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.

And here's what he wrote later in his op-ed:

We do not yet adequately understand the way in which the different environments in the world have selected over time the genes which determine our capacity to do different things. The overwhelming desire of society today is to assume that equal powers of reason are a universal heritage of humanity. It may well be. But simply wanting this to be the case is not enough. This is not science.

Geographically separated in their evolution. Different environments in the world have selected over time the genes which determine our capacity. How much more genetic can you get?

The hypothesis of intellectual inferiority through separate evolution may be totally wrong. I hope my race's average intelligence isn't inferior. I hope nobody else's is, either. But at least it's a hypothesis. You can test IQ and other traits among populations. You can look for genetic similarities and differences. You can check geographically distinctive genes for relationships to intelligence. You can examine the extent to which "race" correlates with patterns of DNA. You can look for non-genetic causes of gaps in test performance. A lot of this research is already being done.

Watson's revisions don't contradict the hypothesis. They offer no evidence or theory to explain why it might be wrong. All they do is fudge its implications.

Now Watson says it was his idea to retire, never mind that his lab had already suspended him. He says it's time to leave because he's "closer now to 80 than 79," as though it weren't obvious that a guy who's still working at 79 but thinks 80 is a more suitable retirement age has been holding out for his birthday. Fudge, fudge, fudge.

Well, if he wants to paper over his bruised ego, that's his business. But racism, genetics, culture, black America, and the future of Africa are too important to be papered over.

It's clear from Watson's revisionism, reticence, and retirement that he wants to make his hypothesis go away. But wanting it isn't enough. That's not science. It's politics.

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