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There’s Intelligence Behind This Business, Watson

October 29th, 2007 · 6 Comments

I’m of two minds about the recent resignation of eminent geneticist James Watson, following the publication of an interview in which the Nobel laureate suggested that Africans are inherently less intelligent than Europeans.

On the one hand, I’m pretty confident that given all the various factors that influence intelligence—upbringing, adequacy of childhood diet, social expectations, not to mention the method of measurement—it’s not currently possible (even for James Watson) to say with any certainty whether or to what extent observed disparities in group averages can be put down to genetics. That being the case, it seems awfully irresponsible for someone of Watson’s stature to casually toss off a hypothesis in an interview with the popular press, as though it were established fact. And since Watson, by all accounts, had become more of a fund raiser than working scientist, it seems proper to have resigned once public outcry rendered him unsuited to that function.

Neither do I find it mysterious why some claims of group difference, and not others, are apt to provoke charges of racism. Selwyn Duke engages in a lengthy pantomime of chin-stroking over this question, but the answer seems rather clear: The idea of hardwired differences in intelligence has historically been deployed to both justify and minimize racial oppression. Nobody in the 19th century argued that blacks needed to be kept in a state of subjection because of their susceptibility to sickle-cell anemia. Nobody now argues that apparent evidence of persistent racial inequity is really attributable to sickle-cells rather than discrimination. And not least, the whole sickle-cell thing is sufficiently thoroughly proven that nobody wonders what psychological factors might play into someone’s embracing the idea.

That said, there’s something extremely unsettling about seeing a scientist of impeccable credentials essentially hounded from public life—even, apparently, investigated by a governmental equal rights commission—for offering a view about a genuine empirical question within his field of expertise. If this is what happens to the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, how many other, less eminent scientists, are going to get the message that certain topics are just too professionally dangerous to explore?

I also wonder whether it isn’t an error to reinforce the idea that it’s somehow crucially important that the hardwired potential of every group be statistically identical to that of every other along every dimension of intelligence. I don’t know of any ex-ante reason for thinking it’s impossible that someone will one day produce compelling evidence for some sort of difference, after all. Should that ever happen, surely it would be better for this to be seen for what it is—an interesting but not especially important datum—rather than as some kind of “vindication” of racists.

Tags: Science


       

 

6 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Christopher M // Oct 29, 2007 at 6:32 pm

    I don’t know. Free scientific inquiry is an important value, but it’s not the only value. And peoples’ understanding of statistical data being what it is — even among the highly educated — I tend to think that “compelling evidence” of some difference in some measure of “intelligence” between racial groups would have a seriously bad effect (far disproportionate to any effect that would actually be justified by such knowledge). And so I can’t say I’m all that upset if scientific speculation in that area is discouraged, especially since I don’t see much possible benefit from such knowledge (if it turned out to be true).

  • 2 Joseph // Oct 29, 2007 at 7:10 pm

    “That said, there’s something extremely unsettling about seeing a scientist of impeccable credentials essentially hounded from public life—even, apparently, investigated by a governmental equal rights commission—for offering a view about a genuine empirical question within his field of expertise.”

    I don’t think that flies. Not all empirical claims are created equal, nor is a scientist of impeccable credentials incapable of saying racists things.

    Watson made a claim that has no solid empirical support. These kinds of arguments were historically racism dressed up in scientific clothing, phrenology anyone? So it behooves someone who makes arguments and advances ideas that have historically been used to oppress minorities to make sure the arguments are good ones backed up by empirical evidence.

    This is especially the case of someone with scientific stature and influence.

  • 3 razib // Oct 29, 2007 at 9:24 pm

    oh, be careful. chris bertram the chekist will report you!

    Watson made a claim that has no solid empirical support.

    no one knows if the between group differences in IQ are due to differences in genes, but those differences are real. on assumes that the measured IQs on the order of 70 in west africa are more a reflection of extremely unfavorable environmental conditions than anything else (they’re 1 standard deviation below the IQ of black americans), but they probably also gage the amount of standing human capital you have to work with. too many discussions of watson’s comments have if there aren’t measured differences in IQs across populations. the differences might not measure anything more that education, health, cultural norms of how to invest your marginal time, but they do reflect underlying issues.

  • 4 Joseph // Oct 29, 2007 at 9:59 pm

    You are attributing a claim that Watson didn’t make. What you just stated was a nuanced, speculative view about complex issues.

    You didn’t on the other hand state that black people on average are dumber than white people and that’s why Africa is the way it is. If you think there’s solid empirical support for “black people are poorer because they are dumber” than by all means lets hear it.

  • 5 razib // Oct 29, 2007 at 10:10 pm

    You didn’t on the other hand state that black people on average are dumber than white people and that’s why Africa is the way it is.

    watson did say this basically. but he said other more nuanced things as well later on in follow ups. it isn’t a black & white issue, so to speak ;-)

    in any case, the bigger picture is that we’ll probably know within 10-20 years via genome-wide associations the extent to which these sorts of things are between population genetic & not. and most people who are computer savvy will be able to do the appropriate queries on public databases and get the raw data to analyze themselves. power to the people!

  • 6 Jody Tresidder // Oct 30, 2007 at 10:09 am

    Julian,
    That’s an excellent comment.

    I am far from unbiased about Watson (I know him and respect him hugely). I deplore the ugliness of his comments – they were stupid, ill-advised and a terrible embarrassment.

    But it remains a trivial truth that the world prefers its elderly Men of Science to be adorable old farts. Watson is not. We’ve also – quite rightly -become tired of provocative public statements that seem intended to shock “this PC-mad world!!”. Just because you madden the liberals doesn’t mean you have a courageous point of view.

    However, it’s a relief to read someone who doesn’t add “and the dreadful Watson wants to abort gays to boot…”. He doesn’t and he didn’t say it – even though the accusation has stuck.

    Anyway, for what it’s worth (from a self-admitted biased source, though also a liberal feminist!), that was a very fair and thoughtful comment.

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