James Watson, the co-discoverer of the double-helical structure of DNA, which won him the Nobel Prize in 1962 was asked about the future of Africa in a recent interview with The Sunday Times. He responded by saying they were “inherently gloomy,” because “all our social policies are based on the fact that (African people’s) intelligence is the same as ours – whereas all the testing says not really.”
Apart from offering offensive opinions on deep social questions he cannot possibly understand, Watson may know how to spice up your love life as well: “That’s why you have Latin lovers,” he said, explaining the connection between skin color and libido.
While these and other unsubstantiated claims have made Watson a laughing stock of the scientific world, there is also a serious problem here. Scientific investigation warrants a set of formal procedures; in particular, it must be reproducible. In other words, if Watson had found a difference between the intelligence levels of Africans and Europeans, other scientists working independently should be able to find similar results under similar conditions. This has not been the case so far. It’s not a problem if Watson investigates the question scientifically. But it sure is a problem if he puts a scientific wrap around his personal biases and presents his premature conviction as scientific fact.
So what makes Watson any different from a common hatemonger like the ones who spew venom on the Diag every now and then? The answer is that he has the aura of a renowned scientist and the power of trust that ordinary mortals vest in them.
As demonstrated by Stanley Milgram in his famous electro-shock experiments, common and otherwise harmless people can inflict lethal injury on another person if a “scientist” – an authority figure who tells them there is no real harm being done – goads them on. Any pretender in a lab coat would do as a scientist. People inherently think the coat knows better and therefore can make wiser decisions. Here we are talking about a real Nobel laureate.
That’s the reason why Watson’s comments shouldn’t simply be ignored and why they demand the harshest condemnation. The concept of genetic superiority has been used time and again to justify acts of blatant aggression. The day when some scientists trumpeted the supremacy of the Aryan race was not that long ago.
The person who discovered the structure of the DNA and changed the field of genetic research has an immense responsibility to measure his words carefully. He has let the whole scientific community down. Other scientists must step in to make sure that Watson’s mindless remarks are not used as a scientific pretext for racial bias and hatred.
It would be easy here to conclude this viewpoint with some more Watson-bashing, but there is another important angle to this issue. Is the question “Does race have anything to do with intelligence?” one that must be asked? Many scientists will probably agree that it is.
They will tell us that so far nothing has been found that suggests a significant correlation between the two. At the same time there is still a small minority of influential scientists that believes race can be an important factor in explaining intelligence and behavioral patterns, among other things. Both parties agree that further genetic investigation is needed before anyone comes up with a final verdict, like Watson did. Indeed, more research leading to a consensus among biologists will settle such questions for good.
Scientific research often has a tendency to be overshadowed by political correctness. Today it’s not proper to ask if race can affect intelligence as, just like a little more than a century ago, it was not OK to imply humans and chimpanzees could share a common ancestral line. Basic science, however, goes beyond the wishful thinking of individuals, and ultimately the truth prevails. In that sense, trying to reach unanimity on whether or not race affects intelligence is a worthy scientific pursuit.
On the other hand, making irresponsible claims tainted with personal prejudice like Watson did is totally degrading to the whole field of science.
Anindya Bhadra is a graduate student in statistics and a member of the Daily’s editorial board.