In case you missed it...

...James Watson stirred things up recently.

The newly formed Equality and Human Rights Commission, successor to the Commission for Racial Equality, said it was studying Dr Watson's remarks " in full". Dr Watson told The Sunday Times that 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 there was a natural desire that all human beings should be equal but "people who have to deal with black employees find this not true".

His views are also reflected in a book published next week, in which he writes: "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."

Here are his own words.

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.

To question this is not to give in to racism. 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. It is very likely that at least some 10 to 15 years will pass before we get an adequate understanding for the relative importance of nature versus nurture in the achievement of important human objectives. Until then, we as scientists, wherever we wish to place ourselves in this great debate, should take care in claiming what are unarguable truths without the support of evidence.

Share this

Suspended

It disgusts me but does not surprise me that he was suspended for his politically unpalatable views. And how's this for irony:

Federation of American Scientists President Henry Kelly added: “At a time when the scientific community is feeling threatened by political forces seeking to undermine its credibility, it is tragic that one of the icons of modern science has cast such dishonour on the profession.”

Oh, the irony. Physician, heal thyself.

I agree with his point,

I agree with his point, claiming natural intelligence is the same for groups who evolved in different context is mostly whishful thinking.
However, I am a bit puzzled by his comment about social policies.
"all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours"
This is a bit odd, I have never seen such an assumption... he's talking about Africa here... what does he mean? Africans are too stupid to open a free box of food supply? He then goes on to say
"people who have to deal with black employees find this not true"
this looks like unsupported anecdotal evidence, it's far from the scientific ideal of rational doubt he boasts about later on.

As far as I can go

I can't speak for him, but I can answer a couple points.

"all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours"

This is a bit odd, I have never seen such an assumption...

Accusations of racial prejudice based on observable statistical disparities require the absence of strong alternative explanations, such as the claim about relative intelligence. Moreover, racial admission and hiring quotas only make sense on the assumption that the proportions that are hired prior to the quotas are "too low", and we can call it "too low" only if we know what the proportion "ought to be", and this proportion is affected by the distribution of intelligence.

Also, look at it this way: that the reaction is so strong suggests that people are genuinely threatened by the idea, and one reason they may be threatened is that the favored social policies require for the idea to be wrong. So the strong reaction is itself evidence. But it is not the only evidence.

A decade or so ago, there was a much more massive outcry over the book, The Bell Curve. So far this current case is just modest replay of that. At that point, the same subjects were brought up. I'm already thoroughly bored by any discussion that is about to occur over the current case because my expectation is that I've already heard it a hundred times over.

"people who have to deal with black employees find this not true"

this looks like unsupported anecdotal evidence, it's far from the scientific ideal of rational doubt he boasts about later on.

Maybe it is, and maybe he argues against that kind of evidence elsewhere. However, for my own part, I am strongly against the science snobs who refuse to let lay people come to their own conclusions about the reality they live in every day based on what they see with their own eyes, day in and day out. If the science snobs had their way, everybody would have their eyes and ears plucked out and replaced by a wire that only transmitted information from peer reviewed publicaitons.

 

1) Maybe the jouranlist is

1) Maybe the jouranlist is confused but the article cleary says that the "social policies" he talks about are foreign aid in Africa, this does not rely on any assumption of equal intelligence (as opposed to affirmative action for example).

2) Sure but he is not a layman, his appeal to personal experience with black employees is pretty weak for a scientist. 

I do agree  about everything you said about the stupid reactions, etc. I am merely pointing out that his attitude and comments were clearly unprofessional. Science should imply rigor and certainly doesn't prevent tact.

Social policy

1) This is a subtle point of language and I might be wrong, but I would not call foreign aid to Africa a "social policy". If you use that term, I'll think you're talking about specific policies that we carry out in our own society. I can't exactly give a rational basis for this distinction. Maybe if I think about it for a while I can find some rational basis.

Edit: OK, I may have pinned it down. I think of "social policy" as something that the government does. Not a private entity. (Charities are the closest private entities to doing something like "social policy" but I've never heard a private charity described as doing "social policy".) And African countries are sovereign. Their governments can therefore do "social policy" to their subjects, but foreign aid is not "social policy" because the giver is not the sovereign power in the territory in question. Governments acting outside of their own territory are acting as private entities except for special circumstances (e.g., when they are invading). See for example the case of Italy, which ordered the arrest of American CIA agents in connection with a kidnapping - the Italian government is treating them as if they were ordinary kidnappers rather than agents of the state with the usual immunities. That's because, on Italian soil, that's what they are.

So, if foreign aid is not called "social policy", then what is it called? Well, I've pretty much just heard it called "foreign aid".

It may be that Watson is speaking an unfamiliar language to me. However, I do notice that the quotes in question are distinct quotes, joined and explained by the journalist in the original Times article that started the controversy. I have some experience with writers who glue somebody else's quotes together with explanations provided by the writer. I've seen this happen with leftists quoting Adam Smith at me. They take a quote here, a quote there, and glue them together with their own explanations of what Adam Smith meant by those quotes. The result has taught me to distrust that practice.

2) I would actually say that he is a layman in the current context. Everyone is a layman outside of his own specialty, and here he is speaking outside of his own specialty. He's a molecular biologist. You could of course then point out, "so why is his opinion on this matter so important to people, causing this uproar". I think it's more an issue of his general prominence. Recall that mere celebrities, who have no scientific expertise at all, can similarly cause an uproar when they say things that are politically unwise to say.

 

1) Oh I agree, social policy

1) Oh I agree, social policy doesn't make sense at all to describe foreign aid... nor does it make sense at all to say it relies on equal intelligence assumption... 

yet:  

Dr Watson told The Sunday Times that 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 

the because was added by the journalist... the more I think of it, the more I believe the journalist pasted to unrelated remarks... one about the development of Africa, the other about affirmative action.