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Premature Ejaculations November 3, 2007

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Ethics, Science.

Renowned scientist James Watson got himself into hot water recently with his remarks about the intelligence of Africans. Watson, who won the Nobel prize for his part in discovering the structure of DNA, was quoted in an interview saying he was:

“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”… His hope is that everyone is equal, but he counters that “people who have to deal with black employees find this not true”. 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”. He writes that “there is no firm reason to anticipate that the intellectual capacities of peoples geographically separated in their evolution should prove to have evolved identically. Our wanting to reserve equal powers of reason as some universal heritage of humanity will not be enough to make it so”.

Are Watson’s comments speaking truth to political correctness and the all-to-human tendency to believe bad things will go away if we don’t think about them; or were they just another racist rant misusing science to justify bigotry.

I think a little of both.

Had Watson simply stated that there was reason to believe there are genetic differences between geographically separated populations and that these genetic differences might extend to cognitive abilities, his comments would have been scientifically controversial but not necessarily racist.

It is not unreasonable to expect specific cognitive abilities to vary across populations just as other physical characteristics vary, and IQ tests show some variation although there is enormous controversy over what IQ is really testing.

But to suggest, using something as crude as an IQ test, that there is some generalized superiority of one race over another is racist and the idea that these differences would be significant enough to be obvious in the workplace is deeply offensive. This is not science but bigotry masquerading as science. Clearly, Watson’s best years are behind him.

This controversy over Watson’s remarks raises a more general concern that cognitive scientist Stephen Pinker raises in this essay. Pinker argues that:

“In every age, taboo questions raise our blood pressure and threaten moral panic. But we can’t be afraid to answer them.”

Among the questions Pinker thinks we should try to answer are: Do Most victims of sexual abuse suffer no lifelong damage? Would society be better off if heroin and cocaine were legalized? Is Homosexuality the symptom of an infectious disease? Is the average intelligence of Western nations declining because duller people are having more children than smarter people? Etc.

Pinker is a sophisticated thinker and he provides a thoughtful and compelling case for allowing science to pursue unpopular ideas. I certainly agree with him in general.

However, I think Pinker’s essay fails to adequately discuss a crucial issue that the Watson case raises. For all of these questions that Pinker wants science to pursue, they are likely to be difficult to answer and subject to a good deal of uncertainty. We may in the end discover the truth, but the process will be full of false starts, blind alleys, misjudgments, and flawed research. Science is like that because it is hard to do, especially when the subject of inquiry is a complex animal like human beings. 

Because many of these topics have social and political implications, the false starts and blind alleys are likely to be reported and acted on long before we achieve a settled scientific consensus about them.

Thus, we run the risk that people will be harmed not by us acting on true beliefs but because we act prematurely on poorly supported beliefs. This is one of the problems with Watson’s remarks. They include a kernel of sound science and a lot of unsubstantiated and unwarranted speculation.

The issue is not whether some topics should be off limits. Instead, the question is how we limit the damage from the premature ejaculations of moral cretins with scientific credentials.





1. D Anderson - November 5, 2007

If one belongs to a group with poor statistics, one pays a price: e.g., insurance for teenage drivers or life insurance for smokers. Some teenagers are outstanding drivers and some smokers live to 100. But the insurance industry doesn’t have the resources to identify the exceptions to the statistics. Same holds for private citizens.

It makes solid logical sense to avoid a group with e.g., low IQ,test results, 70% OOW breeding, and 7 times the crime rate. White_Flight is mainstream “racist” America voting with its common-sense feet, not just one successful scientist “ejaculating prematurely…”.

2. Moriae - November 14, 2007

The problem with James Watson’s comments has nothing to do with being a “moral cretin” (with or without “scientific credentials”), it has to do with a general malaise that afflicts many people of note when they find themselves outside the sphere of their ordinary professional station. Many examples come to mind, e.g., Edward O. Wilson and the beginnings of ‘sociobiology,’ and the otherwise tame comments of the former Harvard President about women and science a few years ago. In the public sphere otherwise complex ideas and subtle notions are thrown into the ruthlessly crude public understandings that they are almost scientifically predictable to misunderstand. The public perception is almost without exception inclined to turn any idea into ‘fast food.’ When this is allied with the media’s penchant for knowing what the public wants, we end up with a crippled public discourse and no illumination. Whether the ‘media’ really understands what it does is less important than the fact that the method it uses is appallingly predictable. It aids and abets shamelessly this predictable desire to misunderstand that you find in average people. Obviously it does ‘sell.’ The media’s role is fatally blighted by its exalted self-image that is married to its crass pursuit of public effect. It feels no responsibility to ‘clarify’ because such pursuits are felt ‘deadening’ to the desired effect. The media has a product and anything that optimizes its consumption is its preferred route, whether or not it furthers understanding or costs someone their job. Now it seems to me that Mr. Furrow participates (unwittingly I’m sure) in the confusion sowed by the first articles that desired to ‘out’ Mr. Watson’s perceived ‘racisim.’ Yet plainly when reading carefully Mr. Watson’s comments (a habit not encouraged by most media presentations) he went out of his way to avoid the Is/Ought problem, nor did he slip into a ‘naturalistic fallacy.’ It might have been more useful in the context of this blog to ask ourselves why such topics, which should only be concerned with whether the evidence is sufficient or not, are discussed with such heat and vituperation. We’re in no position at all in this small place to have any effect of the issues Watson broached, but we can ask ourselves why we often peremptorily rule out of hand discussion of issues that seemingly make our blood boil. Soberly I think we often note in others that such an instinctive act seems to suggest fear. Why would we be afraid? I find it very curious. Either we will have a chance to finally settle an issue and prove someone mistaken, or we’ll have a chance to learn the real truth about something we’ve previously accepted that we now find ourselves mistaken about. What’s there to fear? Pinker’s issue has always been that liberals should be concerned that the disparity in performance between individuals, groups, cultures, and perhaps continents if you will, may be due to forces beyond the control of the people involved. Because of that as liberals we should find ways in which to mitigate or reverse the causes and sources of these disparities for the sake of the people afflicted. That has always been Pinker’s point (along with many others). Only discussion will further the pursuit of practical and efficient remedies to the causes of their miseries. Mr. Watson suggested no remedies himself, he merely pointed out what seemed to him disparities that may need attention for the sake of the futures of those affected. That hardly seems dangerous or insensitive. What really is dangerous is the uninformed public, and along with it the desire to misunderstand that seems to infect every human choice. This affliction is human and not tied to any group. ‘Know Thyself!’ Have we even begun? I have my doubts. Clever we are, but instinctively reacting to what we admittingly don’t understand is not flattering to us. The absurdly brief comments by a person of note should have created a desire to find out more about what he meant, rather than creating a climate that makes Mr. Watson have to duck. Mr. Furrow fears people ‘acting’ on unsubtantiated evidence, well welcome to planet Earth. Isn’t that the cental component in almost any human decision, be it Iraq, Vietnam, or the decision to critique Mr. Watson’s infelicitous public remarks? If we fear others acting on insufficient evidence, we must begin by having a greater fear of us doing likewise ourselves. We can hardly expect responsibility if we don’t demand it of ourselves first. It is the bane of science (and philosophy) that its work is asked to make sense before hordes without any scientific training or any taste for subtlety. That’s why I find it difficult to assess any ‘influence’ of science on the public’s perception of reality, when in each case the role played in misusing science is the public’s alone, not science. The fault lie in ourselves.

3. Dwight Furrow - November 18, 2007


I quite agree with you about the tendency of the media and the public to misunderstand and distort science. That is precisely the source of my complaints about the Pinker essay which doesn’t address this issue.

Regarding your charge that I have somehow misread Watson’s remarks–where is the misreading? You claim that “he went out of his way to avoid the Is/Ought problem”. Where does he exhibit such caution? I find no evidence in the cited article and interview that he is particularly reluctant to draw moral and political conclusions from scientific claims.

You write that “Mr. Watson suggested no remedies himself, he merely pointed out what seemed to him disparities that may need attention for the sake of the futures of those affected. That hardly seems dangerous or insensitive”. But Watson explicitly states that it is obvious to him that, in the workplace, black persons clearly exhibit their inferiority and he alludes to affirmative action as an inappropriate policy. Are you suggesting that this flippant remark based purely on personal observations counts as sound science? Surely you must see that this is insensitive and harmful, and because it is utterly without scientific foundation evidence of racial prejudice.

If you had read my blog post carefully you would have found that I was not disputing the underlying science that suggests genetic, cognitive differences between geographically separated populations, and I did not “peremptorily rule out of hand discussion” of anything. It was Watson’s inappropriate extrapolations from this science that myself and others object to.

Given your spot on remarks about misunderstandings in the media, your question What’s there to fear? can only be interpreted as disingenuous. It is to be feared that a public prone to misunderstanding will take thoughtless remarks by scientists as sound science hence contributing to the climate of fear and mistrust that permeates race relations.

If it is the bane of science that “its work is asked to make sense before hordes without any scientific training or any taste for subtlety” then surely it is the responsibility of scientists to carefully frame their conclusions to prevent these misunderstandings and avoid the influence of personal prejudice in their public pronouncements.

4. Forrest Noble - November 24, 2007

One of the very first signs of senility is often a lessening of inhibitions. This may have been the case for Watson. It would seem certain that he has always felt this way– and knows of evidence to back up some of what he said, but as was suggested above– there would have been a much better way to have stated his concerns about affirmative action policies.

If he would have written it rather than spoken off-the-cuff– (a mistake that everyone has made from time to time), may have been avoided– since he would have had time to think of possible consequences of what he was saying, avoiding the faux paux that seemingly ended his career and disgraced him, too bad!

5. Moriae - December 12, 2007

I’m sorry I haven’t respond as quickly as I would have liked to Mr. Furrows’ points from November 18th. Before I try to recast my original comments I’d like to make clear a few things, (1) I don’t doubt in the least that Mr. Watson said the things which were claimed he said in the piece appended to Mr. Furrow’s own comments in this blog; (2) I don’t wish to be viewed as defending Watson’s comments either. Fools are fools; (3) and lastly, I think Mr. Noble’s comment is the most salient reason why even a Nobel Prize doesn’t give immunity from ‘hoof and mouth’ disease.

My objection to the rendering of Watson’s comments is perhaps more subtle, because fools hardly need comment. What is perhaps more insidious is the unnoticed character of a great deal of educated discourse that goes unchecked. For discourse to be fruitful it must have some sense of shared methodology, so that chances for misrepresenting information are largely held in check. As an example (which I haven’t commented on as yet on this blog, but will) there has been a general bashing of “conservatives” in which only the most cartoon versions of conservatism are cited, i.e., disagreeable religious advocates from the Midwest. That any of these folks really get their inspiration from the likes of Adam Smith, Alexander Hamilton, Edmund Burke, Thomas Hobbes, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Friedrich Hayek, or Milton Friedman can only be a “liberal” delusion. The same would apply to anyone who would claim that the essence of liberalism is to be found in the musings of George Clooney or Michael Moore. Unfortunately, the fools of life tend to muddy the discourse of other intelligent people who are more intent on shedding light than they are creating smoke. These prefatory remarks set up my objections to the original Watson piece in this blog.

An even cursory review of the linked article show it NOT to be an “interview” at all, despite the fact it was played as such on the media. Being generous, it was simply a compendium of anecdotes, none of which were flattering, and it was obviously meant to be that way. Although it is a commonplace that Mr. Watson is liked, beloved, and admired, whether they were colleagues or not, there not the slightest attempt to really account for this characteristic in the piece. It was clear that Charlotte Hunt-Grubbe was in some way close enough to Mr. Watson to gather the tidbits she did, yet she doesn’t explain her pervasive antipathy, or the motives for not offering the slightest mitigating context for these remarks. Yet it seems plain that every potentially infelicitous remark Mr. Watson has uttered since who knows when was dutifully noted by her, not to clarify anything, but simply for the sake of her personal malice. That this was a hatchet job by someone with an axe to grind is plain. For instance, just suppose she had been fired from a science position in a lab dealing with DNA, and this piece was a result of that incident, what would we say about her comments then? I’m sure this wouldn’t have been the first time that someone used the media to further their own interests. This was also the source of my comments that related my own genetic wariness of journalism. It’s the splash that counted in this case (or any other), and if your subject is Dr. Watson, one will easily get the desired effect should malice be a part of your character. I would have liked to have asked Dr. Watson a few questions that would have highlighted the rank stupidity of his statements, (such as what business did he have in mind when referring to employers of blacks?) but then again I have a funny feeling that had I been there to actually hear these comments, I might have also very likely heard some other things he said that she very deliberately omitted. But who’s to tell from the information provided?

It is grossly misleading to cite this piece as an ‘interview.’ This was no interview; it was a barely disguised laundry list of hearsay, a collection of disparate remarks, without sufficient context cited. This was very much in the typical vogue of ‘got-cha’ of contemporary journalism that needs pizzaz in order to get picked up by other media outlets for public consumption– ‘public information fast-food.’ Haven’t we had our fill of this? Why does it continue? Why are otherwise educated people sucked in by manifestations of this general lunacy proffered by the media that serve their interests, but not the public interest? Now we are entering a political year and this trait will be n full bloom. Isn’t it because they know they can count on ‘the urge to misunderstand’ demonstrated by almost everyone, be they educated or not? It has to stop, but it won’t be in the media—it must stop in the heart of intelligent people.

I’ll comment on Steven Pinker shortly.

6. Thea - December 12, 2007

Turns out James Watson has a high level of this African ancestry that makes people less intelligent. Prof Rosenstand described some sort of “Dutch laugh” in another post. Would that be appropriate here?


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