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What A Non-Scientist Thinks About James Watson

By now everyone knows that Jim Watson has resigned his position at CSHL. But the damage he’s done will live on long afterwards. Consider this comment from a reader (emphasis added):

As a non-scientist, I’d like to point out an unpredictable side-effect of Watson’s remarks that might make scientists cringe. Yesterday a student in my women’s studies class used Watson’s comments on race and differential intelligence (along with an NPR interview with Phil Rushton on the same theme) to illustrate scientific findings on that subject. Her larger point was to suggest that the singular enterprise, “science,” is flawed because it has no way of recognizing and correcting for biases such as racism. The sad truth is that for many non-scientists (and most of us are non-scientists), Watson’s–and Rushton’s–statements about race and intelligence have the imprimatur of science. How are we to know the difference? Of course, this confusion works to the advantage of dissenters on global warming/climate change and the legitimacy of evolution as well as to the advantage of racists. It seems to me that it must be the responsibility of scientists (and friends of science) to carefully distinguish legitimate forms of scientific practice from the illegitimate, if only because the children (and adults) are listening.

So then, these are the two sad legacies of Watson’s pseudo-scientific hate speech: (1) a blurring of the line between science and pseudo-science, and (2) increased perception that the entire scientific enterprise is flawed at the core. This negatively affects non-scientists at a time when scientists critically need to rally the public to more support for science and scientific thinking.

  1. DV82XL
    October 26, 2007 at 4:58 pm

    I wouldn’t put too much weight on this student’s remark. There is a constituency that will jump at any chance to throw some mud on science and although they are vocal, it is important to realize that they do not represent the majority.
    That is not to say that there is not an increased perception that practice of science is flawed.
    The real problem science has with the public is a consequence more of the popular press (and other media) breathlessly reporting the findings of scientific studies as if these were proven facts, stripped of context. This coupled with real internal issues such as results biased by funding, politics, and ideology is undermining the public.s trust in the process, as opposed to the institution of science.
    In fact outside of the vocal minority and the lunatic fringe the overwhelming majority are pinning their hopes on science and technology pulling our collective asses out of the fire on energy and environmental issues.

  2. Jon
    October 26, 2007 at 5:03 pm

    To be honest, I don’t think it’s quite fair to call Watson’s comments hate-speech. That’s not to say that they weren’t racist; they most certainly were. I just think it’s important to distinguish between kinds of racism. There’s actual hate-fueled racism as exemplified by the Klan, Aryan Nation, and other such groups and then there’s racism that’s merely the product of ignorance.
    Of course, I’m also not claiming that there’s no overlap. Certainly most hateful racists are in large part fueled by ignorance, however I think that conflating them with the people who simply are too lazy to try to look past the prejudices they were raised with is wrong. To use a couple of examples I’ve heard numerous times, you simply can’t equate someone saying that Mexicans are lazy with someone saying that Arabs should be rounded up and shot. Yes, they’re both bad, but they’re not in the same league.
    And please note, I’m not in any way defending Watson. I think his comments were both grossly inappropriate and incredibly stupid and his resignation from CSHL a good thing. I’m merely trying to point out that by calling his remarks hate speech, I worry that you’re trivializing actual hate speech.

  3. El Christador
    October 26, 2007 at 8:58 pm

    I’m mystified by what they mean by “no way of recognizing and correcting for biases such as racism”.
    In science you can 1) dispute empirical observations; 2) accept empirical observations but dispute conclusions drawn from them. To me, this includes implicitly the ability to recognize and correct for biases such as racism.
    The “recognition” would involve listening to what people say, and thinking about it. “Correcting” involves pointing out things that are incorrect in what they say.
    So, for example, if you go to a talk and the speaker draws conclusions that seem to you incorrect, and that the underlying reason for the incorrectness is bias, the steps would involve

    1) listening to the talk
    2) thinking about it
    3) coming to the realization “these are bogus conclusions, I think our speaker is biased”
    4) putting up your hand and saying “I think these are bogus conclusions: here are the errors in your reasoning [enumerate errors]”
    Maybe their point is that you can’t actually put into a paper “The reason Researcher X made these mistakes is because he/she is a racist”?

  4. Skeptic
    October 27, 2007 at 4:56 pm

    What evidence is there that evolutionary psychology is wrong and there is 0% difference in cognitive capacities (due to genetic factors) that differ between groups, such as races?
    Seems like political correctness on the part of the Watson critics, and not rational discussion.

  5. jeffk
    October 28, 2007 at 12:50 pm

    I think Skeptic has a bit of a point. While I think Watson was very, very wrong in his science – I think his opinion is based on a lack of evidence as well as a lack of a useful definition of “intelligence” – I’d hate to see this cause an inability to examine tricky issues such as race and sex in the future. The truth doesn’t care much for that’s politically correct, and while Watson was wrong, the situation begs a couple of questions for me: one, what would happen in the hypothetical situation where he was right? How would we handle an unpleasant truth such as that? Because while he was wrong, it’s not inconceivable to me that there wouldn’t be cognitive ability differences among races – perhaps in ways we wouldn’t expect, and certainly in ways much more complex than Watson’s moronic remarks. Two, what exactly is the degree of racism in the comments? It’s not obvious to me just how much is there. If he were wrong about some other science issue, he’d just be wrong and it wouldn’t be a big deal. The cost of being wrong about race is apparently much greater. Is he racist or just stupid? Because in science, we protect stupid to a certain degree; it’s part of the process.

  6. October 29, 2007 at 12:14 pm

    Jeffk and Skeptic: see this post of mine on interdisciplinary meanings of race http://scienceblogs.com/thusspakezuska/2007/10/applying_interdisciplinary_mea.php
    Now, what is the degree of racism in the comments? Try to think outside your disciplinary box for a minute and realize that when you say the word “race” you are meaning one thing, but people in other disciplines have long ago debunked the meaning of race that you are operating by. They consider that research you would conduct using that meaning of race has racism automatically built into the research design and thus it is impossible to do non-racist research that way, or to correct for the racial bias in your scientific research, because racist assumptions are built into the very parameters you use in your worldview and to design your studies.

  7. jeffk
    October 29, 2007 at 9:27 pm

    Point taken; I wasn’t aware of this.
    But where does that put me? Can this physicist plead ignorance? Can a biologist?

  8. jeffk
    October 31, 2007 at 10:20 am

    And just to add to that a bit: I assume what you’re telling me is a scientific consensus and I have no problem at all accepting it. However, it is most certainly not intuitive. The idea that a group of people that has largely been breeding with each other for up to thousands of years and all share similar observable physical characteristics that are often obvious signs of adaptation to environmental factors is not a significant scientific division is understandbly surprising to anyone outside of human evolutionary biology fields.

  9. September 5, 2009 at 5:38 am

    Now,whta is the degree of racism in the comments?try to think outside yuour disciplinary box for a minute and realize taht when you say the word you are meaning of race that your are operating by.

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