Not so elementary, Watson

Prof. Watson, as seen by his critics

Nobel laureate James Watson of the double helix fame is one of the most important modern scientists, and his collection of honorary titles reflects that.

Yet over a couple of decades or so, Prof. Watson has been shedding his gongs through his mouth, with one or two going each time he made a ‘controversial’ remark. (A controversial remark, in case you’re wondering, is any statement that fails the rigorous test of political correctness.)

Now he has lost the last batch, having yet again trodden the minefield of genetic differences among various races, mostly between blacks and whites. These, he maintains, affect not just their appearance but also their intelligence.

Then again, scientists and other specialists are prone to see the whole complexity of life through the prism of their discipline.

Thus an economist may talk about the defining role played by market relationships, a moral philosopher may describe the world as a struggle between good and evil, while a politician may see it as a clash among various political systems and parties.

This reflects a natural human desire to find a simple explanation for everything. Yet, when analysing extremely complex and multifarious phenomena, simple always runs the risk of becoming simplistic.

This is the side on which many thinkers err, and Watson is no exception. As a brilliant scientist, he’s conditioned to look at phenomena from the standpoint of a theory that’s either supported by empirical facts or not.

If it’s not so supported, it’s tossed away; if it is, it becomes scientific fact until refuted by further evidence. Or rather that’s how it should be in a world where intellectual honesty still holds some sway and scientific findings are neither accepted nor rejected a priori for extra-scientific reasons.

Alas, this isn’t the world we live in. Hence, for example, Darwin’s slapdash theory is held to “explain everything” (Dawkins), whereas any theory less politically charged and as factually unsupported would have been discarded a century ago.

Darwin has to be right because otherwise some founding assumptions of modernity are debunked. For exactly the same reason, anyone claiming that one large group may be genetically more intelligent than another has to be wrong – regardless of any evidence.

As far as I know, Prof. Watson first trod that particular minefield in 2000 when he observed that the extract of the pigmentation hormone melatonin had been found to boost sex drive.

“That’s why you have Latin lovers,” he explained. “You’ve never heard of an English lover. Only an English patient.”

Since blacks are conspicuously darker than, say, Italians, Prof. Watson’s observation suggested sexual differences not only between Latins and Englishmen, but also between blacks and everyone else.

Rather than ducking the ensuing slings and arrows, the recalcitrant scientist then made a more general observation, to the effect that ethnic and racial stereotypes may rest on a solid genetic foundation – and not just in sexuality.

Now I’m no scientist, much less a geneticist, but the melatonin story sounds straightforward even to a rank amateur. It can be either proved or disproved experimentally, and to my untutored eye the necessary experiments don’t appear to be devilishly difficult to set up (no, I’m not volunteering as one of the research subjects).

Hence Prof. Watson could have been shown to be either right or wrong, but the point is that his shrill critics didn’t care one way or the other. His statement was wrong (racist, fascist, discriminatory) simply because it had to be.

As to his subsequent comments about whites being more intelligent than blacks, I’m surprised he only lost his titles, not his head. For he committed a capital crime against our glossocratic modernity, one only equalled in its enormity by groping a reluctant rump.

But do let’s look at that argument on its merit, proceeding from indisputable facts: 1) average IQ scores are the most reliable predictor of a group’s practical success; 2) blacks in Watson’s native US consistently score 15 points lower than whites; 3) blacks are demonstrably less successful.

Is there a causal relationship between 2) and 3) or is this a case of post hoc, ergo propter hoc? More facts then:

IQ tests measure the cognitive function, which isn’t intelligence but the potential to acquire it.

Hence, IQ isn’t determinist but simply suggestive. Someone with a genius IQ may not be particularly intelligent or successful, while someone with an average IQ, such as another Nobel laureate William Shockley, can be both.

Music provides a useful analogy:

A prodigiously gifted child may never become a musician unless someone teaches him to play an instrument. If taught to play an instrument, he may never develop virtuosity if he’s too lazy to practise. If he has developed virtuosity, he may never become a great musician unless he acquires a deep knowledge and understanding of the culture that has produced the music.

That’s to say that drawing far-reaching conclusions on the basis of average IQs alone smacks of simplistic, as opposed to simple. Too many other factors come into play.

That’s why in their 1994 book The Bell Curve, Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray hedged their bets: “It seems highly likely to us that both genes and the environment have something to do with racial differences. What might the mix be? We are resolutely agnostic on that issue; as far as we can determine, the evidence does not justify an estimate.”

The authors also explained that their work in no way encouraged discrimination: “If tomorrow you knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that all the cognitive differences between races were 100 per cent genetic in origin, nothing of any significance should change. The knowledge would give you no reason to treat individuals differently than if ethnic differences were 100 per cent environmental.”

Such a reasonable stand didn’t protect Herrnstein and Murray from the same savage attacks to which Watson was subjected later. For they argued, facts in hand, that, whatever the mix of nature and nurture, some genetic component is present. Off with their heads, was modernity’s verdict, and no mitigating evidence could be submitted.

Numerous experiments showed that identical twins, separated at birth and brought up under different social, cultural and educational conditions, still show the same IQ scores decades later.

However, such findings only justify the conclusion that an individual IQ score is immune to such factors – not that the same applies to each generation of a large group. Their average IQ scores may be quite fluid indeed.

Thus Jewish immigrants to the US at the beginning of the twentieth century consistently tested below average on intelligence tests, and there’s little doubt that each one of those scores held constant for life. But later tests show that the descendants of those immigrants score considerably above average.

Even within the same race there can be fluctuations. Thus the West Indian blacks in the US outperform the descendants of American slaves, the Chinese outperform both Mongolians and Malays – to a point where, despite being a discriminated minority in Malaysia, they hold a disproportionate number of high-paying jobs.

All in all, ascribing just to genetics all differences in IQ and achievement between whites and blacks is simplistic, and Prof Watson wouldn’t apply such low standards of proof to his day job.

However, to deny not only the presence of a genetic component but the very possibility that it may exist is much worse. This shows contempt for truth and readiness to sacrifice reason and integrity at the totem pole of political bias.

It’s entirely possible that Prof. Watson is indeed the racist his detractors claim he is. Then again, it’s possible he isn’t.

But even if he harbours secret ambitions of becoming a Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan, his belief in the genetic basis to interracial IQ differences doesn’t prove this one way or the other.

It’s certainly a subject worthy of serious study because results may influence any number of public policies, regarding, for example, education, welfare and foreign aid.

I doubt that the attention Prof. Watson has paid to this subject qualifies as serious study. But I have no doubt that his critics wouldn’t accept any conclusive results of such a study if they didn’t like them. (A bit like our Remainers actually.)

P.S. A propos Remainers.

Chancellor Hammond assures businessmen that no-deal Brexit is “off the table”. At the same time, it’s increasingly clear that Parliament will derail any sensible deal. So what stays on the table, Mr Hammond?

Also, the same Remainers, who have been diligently working to sabotage the referendum results for over two years, are blaming the Brexiteers for creating the ensuing chaos. Words like ‘teapot’, ‘kettle’ and ‘black’ come to mind, along with ‘breathtakingly shameless cynicism’.

2 thoughts on “Not so elementary, Watson”

  1. With regard to the image accompanying this blog entry that is NOT a Klansman from the USA but rather a penitent during Holy Week in Spain?

    Even if Watson 100 % wrong with regard to the link of genetics and intelligence his co-discovery of the double helix did truly deserve the Nobel Prize and his life work hardly diminished by some pronouncements we are just not sure about, no matter how silly they may be.

    “Watson, come here, I want you!”

  2. “So what stays on the table, Mr Hammond?”

    No Brexit at all, of course – which is what Hammond, and his boss May, and her boss Merkel, have been working towards these last two and a half years or so.

    I won’t say you read it here first, because of course it’s common knowledge, but I bet it’s the truth anyway.

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