About Rationally Speaking
Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.
Sunday, October 21, 2007
Jim Watson, trouble as usual
In an interview with the Sunday Times, Watson said 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.” Ouch. Of course, Watson's remark is way off in terms of scientific reality: “all our testing” is actually indicating a slight difference in IQ (itself a very controversial measure of the nebulous concept of intelligence) between blacks and Caucasians, but is saying pretty much nothing of interest about the causes of such difference. Indeed, African-American scores have substantially improved in past decades, if anything indicating that at least part of the gap is cultural, not genetic, in nature.
Moreover, we also know from the burgeoning field of phenotypic plasticity (the technical term for gene-environment interactions) that even if there were genetic differences in a given trait between populations, changes in the environment can still erase them, or improve the scores of everyone – which means that social policies based on the assumption that changing the living conditions of people makes a difference are not at all unreasonable.
The reaction to Watson's comments has been predictably rapid, and often equally stupid. The Telegraph reports that Steven Rose, a neurobiologist at the Open University said that Watson's remarks were “racist” and “genetic nonsense.” They are neither, actually. For a comment to be racist it has to be intended as demeaning of the party receiving it. But it is clear from the interview that Watson released to Charlotte Hunt-Grubbe of the Times that he is convinced that he is simply uttering scientifically-based commonsense (he is not, but it is the intention that counts). Indeed, people who know Watson (I don't, even though the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory is a few miles from Stony Brook University) constantly remark about his concern with helping women and minorities.
Watson's statement is also not technically “genetic nonsense” because it is perfectly possible, in principle, that different groups of humans may be characterized by different genetic bases for cognitive traits, just like it is obviously true that there are genetically-based differences in intelligence among individuals within a given group. It is an empirical question (and a difficult one at that), not a matter of a priori logic. What Watson can be justly reproached for is making an inflammatory comment based on questionable scientific evidence, taking advantage of his position as a Nobel-winning highly credentialed scientist, and possibly in order to generate buzz about his book. Bad, but hardly a capital offense.
Moreover, according to the Telegraph, Koku Adomdza, director of The 1990 Trust, a black equality pressure group, said that Watson should apologize to “Africa and all people of African origin.” It constantly amazes me that people think they have some sort of constitutional right shielding them from offense. Watson's remark was indeed stupid and offensive. Africans and people of African descent can respond to it, ignore it, or have their fun in turn by insulting Watson himself. But a global apology from a private citizen who simply stated his opinion, however unfounded? C'mon, people, don't we have better things to do?
Indeed, the Equality and Human Rights Commission released a statement saying that it was considering Watson's remarks “in full.” And do what? Do we want a world where people do not have a right to utter stupid comments? Because if that's the case, I've got a long list of candidates, beginning with pretty much everything that George W. has said during the last seven years. But the fact is that freedom of speech, which includes the freedom to utter sheer nonsense and to offend people – willingly or not – is as important as truth. Indeed, it is our best chance to find out the truth.
p.s.: The most recent development is that Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory has suspended Watson from his administrative responsibilities. I interpret this action to confirm my fears about the sort of hysteria that can be generated by controversial issues. Again, Watson made a silly unsubstantiated claim, but he has the same right as anybody else to say stupid, even offensive, things. He should be challenged, not suspended. The best way to deal with controversial statements is to take them on, not to suppress them.