Twist in the tale: Watson (contd.)

Continuing the story of James Watson, Cold Spring Harbour Laboratories first issued a press release distancing themselves from Watson’s view on intelligence of black people and now have suspended him, pending further deliberations at the Labs.

Considering all his engagements are being cancelled by hosts in a hurry to distance themselves from Watson, the Cambridge Union Society may be the only place where he is apparently still scheduled to speak.

Several terabytes of data packets are floating on the web about “what he said” and “what is being done” by way of cancellations of appearances.

But while all this goes on, his book “Avoid Boring People“, which admittedly does sound like the title of a Dilbert comic, is in the top 100 books on Amazon-UK.

If the “what” of the whole story bothers you much more than the “why” does, here is a story for you to consider.

During my MBA, we had to watch a film as part of course materials. The film was called Skokie, named after the Illinois village where the story takes place. It is a Jewish majority village through which a Neo-Nazi group wishes to march. One survivor of a concentration camp decides that ignoring is not enough; he will take action. The story depicts the views of several generations from fear, bad memories, disgust, helplessness, concern to shoulder-shrugging indifference amongst teenagers in the village. You can probably read the synopsis much better here.

So what? If you have not seen the film, you cannot guess how it ends. When the film ended and the lights went back on, the boisterous, high decibel MBA group was in a shocked silence, something that affirmed the essential humanity of many in my mind.

After much national debate and court cases involving the ACLU, the Neo Nazi group pulls out. Their leader says that the objective of the march was to create greater awareness of the Neo Nazi movement. With so much public attention having been paid, at government’s and taxpayers’ expense, that objective had been achieved and the march was no longer needed.

Surprised? Now consider this! Is it possible that by discussing the issue over and over again, Watson’s idea of “racism” is being propagated much more than it might have done as any other interview in a British Sunday paper? And that the very same people are propagating it as claim to be horrified by it?

If it bothers everyone so much that Watson is being racist, don’t you think it is time to stop promoting and discussing the idea till the world is aflame?

Oh and by the way, will you be buying the book? Millions apparently are.

Whatever your answer: ask yourself why. “Why” is the essential question in Science and if more people asked it more often, the world might just have been a better place.

16 Replies to “Twist in the tale: Watson (contd.)”

  1. I am probably only smarter than about half the people in the world, which I regret, but there is not too much I can do about it, so I don’t shout and complain. Those that are shouting and complaining about Professor Watson’s views on intellectual ability and race, are I suspect in the less intelligent half, which I try to avoid. Those in the more intelligent half, which I try to find, are conspicuous by their silence. I am glad to see an intelligent person stand up and voice a controversial opinion.
    On his actual point, I have yet to find an opinion on the subject by anyone near his ability. That may say something about how smart those people are, unlike me!

  2. I am probably only smarter than about half the people in the world, which I regret, but there is not too much I can do about it, so I don’t shout and complain. Those that are shouting and complaining about Professor Watson’s views on intellectual ability and race, are I suspect in the less intelligent half, which I try to avoid. Those in the more intelligent half, which I try to find, are conspicuous by their silence. I am glad to see an intelligent person stand up and voice a controversial opinion.
    On his actual point, I have yet to find an opinion on the subject by anyone near his ability. That may say something about how smart those people are, unlike me!

  3. Conceptualizer: Thanks for your note.

    In the absence of population data, I can make no reliable and verifiable – even falsifiable – claims about which decile of intelligence I may belong in. However it is patently clear to me that to comprehend complexity – not as some read in a non-linear physics class but in real life – requires “intelligence” on so many dimensions that most have no choice, but to be happy with (and defend vigorously) their own reductionist framing of the issue.

    And indeed it is true that nobody, of similar calibre as Watson, has yet stood up and said something that he/ she can be held to. They are all issuing statements in the guise of board directors of CSHL and officers of other organisations.

    This suggests to me a few possibilities:

    that they are all PC cowards worried about their funding;

    that the race hypothesis is a construct under investigation;

    or that they are all terribly holy and devout Christians, following the advice of JC Superstar, who said something about casting the first stone.

    Thanks for reading!

  4. Conceptualizer: Thanks for your note.

    In the absence of population data, I can make no reliable and verifiable – even falsifiable – claims about which decile of intelligence I may belong in. However it is patently clear to me that to comprehend complexity – not as some read in a non-linear physics class but in real life – requires “intelligence” on so many dimensions that most have no choice, but to be happy with (and defend vigorously) their own reductionist framing of the issue.

    And indeed it is true that nobody, of similar calibre as Watson, has yet stood up and said something that he/ she can be held to. They are all issuing statements in the guise of board directors of CSHL and officers of other organisations.

    This suggests to me a few possibilities:

    that they are all PC cowards worried about their funding;

    that the race hypothesis is a construct under investigation;

    or that they are all terribly holy and devout Christians, following the advice of JC Superstar, who said something about casting the first stone.

    Thanks for reading!

  5. I will certainly buy his book if it interests me. (Note to self: check it out.)

    He is simply being made an example of. That I think does more damage than good.

  6. I will certainly buy his book if it interests me. (Note to self: check it out.)

    He is simply being made an example of. That I think does more damage than good.

  7. TBR: Thanks for your note.

    (Note to self: check it out.)

    Most people on Amazon are not buying the book after checking it out. That is the point. They read a short synopsis, they see the autobiographical element and they see the man who wrote it. If the scale of the brouhaha really is that great, clearly few are putting their money where their mouths are.

    He is simply being made an example of. That I think does more damage than good.”

    Ah! Now that is actually a topic – public figures and the standards they are held to – on which ethics courses spend a lot of time. I cannot remember the case study/ essential reading now, but at IIM-Ahmedabad, we had a course on Leadership, where we spent a rather heated time discussing the same issue.

    Watson lost that choice – whether he should behave like an example or not – with his Nobel winning. You could say that is unfair as he did not choose to win it. But of the duo, Watson actively was the one who courted publicity. Some have written “with great power, comes great responsibility”, which made me think “he is Watson; not Spiderman!” However on a serious note, if you have followed the discussion on the first post (Scientists as “people”) you will see that his power has manifested in different ways and people fear he gives legitimacy to a hypothesis by claiming it is the truth.

    Now since no single authority figure in medical and biomedical research has stuck out his head above the parapet and defended/ attacked Watson directly is an altogether very different and interesting thing. What are the possible explanations for that?

    I should like to believe not defending him comes from a fear of losing funding, which is the source of all academic clout. But it could mean that many in the establishment do not disbelieve him entirely.

    In our rush to condemn the man, we are throwing the baby with the bathwater.

    I fear we are overlooking the subtler nuances of the issue – which is always the case.

    Now he has apologised. May be CSHL will take him back, may be they won’t. Does he care at 82 years of age? Besides the book is selling like hot cakes! May be he won’t need to worry and can live with royalty income for the rest of his years.

    Thanks for your note.

  8. TBR: Thanks for your note.

    (Note to self: check it out.)

    Most people on Amazon are not buying the book after checking it out. That is the point. They read a short synopsis, they see the autobiographical element and they see the man who wrote it. If the scale of the brouhaha really is that great, clearly few are putting their money where their mouths are.

    He is simply being made an example of. That I think does more damage than good.”

    Ah! Now that is actually a topic – public figures and the standards they are held to – on which ethics courses spend a lot of time. I cannot remember the case study/ essential reading now, but at IIM-Ahmedabad, we had a course on Leadership, where we spent a rather heated time discussing the same issue.

    Watson lost that choice – whether he should behave like an example or not – with his Nobel winning. You could say that is unfair as he did not choose to win it. But of the duo, Watson actively was the one who courted publicity. Some have written “with great power, comes great responsibility”, which made me think “he is Watson; not Spiderman!” However on a serious note, if you have followed the discussion on the first post (Scientists as “people”) you will see that his power has manifested in different ways and people fear he gives legitimacy to a hypothesis by claiming it is the truth.

    Now since no single authority figure in medical and biomedical research has stuck out his head above the parapet and defended/ attacked Watson directly is an altogether very different and interesting thing. What are the possible explanations for that?

    I should like to believe not defending him comes from a fear of losing funding, which is the source of all academic clout. But it could mean that many in the establishment do not disbelieve him entirely.

    In our rush to condemn the man, we are throwing the baby with the bathwater.

    I fear we are overlooking the subtler nuances of the issue – which is always the case.

    Now he has apologised. May be CSHL will take him back, may be they won’t. Does he care at 82 years of age? Besides the book is selling like hot cakes! May be he won’t need to worry and can live with royalty income for the rest of his years.

    Thanks for your note.

  9. If his view had been on non black people and in particular white, you would not have heard a sound. That apart would not the best way of dealing with this be for the scientific community to present data that might/could/would counter Dr Watson’s claim. Elementary you might believe.

  10. If his view had been on non black people and in particular white, you would not have heard a sound. That apart would not the best way of dealing with this be for the scientific community to present data that might/could/would counter Dr Watson’s claim. Elementary you might believe.

  11. Jamie: Thanks for your note.

    Although the technical definition of racism covers positive AND negative stereotyping, it mainly gets attention when the stereotyping is negative.

    So saying “Indians are bright”, “Polish people are hard working”, “Afro-Carribean people have a sense of rhythm built in their bodies which is why they make soul music” is all fine and nobody for a second hesitates.

    But say one thing negative and people come down on you like a tonne of bricks!

    But the point you raise is different. And it has struck me too mainly for my discomfort for this common usage of “racism” now.

    During Celeb Big Brother, there was much noise about 3 British girls ganging up on an Indian actress. But Jermaine Jackson called the girls “white trash” and not an eyelid was blinked.

    Is this the price one pays for being a majority? Or such slurring is a perk of being a minority?

    I do not know for sure.

    As for your last point – re evidence – the huge silence of individual scientists is deafening. They are speaking as organisations but not individuals. Why? I outline 3 reasons but my money is on that at some level, they probably have hypothesised along similar lines too and seeing the brouhaha now, they are wondering if they have the moral locus standi to cast the first stone at Watson…

    Thanks.

  12. Jamie: Thanks for your note.

    Although the technical definition of racism covers positive AND negative stereotyping, it mainly gets attention when the stereotyping is negative.

    So saying “Indians are bright”, “Polish people are hard working”, “Afro-Carribean people have a sense of rhythm built in their bodies which is why they make soul music” is all fine and nobody for a second hesitates.

    But say one thing negative and people come down on you like a tonne of bricks!

    But the point you raise is different. And it has struck me too mainly for my discomfort for this common usage of “racism” now.

    During Celeb Big Brother, there was much noise about 3 British girls ganging up on an Indian actress. But Jermaine Jackson called the girls “white trash” and not an eyelid was blinked.

    Is this the price one pays for being a majority? Or such slurring is a perk of being a minority?

    I do not know for sure.

    As for your last point – re evidence – the huge silence of individual scientists is deafening. They are speaking as organisations but not individuals. Why? I outline 3 reasons but my money is on that at some level, they probably have hypothesised along similar lines too and seeing the brouhaha now, they are wondering if they have the moral locus standi to cast the first stone at Watson…

    Thanks.

  13. Did you see that Dr. Watson retired as a result of this? Here’s the opening statement of a New Scientist article [ http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn12835-james-watson-retires-amidst-race-controversy.html ]dated October 25:
    “DNA co-discover and Nobel laureate James Watson, who caused outrage last week by characterising people of African descent as genetically inferior, has announced his retirement chancellor of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.”

    Any generalization of people based on race is pointless, and is of nothing more than statistical interest/curiosity (with the possible exception of medical considerations?). A test that shows abilities-based statistical tendencies of one group being more intelligent or faster or better at math than other groups does not account for the fact that the fastest, or most intelligent, or best mathematical specimen of humanity can come from any race, regardless of whether that person’s “group” as a whole is slightly better at the activity than other group’s. Dr. Watson, more so than most, should have a solid grasp of that concept, and if he has lost that grasp (which he apparently has), then retirement was certainly in order!

  14. Did you see that Dr. Watson retired as a result of this? Here’s the opening statement of a New Scientist article [ http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn12835-james-watson-retires-amidst-race-controversy.html ]dated October 25:
    “DNA co-discover and Nobel laureate James Watson, who caused outrage last week by characterising people of African descent as genetically inferior, has announced his retirement chancellor of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.”

    Any generalization of people based on race is pointless, and is of nothing more than statistical interest/curiosity (with the possible exception of medical considerations?). A test that shows abilities-based statistical tendencies of one group being more intelligent or faster or better at math than other groups does not account for the fact that the fastest, or most intelligent, or best mathematical specimen of humanity can come from any race, regardless of whether that person’s “group” as a whole is slightly better at the activity than other group’s. Dr. Watson, more so than most, should have a solid grasp of that concept, and if he has lost that grasp (which he apparently has), then retirement was certainly in order!

  15. Worth: Thanks. Of course, I have seen it. It is everywhere.

    I am still not sure why not one single scientist – except those in herds like sheep, hiding behind institutional banners – stood up to condemn him.

    Are they so Christian that they did not wish to cast the first stone?

    Or is this a valid hypothesis and since our fear of eugenics research since World War-II has damaged the research into the role of race in many aspects of life, we are happy to continue avoiding the issue, even as we talk of pharmacogenomics and tailored medication and so on?

    Or are they just cowards, too chicken to lose their funding by speaking out either way?

    I am sure at 80-something, he does not care if he retires or is forced to retire. He has raised a question to which everyone responded in a very holier-than-thou manner.

    I believe we find those things irksome which we hate in ourselves. What does this debate suggest?

  16. Worth: Thanks. Of course, I have seen it. It is everywhere.

    I am still not sure why not one single scientist – except those in herds like sheep, hiding behind institutional banners – stood up to condemn him.

    Are they so Christian that they did not wish to cast the first stone?

    Or is this a valid hypothesis and since our fear of eugenics research since World War-II has damaged the research into the role of race in many aspects of life, we are happy to continue avoiding the issue, even as we talk of pharmacogenomics and tailored medication and so on?

    Or are they just cowards, too chicken to lose their funding by speaking out either way?

    I am sure at 80-something, he does not care if he retires or is forced to retire. He has raised a question to which everyone responded in a very holier-than-thou manner.

    I believe we find those things irksome which we hate in ourselves. What does this debate suggest?

What do YOU think?