Why James Watson shouldn't be advising anyone anyone about science

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 Âinherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa because Âall our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours  whereas all the testing says not reallyÂ, and I know that this Âhot potato is going to be difficult to address. His hope is that everyone is equal, but he counters that Âpeople who have to deal with black employees find this not true.Â

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 wellÂ-documented fifteen-Âpoint 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.


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Hear, hear.

By Mathematician (not verified) on 12 Feb 2008 #permalink

Suppose that I measured the heights of adult males in a poor Indian village beset with nutritional deprivation...

Odd choice of analogy, given that height has a high genetic component. Lack of nutrition does not explain the average height differences between, e.g. the Japanese and the Dutch, or between men and women.

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.

Nor does it permit the automatic conclusion of the opposite.

I know nothing of Watson other than what is in the Double Helix, but while he sounds like a colossal bigot, I disagree that there is no room for scientific debate here. Discovering whether heritability of certain traits swamps environmental factors (nature vs. nurture) is undeniably required because in today's society, differences in outcomes are usually taken as evidence that some sort of redistribution is required. If people are going to advocate taking something from one group to improve the lot of another, we absolutely should investigate whether this is justified - or even productive. Policy decisions are being made that affect everyone so it is not merely a question of academic importance.

This need not involve race (or sex, etc.) - that is, one can talk of differences in ability among people that is not differentiated along racial lines. But we should still have the talk, even if the issue makes us uncomfortable.

This is not the first time Watson made a statement that extends the truth. In an interview with New York Times reporter Gina Kolata in April, 1998, Watson proclaimed that the research developer, Judah Folkman of Harvard Medical School, "is going to cure cancer in two years." When Kolata quoted this in her New York Times, May 3rd, 1998
article entitled, "HOPE IN THE LAB: A special report; A Cautious Awe Greets Drugs That Eradicate Tumors in Mice,"
four million readers read the article. Watson's quote impressed. It tipped the stock market in favor of Entremed, the company that made the experimental drug Folkman was working on. The price per share was pumped up only to quickly fall later. The statement also caused a lot of patients to be disappointed when they found out the claim wasn't true. An inflated statement by a well known individual indeed can make a difference in people's lives, in this case investors lost money and patients lost hope.

I agree with Josh.

My personal experience has been negative. Whether that 's cultural, economic class, racial, genetic or what--that's been my experience. Personally, I believe it's cultural mostly though I have not directly observed an african who was raised from birth in a different culture.

I am well aware of both the political incorrectness of my statements as well as the personal feeling-impact of its reverse on myself.

Discovering whether heritability of certain traits swamps environmental factors (nature vs. nurture) is undeniably required because in today's society, differences in outcomes are usually taken as evidence that some sort of redistribution is required.

As we've seen is the case with wealth, say, hmmm?


I respect Watson for the work he has done and I am sorry to be criticizing an 80 yr old gentleman for beliefs and practices, many of which were considered quite appropriate and reasonable during his formative years. Nevertheless, the repeated incidents of his cast science and scientists in a bad light, and I regretfully must say that I agree with you and applaud you for standing up and saying so.

(I am also shocked that the board of Seed Media Group has only Mr. Watson as a science adviser. I would have expected Seed to have a stronger pure-science representation even at the board level.)

Josh- I humbly suggest that you *look at the research on prejudice and bias*. Using outcome to investigate any possible nature components is undoubtably confounded by the massively unequal treatment of individuals which we know to exist.
That said, you could potentially argue (at least partially convincingly, IMO) about lack of fairness in redistribution schemes of any sort.
Charles- I humbly suggest that you move out of Utah, or wherever you live that you can't meet a single African raised abroad.

If that's an excerpt from what SJG said about The Bell Curve, it sounds like he's in agreement with Herrnstein and Murray on it. They make much the same point themselves, although their example is genetically identical seeds that fall on fertile soil versus those that land in a desert.

I don't know what the number of dimensions involved in intelligence has to do with its heritability. Only one-dimensional traits are heritable? Since physical attractiveness is multi-dimensional, genes have nothing to do with how good looking you are?

I think most reasonable people agree that there is no evidence, and no reason to think, that the observed IQ/g differences between ethnic groups originate from biological rather than environmental causes, but a lot of them also think that Gould's discussion was hamfisted and full of it. He expends most of his energy on the red herring of factor analyis, in a discussion which, I understand, has generally been considered fairly unpersuasive about the validity of factor analysis (but, fortunately, it's beside the point so it doesn't matter). He stumbles over trivial metaphysics, talking himself in circles about whether g is "really real", completely missing the point that the question is not one of ontology but of interpretation i.e. g certainly exists, the relevant question is one of what it should be interpreted as.

In other words, Gould manages to back the right side purely through chance, and does it badly and does it a disservice by doing it so poorly because it makes people think the arguments in its favour aren't very good. I'm also troubled by a 1994 Vanity Fair article I read in which Gould claimed that Herrnstein and Murray didn't address the difference between internal and external validity (he used different names for it, but that was the issue), which is just plain not true, as they address it a fair bit, because they believe that the question in fact favours their side. In that article also (peevishly, it appears to me, but YMMV) says something to the effect of "of course I don't know if all the races are equal with respect to biological influences on intelligence, no one knows that", (I think his point is that he's trying to deflect H & M's point that it's not actually known by saying "big deal, no one disputes that"), except that anyone reading The Mismeasure of Man would certainly get the impression that he's saying it is known, like the part where he says that it's good luck that all the races ended up equal, because if it hadn't been that way we would have hairy moral quandaries on our hands.

In short, Watson is wrong, Herrnstein and Murray are wrong (if you consider their controversial insinuated arguments rather than their much less controversial face-value statements, which could also be wrong too but no one cares about them because they're bland and inoffensive -- note that in The Bell Curve they never (overtly) propose that the observed IQ/g differences are due to innate biological factors, they just sound like that's what they're getting at), but Gould is embarrassing, considered intellectually dishonest by many, and a terrible advocate for the other side.

By El Christador (not verified) on 12 Feb 2008 #permalink

To anyone who argues for inherently racial differences in IQ with the same or similar arguments to those in The Bell Curve, I suggest you read Inequality by Design which addressed all of those lines of reasoning soon after the first book was published. The arguments made are still valid.

"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."

Then change where you host your blog. You should put something on the line here, like the your contribution to this blog nexus, if you are serious and want SEED to take notice. If people like you start leaving for other blog hosts, that's when SEED will take notice. Until then, it is like complaining about a restaurant but continuing to eat there all the time -- no motivation to change.

By Son of Priam (not verified) on 12 Feb 2008 #permalink

I seem to recall that black/white IQ testing in young children is identical. (Sorry, no citation but it might be from Steven Levitt) It's not until about 2 that the gap starts to appear. Unless there's some sort of genetic sleeper effect going on, that's a pretty strong argument for culture. I'm an environmental effects kind of guy though so I'm biased.

Watson directed a world-class research and educational institution for over three decades -- if anyone affiliated with SEED or ScienceBlogs can claim something more impressive than that, go right ahead.

The remarks about getting a free pass based on his scientific achievements are a red herring. People listen to his advice due to his accomplishments as a director, president, and chancellor of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.

Watson argues against eugenics and the misrepresentation of genetics in his book DNA just as vehemently as Gould does in Mismeasure of Man.

As an addendum to the discussion on Watson; for anyone interested in the difficulties in teasing apart the influences of genetic and environmental factors, particularly for intelligence...
Following the publication of The Bell Curve, an APA task force headed by Ulric Neisser published "Intelligence: Knowns and Unknowns" to highlight the problems of drawing the type of conclusions made by people such as Murray, Hernstein and Watson. http://www.arts.ualberta.ca/~amorton/gradsem06/APA-intelligence.pdf

Watson apologists and Bell Curve apologists in particular, and anyone interested in the topic of IQ, g, etc really should read this and related posts by Cosma Shalizi over at Three toed sloth....
Misunderstandings and falsehoods promoted by renowned people like Watson do a terrible disservice in the popular realm. They incite pop-culture articles like Saletan's crap in Slate... http://www.slate.com/id/2178122/entry/2178123/
As an aside, there has been a lot of technical reaction to all of this, but when Saletan posted a pseudo-apology after his articles I felt the need to take him to task, and I did here, in case anyone's interested


As far as I know, Watson is a biologist and co-discovered DNA. So his hypothesis that genetic factors are responsible for noted racial differences in IQ is unsurprising. It is important to note that this empirical phenomenon is not in dispute (which I'm assuming is the point of your comment). Rather, it is Watson's hypothesis that is disputed, because, it is largely inconsistent with intelligence and cognitive research in psychology. Again, as far as I know, Watson is a biologist who co-discovered DNA.

There's plenty of empirical research in psychology that clearly indicates that intelligence is a product of biological (about 50% heritable), environmental, and psychological factors. Suggesting that intelligence is a product of genes is synonymous with neural behaviorism, and implies that people are merely machines in the sense of being nothing more than cognitive processors. But that's incorrect from a psychological perspective. Our cognitions and intellectual processes are also influenced by our social environment.

Let's take the Japanese/American IQ difference as another example, to avoid the somewhat pathological focus on the Black/White IQ difference.

The Japanese are shown to have the highest IQ scores amongst racial groups. According to Watson's hypothesis, that would mean that Japanese genes are superior to all other racial genes (at least as it concerns cognitive functioning). However, if you work with this hypothesis, the following is not so easily explained from a genetic perspective:

(1) In a study concerning stereotype threat, a group of Japanese-American female students took a math test (I'm assuming like most people generally do, that math ability is an indicator of at least one type of intelligence). They were divided into three groups based on a questionnaire they completed before the test. The questionnaire asked questions that either triggered their Japanese identity, female identity, or no identity. The results showed significantly higher scores when their Japanese identity was triggered, and lower scores when their female identity was triggered.

(2) There are no significant IQ differences between Japanese and American children until middle school, when the differences start to emerge. This is also the time period when the self concept/self esteem become more engrained (an important construct for the finding indicated in #1).

(3) A group called the Burakumin that live in Japan, are known to have experienced generations of social discrimination. Their IQ scores are 10-15 points lower than mainstream Japanese (similar to the Black/White IQ difference reported in the US). But when Burakumin families migrate to the US, their children's IQ scores are no different than Japanese-Americans. Importantly, the Burakumin are also Japanese.

By Tony Jeremiah (not verified) on 13 Feb 2008 #permalink

I'd be hard-pressed to give a more adequate response than that found at gnxp here:

How 'bout naysayers point out the methodological flaws in the MOUNTAIN of evidence in Jason's post, THEN assert Watson's claims have no scientific basis?

Yes, Jason regularly employs the tried and true Godless Capitalist method of showering you with studies, none of them (if you start looking) quite to the point he is supposedly making.

Anyhow, Cosma over at Three-Toed Sloth--who knows his statistics pretty well--has posted an extensive critique of all of this "evidence." And what do we hear from the boys at gnxp? It sounds like crickets chirping!

Watson will be 80 years old this year. I wonder if he ever hears people who have to deal with octogenarian employees complain about the inequality of their mental acuity. Not that Watson's comments have to do with age--this is obviously an ongoing thing with him. I think whether or not you feel there should be a scientific debate regarding these issues is irrelevant, as Watson's remarks, especially considering his history of bigotry, are inherently stereotypical and UNSCIENTIFIC. If there should be a debate, his comments shouldn't be the springboard. They should be disregarded and a real scientific inquiry should be made. This science stuff, it's something Watson knew how to do once.

Why Dave Munger should not be advising anyone about science.
1.He hasn't done any significant science (unlike Watson) and shows no evidence of having the disinterested search for truth that is a hallmark of science.
2.He relies on secondary sources rather than what Watson actually said.
3.He is obviously more interested in sanctimonious political correctness than in science or truth.

I would suggest the following as well substantiated hypotheses. I believe most educated and unbiased people, not just scientists, would agree that the evidence supports these statements.

1. Race is not a valid scientific classification system, but there are populations in various places that share common genetic characteristics that distinguish them on average from other populations in different places. It is not racist to remark that there are more blondes in Norway than in Nigeria. Nor is it racist for a doctor to be more likely to order a test for sickle-cell anaemia if his patient has a dark complexion. Nor is it reasonable to be ostracize and demonize anyone for remarking on average differences in different gene pools

2. I.Q. is not a very good operational definition of what we generally mean by intelligence, so it absurd to get one knickers in a knot about it. A good operational definition of intelligence is that characteristic possessed by a person who does intelligent things. There are many idiots with high IQ scores and many eminent and accomplished people who have test scores well below these idiots. However, it is not unreasonable to use whatever measurement instrument one has, no matter how crude, to try and study a complex phenomenon. Nor it is unreasonable to report on what one finds.

3. We are not all created equal, but it is a dangerous thing to say or do research on this obvious fact.

Recommended reading

Stephen Pinker's The Blank Slate.
Poster Orran Kelly's recommend reading

P.S. On average, white men really can't jump!

After reading your post Dave, and the comments of your readers(some of which were very well put), two things come to mind.

first off, on IQ. An IQ 'Test' is a very rigid system of measuring something that is inherently liquid. While we use the concept of intelligence to define ourselves and others...the actuality of it is something far too flexible and dynamic to be under-defined by it's own processes'. in short...it only matters as much as you can convince someone it matters.

secondly...i don't doubt that different locales of people are different. where we seem to run into trouble is when we try to 'reduce' and attribute our experiences(a slice of which might be referred to as intelligence) to compartmentalized and wholly static components, which we have observed to be a part of ourselves.

1 + 1 is 3 and im okay with that.

Also, in Western society, the intuitive definition of intelligence likely concerns a specific type of intellectual performance (i.e., analytical) in a specific performance domain (i.e., academia). But according to intelligence researchers such as Sternberg (triarchic theory of intelligence) and Gardner (multiple intelligences), intellegence has multiple components.
Sternberg defines intelligence in terms of three types of mental abilities (analytic, creative, practical); Gardner defines intelligence in terms of the skills and products that individuals produce which are valued by society.

Personally, I think these theories can be connected in the sense that Sternberg's mental abilities can be mapped to Gardner's skills as follows (and also by adding an additional component to Sternberg's formulation that can be connected to emotional intelligence):

*Analytic: linguistic intelligence, logical-mathematical intelligence, spatial [writer, mathematician, sculptor]

*Creative: musical intelligence, Bodily-kinesthetic
[musician, athlete]

*Practical: Naturalistic [Biologist, Botanist]

*Social: Interpersonal, intrapersonal [Teacher, philosopher]

If g exists, and the 4 types of intelligence are composites of g, then one should be able to find an individual on the upper end of the spectrum in the examples of professions where the indicates types of intelligences are likely to be required most.

I'm willing to bet that such people are rare.

By Tony Jeremiah (not verified) on 18 Feb 2008 #permalink

Hear hear.

(Is there a reason the title of this post is "Why James Watson shouldn't be advising anyone anyone about science"?)

I am not a scientist. However it seems to me that if the man in the street is to have any faith in science going forward, then he has to feel confident that science reports the facts regardless of political correctness and allows the public to make their owen minds up accordingly.

Tina #26. Here comes a very compressed "story" which holds the consequences of your thinking. I guess you can figure out what I am aiming at.

Tina, what you in fact are saying is that You and all other females should stay in the kitchen... since that is what "science" (i.e.James Watson) says (You have to really believe in science don't you?). Furthermore, all fat people should get out of society since that is what "science" (i.e. James Watson) says... and of course blacks, browns, yellows (and a whole spectra of colors), handicapped, unintelligent, crippled people (veterans for instance) etc should be removed from society. What we keep is an elite class that measures up - and create a new supreme society, the third reich.

This was tried only 60 years ago and I guess that you admire what it resulted in!?

Thanks for taking a position like this, I wish more people would.

I don't want to sound high handed, but there is no doubt in my mind: Dr. Watson shouldn't be advising anyone of anything.

Racism by Don Imus or Dog the Bounty Hunter is disgusting; from Dr. Watson, shocking and a total betrayal of trust.

But for the possibility that senile dementia is exacerbating things, I'd judge Dr. Watson far more harshly.

I am 16 and I live in New Zealand.
I found this article while goggling something unrelated.
I don't know who this Watson fella is, but he dose seem to be getting a bit of (possibly) undeserved flak. what I got from some of those statements listed above is that he was making a joke, a joke that is pushing the boundary of correctness and dosent seem very funny, but hey he's 80 (or something) its normal for old people not to be funny.

"Whenever you interview fat people, you feel bad, because you know you're not going to hire them."

that has to be a joke, I laughed.

And another thing, he's writing scientific stuff right? how can cultural/political correctness be involved in science? they shouldn't exactly go hand in hand in my view.

It might be that I'm completely deluded and he is a senile attention-seeking redneck.

The research does back up what Watson says. Check out the Snyderman/Rothman study of how the media portrays IQ testing. They have consistently portrayed a distorted picture of it, which is out of line with what the mainstream academic community believe.

In terms of some fallacies commonly used against the tests, see Gottfredson's paper here:


By Ben Richards (not verified) on 25 Nov 2008 #permalink