Parsing the Reactions to the Watson Imbroglio

The latest Watson news is that Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory has "suspended [his] administrative responsibilities...pending further deliberation by the board." Watson, meanwhile, has begun the "Did I say that? No! I didn't mean it!" apologia that usually follows when some noted figure catches hell for being more frank about his or her racist views than the public is used to.

He also said that "to all those who have drawn the inference from my words that Africa, as a continent, is somehow genetically inferior, I can only apologize unreservedly. That is not what I meant. More importantly from my point of view, there is no scientific basis for such a belief."

Yes, well, then perhaps you shouldn't have said this:

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 can't even use the Mel Gibson "The likker made me do it!" defense. He said what he said.

The Chronicle News Blog reported yesterday on the cancellation of Watson's Science Museum gig in England and the comment thread is really something to read. Here's one of the milder ones, from LO, comment #4:

Although my experience would in no way bear out Dr. Watson's conclusions, shouldn't the academy at least allow him to present his research and findings for discussion and critique. If we cherish academic freedom, it strikes me that any person deserves a fair hearing. It appears, and I have no research to bear this out, that political correctness automatically excludes certain topics from debate--an action which serves to indict the academic community and the principles it claims to profess..

Bill (#7) asks:

I realize that there will be outrage because I even bring this up. . . but what if he's right? Not that I particularly think that he is. . . but I'm not sure that outrage is the right reaction.

A decade plus ago it was Charles Murray and the Bell Curve. . . A couple of years ago it was Larry Summers and Women in Science. Now it's this scientist. The reaction is always emotional outrage. . .but why not get the true answer? Why not research the hypothesis? What if he's right? What if Summers is right? Wouldn't it be better to know so that we could do something constructive to reconcile the difference? And if research shows conclusively that what we hope in our hearts is scientifically true, then future claims will just get a laugh.

It seems to me that in academia, instead of saying "That's to horrible to say," perhaps we should be asking, "What is the scientific truth?"

Phil (#15) wants us to know:

South Africa was one of the most prosperous nation [sic] when whites ruled it. Under black rulers it has become one of the porrest [sic] nation [sic]. Does it say something about differnce [sic] in intelligence level or it is just a coincidence.

And on and on. You can find some similar stuff on the comment thread of my earlier post as well.

A blog post that puts all this in very useful perspective is up at Racialicious:

Sometime what's more interesting than the celebrity event itself (e.g., Michael Richards, Don Imus) is how the issue gets played out in the media. The Richards incident started with the racist ravings of a white man, complete with references to lynching, but ended up as a public discussion of why black people keep using the n-word towards each other. The Imus incident started with the racist and misogynist remarks of a white man, but ended up as a public referendum on misogyny in hip hop.

It's fascinating to me that all roads seem to lead back to discussions of how black people are supposedly oppressing themselves.

Here, rather than the media, we might substitute "scientists" and "the scientific community at large". Now, the response to Watson's egregious display of racism from the Science Museum and from Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory has been appropriate and gratifying, and the media, traditional and blogosphere, are doing a reasonable job as well. But in the comments on blog posts here and at the Chronicle News Blog, we see how this is playing out in the larger community. And what we see is this: the Watson incident started out with the racist ravings of Jim Watson, but members of the scientific community want to turn it into a discussion about the research we ought to be doing to find out just exactly how dumb those blacks are and why they've fucked up Africa so badly.

We must be "objective"! "Science demands that we study the facts!" "You may not like where the facts lead you." You will hear people say things like, "Well, what if the research really shows that whites are smarter?" (they never say, "blacks are dumber" because that would be phrasing their racism too bluntly). "The research" here is a hand-waving towards a mythical idea of some value-free, objective, neutral, context-independent research program that will definitively show only the genetic contribution to intelligence. When this mythical beast shows up at your doorstep, let me know, because my unicorn wants to play with it.

In the meantime, all the actual evidence available which shows that racist apologists are just that goes ignored. Those who hide their racism behind a guise of supposed scientific objectivity use all the common tired tactics to attack those who oppose the ugliness of behavior like that displayed by Jim Watson. You are emotional, but they are objective. You are shrill, but they are rational. You are pushing political correctness, but they are for academic freedom. You are reactionary; they just want to know "the scientific truth". Up is down, left is right. You cannot speak up against racism, or sexism, or homophobia, without being accused of one or more of these sins.

Academic freedom doesn't exist to benefit people who twist or ignore science to serve lies. Standing up for justice and equality is what a good citizen does, and if that's what you call political correctness, then so be it. I am fed up beyond belief with apologists for the oppressors claiming the mantle of science to wrap around their ugly beliefs: calling the expression of personal racist sentiments "talking about research", bemoaning the refusal to lend a platform to spread those beliefs as some sort of repression of free speech, promulgating a "research" program with racism at its core as if it were the most objective of enterprises.

I am also sick and tired of being called "emotional", as if that were a bad thing in a situation such as this. If you do not feel some sort of strong emotion in reaction to what Jim Watson said, there is something wrong with you. "Emotional" gets tossed about by scientists as if it were the worst sort of insult, but if we can't muster up any feeling in a situation like this, then we've lost our souls, and all the science in the world won't save us.

More like this

what if the research says that whites are all retards? wouldn't that be a gas?

"shouldn't the academy at least allow him to present his research and findings for discussion and critique..."

He hasn't done any research. Almost no geneticists agree with Watson on this. For sure, there are inherited traits that are more common in people of some ancestry than others. But the take-homes I had from this conference last year were that a) almost everybody in the US is a mix of ancestry (european, african, asian, native american etc) b)many people are wrong about their ancestry c) people of African descent have way more genetic diversity than any other ethnic group.

I think this was from a presentation by Rick Kittles at the University of Chicago.
If you look at Dr Kittles' photo, you can surmise he's probably never worked for Jim Watson.

By Andythebrit (not verified) on 19 Oct 2007 #permalink

Come on! The scientific community rejects things continually for political reasons. Anyone who doesn't know that has never had a peer review!

Science doesn't create a pass for politics or morality. Both are part and parcel of what we call science and always will be.

I love facts as much as the next person, but lose your moral compass and you can't possibly do science.

I think these people have a point - as scientists, we are obliged to seriously entertain any fanciful speculation we hear or read about. I'll get right on the question of whether or not black people are dumb, just as soon as I'm done peer reviewing a few papers by Young Earth Creationists, people who think the Earth's radius is expanding, Gene Ray, and this guy.

"and this guy"


But seriously.... what the %*&@ is going on there?

You seem to take great delight in the ignoble end of a distinguished and great scientist's career. Watson's (possibly misrepresented) claims that IQ differences between European/North American and African populations have a genetic basis have been well and truly debunked. He said a stupid thing. He has been punished. Why do you seek to label him racist at every opportunity and denigrate those who say you are overreacting? What on earth has he personally done to you?

"He said a stupid thing. He has been punished. Why do you seek to label him racist at every opportunity and denigrate those who say you are overreacting? What on earth has he personally done to you?"

To me, a "stupid thing" to say would be "I think we should dress all the grey squirrels in little tutus and spray their tails pink." That's a deeply stupid idea, but saying it out loud doesn't really cause any harm to others--it's just silly.

What Watson says isn't "stupid." It's wrong, and it's dangerous, and it's part of a history of dangerous baseless nonsense that got (and gets) real people killed, sterilized, segregated, terrorized, and demeaned.

"What Watson says isn't "stupid." It's wrong, and it's dangerous, and it's part of a history of dangerous baseless nonsense that got (and gets) real people killed, sterilized, segregated, terrorized, and demeaned."

Hysterical overreaction. In the UK inciting racial hatred is a criminal offence. Watson did no such thing. You imply he did. Where is your proof?

You are in danger of giving his remarks legitimacy by calling for Draconian punishment for their utterance. Some people will say that you seek to suppress a truth. Far better to let him speak then tell him why he is wrong than to shut him up forever.
There is of course the other issue that Watson has considerable expertise in some areas of science and can continue to contribute meaningfully to these. By labelling him racist, implying he is a Nazi, and demanding that he does not speak again over unscientific remarks, unrelated to his field, stinks of a Stalinist approach to debate.

Quick Disclaimer: I know Jim Watson personally. His family is friends with my family, and I've spoken with him on a number of occasions. I can tell you this without any real qualification:

He really is an asshole. Friendly enough in person, charitable and kind when he wants to be, but for the most part, a real jerk.

The thing his, he has ALWAYS been an asshole. From day one. The "why is this news" portion of the recent uproar is, of course, because people still think he's relevant, and because people have a short memory. I'll give you a hint: in 30 years, interview GWB. Ask him if he still thinks Iraq was such a great idea, and see how people react.

I'm not trying to downplay his bigotry: it's ridiculous that CSH Labs would have kept him without censure for as long as they did. What Jim does publicly completely undermines the field (and science in general): he gives authority to debunked theories, and gives denialist bigots (of which there are MANY) a reason to hold onto hope. That's inexcusable. That's inappropriate. That needs to stop...

...but it won't, as long as we keep interviewing this guy. So for the love of Cap'n Crunch, can we finally call a spade a spade, and stop being surprised when Jim Watson says something offensive?

Again, I know Jim. The worst punishment he could ever receive would be to become irrelevant before he dies. If you want him to change his ways, that's your solution (and indeed, it seems to be the way things are going).

As far as the "academic freedom" thing goes: Watson exercised his freedom of speech to say something that was both offensive and scientifically crankish. Other members of the community exercised their freedom of speech to tell Watson that he was acting like an obnoxious crank.

Please don't confuse censure with censorship. No one is suggesting that the government silence Watson. He can still make racist statements on his own behalf, but the institution that employed him had every right to remove him from a position where he could represent it. You won't go to jail for calling your boss an idiot and telling him to go to hell, but you can and probably will get fired afterwards. It's not illegal to insist that women shouldn't vote, but Ann Coulter is not going to be asked to speak on behalf of the League of Women Voters in the near future.

We can appreciate the "meaningful contributions" that Watson has made to science in the past (although he has an appalling history of denigrating the contributions of his colleagues), but when he acts like a jerk, his actions should still have consequences. A Nobel Prize doesn't give the recipient a lifetime pass to be a complete ass.

"Hysterical overreaction" is another phrase I'm about to ban from the comments thread, at least when used by knuckleheads who are defending racists.

Gimpy, I might ask YOU what Jim Watson has ever done for you that you are so eager to defend him in the face of his making explicitly racist statements? Why are you so eager to deny the significance of his remarks, to pretend they have no context and carry no larger meaning, and to mislabel peoples' reactions to those remarks - censure - for something it is not - censorship? You are an apologist for a man who has clearly spoken out about his racist beliefs and whether you like to admit it or not, to deny the significance of his remarks and try to excuse or explain away what he did is to support racist behavior.

Zuska, thank you for making the point that having an emotional reaction to something doesn't prove that one is "hysterical". It proves that one is not a sociopath!

Anyone who has even cursorily studied history/philosophy of science knows that the kinds of questions that are asked don't spring up from a vaccuum. Certain kinds of questions are racist and ignorant. Watson's are classic.

We do just need to ignore this guy, and maybe he will finally slink away and stop embarassing us all.

Zuska, my 'hysterical reaction' comment was directed at Penny for implying that Watson's comments could inspire a racial bloodbath, not you.
However, I am oddly pleased that you have made my point for me by labelling me a knucklehead racist apologist rather than engage with my argument. My point has always been that attacking the man rather than the ideas is a rather poor strategy in debate. It does nothing to discredit arguments and only serves to make you look like a bully.
Now could you apologise to me for stating that I am defending Watson's remarks and calling me a knucklehead and an apologist. I have not done so. I have defended his right to make those remarks, I have agreed with you that it does not affect his rights for the Science Museum to prevent him from speaking, I have stated that his remarks were wrong, and I have pointed out that it would be better to attack the ideas rather than the man. I have also stated that his ideas of race should not prevent him from discussing areas in which his expertise is proven. At no point have I defended the substance of his remarks. I have also refrained from personal attacks on you, the contributors to your blog and Watson. You have not. I thought fallacious ad hominem attacks were frowned upon round these parts? Clearly I was wrong.

Unless you're just enjoying the flamewar, go read Brian's comment again.

Watson's just an attention whore. People who know him know this. He's been accused in the past of suggesting that people might want to abort their babies if an in utero test showed they would turn out to be gay.

Gimpy, you're being just a tad disingenuous. YOU call Penny's remarks "hysterical overreaction" but of course, that's not a personal attack, no, despite the long history of labeling women "hysterical" in order to dismiss what they have to say. I'm sorry, but in your comments here and on the other Watson threads you consistently want to deny that what Watson said is racist. By taking that position, you are excusing, justifying, or apologizing for what is by any reasonable person's standard a racist set of statements. That makes you a knucklehead in the context of this blog. You don't like it, go read elsewhere.

Actually, I think that that is probably the purest sign of Watson being an attention whore, Mr. Gunn. He has to know that there will never be any kind of even slightly reliable IVD for homosexuality. And by saying what he said, he has pretty much guaranteed that he's going to piss off 99% of the US.

He's an irrelevant old man. I don't know enough about the Franklin/Watson situation to say for sure that he was a bastard back then, but he surely is one now. And he was a major stumbling block for the human genome project, simply by dint of the fact that he may/may not have done something back in the 50s.

Zuska, this is a parody isn't it? Not only am I a knucklehead and a racist apologist but I am now a sexist too because I described an argument, not an individual, as a hysterical overreaction. Not once have you actually engaged with my arguments, instead you have insulted me and misinterpreted my arguments to accuse me of various prejudices. Frankly it is all a little odd. This clearly isn't a place for reasoned debate so I will go elsewhere.

"When this mythical beast shows up at your doorstep, let me know, because my unicorn wants to play with it."
Best Quote Evar.

I love gimpy too. You would think Zuska killed Watson's puppy instead of calling a spade as a spade. "What on earth has he personally done to you?" OH THE HUMANITY!! LOL. I bet he also uses words like "Crusade". Especially to Muslims. But he's just describing an argument of course.

Zuska, you really hit the nail on the head with this post. Yours is the best analysis I have seen of the underlying sociology of "scientific" analysis of these kinds of racist claims.

By PhysioProf (not verified) on 21 Oct 2007 #permalink

It is interesting that whenever a racist comment gets uttered by some white guy, there is an swift reaction to try to declare the comments stupid but not racist, or to declare the comments racist but not the person who said them. This is just completely irrational to me. If you go around saying racist things, you are a racist.
I suppose there is still this idea that "racist" refers only to people who walk around the street in white hoods burning crosses and not to people who participate and further the a structural oppression in which one race is socially and economically put down to the benefit of another.
Carrying bias and remarks about the intellectual supremacy of whites over blacks of course contributes to the structural oppression of black people everywhere. You don't have to insist people drink out of different water fountain to be racist. It seems to be Watson is only not a racist if you have the most lame and intellectually unsophisticated idea ever about what racism is, or you are afraid of using the word because it is ugly-in which case you are being intellectually and emotionally cowardly.
I think what this country needs a strong dialog about the definition of "racism".

By Carpenter (not verified) on 21 Oct 2007 #permalink

Actually, what this country needs is a frank dialogue about privilege.

By PhysioProf (not verified) on 21 Oct 2007 #permalink

Well, we might say that Watson is the beneficiary of white privilege during the course of his life and that he makes remarks that reflect that privilege. Or we might say that Watson has been the beneficiary of racism,and he makes remarks that reflect that racism. I think racism is a stronger term. But there is some debate about this, there was a great link off of racialicious about the term "white privilege" and if and when it should be replaced by the term "racism".
Here it is…

By Carpenter (not verified) on 22 Oct 2007 #permalink

Gimpy, I must say, I admire your rhetorical skills. The 'cool' tone, the subtle misrepresentations...

You say what Penny writes is a "hysterical overreaction", and then claim that you're not attacking the person, but are instead yourself being attacked. But the implication is clear: if someone says something hysterical, they are hysterical. (You also claim to be ignorant of the sexist implications of 'hysteria', which seems implausible.)

You imply that Penny makes a 'rivers of blood' post, when all she says is that Watson spouts a dangerous ideology. You then continue to imply that she's in with a mass-murderer, Stalin.

Penny is right, as you well know. Racism has blighted and continues to blight many people's lives. Watson is viewed as a great scientist, and his spouting of this nonsense contributes quite directly to this great evil. (Another brilliant piece of rhetoric: "he's not going to be done for incitement of racial hatred". No, he's not, because it's not illegal in the U.K. to be a bigot, just to incite people to go out and act fairly directly on their bigoted beliefs).

You wail "why oh why is this great man being tormented?" (or something like it). Why? He's getting what he deserves, which is public repudiation. We can only hope that it will be followed by a retirement in which he is thoroughly ignored, a most fitting punishment as pointed out rather brilliantly by Brian.

Brian, I'm well acquainted with someone who worked with Watson about 40 years ago. I don't know about the 1950's, but he was a sexist jerk 40 years ago at least.

And my professional society just sent me this:

" ASCB Affirms Need for Science-based Statements and Commitment to Equality

The ASCB has always been committed to making statements based on scientific data; in fact, reliance on data is what makes scientists -- and the Society -- credible. The ASCB has also had a long-term commitment to recognizing the talent, and advancing the contributions, of all scientists and potential scientists, irrespective of race, gender, and national origin.

Ample scientific evidence clearly refutes the recent remarks attributed to James Watson in the London Times. The ASCB is both saddened and deeply concerned when scientific evidence is ignored. ASCB will continue to work with its members and the wider community to decry statements that divide and degrade any segment of our population. We will continue to affirm the need for science-based statements and equal opportunity for all."

To which I say, good for them.

For those making statements vis a vis "academic freedom:"

"Freedom" is a funny thing. In order to work properly, it entails a level of tolerance and permissiveness for the views of others, whether or not one agrees with those views. At the same time, it requires one to be responsible with one's own views, thoughtful, measured - when one considers what can be done with facts, opinions, laws, both for good and ill, it becomes incumbent not only to allow others freedom in their own speech and actions, but to recognize when our own speech and actions might encumber the freedoms of others and choose our words accordingly.

James Watson's statements, while permitted under the notion of freedom of speech, are nonetheless dangerous in the sense that they are quite capable of prohibiting the freedom of others. Given that one cannot force him to STFU, the only recognized method of recourse is public (not legal) condemnation. In this way, and this way only, does the system self-heal, maintaining the delicate balance of freedom while remaining eternally buttressed on either side by anarchy and fascism.

Alexis: yes....and no. Outside of employment context, you are right; that's a great approach to thinking about and dealing with freedom of speech issues. And of course, Watson is free to go on blathering about his unscientific racism and sexism and homophobia to anyone he can get to listen to him.

But in the context of employment, it's a very different situation. College administrators are not, in fact, free to say anything at all they want - without consequences. That's because (especially the higher up the administrative ladder you go) they are frequently perceived as speaking for the institution. Their speech reflects back on the institution and public reaction to their speech can affect their ability to effectively carry out their job.

So, for example, if I am the dean of engineering, and it is my fond personal belief that black people are incapable of doing engineering, AND I frequently express this opinion in public, AND my university has a stated policy of promoting diversity within the student body, then my president and provost may rightly conclude I am not capable of adequately carrying out my duties as dean of engineering, and may remove me from the position. If I also happen to hold a tenured faculty position, I may return to my faculty position, and continue to happily blather on about my racist beliefs as a faculty member. But not as a dean. Even as a faculty member - the university might conclude that if I make such remarks in the classroom or in meetings with students, I may be violating my university's policy on racial harassment, and could be subject to sanction.

In industry, most companies have what is known as "employment at will". This means, they employ YOU at THEIR will. When they don't want you, they can let you go. Without any notice. Without any reason. Many, many companies are now concerned about (1) increasing the diversity of their workforce and (2) increasing their ability to appeal to a diverse consumer group. Publicly blathering racist executives would not help either of these goals, and it is doubtful companies with serious diversity goals would retain such a person for long.

Freedom of speech doesn't mean freedom from consequences. You can march down the street with the Ku Klux Klan if you want, and the ACLU will protect your right to do so. Just don't expect to win a lot of fans among influential academics who will be happy to write you letters of recommendation for university chancellorships if you do, though.

As a non-scientist, I'd like to point out an unpredictable side-effect of Watson's remarks that might make scientists cringe. Yesterday a student in my women's studies class used Watson's comments on race and differential intelligence (along with an NPR interview with Phil Rushton on the same theme) to illustrate scientific findings on that subject. Her larger point was to suggest that the singular enterprise, "science," is flawed because it has no way of recognizing and correcting for biases such as racism. The sad truth is that for many non-scientists (and most of us are non-scientists), Watson's--and Rushton's--statements about race and intelligence have the imprimatur of science. How are we to know the difference? Of course, this confusion works to the advantage of dissenters on global warming/climate change and the legitimacy of evolution as well as to the advantage of racists. It seems to me that it must be the responsibility of scientists (and friends of science) to carefully distinguish legitimate forms of scientific practice from the illegitimate, if only because the children (and adults) are listening.

By Cynthia Burack (not verified) on 25 Oct 2007 #permalink


I have not disagreed with anything you said - in fact, for once, I pretty much agree with you with little reservation at all. So while you have clarified your own position admirably and perhaps fleshed mine out further, I don't know that it was entirely necessary.

Are there any actual scientists who read this blog?

Where is the evidence that evolutionary psychology is wrong? Do people here believe that evolution is wrong, or that it only applies to the entire animal species, except for human cognitive faculties?

Watson might have been crude, but so far people have just engaged in ad hominem attacks instead of providing scientific arguments why our desire for there being no differences between groups, is reality.

By ConceptDelta (not verified) on 27 Oct 2007 #permalink

One of the saddest things I have observed during my participation at ScienceBlogs is a persistently recurring theme advocated by many participants. That is:

Science, apparently, is an elaborate game. The rules of the Game of Science seem utterly disconnected from all other aspects of the lives of game participants. Winning the Game of Science involves, maybe even requires, engaging in behaviors that counteract and oppose the evolved behaviors of the so-called social species, homo sapiens.

To me, winning the Game of Science looks a lot like losing the value of human life.

To me, the recurring cries of, "You're not playing by The Rules of Science!" seem like the tantrums of children.

To me, the persistent inability of game players to recognize the harmful consequences of their game-playing behaviors seems fundamentally dysfunctional and deeply disturbing.


The witch hunt mentality reflected in some of these comments turns my stomach. Some of you people actually call yourselves scientists? How many of you ad hom-slingers have done even a cursory review of the literature on race and intelligence? Or are you happy to ignore the data that support Watson's honest, if inelegantly expressed, remarks rather than shatter society's happy delusion? You may disagree with his hypothesis, but to dismiss it out of hand shows an ignorance of the literature and a contempt for the scientific method.

@ConceptDelta & Jack (and I will make no further comments on the point):

Your ultimate point seems to be that Watson's comments should be debated at their face using traditional discourse methods of Western logic, and that the people on this blog are not doing so.

You buttress this by incorrectly pointing out that the attacks on this blog are merely ad hominem, when in fact there are many more comments directly discussing the content of his statements rather than the content of his character.

You complete your argument by, ad hominem-ly, stating that the people on this blog could not possibly be scientists and therefore their opinions could not possibly matter.


Alexis, please reread what I wrote.

If you'd like, we could do a discourse analysis on the content of the blog comments, but I think it would be pretty apparent to any impartial reader that the comments are focussed on attacking the character of Watson, instead of actually discussing the issue intellectually.

I see nothing written about theories or empirical evidence for evolution, psychometrics, or cognitive psychology.

Let me make this more concrete. There is little disagreement that different groups have different IQ. There is a general consensus that 40-60% of this can be linked to genetics. To put a "positive" spin on it, we know that European Jews are significantly more intelligent than other groups (115 IQ vs 100 for Caucasians).


By conceptdelta (not verified) on 30 Oct 2007 #permalink

When a major public scientific figure begins to espouse pseudo-science, it becomes legitimate to question his motives.

You, conceptdelta, wish to engage others in a debate of thoroughly discredited views. This, however, would give them a veneer of respectability. Many biologists won't debate creationists for exactly this reason. And why should they 'discuss'? If someone wants to find out how little evidence there is for 'scientific' racism, they need only do a few minutes research (by, for example, scrolling back through the comments), instead of supporting a crank.