Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Elementary Watson

One thing that I have learned over time is that smart people can believe very dumb things, and it does not make them any less smart.

Benjamin Rush, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence and Father of American Psychiatry, believed that blackness was a form of leprosy.

Louis Agassiz, a Harvard scientist and well-renowned biologist, believed that interracial relationships were completely loveless.

Our American presidents... well, let's just say they had some interesting beliefs themselves.

And otherwise intelligent people the world over can convince themselves that the existence an invisible wish-granting fairy in the sky is an eminently reasonable position.

Thus I'm going to have to disagree with Greg Laden; I do not think that James Watson, one of the co-discoverers of the shape of DNA, is a moron. Flat wrong, almost certainly, but not necessarily a moron.

"What brought that up?" some of you may be wondering. Well, some racist sentiments of Watson's were published in the Independent the other day:
The 79-year-old geneticist reopened the explosive debate about race and science in a newspaper interview in which he said Western policies towards African countries were wrongly based on an assumption that black people were as clever as their white counterparts when "testing" suggested the contrary. He claimed genes responsible for creating differences in human intelligence could be found within a decade.

...Dr Watson told The Sunday Times 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". He said there was a natural desire that all human beings should be equal but "people who have to deal with black employees find this not true".

His views are also reflected in a book published next week, in which he writes: "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."

What "tests" he means are unknown, especially since tests for the past several decades have shown exactly the opposite--once you eliminate other factors such as diet, socioeconomic status, and other things, the "intelligence gap" between the races shrinks. Furthermore, the existence of racism and discrimination against one group at all tends to worsen a person's performance, as Jane Elliott has demonstrated. And the idea that blacks are less intelligent itself has been shown to hinder their performance on intelligence tests. Joe Feagin writes in Racist America (pp. 192-93):
Recent sociopsychological research has examined the impact of racist stereotypes on the performance of students. In pioneering studies by Claude Steele and his associates, black and white students were given skill tests similar to the Graduate Record Examination (GRE). When this examination was presented to black students as a test of their "intellectual ability," they did less well on the tests than white students of comparative ability. However, when the test was presented to the black students without the suggestion that it was a type of intelligence testing, they performed at a level similar to that of the white students.

And really, what are we to think when the only concrete piece of "evidence" Watson provides (at least so far) is the anecdotal evidence of people who work with black employees? Sure, those people may not think that blacks are very smart; that doesn't make it true. There are any number of reasons why the people questioned might say that--not least of which is the racist belief that blacks are dumb, and evidence be damned.

And of course Watson tries to make his position (as do trolls Caledonian and Francis Crunk in the comments at Pharyngula) sound plausible by suggesting that different races could have taken different evolutionary paths and there's no reason to believe that they all evolved the same way. Which in itself might be reasonable; there are differences between the races. But why should their brains have varied? Unless Watson believes like Edward Eggleston, that Africa was so verdant that one didn't need to think to survive? After all, it's not like there's any hardship in Africa, no sir.

And besides, it's hard to take Watson seriously when his supposedly scientific, neutral hypotheses line match up so exactly with the racist sentiments spewed by Americans for hundreds of years:
He has also suggested a link between skin colour and sex drive, positing the theory that black people have higher libidos... .

As Azkyroth at Pharyngula commented,
...we argue against the claim that human variation takes the form of nice neat little bundles of traits that are distributed in a fashion more or less corresponding to societal definitions of race, and whose contents more or less correspond to Western racial prejudices particularly as regards intelligence and temperament... .

Thanks to PZ for alerting me to this.

[Edit] And Greg Laden now has a bit more, shredding some of the "science" by others that also purportedly "proves" blacks have a lower I.Q.

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