James Watson to sell his Nobel prize - The Telegraph

This event has received a lot of press, although there's not much to say about it that hasn't been said already.  But there are certain things that have been said already, several years ago, that apparently need to be remembered.

Seven years ago James Watson, who discovered the structure of DNA along with Francis Crick and Rosalind Franklin, was forced to retire from his position as chancellor of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory after he expressed the view in a newspaper interview that the average intelligence in Africa is lower than it is in the United States.  This week he is in the news again, because as a result of the events in 2007 he now has much less income, and is having to auction his Nobel prize medal to raise money.  Although his comments about intelligence in Africa are now seven years old, his presence in the news has resulted in journalists resuming their attacks on him, with with headlines such as "James Watson deserves to be shunned".  The same view is being expressed on countless social media platforms.

It's largely a repeat of what happened immediately after his comments in mid-October 2007, but this time around something important is missing.  Everyone attacking Watson in the present appears to have forgotten the second round of discussion about his comments, beginning at the end of October 2007 and continuing for a few years afterwards.  These more in-depth articles, written by specialists in the relevant fields instead of by journalists, almost unanimously expressed the view that what had happened to Watson was a problem and should not be allowed to occur again.

Of this second round of articles, I'm going to focus on the two that I think are most important.  The first is this one by Jason Malloy, which was published both in the genetics blog Gene Expression and in the journal Medical Hypotheses.  Malloy also was interviewed about this article in the New York Times, and the NYT article went on to win a Pulitzer.

The second is technically not an article, but part of a book.  Specifically, it is part of Earl Hunt's 2011 textbook Human Intelligence, which is the most widely-respected and widely-used textbook about human intelligence currently in print.  For example, a review of the past decade of books on this topic called Hunt's book "Probably the best book on human intelligence differences to appear for many years", and it is also has been praised in several papers published in the journal Intelligence.  The part of this book discussing Watson isn't available online, but we've scanned the relevant two pages so everyone can read them.


Some of the most accomplished researchers and writers about human intelligence, such as Hans Eysenck, Raymond B. Cattell and Arthur Jensen, have also been the subject of controversy.  It is important to understand that Jason Malloy and Earl Hunt are not examples of that.  In several years of reading commentaries on this article and book (and it's demonstrable that they've both received wide attention), I have yet to see a commentary about either of them that isn't either neutral or positive.

The problem here isn't that people should necessarily agree with what Watson said in 2007.  The problem is that when people are repeating the arguments to attack him that were being made in October 2007, after multiple widely-respected sources have pointed out what's wrong with those arguments, it's inappropriate to pretend these sources don't exist.  This is on a par with biology books continuing to publish Haeckel's embryo diagrams for ten years after Michael Richardson demonstrated they're inaccurate, or creationists continuing to use the Paluxy riverbed tracks as evidence for a young Earth after this argument has been abandoned by all major creationist organizations.  Science operates by building upon the foundations of earlier work, not by re-erecting claims identical to what's already collapsed.
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RaptorArts Featured By Owner Dec 14, 2014  Professional Artisan Crafter
Its a shame people are attacking him. He is right though and probably should say that asian people are one of the most inteligent of the species. They are 10 years ahead of everyone else. Im caucation american so im in the middle of the road im not dumb but im not a genious either. Im a jack of all trades artist who barely makes enough to buy one subway sandwich a week and somehow barely makes rent.
keesey Featured By Owner Dec 5, 2014
It's hard to defend a quote like this, though: "[There is a natural desire that all human beings should be equal], but people who have to deal with black employees find this not true."

(Unfortunately I'm unable to find the lead-in for the quote verbatim. If anyone has access to the Sunday Times interview and can verify the context, please do.)
Agahnim Featured By Owner Dec 5, 2014
Did you read the excerpt from Earl Hunt's book?  That quote is apparently referring to a specific piece of data from work performance evaluations.  Watson didn't cite a source for his statement, but Hunt (elsewhere in the chapter) lists three of them.  Here are the sources that Hunt cites:

I'd appreciate you clarifying what you mean when you say the statement is hard to defend.  Do you mean this data shouldn't be discussed in public at all, or that Watson should have worded his statement more tactfully?  I agree with the second thing, but I don't think the manner in which something like this is presented should make the difference between keeping and losing one's job.
keesey Featured By Owner Dec 6, 2014
This goes beyond tactless. Let's look at this statement in depth.

Look how he says "have to deal with". That is, working with a black employees, and black employees, is an unnatural, unfortunate state that people are forced into. How awful.

And what is meant by "people"? Can a black man or woman be forced into this terrible condition where they "have to deal with" other black employees? That seems like an absurd idea. Implicitly, then, he is excluding black men and women from "people". That's absurd as well, but that does seem to be the implication.

But on to the meat of the matter. These studies may support the conclusion that blacks have lower average intelligence than whites, but they also support a significant amount of overlap. His statement does not even allow for the possibility of a competent black employee. He says that if a [non-black] person has been forced into this woeful state, of having to work with a black employee, then they will know that it is "not true" that all human beings are equal in intelligence. That would only be possible if all black employees were less intelligent than all other employees. Where are the studies supporting this? You're asking if this data should be discussed in public, but this isn't even that data.

And this isn't just some guy saying this. It's the head of a laboratory! A guy who makes hiring decisions! The director of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory is saying that he doesn't like working with black folks, because they test lower on average. You see the problem?

If, after all that, you don't agree that this sort of statement is grounds for removing someone from a position of authority, consider this hypothetical example. These studies usually show East Asians to have higher average intelligence than whites, right? Imagine an Asian-American lab director saying, "Of course we all hope that human beings are equal, but people who have to deal with white employees find this is not true." Do you want that guy in charge? Do you want to work for that guy?
Agahnim Featured By Owner Dec 6, 2014
I interpreted Watson's statement to be referring to the type of situation that he was in--someone who oversees hundreds of employees, a portion of whom are black.  Differences in averages obviously don't predict anything useful about the ability of individuals.  But when you have hundreds of both black and white employees, if there's a difference in average performance, it become statistically inevitable that that's going to be visible when the numbers are large enough.

With respect to your example involving an Asian-American director, how I'd feel about that depends on whether I have reason to suspect he's going to discriminate on the basis of race, instead of being meritocratic.  In Watson's case, I don't think there's any evidence he was in favor of doing that.  The original interview with Watson included this sentence: "He says that you should not discriminate on the basis of colour, because 'there are many people of colour who are very talented, but don't promote them when they haven't succeeded at the lower level.'" (The original interview is online here.)  Also bear in mind that as CSHL's chancellor, Watson was not actually responsible for any hiring decisions, and his position seems to have been mostly a ceremonial one.

Anyway, here's the most important point: I agree with you that the statement was worded in a way that was needlessly inflammatory.  If the basis for removing him from his position had been that he was being excessively provocative and tactless, I wouldn't have objected so much, and other people like Jason Malloy probably wouldn't have either.  But if you read some of the quotes related to his firing in Malloy's article, it's obvious that is not the reason why he was fired, and it also isn't the reason given by most people attacking him in the present.  The primary reason is that society regards this as a topic where certain perspectives aren't acceptable to have, regardless of how they're expressed.  The reaction hasn't been any different when the views were expressed in a less provocative way and in private, as happened with Stephanie Grace in 2010.

If you've read the excerpt from Hunt's book, you'll see he says that this attitude has made people more reluctant to fund or conduct scientific research on the topic.  Emily has already become acquainted with one well-known psychologist who has deliberately avoided researching it for this exact reason, and who has advised others to do the same.  As described in this article, it's also the reason why Bruce Lahn was forced to abandon his research on the genetics of brain structure.  Emily and I both have worried that if she chooses to focus on individual differences as a psychologist, she might eventually have to deal with something like this.  It's very difficult to research certain areas without the issue of race and intelligence coming up--note that Lahn was not actually intending to address this topic in his research, but other people drew that conclusion from it.

Do you agree it's a problem for society to have this attitude in general about people who research or discuss topics that relate to race and intelligence?  I know you don't have a problem with research about geographic variation in physical traits, including brain volume.  Should psychological traits be an exception?
keesey Featured By Owner Dec 9, 2014
Unfortunately I can't read the article on Lahn because I don't subscribe to the WSJ.

Here's the thing about research on race and intelligence: it exists in a historical context. And this context involves a centuries-old tradition of subhumanization (not to mention oppression, kidnapping, rape, torture, and murder) of blacks by whites. This tradition extends to white scientists, even luminaries like Darwin (who characterized "the great break in the organic chain between man and his nearest allies" as being "between the negro or Australian and the gorilla") and, I would argue, Watson (whose quote above at best illustrates a callous disregard and at worst show him implicitly not considering blacks as people).

(And for this historical reason, my Asian-American example loses some potency. Look at it again and imagine that Asians have had centuries of treating whites as subhuman property to be beaten, raped, tortured, and sold at will.)

There is a lot of history here, to that point that the educated public, not wishing to be seen as racist, is not going to accept white scientists rating Africans as lower in this or that ability. (And Watson's inflammatory quote only exacerbates this -- I would think you'd want to harshly repudiate it for that reason alone.) Such research may be worthwhile (although I'm not really clear on the practical applications), but it seems to me that there's really only one way make it palatable to the general public: it should be conducted by black scientists. If black scientists were to arrive at similar conclusions, they'd be much more difficult to characterize as being just another part of that long, sorry history.

You may think that's unfair, but the world isn't fair. Just ask a black person.
Agahnim Featured By Owner Dec 10, 2014
I'm not aware of any black researchers who support doing research about race and intelligence, but it's not exclusively the domain of white scientists, either.  Offhand, I can think of five Asian researchers who've conducted or supported research in this area: Bruce Lahn, James J. Lee, Steve Hsu, Hiroko Arikawa, and Satoshi Kanazawa.  (Bruce Lahn terminated his research about the genetics of brain structure because of how other people reacted to it, but he later published this paper in Nature about why he thinks research on race differences is worthwhile.)  I suppose you could argue they support it because they think it shows Asians are superior to whites, but they aren't part of the history you mentioned of white racism against blacks.

There's an aspect of the research in this are that I think very often gets overlooked, which is the ways it's necessary for some of the progressive social goals that almost everyone cares about.  I discussed this in my post here: www.openpsych.net/forum/showth… (This relates to your question about what the practical applications are.)  My first point in that post is just about research on race and biology in general, but the other three relate specifically to research on race and intelligence.  I think the fourth point, about how an inaccurate understanding of race and intelligence affects the criminal justice system, is probably the most significant one.  This is an area where society's ignorance on this topic is actively causing black and hispanic people to suffer.

It's always struck me as hypocritical that the most prominent opponents of research about race and intelligence usually are upper- and middle-class white academics, who think it's up to them to decide what research needs to be stopped because of how it might harm minorities.  When the actual outcome of their decision is that a greater number of black and hispanic defendants are executed in situations where white defendants aren't, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that this argument is primarily an excuse to stop the research that makes them personally uncomfortable.
EWilloughby Featured By Owner Dec 9, 2014  Professional General Artist
Here's a pdf of the WSJ article if you want to read it: www.dropbox.com/s/khk608hm5lty…
Paleo-King Featured By Owner Dec 2, 2014  Professional Traditional Artist
Universities should not force a professor, much less a nobel laureate, to retire simply because of an unpopular statement they made once. Because once you start censoring your professors you are killing academic freedom and free thought. And the other problem is, such censorship policies are bound to be selective based on the dominant camp of thought in power in a country's academic and political circles.

If you do want to sack important professors from universities for what SOUNDS like racist views, then there are plenty of far more racist professors that should get sacked LONG before you get down the list to Watson. Like Stanford's Jeffrey Ullman for example. As big of an imperialist and supremacist apparatchik as you'll ever find in an Emeritus position, and he even uses Stanford.edu webspace to air his cesspool of "collective punishment" personal politics against non-western nations. Yet Stanford will never act against him (ostensibly because as a professor he is free to say what he wants on his little reserved bit of university faculty webspace, and Stanford does not endorse his personal views), but also in reality because several of his views - fanatically anti-Iranian (in a racial and social sense) and pro-war - are sadly in agreement with a very substantial part of the political and business elite in America, with whom he inevitably has contact as a leading computer science/cyber-intelligence expert, and among whom are undoubtedly many major Stanford donors, trustees, and legacy holders. And this is all still ignoring his Israeli lobby sympathies and likely connections.

Of course I am in principle 100% opposed to any sort of censorship or thought-reform on college campuses. Stalinist "thought police" agitators like David Horowitz pushing for colleges to "inform" on and selectively deny or even revoke tenure to professors with politically controversial views (basically anything that isn't spoonfed by AIPAC), are the lowest form of Orwellian scum. Academic decisions should be made on the basis of merit, NOT politics. This rarely being the case today, is among many reasons why universities are more and more out of touch with the real world.
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