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ISSUE 121 VOL 5 PUBLISHED 10/26/2007

Watson touts racism

By April Wright
Variety Editor


Friday, October 26, 2007

Well, this is embarrassing. James Watson, who back in 1953 co-discovered the structure of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) with fellow scientist Harold Crick, opened his mouth and stuffed his foot right in.

What did he say? In the Oct. 14 issue of The Sunday Times, he's quoted as saying 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."

That's right, he argued that Africans are, on the whole, less intelligent than Westerners.

I'm offended by that, both as a person and as a young scientist. It's one heck of a claim, and it's hard to even know where to begin. He's wrong, of course, but where can you start refuting such a sweeping statement?

I guess I'll start with the evidence that disputes his claim. There has been a lot of intelligence testing across races. While intelligence has some genetic components, it would be erroneous to argue that genetics are the sole determinant of intelligence. In the United States, scientists have found that there are differences in Intelligence Quotient (IQ) scores between races. Hardly anyone disputes that.

But is it due to race? No.

When test subjects were analyzed in terms of socioeconomic background and childhood home environment, it is revealed that such factors are far more accurate predictors of IQ than is skin color.

Further, testing methods to determine intelligence are hotly disputed. IQ tests have come under fire for distilling human intelligence down to a single number, which some argue fails to examine important aspects of human thought and reasoning.

The American Psychological Association notes that there is possible cultural bias on IQ tests but that further research must be done to reach a conclusion.

Other tests have shown that certain groups show more aptitude for specific challenges and that the tests at hand may not reflect the intelligence of a given culture.

For example, children from England and Zambia were shown by psychologist Richard Wagner to have different levels of success when presented with various artistic tasks. Zambian children fared better on a wire-shaping task while English children were more successful at a drawing task.

All this points to the difficulty in finding one way to measure human intelligence. Because of these difficulties, it is even harder to arrive at any fair conclusion about intelligence across racial groups.

Watson's comments were made without adequate support and are therefore highly inappropriate, their racist connotations aside.

It's hard to even know why Watson would say something like that. He is supposed to be a man of science, but his claims are extremely flimsy. He testifies to having seen other tests confirming his viewpoint. But where are they?

The tests probably don't exist. His comment reeks of using science to support a pre-existing bias, and that's bad news for everyone.

America has a love-hate relationship with science: We love it when it gives us medicine and iPods, but we hate it when it challenges our political or religious inclinations.

A disrespectful claim from a prominent, well-respected community member polarizes American views of scientists.

For those who distrust science, a racist statement like Watson's can push them further away. For those who hold views similar to Watson, his opinion is ammunition. And for those in the middle, his claim will further confuse them as to whether or not the scientific community can be trusted to provide honest conclusions.

What people must understand is that what Watson said is not empirically supported, it is not the position of the scientific community, and it was not an acceptable statement to make on any level. There has been a massive backlash from the public following The Times article, and there has been a separate backlash from scientists who were more than happy to browbeat Watson with evidence.

Watson has since apologized for his remark in a statement sounding superbly senile, but the damage is done. His statement was big news, and the apology is not.

Those who want to use his original comments to support their own racist agendas still will.

Watson's statement is extremely embarrassing. It is embarrassing that views like this persist today; it is even more embarrassing that someone pretended to have scientific justification for such opinions.





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