19 October 2007

Foot in Mouth Disease (Nobelist Edition)

UPDATE (10/25/07): James D. Watson, the eminent biologist who ignited an uproar last week with remarks about the intelligence of people of African descent, retired today as chancellor of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island and from its board.

Since I mentioned this in a recent post, I feel moved to post Dr Watson's retraction. Sadly, perhaps, his "illness" has caused the cancellation of further stops on the Good Doctor's tour

PS: although I've done fairly well on them, I tend to agree with the late, great Stephen Jay Gould's belief in Mismeasure of Man that IQ tests are a form of 'scientific' sexism and white supremacist racism...

NYTimes October 19, 2007

Nobel Winner Issues Apology for Comments About Blacks


James D. Watson, who shared the 1962 Nobel prize for deciphering the double-helix of DNA, apologized “unreservedly” yesterday for comments reported this week suggesting that black people, over all, are not as intelligent as whites.

In an interview published Sunday in The Times of London, Dr. Watson is quoted as saying that while “there are many people of color who are very talented,” he is “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa.”

“All our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours — whereas all the testing says not really,” the newspaper quoted him as saying.

In a statement given to The Associated Press yesterday, Dr. Watson said, “I cannot understand how I could have said what I am quoted as having said. There is no scientific basis for such a belief.”

But his publicist, Kate Farquhar-Thomson, would not say whether Dr. Watson believed he had been misquoted. “You have the statement,” she said. “That’s it, I am afraid.”

Late yesterday, the board of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, a research institution in New York, issued a statement saying it was suspending the administrative responsibilities of Dr. Watson as chancellor “pending further deliberation.”

On Wednesday, Bruce Stillman, president of the laboratory, had issued a statement saying the laboratory’s trustees, administration and faculty “vehemently disagree” with the sentiments of Dr. Watson, who has served as director and president of the laboratory, whose school of biological sciences is named for him.

Scientists at Cold Spring Harbor study plant and animal genetics, cancer and other diseases. Dr. Stillman said they did not “engage in any research that could even form the basis of the statements attributed to Dr. Watson.”

Dr. Watson is in England to promote his new book, “Avoid Boring People: Lessons From a Life in Science” (Knopf). In a statement, Paul Bogaards, a spokesman for Knopf, said only that it was “understandable that his comments have caused upset throughout the world.”

There is wide agreement among researchers on intelligence that genetic inheritance influences mental acuity, but there is also wide agreement that life experiences, even in the womb, exert a powerful influence on brain structure. Further, there is wide disagreement about what intelligence consists of and how — or even if — it can be measured in the abstract.

For example, in “The Mismeasure of Man,” Stephen Jay Gould, the evolutionary biologist, dismissed “the I.Q. industry” as little more than an effort by men of European descent to maintain their prominence in the world.

Nevertheless, Dr. Watson, 79, is hardly the first eminent researcher to assert that inherited characteristics like skin color are correlated to intelligence and that people of African descent fall short. For example, William B. Shockley, a Nobel laureate for his work with transistors, in later life developed ideas of eugenics based on the supposed intellectual inferiority of blacks.

His ideas were greeted with scorn, and Dr. Watson is encountering a similar reaction. According to the BBC, the Science Museum of London canceled a speech Dr. Watson was to have given there today, saying that much as it supports robust discussion of controversial ideas, Dr. Watson’s assertions on race and intelligence are “beyond the point of acceptable debate.”

Henry Kelly, president of the Federation of American Scientists, a private group that works to bring science to policy making, said it was “tragic that one of the icons of modern science has cast such dishonor on the profession.”

How did scientists decide that intelligence was unipolar and quantifiable, and why did the standard keep changing over time? (Stephen Jay) Gould's answer is clear and simple: power maintains itself. European men of the 19th century, even before Darwin, saw themselves as the pinnacle of creation and sought to prove this assertion through hard measurement. When one measure was found to place members of some "inferior" group such as women or Southeast Asians over the supposedly rightful champions, it would be discarded and replaced with a new, more comfortable measure. The 20th-century obsession with numbers led to the institutionalization of IQ testing and subsequent assignment to work (and rewards) commensurate with the score, shown by Gould to be not simply misguided -- for surely intelligence is multifactorial -- but also regressive, creating a feedback loop rewarding the rich and powerful.... -- Rob Lightner on The Mismeasure of Man


BronzeBuckaroo said...

You are speaking to the choir with this post!

Christopher Hennessy said...

Reggie --Thanks for leaving the recent comments. It rocks that my blog interests writer of your caliber.

Would you be interested in 'guest blogging' for me with an entry reacting to Major Jackson's essay from the black, gay perspective? It wouldn't need to be long or complicated. I just think it would make for a great entry and I'd welcome the opportunity to introduce (what few) readers (I have) to your blog and your work.

Feel free to contact me at Chennessy@hotmail.com