Nature: Watson “damage[d] science itself”

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Nature has weighed in on the Watson imbroglio with a ponderously written editorial, accusing him of “lending succor and comfort to racists around the globe”. It concludes:

Many human geneticists are engaged in the sensitive task of unravelling differences between the world’s population groups, all the while acknowledging that ‘race’ is an emotive and unscientific word. Others are investigating the equally sensitive genetics of ‘desirable’ traits, such as cognitive ability.

Asking such questions has always been controversial, given the potential for abuse of the outcomes demonstrated by the history of eugenics. Scientists explore the world as it is, rather than as they would like it to be. There will be important debates in the future as we gain a fuller understanding of the influence of genetics on human attributes and behaviour. Crass comments by Nobel laureates undermine our very ability to debate such issues, and thus damage science itself.

Now, it’s well-known that Watson is an asshole, and frankly I can’t say I really care about the “punishments” he’s getting (if he really said, as he is quoted, that his conclusions should be obvious to anyone that has worked with black employees, then, well, I can see how an organization with black employees might not want him around so much). I’m not too worried about the guy’s prospects; he’s no martyr.

That said, he’s brought to the attention of a larger crowd the “uncomfortable facts” that human geneticists are starting to face–populations differ genetically, and those genetic differences actually matter phenotypically. In the internets, Larry Moran is asking about the genetic component of intelligence, and the commenters over at Half Sigma have been having a field day looking through publicly available resources at the population distributions of alleles thought to be involved in IQ.

I don’t know how much any of this trickles up to the world at large, but if it does at all, and it accelerates the coming of the day when people can quit feeling awkward about the implications of genetic research and start saying forcefully that political equality is not dependent on biological identity, then ultimately this could be a good thing. So has James Watson damaged science itself? Hopefully, quite the contrary!

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38 Comments

  1. Suppose we found out that between-group variance in intelligence had zero genetic component — that would lend equal succor and comfort to racists, since they don’t care about what the source of the between-group variance is.* They could say, “You see, it’s those awful Black mothers who don’t properly raise their kids — they’re to blame for the Black-White IQ gap!” 
     
    As for being careful due to potential abuses in the eugenics direction — that is equally true for studying environmental factors of diffs in intelligence (or whatever), since that tends toward totalitarian social engineering (Socialist Man). No one seems to give a damn about the latter, since environmental factors are all you ever hear about for intelligence, personality, etc., and since the shadow of historical reality is far greater for totalitarianism than for eugenics. 
     
    Putting both of those facts together, we should only hear warnings about how current research trends threaten to usher in totalitarian social engineering — yet we hear nothing about this, and instead about how research that’s barely discussed tends in the direction of some historical event that barely took off the ground before sputtering out. 
     
    * No one, at all, debates that the IQ gap exists.

  2. Asking the questions and then immediately caving under the pressure of “don’t ask!” has certainly damaged the scientific endeavor.

  3. I think the ‘Nature’ editorial will eventually be viewed as much more measured and balanced than what the more politically correct ‘Science’ will publish.

  4. A shameful editorial. Disgraceful.

  5. susan blackmore 
    http://www.gnxp.com/blog/2007/10/design-brainy-babies-easier-way.php 
     
    steven rose 
    http://commentisfree.guardian.co.uk/steven_rose/2007/10/iq_and_genetics_-_again.html 
     
    (you might want to take pepcid before reading rose’s piece, especially the second paragraph where the comrade exhorts us to look to the ends, not the means)

  6. He acknowledged that there is no evidence for what he claimed about racial differences in intelligence. 
     
    Dear media, 
     
    HE DID NOT RETRACT THIS 
     
    Thank you, 
    Jason 
     
    “Genetically inferior” != lower intelligence: 
    “To those who have drawn the inference from my words that Africa, as a continent, is somehow genetically inferior, I can only apologise unreservedly. That is not what I meant. More importantly from my point of view, there is no scientific basis for such a belief… 
     
    The overwhelming desire of society today is to assume that equal powers of reason are a universal heritage of humanity…. 
     
    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. 
    So, allow me to distill the real apology:  
    ‘I’m sorry, you people interpreted my comments to mean Africans are “genetically inferior”. I did not mean that and such judgments have nothing to do with science. But what I did question was popular dogmas that ‘science says’ humans need be just as capable at world class engineering in Africa on average as they are in Europe because intelligence has to be the same everywhere. Questioning this taboo-enforced bit of nonsense is not racism and is in fact more consistent with science than the anti-Darwinian elite consensus being used to justify my immolation right now.  
     
    Over and out,  
    A towering 20th century figure in human genetics.’

  7. It is tempting to refer to “IQ denialists”, but I suppose that I shouldn’t, really.

  8. I’ve just realised what it’s saying. “Not in front of the children”, I think.

  9. Asking the questions and then immediately caving under the pressure of “don’t ask!” has certainly damaged the scientific endeavor 
     
    but he didn’t cave under the pressure of don’t ask. he claims to have been mortified by the assumption that he said all of africa was inferior, which is understandable.  
     
    I’ve just realised what it’s saying. “Not in front of the children”, I think. 
     
    actually, yeah, kind of.

  10. AARGH, Cornelia Dean of the New York Times does it again
     
    “Dr. Watson… was quoted in The Times of London last week as suggesting that, overall, people of African descent are not as intelligent as people of European descent. In the ensuing uproar, he issued a statement apologizing ?unreservedly? for the comments, adding ?there is no scientific basis for such a belief.? 
     
    False. False. False.

  11. During a lecture tour in 2000, he suggested there might be links between skin color and sexual prowess, and between a person’s weight and their level of ambition.  
     
    For the love of God, sexual prowess? The guy has COMPLETELY lost his marbles, admit it.  
     
    Person’s weight vs ambition– Oprah?

  12. I dont have a problem with scientists getting frank and candid BUT why not be frank and candid on issues that his race is inferior? 
    Why not say, IQ differs between Asians and Europeans, with Asians having more IQ and anyone who has an Asian employee knows this for a fact. 
     
    (I love the Asians. Whenever some race declare supremacy, I just throw their “superiority ” in. :) )

  13. Benn – the Euro-East Asian difference is only 5 IQ points and that lies in the better visuo-spatial abilities of East Asians. This isn’t a problem, but the black difference of 15 points is.

  14. STILL. Why not use Asians? Why use someone who has testing scores lower than yours?  
     
    There’s that difference between a racist and a frank and candid scientist. His comments start with “My genetic structure is better..”

  15. Nah, he should have used Ashkenazi Jews. The difference between Europeans and Jews in IQ is a full 15 points. Besides, talking about Jews as a group isn’t controversial at all.

  16. The difference between Europeans and Jews in IQ is a full 15 points. 
     
    …on the more verbal tests. the diff. can be as small as 7 points on the more VP loaded tests i think.

  17. Jason, 
     
    I mean no offense, of course, but how can anyone in 2007 be surprised that the New York Times is bending reality? I mean, how many bites does that dog get? Does it even need kibble anymore? 
     
    See also this on the Jena 6.

  18. benn said:Why not say, IQ differs between Asians and Europeans, with Asians having more IQ and anyone who has an Asian employee knows this for a fact. 
     
    wow, benn. i hate to sound pedantic, but asians are not, i repeat not monolithic, and experience with a random asian employee is definitely not guaranteed to prove anything at all
     
    (I love the Asians. Whenever some race declare supremacy, I just throw their “superiority ” in. :) ) 
     
    spoken like a true asiaphile.

  19. I thank him for broaching the subject, even if ineloquently. I think lots of preconceptions about what we know about IQ will be shattered in the wake of this story.

  20. with a random asian employee is definitely not guaranteed to prove anything at all. 
     
    Replace the term Asian with Black, and your comment still stands true. 
     
    So the question is again, if one is truly an objective scientist, … Im tired of explaining this. You cant wake someone who’s pretending to sleep. 
     
    And calling me “asiaphile” . You want to minimize me to a what? – a demeaning label so my argument would just be taken for granted? 
     
    Monolithic? Do you think all Europeans are as bright as Germans?

  21. Replace the term Asian with Black, and your comment still stands true. 
     
    okay… so then u’ve just admitted ur argument is bunk. watson shouldn’t have said anything at all w/ regards to personal experience. making controversial blanket statements from personal observations is just dumb. 
     
    u seem to imply that u believe racial iq determines some sort of genetic heirarchy. that isn’t backed up by science or by scientists like watson. he only went so far as to say black iq is lower than that of other races. higher iq != genetic superiority.

  22. lower the temperature everyone. there are many scream fests on the web about this topic. not interested in hosting another one.

  23. For an article published in the Guardian Sue Blackmore’s contribution was shockingly reasonable, even possibly overstepping the mark in terms of school pupils being sorted by race rather than by IQ.

  24. Benn’s declaration of love for several billion members of the far eastern sino-races is a little idealistic–not that there’s anything wrong with that. Many people these days would attribute such love to reincarnation; but here at gnxp, it’s because the Asians are 1/3 of a standard deviation above the norm. 
    In my humble opinion, though, Benn is right that humility is the sugar that could have made Watson’s pill go down. That, along with the Copernicus method, the impersonal, passive-voice declaration: “it is said that the earth goes around the sun….but we faithful know better, etc.etc.”  
     
    As for anecdotes, what is life but one long anecdote. Aren’t stats made of anecodotes and vice versa. Stats are just a compressed format for displaying anecdotes.

  25. A Nigerian comments on Watson: 
     
    http://allafrica.com/stories/200710250639.html

  26. Wow, that Nigerian comment was incredibly depressing, but it does highlight the crux of the problem and the problem many people have with the issue.  
     
    The writer of the missive assumes that if Africans just worked harder, then their “God-given” gifts would shine through. Now we all know that’s not so, but it does highlight one thing. Say by fiat, everyone came to the conclusion of genetic differences in intelligence across human groups.  
     
    Now what? We all like to talk about the wonders of gene therepy for intelligence right around the corner, but really, none of us has crystal balls saying that it’ll be ready in any foreseeable future for us. Until that time comes, what is to be done? Leave those left behind to squalor and misery? “Humanely encourage” them not to have children? Restore some sort of tounge-clucking paternalism? I really can’t think of many even barely pleasant choices. Sometimes I wonder why no one attempts to see why others vehemently deny hbd when it comes to intelligence. It goes beyond just having some sort of “PC” worldview get shattered. It means essentially having to come to the conclusion that with the tools at hand now, we can’t do much to fix a lot of problems in the world causing massive human suffering.

  27. It means essentially having to come to the conclusion that with the tools at hand now, we can’t do much to fix a lot of problems in the world causing massive human suffering. 
     
    that’s why the analogy to religion is so appropriate!

  28. As for anecdotes, what is life but one long anecdote. Aren’t stats made of anecodotes and vice versa. Stats are just a compressed format for displaying anecdotes. 
     
    sure they are. but one life is an unrepresentative anecdote. the ppl who frequent this site probably have unrepresentative anecdotes just as watson might.

  29. “All true histories contain instruction; though, in some, the treasure may be hard to find, and when found, so trivial in quantity that the dry, shrivelled kernel scarcely compensates for the trouble of cracking the nut.” 
     
    “Agnes Grey”, Anne Brontë

  30. Until that time comes, what is to be done? Leave those left behind to squalor and misery? “Humanely encourage” them not to have children? 
     
    It’s not *that* bad. There are more important things than intelligence in determining quality of life. For instance, I would argue the morality of the citizenry is more important than its intelligence. 
     
    I already wrote a long comment on another post about the Amish, but they’re a good example here too. They’re not educated or bright, they will never participate in the modern economy nor ever contribute to humanity’s knowledge, they employ archaic technology and accept little help from the modern societies that surround them and yet still they have a reasonable quality of life.

  31. Bongwa, you just made several assumptions on my post, how you got to those assumptions is beyond my understanding. 
     
    If you want to argue on anything you have to understand what the other person is trying to say. 
     
    .. and you think you got IQ. Sigh.

  32. razib: 
     
    Of course by the same cheeky token, the hope in imminent cheap gene therapy will come to float all boats is a bit like saying Jesus is coming soon. I’d laugh at the whole thing, but it seems that religious modes of thinking seem to be in everyone, not that I’m saying anyone here of note really falls into that sort of blithe optimism of cheap therapy right around the corner. 
     
    It may be my pessimistic nature, but sometimes the whole “soon human genetic flaws can be engineered away” sounds a bit like the Singularity for Bio types.

  33. It may be my pessimistic nature, but sometimes the whole “soon human genetic flaws can be engineered away” sounds a bit like the Singularity for Bio types. 
     
    preimplantation screening and selection abortion can really help a lot of couples engage in eugenic improvement of their lineage soon.

  34. benn said: Bongwa 
     
    right… anyways. 
     
    If you want to argue on anything you have to understand what the other person is trying to say. 
     
    u think ppl would be more accepting of it if he made his own race “inferior.” blacks and whites may be more accepting of that, but u don’t seem to take asians into account. not all asians care to be put on a pedestal by whites as a “superior” race. it makes them a target in an argument that they didn’t start and aren’t necessarily a party to. as EW said earlier, asians are not having problems. blacks are. if he is concerned about the basis of western policy towards africa, he need not mention asians at all. if his argument is compelling, it should stand on its own without needing to play the “asian card.” his comments would seem less inflammatory if he simply left out his personal observations. 
     
    .. and you think you got IQ. Sigh. 
     
    and i said this when?

  35. razib: 
     
    I suppose less “flaws” than shortcomings. I’m pretty certain genetic diseases are going to be cleared up fairly soon, particularly for those who can afford it, but an upcoming world where everyone from Peoria to Lagos emerges from the womb able to cope and contribute to the modern world if they so desired? Not particularly hopeful.

  36. “sure they are. but one life is an unrepresentative anecdote. the ppl who frequent this site probably have unrepresentative anecdotes just as watson might.”  
    true, I like to think mine are special too. 
    but if they are, they would be represented at the far ends of the bell curve.  
    Some poor young person gets blown up in a humvee in Iraq. Would have been safer in a tank. This is his story, this is a stat. 
     
    “All true histories contain instruction; though, in some, the treasure may be hard to find, and when found, so trivial in quantity that the dry, shrivelled kernel scarcely compensates for the trouble of cracking the nut.”  
    go girl. 
    The spector of disappointment has shadowed me so persistently, I tossed my nut-cracker long ago. 
    Nobody could express discouragement better than the Brontes. Anne was a bit self-referential here, self-effacing as she was. Yet an enormous number of trees have been sacrificed in tribute for recording anecdotes of her and her family–they really make a good read after all.  
    They were also statistics: early death, late or no marriage, early sibling mortality, galluping consumption, 1 in a 100,000 fame and success above the hoard of “female scribblers.” S

  37. btw, there is a lot more at stake regarding Watson’s comments, than just hurt feelings and moral indignation. If it is not accepted that some people in certain very large extended families are just not as mentally high-functioning as other very large extended families, then…now where am I … oh yeah …. 
    it means that the lower functioning members of very large extended families will always be blaming the more successful members of very large extended families and claiming they were screwed in some way. didn’t have enough caviar growing up or something. 
     
    That’s the problem. the blame game.

  38. Would everyone be so up in arms if Watson asserted the Melanin Theory, in which black supremists believe that a greater level of melanin in dark skin “naturally enhances intelligence, emotional sensitivity, and physical prowess.” 
     
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Melanin_Theory#Melanin_Theory

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