions, but really, not doing much in the way of actually contributing to science. It is possible that James Watson was one of these individuals who happened to get lucky.
Swinging a Dead Cat
The other thing that was going on during this period, in science, was a major shift in instrumentation and technology. To see this in a somewhat humorous and entertaining way, go find yourself a stack of science magazines … Science, Scientific American, Nature, etc., from Pre- World War II, and get another stack of similar magazines from the mid 1960s. Compare the contents of the two … just look at the pictures, the ads, the illustrations. You will quickly and without needing a degree in the History of Science perceive a major shift in topics of interest, the machinery that was being sold or talked about, and the kinds of phenomena that scientists were addressing. Large, bulky machines designed to move things, burn things, or that produced or detected energy of various types gave way to somewhat more graceful and delicate machines that were designed to see the invisible … to peer inside cells, or to divine the micro crystaline structure of dehydrated organic compounds, etc.
In any given subfield, this transition was pretty sudden. One day you’re wondering what those dots floating around in a cell are, the next day you are collecting data that allow you to understand the structure of proteins. Wow. This transition is what allowed any moron with a grant to look at pretty much anything and discover something never before imagined.
Watson and his colleagues could not have missed the structure of DNA if they were trying to avoid it. They were living in times when you could not swing a dead cat without discovering a fundemental property of nature.
Especially if you are working with others, or even better, Rosilind Franklin did all the work for you. OK, I admit, I am nothing like an expert on the whole Rosilind Franklin affair. Watson seems to have only bad things to say about her. It does appear to be the case that some of her work was important to Watson and Crick but was not properly cited. It also appears to be the case that Watson remains to this day a misogynist. I don’t know what to conclude from this, but it does not smell right to me. In any event, just as it is possible for Watson to have had a reasonably successful career and not been very good, and for Watson to have not been able to avoid the discovery of the structure of DNA, it is also possible that he was part of a team on which anyone could have played his role. There may be nothing special, nothing “genius,” about him. Just circumstance and linkage to a particularly important event.
It is possible that I’m wrong about this, and that James Watson really is, or was, some kind of genius, and without this genius, the discoveries reported by Watson and Crick would have needed to wait another decade. But, if that is true, than the prognosis is worse. If Watson is not a moron, given the science surrounding the biology of race, which I summarize very briefly above, he must be a very, very deeply commited ass.
So its like a multiple choice question:
James Watson is
- a) an ass
- b) a moron
- c) all of the above
- d) none of the above
‘c’ and ‘d’ cannot be correct answers. Its ‘a’ or ‘b.’ You pick.
Thanks to PZ Myers at Pharyngula for bringing this matter to my attention.