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.


Ruchira Paul said...

Hi Lester,
Long time no see. I am glad you came to this issue even if it is later rather than sooner. My co-bloggers (both of them Jewish) and I came at it fast and furious soon after the John Entine story broke. (You may have already seen my piece to which Brian Leiter had linked.) If not, please see here, here and here.

I am a leftist in most matters but I am also a student of science and definitely not a liberal creationist. There are many pills of life I can chew and digest, however bitter.

You say:
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.

Exactly. That as a scientist, Watson could not fathom that simple (and dangerous) fact about "sweeping generalization" was the problem. What he added about his black employees left no doubt about his ignorance.

There are many areas of genetics which indeed are group related. I think it is always better to leave those studies to the "good" uses such as predicting heritable diseases rather than trying to predict "desirable" qualities. The pernicious effects of the latter, even if true, are so scary (think caste system, eugenics, Dr. Mengele, apartheid) that it is best to not make too much of it. Especially when we ostensibly strive to act as a fair society. If not, measure away. Head sizes, IQ, finger lengths, ability to survive in the desert without water, stamina for long distance running and any other quality we think that warrants measuring. Extrapolate from there as to what duties we want each group to perform for the best division of labor and the most efficient society. The Brahminical caste system had its roots exactly in such a value assignment to human life. Nothing wrong with it - if we can live with it.

Ruchira Paul said...

Oh, another thing that people forget when they bash liberal social egalitarianism is the fact that the most significant interference with our "innate" abilities has come in the field of medicine, not the social realm. We serenely take for granted (no, demand) in vivo/in vitro/pre-natal/ post natal tinkering for correcting defects and enabling life, organ transplants, hip replacements, plastic surgery, designer target drugs and yes, the biggest daddies of all, anti-biotics and childhood vaccinations. Why don't we have problems with that? How many of the so called "superior" humans with higher worth to society may have been toast early or later in life if such heroic measures were not available to buck mother nature in matters of life and death?

As soon as anyone tries to raise the bar for similar interference on behalf of a "backward" individual or group to give them a leg up for survival in the educational and economic fields, howls of protest about social Darwinism erupts from many quarters.

I studied at a premier girls' school in Delhi which admitted its students after administering a draconian aptitude test to incoming six year olds. So I spent quite a bit of my life around high IQ peers. After I decided to become a teacher, it would have been very easy for me to get a job in a similar school. In fact I had job offers from a couple. I decided instead to teach in a boys' school which admitted students irrespective of their family income or individual IQ. It was very egalitarian. My students came from a wide range of socio-economic backgrounds. Sometimes I despaired about some of the students at the bottom of my classes, the overwhelming majority of whom also belonged to the most disadvatanged families. But I was young, bright eyed and idealistic. I moved heaven and earth to make sure that they would at least scrape through the high school qualifying exams. Most did and were able to make a mundane living which in most cases was better than that of their parents. The icing on the cake however were the boys who defied all trends predicated by their economic and social backgrounds (poor, uneducated, illiterate, low caste parents) and passed with flying colors, entered college and obtained jobs that no one would have expected them to get based on "group IQ."

On a gentler note, hope you are keeping warm in that frozen part of the nation. Houston is very pleasant right now.

Mark M said...

"I think it's because they are not concerned in this case with individuals, they are concerned with groups."

Exactly. This is a morally neutral question, as you indicated.

This reminds me of Larry Summers getting hung out to dry for his allegedly sexist comments about women in the sciences.

Anonymous said...

As far as Saletan and his laughable column on Liberal Creationism goes this response should be the last word. In other words, the ONLY clever thing in the whole piece was the title of it.

As far as Watson goes, his own words damn him. Whether or not he started the organization really makes little difference. They didn't want the face of their organization to be "Blacks are inferior employees". Not unreasonable.

And definitely not a question of free speech.

Lester Hunt said...


I think the Metcalf piece you linked to is more of the sort of rhetoric we've had too much of on this issue. He moralizes constantly and suggests that his opponents have discreditable motives. A much more civil and enlightening exchange can be found at Cato bound between Linda Gottfredson and James R. Flynn. I would be very nervous, as an amateur, to enter this debate, there are such good arguments on both sides! For an elegant statement of the sort of individualist position that I favor, take a look at this.

Lester Hunt said...


Again, you raise more deep issues than I could respond to with a comment like this one. Which is lucky for me because I am not sure what to say to all of them!

I am torn on the issue of whether we should look into the genetics of characteristics that we find desirable, such as intelligence. On the one hand, my attitude personally about that one is "Ugh! I don't want to know!" As you know, I was recently converted, by reading Cat's Cradle, to the idea that knowledge is not an end in itself. Life is! Knowledge is ancillary.

On the other hand, there are race-egalitarians in the world, and they have an enormous amount of power. That makes the genetics of IQ significant. Of course, how significant it becomes is debatable, but the mere fact that it has become significant means that such research will be done. In that context it might be a good idea to figure out what one should think if the evidence goes the "wrong" way. Hence my interest in staking out the individualist position, which makes such evidence (unless the results are more extreme than they could possibly be) irrelevant.

Also, thanks for your account of experiences teaching the children of the poor -- it was inspiring!

Anonymous said...


Metcalf writes:

Saletan's analogy implies that the conflict over race, intelligence, and genetics is a conflict between science and superstition. It's not; it's a conflict between science and science. Worse, even when Saletan shades his rhetoric carefully, the reader is left with the impression that science—hard, empirical disinterested science—is trending to a hereditarian explanation for the IQ gap, and that bad or weak science—really a kind of wishful, mushy, quasi-superstitious scientism—is on the side of an environmental or cultural explanation. If you explore the subject in any depth, or even just click through to some of Saletan's own links, you find the opposite is closer to the truth.

What part of that paragraph is mere "rhetoric"? What about that paragraph is dishonest? It seems more like it's pointing out Saletan's phony use of "rhetoric", isn't it?

Seriously, Lester, every thread I've ever read on any reputable science/policy blog leads me to the honest conclusion that the state of the current SCIENCE on race and intelligence falls in line with Metcalf's reporting and makes Saletan look like a weaselly liar.

There are major problems that the racialists face when trying to prove their theory of racial inferiority. See the Flynn effect, knowing what G actually is supposed to represent, and the defintion/test of IQ itself. And that's just for starters.

Do you dispute that the state of the science in this field stands with Metcalf? Because based on my reading on the subject, I'd be inclined to base my evaluation of your intellectual honesty on your answer. Seriously, go read the race/IQ threads on Crooked Timber (search under 'science') and let me know if you still think CATO is honestly interested in the science.

BTW I do agree that Metcalf's reliance on attacking the motives of Rushton was unnecessary. The science says what Metcalf claims, not what Saletan (through Rushton) claims. There was no real need to tell us what a bigot Rushton is (except in so much as I believe it was intended to shame and embarass Saletan for COMPLETELY MISREPRESENTING THE STATE OF THE CURRENT RESEARCH).

And when trying to learn about the state of the science in this field I certainly appreciate, for instance, this article's well-sourced and linked take down of Saletan much more than phony collegiality on display at that embarrassing CATO colloquay. They just talk past each other. Albeit politely.

However, I am also in agreement with your 'take all individuals as they come' statement regarding the relative lack of importance this kind of research has in the real world. Something I've been pointing out to since the Bell Curve was rocking my science major roommate's world in college!

Ruchira Paul said...

I shared this with Lester already. I am posting the link here now for his readers.

Lester Hunt said...

As I wrote to Ruchira when she first sent me the above link: "... on the other hand, the odds of his avoiding psoriasis are looking pretty good."

I.D.R.C. said...

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

I don't believe it's a good enough question.

Why do people want an answer to this question in the first place? Who are they and what motivates them? What are they using for data?

If they have "valid" data, what would happen to these not-smart populations if they had access to the same nutrition, health care and personal choice of the smart people? How much of their not-smart has been foist upon them by hundreds of years of oppression, and how quickly could that effect be reversed?

This is why science has peer review --so we can weed out the nutjobs with personal agendas.

Historically there has only been one reason to make "scientific" determinations that one race is "smarter" than another --to dominate or exploit them.

To frame the issue the way that you frame it ignores the world we live in and the body of knowlege we have amassed about real human behaviour and impact in favor of the abstract and academic. Maybe there is a valid reason to do that, but having personally avoided higher education I cannot fathom what it might be. You did a similar thing with Katrina. I may comment there, too.