October 20, 2007

On the James Watson Black IQ controversy

There are two issues regarding the recent controversy started by James Watson's comments about the intelligence of Africans.
The scientist, who won the Nobel prize for his part in discovering the structure of DNA, was quoted in an interview in The Sunday Times 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.”
The first issue is that Watson's statements, whether one agrees with them or not should not be punished, and represent a valid stance to the problem of population differences in intelligence. Of course institutions (such as the Cold Spring Harbor lab) have the right to choose who works for them, but they also have the responsibility to foster free speech.

One would be sympathetic to CSH's condemnation of Watson if it was done on scientific grounds. For example, a scientist denying the fact of evolution could not reasonably expect to have no reprecussions in his career. Institutions are expected to make sure they don't promote bad science, which is not necessarily unorthodox science (which should be encouraged), but rather unargued or anti-empirical science.

However, CSH's stance has been motivated by political or social considerations. How could it be otherwise, since the identification of intelligence-fostering genes differentiating populations has not come about yet. The prudent stance is to be agnostic about this issue, until such genes are discovered, or their continued non-discovery makes one doubtful of their existence.

The second issue is that Watson's factual comments are entirely accurate! Sub-Saharan Africans do indeed have lower intelligence than people in western societies. That is an observable fact (fact F). What is not certain is whether or not this fact is due to inherent genetic deficiencies (position A) or due to environmental or socio-cultural problems (position B). Social policies should take into account F while the scientists figure out whether A or B explains F.

As an analogy, a cook has to take into account that his knife is blunt before he figures out whether it is blunt because it was made poorly or from repeated use.

According to Watson:
A priori, there is no firm reason to anticipate that the intellectual abilities of people geographically separated during their evolution should prove to have evolved identically. Our wanting to reserve equal powers of reason as some universal heritage of mankind will not be enough to make it so.
Once again, Watson's comments are reasonable. Notably they do not identify which populations may have inherent (evolutionary) differences in intelligence, nor do they attempt to quantify the importance of such differences. They simply state the -a priori sensible- stance of a scientist that a phenomenon (e.g., the evolution of cognitive ability) would not have proceeded in the same way under different circumstances.

UPDATE: A post-controversy article by James Watson in the Independent. Excerpt:
We do not yet adequately understand the way in which the different environments in the world have selected over time the genes which determine our capacity to do different things. The overwhelming desire of society today is to assume that equal powers of reason are a universal heritage of humanity. It may well be. But simply wanting this to be the case is not enough. This is not science.

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