Parsing the Reactions to the Watson Imbroglio
The latest Watson news is that Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory has “suspended [his] administrative responsibilities…pending further deliberation by the board.” Watson, meanwhile, has begun the “Did I say that? No! I didn’t mean it!” apologia that usually follows when some noted figure catches hell for being more frank about his or her racist views than the public is used to.
He also said that “to all those who have drawn the inference from my words that Africa, as a continent, is somehow genetically inferior, I can only apologize unreservedly. That is not what I meant. More importantly from my point of view, there is no scientific basis for such a belief.”
Yes, well, then perhaps you shouldn’t have said this:
He says that he 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 I know that this “hot potato” is going to be difficult to address. His hope is that everyone is equal, but he counters that “people who have to deal with black employees find this not true”.
He can’t even use the Mel Gibson “The likker made me do it!” defense. He said what he said.
The Chronicle News Blog reported yesterday on the cancellation of Watson’s Science Museum gig in England and the comment thread is really something to read. Here’s one of the milder ones, from LO, comment #4:
Although my experience would in no way bear out Dr. Watson’s conclusions, shouldn’t the academy at least allow him to present his research and findings for discussion and critique. If we cherish academic freedom, it strikes me that any person deserves a fair hearing. It appears, and I have no research to bear this out, that political correctness automatically excludes certain topics from debate–an action which serves to indict the academic community and the principles it claims to profess..
Bill (#7) asks:
I realize that there will be outrage because I even bring this up. . . but what if he’s right? Not that I particularly think that he is. . . but I’m not sure that outrage is the right reaction.
A decade plus ago it was Charles Murray and the Bell Curve. . . A couple of years ago it was Larry Summers and Women in Science. Now it’s this scientist. The reaction is always emotional outrage. . .but why not get the true answer? Why not research the hypothesis? What if he’s right? What if Summers is right? Wouldn’t it be better to know so that we could do something constructive to reconcile the difference? And if research shows conclusively that what we hope in our hearts is scientifically true, then future claims will just get a laugh.
It seems to me that in academia, instead of saying “That’s to horrible to say,” perhaps we should be asking, “What is the scientific truth?”
Phil (#15) wants us to know:
South Africa was one of the most prosperous nation [sic] when whites ruled it. Under black rulers it has become one of the porrest [sic] nation [sic]. Does it say something about differnce [sic] in intelligence level or it is just a coincidence.
Sometime what’s more interesting than the celebrity event itself (e.g., Michael Richards, Don Imus) is how the issue gets played out in the media. The Richards incident started with the racist ravings of a white man, complete with references to lynching, but ended up as a public discussion of why black people keep using the n-word towards each other. The Imus incident started with the racist and misogynist remarks of a white man, but ended up as a public referendum on misogyny in hip hop.
It’s fascinating to me that all roads seem to lead back to discussions of how black people are supposedly oppressing themselves.
Here, rather than the media, we might substitute “scientists” and “the scientific community at large”. Now, the response to Watson’s egregious display of racism from the Science Museum and from Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory has been appropriate and gratifying, and the media, traditional and blogosphere, are doing a reasonable job as well. But in the comments on blog posts here and at the Chronicle News Blog, we see how this is playing out in the larger community. And what we see is this: the Watson incident started out with the racist ravings of Jim Watson, but members of the scientific community want to turn it into a discussion about the research we ought to be doing to find out just exactly how dumb those blacks are and why they’ve fucked up Africa so badly.
We must be “objective”! “Science demands that we study the facts!” “You may not like where the facts lead you.” You will hear people say things like, “Well, what if the research really shows that whites are smarter?” (they never say, “blacks are dumber” because that would be phrasing their racism too bluntly). “The research” here is a hand-waving towards a mythical idea of some value-free, objective, neutral, context-independent research program that will definitively show only the genetic contribution to intelligence. When this mythical beast shows up at your doorstep, let me know, because my unicorn wants to play with it.
In the meantime, all the actual evidence available which shows that racist apologists are just that goes ignored. Those who hide their racism behind a guise of supposed scientific objectivity use all the common tired tactics to attack those who oppose the ugliness of behavior like that displayed by Jim Watson. You are emotional, but they are objective. You are shrill, but they are rational. You are pushing political correctness, but they are for academic freedom. You are reactionary; they just want to know “the scientific truth”. Up is down, left is right. You cannot speak up against racism, or sexism, or homophobia, without being accused of one or more of these sins.
Academic freedom doesn’t exist to benefit people who twist or ignore science to serve lies. Standing up for justice and equality is what a good citizen does, and if that’s what you call political correctness, then so be it. I am fed up beyond belief with apologists for the oppressors claiming the mantle of science to wrap around their ugly beliefs: calling the expression of personal racist sentiments “talking about research”, bemoaning the refusal to lend a platform to spread those beliefs as some sort of repression of free speech, promulgating a “research” program with racism at its core as if it were the most objective of enterprises.
I am also sick and tired of being called “emotional”, as if that were a bad thing in a situation such as this. If you do not feel some sort of strong emotion in reaction to what Jim Watson said, there is something wrong with you. “Emotional” gets tossed about by scientists as if it were the worst sort of insult, but if we can’t muster up any feeling in a situation like this, then we’ve lost our souls, and all the science in the world won’t save us.