Racism, science, politics, and James Watson.

Science, technology, and life.
Oct. 26 2007 9:54 AM

Doctored Watson

Racism, science, politics, and revisionism.

James Watson. Click image to expand.
James Watson

James Watson, the Nobel-winning biologist, wants to go out with a whimper. He almost went out with a bang. Two weeks ago, the Times of London published an interview in which Watson apparently asserted the intellectual inferiority of blacks and Africans. A week later, in a statement to reporters and in an op-ed in the Independent of London, Watson tried to clean up what he had said. Now he just wants the whole thing to go away. Yesterday, he announced that he's retiring from his lab. Three days ago, he told the Louisville Courier Journal he's postponing his book tour until the race furor "gets out of the newspapers."

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Don't let him off that easy.

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I'm not saying Watson deserves more of a pounding for asserting a racial gap. That's a purely empirical claim. Every man who works at Slate could be stupider than every woman who works here. I find that proposition offensive, but it could be true, depending on whether tests bear it out. Hell, from reading my columns, some of you may already suspect as much.

No, the reason I don't want to let Watson go quietly is that he didn't really clean up his original comments. All he did was obfuscate them. His original claims were testable and backed by a theory. His revisions aren't. Scientifically, they say nothing and retract nothing. All they do is make racism harder to identify, scrutinize, and test.

In the original interview, Watson said he was "gloomy about the prospect of Africa," since "our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours—whereas all the testing says not really."

In his cleanup attempt, Watson repackaged his remarks: "This is not a discussion about superiority or inferiority, it is about seeking to understand differences, about why some of us are great musicians and others great engineers."

Oh, please. "You're great musicians, we're great engineers" is just a high-class version of that line from Blazing Saddles: "When y'all was slaves, y'all sang like birds!" If Watson hadn't meant that Africans were inferior, he wouldn't have expressed gloom about their future. His subsequent pretense that being good musicians will help their prospects as much as being good engineers insults, if I may say so, their intelligence.

In his revisionist op-ed, Watson wrote, "To 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."

Not what he meant? There are two parts to the phrase "genetically inferior." We've already established that he implied inferiority. The only remaining question is whether he meant genetic. Here's what Watson has written, according to the original interview:

There is no firm reason to anticipate that the intellectual capacities of peoples geographically separated in their evolution should prove to have evolved identically. Our wanting to reserve equal powers of reason as some universal heritage of humanity will not be enough to make it so.