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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    Nobel scientist a world-class bigot

    Lauren Myers columnist
    Lauren Myers
    columnist

    American scientist James Watson grabbed headlines around the globe last week for roiling the dangerous waters of racial politics. In an interview with London’s The Sunday Times, Watson proclaimed that he is “”inherently gloomy about the prospects 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.”” Watson then added that he would like for everyone to be equal, but “”people who have to deal with black employees find this is not true.””

    Unfortunately, James Watson is not some marginal quack operating on the fringes of the scientific community. In 1953, he and Francis Crick discovered the structure of DNA – one of the single most important biological advances of the 20th century. Watson shared the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for this discovery. He has continued to be a prominent scientific leader, heading the Human Genome project and later leading Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.

    Just as Watson himself is no marginal figure, his comments are only the latest episode in one of the darkest legacies of biology. He joins an ignoble lineage of American scientists who perverted biology to justify white supremacist attitudes by establishing the biological “”inferiority”” of people of African descent.

    One of the founding figures in the tradition of racist pseudoscience was the physician Samuel Morton. Morton gained prominence in the 1830s and 1840s through his work in craniology, the science of skull measurement. By assessing the size and shape of the skulls of individuals from various racial groups, Morton established a ranking for racial intellectual capacity. Caucasians were at the top, followed by Asians, then by the indigenous peoples of the Americas and last by Africans.

    Morton’s work was both morally repugnant and scientifically preposterous. His assumption that slight variations in cranial measurements were the primary determinant of intellectual capacity is laughably ridiculous. However, his extreme prejudice blinded him to obvious fallacies, both scientific and moral, in his own argument.

    Like Morton’s work, Watson’s claims of racial disparities in intelligence are based on specious evidence and deeply flawed assumptions. Intelligence tests have long been a hotly contested method for assessing intellectual capacity. Originally, IQ tests were developed from the Simon-Binet Scale. This scale was specifically designed as a tool to identify special education students, and not as a general intelligence-assessment tool. In fact, Alfred Binet explicitly warned that his scale should not be used in that manner, declaring that intellect “”cannot be measured as linear surfaces are measured.””

    Indeed, countless studies have shown that a wide variety of factors can influence IQ, including socioeconomic status, cultural background, educational background, prior experience taking the test – even the test taker’s mood on the day of the exam. If IQ was a true measure of innate intelligence, none of these factors would be relevant. Furthermore, allegations of Eurocentric cultural bias have been leveled at the content of the IQ tests.

    In this context, it is hardly fair to compare the results of prosperous, well-fed, well-educated Western elites to the results of a continent wracked by dire poverty, disease, famine, malnutrition, war, ethnic conflict, corrupt leadership, skeletal infrastructure, poor education and a legacy of exploitation. Even a cursory investigation of the literature on intelligence testing demonstrates that Watson’s claims are bunk.

    Any disparities that exist can be easily explained as the result of a grossly unlevel playing field – not as some sort of inborn genetic defect in people of African descent.

    On the bright side, modern biologists are clearly trying to tear out the last roots of the poisonous legacy of scientific racism. In his era, Samuel Morton was celebrated as a pioneer in his field; by contrast, Watson has been forcefully reproached for his remarks. Watson’s speaking appointment at the Science Museum in London was promptly cancelled, and Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory subsequently suspended his employment. Scientists and institutions around the globe have issued statements condemning Watson’s remarks and distancing themselves from the fallen biology big-shot.

    Like the rest of our social institutions, the scientific establishment has made huge progress toward eliminating racial prejudice. However, the job’s not done yet. Clearly, the crusty old bigots of the world – Nobel laureates included – still need to be disabused of their “”scientific”” justifications for racism.

    Lauren Myers is a sophomore majoring in math and microbiology. She can be reached at letters@wildcat.arizona.edu.

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