Friday, October 19, 2007

An ig-Nobel fellow, but one to be censured, not censored

By now many of you have heard or read about how the distressingly-zombielike Nobel laureate/DNA co-discoverer James Watson made an ass of himself by publicly opining on the supposed intellectual inferiority of black Africans. This led to worldwide condemnation, the cancellation of at least one sold-out speaking engagement, and now the termination of his chancellorship at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.

Now, Watson has actually gone and made things worse by trying to apologize, but doing so in the most intelligence-insulting way possible. (Perhaps he thought the hundreds of millions of black people he offended would be too dumb to notice.)

"To all those who have drawn the inference from my words that Africa, as a continent, is somehow genetically inferior, I can only apologize unreservedly. That is not what I meant. More importantly from my point of view, there is no scientific basis for such a belief," he said.

Watson has just one little problem here. His original remark is on record and still very fresh, and so it's going to be a little hard for him to sell the whole "I didn't mean to say black people were stupid when I said they were stupid" pitch.

The question which will arise now is: Is the inevitable piling-on going to go too far? PZ Myers has already weighed in on Watson's getting the heave-ho from Cold Spring, pointing out that "it's a declaration that their director must be an inoffensive, mealy-mouthed mumbler who never challenges (even stupidly)." The case is similar to the Don Imus firing, back when he made racist jokes about that African-American girls' sports team. That speech can and will be offensive is a fact of life, but should those who engage in offensive speech be automatically stamped with "pariah" on their foreheads and sent to the bleachers for good, no longer to participate in public discourse? Or should their asinine views be aired openly, the better to thus engage them?

Goodness knows, I've inveighed here against neocons and Christian conservatives who say stupid things, and have not been shy about being inflammatory myself in castigating them. Most recently, Ann Coulter's anti-Semitic ravings. But as loathsome as I find Coulter or Rush or Falwell (well, okay, we don't have him to kick around any more) or Robertson, I'd never want to see them barred from public speaking. Free speech, like free anything, is a two-edged sword. You cannot have a culture that nurtures and develops the highest and most noble ideas without the freedom that also allows for the most pathetic ignorance and arrogance. And as Watson's case reminds us, it's not always necessarily the religious fanatics, or the Coulters of the world, who lose their marbles (not to mention their fundamental human decency) and shoot off their mouths without first loading their brains.

So yes, we have to put up with racism, and anti-science, and religious fanaticism and intolerance, because that's the price we pay for the privilege of living in a freethinking society where we can openly critique those ideas and, with luck, educate people away from them. Yes, Watson has become a senile old asshat. But even in his intellectual decline, maybe he can still teach people something.


  1. But there's a difference between being allowed to air your views, and not having anyone call you on them. If Cold Spring Harbor doesn't want to have an avowed racist in a prominent position, they don't have to. Especially as they were quite central to the eugenics movement through the 1930s, they would be particularly sensitive to these kinds of issues. Being allowed to air your views doesn't mean that you won't get backlash from it. If you make your views public, you have to accept the consequences of others possibly not agreeing with you, and not wanting to associate with you.

  2. Ya but what do you think about his evolutionary hypotheses that it’s absurd to think that all people everywhere around the globe evolved at the same rate or in the same way? Doesn’t that make sense?

    I think that he’s absolutely wrong about there being an intellectual deficit. But according to evolutionary theory SHOULDN’T he be correct?

  3. Makarios: Not really. Intelligence is a much more complex issue than that. This Pharyngula post links to a couple of good (but long and involved) articles on the subject. Dawkins also discusses the issue in The Exended Phenotype.

    Carlie: Agreed. I think Cold Spring was entirely within their rights to dump him, and PZ's actually wrong on this one. No one has to employ anyone they don't like or whom they feel doesn't represent them honorably. I'd call their firing him an act of censure, not censorship.

  4. The thrust of the counter arguments would lead one to also state that claiming that Caucasians are taller than Asians makes one an "avowed racist."

    Qualify up front: Martin is right, it's very complicated and there are no demographically equal racial groups to test anyway so no IQ statistics can draw real conclusions. Further: I don't give a rodentia rectum if one or one group is a bit brighter or bit slower. It's immaterial to human life. I've known plenty of upper management I doubt have the IQ of the average plumber. I've known one or two geniuses who were lying, drug abusing, sacks of crap.

    That said, taking US/UK/EU as the norm, IQs are much lower (up to 35%) in nations with black populations (and while we're on the topic, they're 10% higher in many Asian nations). My personal reaction is, so what? I don't think, however, any reaction to speaking data aloud should be: You're unfit for work regarding the gathering and analysis of data.

    We don't all have to be exactly the same to get along fine. Forcing everyone to pretend we are exactly the same is counter-productive and just plain goofy.

  5. I am, of course, highly skeptical the whole concept of the "IQ" — attaching a number to how smart a person presumably is — in the first place.


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