Saturday, October 20, 2007

Dr Watson and the Thought Police

Watch out! It looks like once again the Thought Police have been unleashed. This time, it was a politically incorrect remark made by James Watson, who in 1962 won a Nobel prize for discovering the structure of DNA, that has triggered the uproar.

Watson is quoted as saying that 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".

The Thought Police have decided that Watson's comments go beyond 'acceptable debate.' In response to such ‘hateful’ remarks, he is now facing possible charges under the British Equality and Human Rights Commission (his remarks were make while visiting Britain), suspension from his job as chancellor of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory ‘pending further deliberation’, and widespread condemnation in the press for being a racist. All this in addition to cancellation of his book tour, being banned by the Science Museum of London, cancelled speaking engagements and book signings, and general public humiliation. Dr Watson has since apologized for his comments.

However, is Dr Watson really a hateful racist? Reading the October 14th Sunday Times article in full that contains the quote in question, we see that these comments were made as part of a discussion of his interest in finding the genes that control human intelligence. He recognizes that politics will impede this search, but states that science should ‘hand political correctness back to the politicians’ so that it could get on with the difficult business of solving societal ills. When one compares the progress of the physical sciences, and the great leaps in our quality of life that fields such as medicine, chemistry, and engineering have yielded, with the absence of any tangible progress in the social sciences, one clearly sees that Dr Watson's concerns have merit.

Concerns regarding the lack of advancement of the social sciences are not new. They have perhaps been most clearly articulated by E. O. Wilson in his book Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge. In this book Wilson laments the intellectual paralysis of the social sciences (fields such as sociology, economics, and psychology), and points to a way forward. He argues for linking the social sciences to the natural sciences, principally through the study of ‘brain science’. Unfortunately, until rigorous scientific principles are adopted by social scientists, these fields will continue to be manipulated by ideologues who are more interested in advancing a political agenda than in seeking the truth. When you consider the amount of flack the Thought Police are able to heap upon a famous and highly regarded scientist such as Watson, can you imagine any average rank-and-file college professor daring to speak out on taboo topics? And even more to the point, can you imagine a similar brouhaha arising from a scientist speaking out on a controversial subject in say astronomy, physics, or computer science? No, sadly the social sciences are still mired in emotion, and this is seriously impeding their progress.

Returning to the specific comments that got Dr Watson in trouble, the best that the New York Times could do in refuting his claim that intelligence is a factor in keeping the Dark Continent dark, is to resurrect arguments put forward by deceased paleontologist Jay Gould in his 25 year old book The Mismeasure of Man. Gould argues that intelligence tests are invalid and calls into question whether innate intelligence even exists. Nonetheless, the paper is forced to concede that current research shows that intelligence is, at least in part, genetically determined. Unfortunately, none of the news reports that I have read mentions the larger issues that Watson was attempting to address, choosing instead to focus on the sensationalism. <gasp!> Ironically, it is the political correctness that Watson recognized as hampering the study of intelligence that is attempting to tar and feather him for calling it out.

1 comment:

Louis said...

Dr. James Watson will join the great Galileo, the papist church didn't let the idea of the Earth revoloving around the sun for over 300 years. They ignored Francis Bacon and threatened to burn him at the stake. Welcome to the new dark ages... Get ready for the inquisition..