Monday, November 26, 2007

What About James Watson?

Given how many times I've posted on freedom of speech issues, I feel, well, odd about not having posted on the James D. Watson flap last month. I guess I should say something about it.

In case you have been sequestered in a remote monastery for the last five weeks, an international furore erupted as a result of this Times (of London) article. The article was based on an interview Watson gave to a former student on the occasion of his coming to England to publicize a new book of his, appropriately titled Avoid Boring People. The article included the following:
The 79-year-old geneticist said 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 he hoped that everyone was equal, but countered that “people who have to deal with black employees find this not true”.
In the ensuing flap, he was the subject of virulent denunciations, not only in the press, but in the scientific community. His English speaking engagements and book tour were canceled, and he suddenly "retired" from the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, an institution that he headed for years and which probably only exists because of him and his achievements.

I just want to say something, briefly, about two of the questions that are raised by these sad events.

First: Are people who believe that some races are on average smarter than others racists and bad people?

Not necessarily. This is a scientific question and the answer to it consists of morally neutral facts. Facts are facts. If the race-to-intelligence link should turn out to exist, that may be regrettable, but there is no point in sniveling about it, and we certainly shouldn't moralize about the people who bring in the evidence. Some of the people who believe in the link do so because they are racists, but I am sure that others do so because they honestly think that is where the evidence leads. We will never be able to figure this out in an atmosphere of moralistic hysteria.

Maybe I should add that I actually don't have any opinions about this issue, because I frankly don't find it interesting. So what if (as the evidence does seem to suggest) Jews and Asians are on average more intelligent than people like me, and Blacks and Hispanics are on average less intelligent? What does that have to do with how I should relate to a Mexican friend of mine, or and East Indian friend? Obviously, nothing. What does it have to do with how they should see themselves? Again, nothing. By all accounts there is a large portion of any given major race that is more intelligent than the average member of any other race. To draw conclusions about any given individual (supposing one has any personal knowledge about then at all) is simply a fallacy.

Then why are people so worked up about this? I think it's because they are not concerned in this case with individuals, they are concerned with groups. There is an idea afoot here that William Saletan has cleverly named liberal creationism. The form of egalitarianism now dominant among "liberals" requires that all racial groups, at least all major racial groups, have equal amounts of the benefits of social cooperation -- wealth, income, prestige, etc. Whenever they don't, that is unjust, and massive amounts of state coercion are justified to correct the injustice. For various reasons, this does not make sense unless the various racial groups are genetically identical in relevant respects: if on the contrary there are significant relevant differences among the genetic endowments of different races then, at a minimum, attempts to establish this sort of race-based egalitarianism by forceare attempts to sweep back the sea.

The problem is that this assumption, of the genetic identity of races, is clearly an empirical proposition and obviously could be false. Creating a world view that hangs by such a slender thread seems a seriously dumb thing to do. At least the Christian creationists were clever enough to base their world view on propositions that are unfalsifiable. This assumption puts the standard lefty paradigm on a collision course with some o f the most powerful and rapidly developing of modern sciences: namely, those that are connected in relevant ways with evolutionary biology. Hence the "liberal creationism" label. If I were one of these racial egalitarians, I would revise my world view, probably by switching to some other sort of egalitarianism.

Second Question: So, when Watson was relieved of his administrative duties by the board of Cold Spring Harbor Labs, that was an injustice, right?

Again, I have to say, not necessarily. Contrary to what John Derbyshire has suggested, Watson's quoted remarks go well beyond the legitimate scientific issue that I have been discussing here. He seemed to say that all employers know by experience that blacks are less intelligent than whites. This could only be true if, contrary to what I've said above, that they are all less intelligent than all whites. This of course is absurd. He also seems to be saying that the reasons why the economic problems of Africa are so horrible is that these people are just too damn dumb to do much better. (To get an idea how horrible these problems are, go here. Note that the shrinking and falling blue circles represent Africa.) We are dealing with a 79 year old man who even in his prime had a way of saying rather loopy things in public. There is at least some reason to think that he should not be in a position in which he supervises other people.
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