HonestThinking 18.10.2008. This file contains excerpts from the article James Watson tells the inconvenient truth: Faces the consequences, by Jason Malloy, published by Medical Hypotheses, Volume 70, Issue 6, 2008, Pages 1081-1091. The entire article is available from ScienceDirect. A longer version of this article is available from Gene Expression. Boldface emphasis added by HonestThinking.







James Watson tells the inconvenient truth: Faces the consequences




Recent comments by the eminent biologist James Watson concerning intelligence test data from sub-Saharan Africa resulted in professional sanctions as well as numerous public condemnations from the media and the scientific community. They justified these sanctions to the public through an abuse of trust, by suggesting that intelligence testing is a meaningless and discredited science, that there is no data to support Dr. Watson’s comments, that genetic causes of group differences in intelligence are falsified logically and empirically, and that such differences are already accounted for by known environment factors. None of these arguments are correct, much less beyond legitimate scientific debate. Dr. Watson was correct on all accounts: (1) Intelligence tests do reveal large differences between European and sub-Saharan African nations, (2) the evidence does link these differences to universally valued outcomes, both within and between nations, and (3) there is data to suggest these differences are influenced by genetic factors. The media and the larger scientific community punished Dr. Watson for violating a social and political taboo, but fashioned their case to the public in terms of scientific ethics. This necessitated lying to the public about numerous scientific issues to make Watson appear negligent in his statements; a gross abuse of valuable and fragile public trust in scientific authority. Lies and a threatening, coercive atmosphere to free inquiry and exchange are damaging to science as an institution and to scientists as individuals, while voicing unfashionable hypotheses is not damaging to science. The ability to openly voice and argue ideas in good faith that are strange and frightening to some is, in fact, integral to science. Those that have participated in undermining this openness and fairness have therefore damaged science, even while claiming to protect it with the same behavior.

© 2008 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.



It’s difficult to name many more important living figures in 20th century biology than James Watson. He ushered in the current age of molecular biology with his achievements in 1953, he built up one of the world’s greatest biological research facilities and led it for nearly 40 years, and he is a former head of the Human Genome Project. But given only the media’s response to his recent comments on race, one might believe that this eminent geneticist was somehow unqualified to speak on such a topic at all.


In his October of 2007 interview with the Times, we learned that Watson:


‘‘... is ‘‘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 [he knows] that this ‘‘hot potato’’ is going to be difficult to address [1]’’.


These thoughts were a continuation of the concluding paragraphs from his new book Avoid Boring People:


‘‘A priori, 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’’.


The Independent provoked an instant media stir by calling attention to both quotes with a frontpage headline: ‘‘Africans are less intelligent than Westerners says DNA pioneer’’ [3]. [...]


Unsupported by science?


The ‘‘scientific community’’ is a broad and inappropriately encompassing term, but to the extent such a thing exists as a social or public entity (apart from the research literature), it is fair to say it pronounced Watson’s claims not only false, but also outside the bounds of appropriate scientific discourse. For instance, the Science Museum in London responded by canceling Watson’s speaking engagement, saying:


‘‘We know that eminent scientists can sometimes say things that cause controversy and the Science Museum does not shy away from debating controversial topics... However, the Science Museum feels that Nobel Prize winner James Watson’s recent comments have gone beyond the point of acceptable debate and we are as a result cancelling his talk at the museum’’ [4, my emphasis].


Watson’s claim was that intelligence testing shows lower intelligence scores in Africa than Europe. Francis Collins, Watson’s successor over the Human Genome Project, released a statement asserting the claim is not true:


‘‘I am deeply saddened by the events of the last week, and understand and agree with Dr. Watson’s undoubtedly painful decision to retire in the aftermath of a racist statement he made that was both profoundly offensive and utterly unsupported by scientific evidence’’ [5, my emphasis].


University of Chicago geneticist, Rick Kittles, told the media that ‘‘Watson’s remarks aren’t backed by science’’ [6, my emphasis].


Robert Sternberg, a psychometrician at Tufts University, told the media that Watson knows nothing about intelligence research, that his claims were false, ‘‘racist and most regrettable,’’ and an expression of his ‘‘own ideology rather than scientific findings’’ [6, my emphasis].


Steven Rose, a professor of biology and neurobiology in London similarly told the media that ‘‘... If [Watson] knew the literature in the subject he would know he was out of his depth scientifically, quite apart from socially and politically’’ [3, my emphasis].


The Federation of American Scientists issued a statement condemning Watson, claiming that there is no scientific literature supporting his claims:


‘‘The Federation of American Scientists condemns the comments of Dr. James Watson that appeared in the Sunday Times Magazine on October 14th... The scientific enterprise is based on the promotion and proof of new ideas through evidence, however controversial, but Dr. Watson chose to use his unique stature to promote personal prejudices that are racist, vicious and unsupported by science’’ [7, my emphasis].


But one thing was conspicuously missing from these numerous scientifically framed condemnations: any semblance of factual refutation. There is good reason for this: everything Watson got in trouble for saying was entirely correct!


The suggestion in Avoid Boring People that basic evolutionary logic predicts physical as well as mental differences between genetically divergent human populations is, if anything, an uncomplicated truth. The claim central to the Watson controversy, that intelligence testing shows lower scores in Africa than Europe, is likewise, entirely supported by the scientific literature. As is Dr. Watson’s statement in the same interview that there are many talented people of African descent, which clarifies the obvious fact he was speaking of different average scores, not that said populations are homogenous for any trait. [...]


Media red herrings about the supposed ineffability of intelligence or lies about the scientific worthlessness of intelligence testing are designed to moot honesty and openness on this issue, and simply side step the uncomfortable facts. But avoiding facts does not change reality or help shape it to our liking. Intelligence measures predict the kind of social and personal outcomes that people the world over agree are important and desirable. For this reason we need to start engaging this data instead of shooting the messengers. Especially when the messengers we are so casually discarding are important figures like James Watson.


Race has nothing to do with it?


James Watson implied a belief that the uniquely low intelligence of both continental Africans and African-Americans are probably related to familiar genetic causes. This belief is deemed unacceptable to express in public, even in most academic contexts, or hold in private. This is despite the fact that the research evidence in support of this position is stronger than the research evidence that contradicts it. Thus even top scientists like Watson are punished by their peers for holding beliefs that are more scientific and logical, while scientists that hold to less scientific beliefs and illogical arguments are rewarded. This is an embarrassment to science. [...]


In closing: who damaged science?


According to the media and members of the scientific community, James Watson hurt science itself. An editorial in the top science journal Nature asserted:


‘‘Crass comments by Nobel laureates undermine our very ability to debate such issues, and thus damage science itself’’ [112].


Similarly the Chicago Tribune featured this:


‘‘The damage to Watson’s legacy from his statements may be difficult to mend,’’ said Jerry Coyne, a professor of evolutionary genetics at the University of Chicago. ‘‘He’s done tremendous damage to science, to himself and to social equality,’’ Coyne said. ‘‘It makes us all look bad’’ [6].


James Watson is one of the most distinguished living figures in American science, and yet even he was not immune to immediate expulsion from the very lab he created and built up over 40 years of his life, and excommunication from the scientific establishment that celebrated him. All this for one crime: voicing scientific facts and hypotheses that made this community uncomfortable. The same personal and professional fate befell former Harvard president Larry Summers in 2005 for a purely academic discussion of females in science during an economics conference intended for discussing this very subject!


What effect will this continuing intellectual mob violence have on future and current scientists and researchers who want to freely study human genetics, cross-cultural psychology, sociology, or any discipline that may reveal similar facts that have the potential to cause their professional or personal destruction by an intellectual community that resembles the medieval church?


Those who punish, those who lie, those who silence, those who condemn, those who intimidate... they have corrupted science.


They have injured the intellectual openness, freedom, and fairness of our society and our institutions, with untold costs to our collective human well-being.


Not James D. Watson.




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