Science, race, and intelligence…a Nobel Prize winner demonstrates that being smart and having good judgement are not related in any discernible way
James Watson, a famous DNA researcher, recently made controversial statements about race, intelligence, and related factors. It created quite a little tempest in a teapot, and has pretty much ended his career. Though presumably at 79 forced retirement won’t be too much of a hardship. This is a wonderful example though of why smart people should keep their mouths shut about stuff outside their field of expertise. Because when they do, they often say remarkably stupid things. Don’t even get me started on Richard Dawkins, the man makes me want to pull out my hair. Not for the dumb things he says, we all do that, welcome to Earth. No, because people think that every word that drops from his mouth is a pearl of wisdom. It’s called the halo effect, and is just another way scientists have shown since the 1920s that humans aren’t particularly rational when it comes right down to it. Who knew?
What did Dr Watson say that was so controversial? In a newspaper interview he said 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 followed up with commenting that he wished all people were equal but “people who have to deal with black employees find this is not true.” In other words, the formerly esteemed Dr Watson thinks black people are stupid. Apparently he’s said similar things about women before, so it’s not like this latest outburst was a big surprise.
So what’s the big deal? The big deal is that his comments are scientific nonsense for two very simple reasons. The first is that neither race nor intelligence are measurable scientific concepts, they are arbitrary categories that can be defined any way one wants. All human beings are remarkably closely related, and there are any number of types of intelligence. We can all interbreed quite nicely, and have been doing so or thousands of years. So one can define either word the way one wants to get the result one wants. There’s no science involved here. Hell, when IQ tests were first invented the initial results showed that women were smarter than men. We couldn’t have that of course, so math questions were added to the tests until they got the “right” result.
The second reason is even more compelling. Even if there was some slight measurable difference between the intelligence of different races, so what? Whatever differences there are would be overshadowed by other factors, education being the biggest one. This issue was pretty much laid to rest in World War One when for the first time in history a large diverse population, US army draftees, were given a standardized intelligence test. To the shock and dismay of “scientific” racists, it turned out that blacks from the northern US states were smarter than whites from the southern US states. Northern whites scored higher than northern blacks and the same was true for the south, but it was clear that whatever differences there were were the result of the educational system and not anything inherent in racial intelligence.
Even more on point, if there was some trivial as yet to be measured difference in the intelligence of certain groups, so what? The difference would be minor and would mean nothing either individually or collectively. It wouldn’t make any difference on an individual level, which is the level we all live in. IE if whites were smarter than blacks, would it make every white smarter than every black? Not even close. White people would still meet plenty of blacks who were smarter than them, intelligence varies widely from one individual to the next.
So scientifically and logically Dr Watson’s remarks are nonsense. And thus people assume he is just trying to find scientific rationalizations for his own prejudices. Frankly I find it hard to see any other way. One would think if he was so smart he would be able to see how his remarks would be used to pillory him. Intelligence and wisdom are two different things though, no matter how clever the man was he clearly doesn’t know much about human nature and society. Many academics don’t, which is why their pronouncements about the world at large are often pretty silly in their understanding.
I do sometimes wonder about the wisdom of living in a world where people who are racists have to hide their stupid opinions. By putting prejudice and racism in the closet so to speak, we have created a world where racism is still very real, it’s just disguised. Like cocaine laws in the USA that send crack users to jail for vastly longer sentences than people who use cocaine in powdered form, even though it’s the same drug. Heck, crack is the only drug in the USA where mere possession gets one sent to jail, hard not to see that as a racially motivated law. So I sometimes wonder if we might be better off allowing racists to openly profess their views, maybe then they would be quickly reduced to the tiny idiotic minority they are, rather than secretly hanging onto the reins of power.
By the same token people that are freaking out about the nooses that have been left around the country lately. Um, there’s a few nuts in every barrel folks, if we get upset about something like this it just gives power to the people who are doing it. The proper response when one finds a noose hanging in some public place is to roll your eyes, mutter “morons” under your breath, and throw it away. Calling your local newspaper so they can salivate about it is over reacting. I guess what I am trying to get at here is that a lot of the discussion about racism is based on accepting racism, which seems to be missing the point. IE thinking “Well, these nooses will offend black people, so it’s a big deal” presupposes that black people are all going to react the same way. Um, say what? Isn’t that a racist assumption?
Oh well, the world is full of terrible prejudices against very broad groups for very superficial reasons, more often than not encouraged by our so called leaders. Muslim friends assure me that if they go out in public in the USA wearing Muslim garb, they are guaranteed to get hassled and receive nasty remarks. In many people’s eyes if you’re a Muslim, you’re not really an American and you’re probably a terrorist. So much for land of the free, home of the brave. Oh well, it’s the same everywhere. I’d go on, but that’s enough for today. I also want to comment on why Africa is such a mess today, but that’s for another post. Hint: It isn’t because people living in Africa are stupid. Sigh.
Have a great weekend everyone.
(The above image from the original Star Trek series, episode 70, is claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. It is a low resolution grey scale reproduction of a portion of the original marketing image, it is not being used for profit, and it is central to illustrating the post. Its use here in no way interferes with the copyright holder’s commercial use of Star Trek, and may even aid their commercial endeavours. Oddly enough, there is plenty of racism in Star Trek, despite Mr Roddenberry’s sincere efforts to imagine a world without prejudice. Read about racism in Star Wars and Star Trek here.)