Last week Dr. James Watson, founder of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in Long Island and Nobel Prize-winning biologist for his work with DNA, was featured in an interview in the Sunday Times Magazine of London. Here’s how the AP explained what he had to say.
In a recent profile of Dr. James Watson, an esteemed and elderly American biologist, in the Sunday Times Magazine of London, was quoted as saying that he's "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 although he wishes that everyone were equal, "people who have to deal with black employees find this is not true.”
The response was predictable, as were the headlines.
Nobelist's Race Comments Spark Outrage
In the United States, the Federation of American Scientists said it was outraged that Watson "chose to use his unique stature to promote personal prejudices that are racist, vicious and unsupported by science."
And Watson's employer said he wasn't speaking for the Cold Spring Harbor research facility, where the board and administration "vehemently disagree with these statements and are bewildered and saddened if he indeed made such comments."
The mainstream American media has gotten quite used to covering these stories recently. The formula is quite simple: explain what he said and provide context if it doesn’t dilute the offensiveness of the comments, ask other people what they thought of the comments and let their reaction push the racist ideas to the margins of society: in other words make it seem like the racist ideology is so far fetched to the American imagination that it deserves only condemnation. But racism seems to be popping up all over the place these days. It’s like the gopher game at the arcade, we can keep knocking racism into the ground but its still there, lingering under the ground, doing better than before because no one is hitting it over the head.
If we really want to eliminate racism, we should learn to use these outbursts of racism as teachable moments. Engage in a public discussion that can lead us to real answers as to why a brilliant scientist could harbor these feelings for his entire lifetime (I mean didn’t he get the memo that racism is out?). Maybe it is because in America blacks and whites are not equal. No one can argue that blacks are better educated than whites, or that they are imprisoned at a lower rate. These are truths. The problem is that no one in our mainstream media is willing to explore why. The Sunday Times of London did just that in a follow up to the interview in their Magazine. In a question and answer form, Nigel Hawkes explored many of the questions that such comments inspire, here’s the full text.
Is there any truth in the claim that black people are less intelligent than whites?
What does the evidence actually show?
Dr Watson, who is 79, was probably basing the first part of his remarks on research that is most clearly summarised in The Bell Curve, a 1994 bestseller by Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray. This was a neoconservative take on data collected over many years by psychologists measuring IQ. It claimed that the evidence showed a consistent gap of about 15 IQ points between whites and blacks, that IQ tests measure something real that determines success in education and in life, that this factor is strongly inherited and that it is unaffected by education.
If all these claims are true, then social mobility that rewards the highly intelligent means there will be a growing gap between a cognitive elite – mostly white – and a cognitive underclass – mostly black.
Were these ideas new?
No. Francis Galton, the intellectual founder of eugenics, declared in the 19th century that ability owed more to nature than to nurture, and that there was a huge gap in abilities between the brightest and the stupidest. The more mobile a society became, he predicted, the more an aristocracy of birth would be replaced by an aristocracy of talent.
Isn’t that a good thing? Surely we are all in favour of merit being rewarded?
Yes, we are. But we also hold fast to the belief that all men are created equal. The idea of a permanent, ineradicable distinction based on colour is repugnant. So the claims made in The Bell Curve made most people uneasy, and some furious. Few books have been so roundly denounced, or made their authors subject to such relentless attack.
Who won the argument [between nature and nurture]?
Neither side can claim a knock-out. The situation is more of a stand-off. Both sides have made their case, at length, and then retired exhausted. Psychologists really do not want to engage in the argument any more, because it cuts so deep into the social psyche. Those who do tend to find that they lose their jobs.
This is supposed to be a world in which anything can be discussed, but there are still some forbidden areas.
So those who get involved tend to be outsiders: the inventor of the transistor, William Shockley, went to his grave protesting the intellectual superiority of the white races to a steadily diminishing audience.
James Watson risks the same obloquy.
Should Dr Watson have been silenced by the Science Museum?
No. The museum constantly claims that it wants to be seen as a happening place where new ideas are presented. It was a feeble response, the more so as he quickly distanced himself from his own remarks. There is no reason to label James Watson a racialist – he is more a clumsy controversialist. Such people are better challenged than silenced.
While I don’t find Hawkes’ questions or his answers to be particularly enlightening (particularly the reasons why the nature v. environment debate has ceased), I do think the final sentence is his most profound, or at least the most relevant to this post. Forcing Watson to retire into his little home across the street from the laboratory is appropriate, but there is a greater social responsibility that is being overlooked: explaining to anyone who shares these ideas (which is no small population in this country) why these ideas are fictitious, and how America’s vast social inequality has been formed through explicit laws, policies and practices and not through an imaginary meritocracy.
America is an unfair place. Racism still lingers in small and large minds alike. If we really want to bring about change we must attack the system that has made it this way instead of the people who have come up with simple (and stupid) answers to one of the world’s most complex questions. By exposing racist beliefs and discussing them in the public sphere we can kill them, rather than continuing to let them silently live on.
Written by ITT Intern Colin Meyn