Friday, October 19, 2007

Watson's People

A guest piece by Abdul-Walid of Acerbia:

James Watson’s recent comments were delivered in that nebulous zone between public and private speech. He was, after all, in his own office, speaking casually with a reporter. The conversation did not focus on his scientific research. Rather, he spoke on a variety of informal topics. But he also knew that his comments would be published. He was speaking to one journalist, but through that journalist he was addressing the world.

It has been important for Watson’s defenders on this matter to cast him as a lone hero, someone who has the courage to say what others haven’t been able to. Defending him in these terms, as hundreds have done on various websites this week, is revealing. What did Watson say? He said he was “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa” and “all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours—
whereas all the testing says not really.” Consider, in addition, Watson’s second statement: that he hoped everyone was equal but that “people who have to deal with black employees find this is not true.” What do these statements of his mean? I think it might be helpful to examine them structurally.

What Watson is doing in these statements is taking advantage of the gap between public and private speech. Hence the conspiratorial tone, and the offhand manner in which he implicates his interlocutor in his statements. He is using a stage whisper and a megaphone. It is coded language, less carefully coded, perhaps, than what a Republican candidate campaigning in the southern US might say, but coded all the same. Whatever else we might be going on here, it’s clear that Watson has an idea of “our” which is distinct from “Africa” or “black.” He gives this binary opposition a further twist when he implies that on one side you have “people” and on the other “black employees.”

Quite apart from the inaccurate assertions he makes about differences in intelligence, Watson commits a more fundamental error here. He seems to genuinely believe that there’s an in-group that is not and cannot be the same as African people. It certainly would not seem so to someone who has a lifetime habit of thinking of his in-group in terms of whiteness and maleness. It would not seem unethical at all. It would seem normal. That is the problem.

Watson is a geneticist. As such, he knows that the genetic diversity on the African continent far surpasses anything outside it. As difficult as it is to generalize about Europeans in genetic terms, it is even more difficult to generalize about Africa. Whereas Europeans represent a movement of selected populations from East Africa, via the Levant, into the European peninsula, the African population is largely what it has long been: a staggeringly complex web of human diversity. To compare the two in general terms would be like comparing a pair of Tiepolos with the entire artistic output of the Netherlands in the 17th century. It would make no sense.

Watson no doubt knows these things in theoretical terms. However, his urgent need to defend his privilege trumps this knowledge. He talks about Africa, but it means nothing, really. It is merely a word denoting the despised Other. It means only that his own whiteness is a valuable source of self-esteem to him. That Watson does not anywhere in the conversation say “ white” or Europe is, I think, also signal. For him, these categories constitute normality. To be white, to be of purely European descent, is to be “we.” He talks about “our social policy,” and so on. The “our” in question is a racialized in-group that includes the white journalist in conversation with him, the all-white readership he imagines for the Sunday Times, and also includes the world of work where the “people” who do the hiring are white.

What Watson’s “our” does not include is scientists of any other race, or readers of the paper who might be black or Asian, or indeed most of the population of the world. These nodes of exclusion will be familiar to any non-white person who has had to function in a majority-white environment.

Watson’s insinuations are intended, foremost, to provide comfort to just the sort of people who have appeared in large numbers all over the internet to support him. Insecure people, the sort who believe that, as the most widely used study suggests, Nigerians have an average IQ of 67. People who are happy with the insinuation that the average African is mentally retarded, and that to be normal and fully human is to be white.

Watson is wrong here, not only because he gets the facts wrong, and not only because he treats a ridiculously antiquated concept like IQ-testing with incurious respect. For a scientist, these are damaging gaffes, but they are forgivable. He is more egregiously wrong because he does linguistic violence to entire populations of people. In other words, he’s not wrong like Copernicus, he’s wrong like Goebbels.

His “our” denotes a world split into black and white. Blacks don’t belong. Whites are intelligent and they are the employers. They, the whites, are really the “people,” the “gens” from which both gentry and genetics are etymologically derived. But what about the thousands of Chinese-born researchers and professors in molecular biology today? Aren’t they people too? What about the thousands of Indian physicians in the US? What is served by pretending that the world, or the scientific world, is only black and white? Watson’s binary view is unconnected with reality.

My younger sister holds a doctorate in Microbiology and has presented several papers at Watson’s institution, Cold Spring Harbor. That he might cast aspersions on her intelligence is simply laughable. More troubling, however, is that he, from his position of power, continues to aggressively exclude people like my sister from the conversation. He is not alone. His is only the latest nasty and unwarranted attack on a group of people that is, and has been for so long, under constant attack.

Long after the Watson brouhaha has died away, the old question of who belongs will remain. The question of who owns what, who is the "our" in “our social policy,” will have to be tussled with. It would be a mistake to see the Watson case—or any of the other rash of racially aggressive incidents in the media this year—as a question of free speech or political correctness. The issue here is ethical. When Goebbels said, of the Jews, “it is true that the Jew is a human being, but so is a flea a living being—one that is none too pleasant. Our duty towards both ourselves and our conscience is to render it harmless. It is the same with the Jews,” the ethical response is not, “We need to do further tests to figure out whether there’s any scientific truth to that.” It was a social statement, and it was intended to degrade and to humiliate. When James Watson declares, likewise, that blacks are less intelligent than “us,” he is speaking pseudoscientifically, and with a view to humiliation. What is a “black”? What is “intelligence” and how does one test it? The statement is a social one. It is a social intervention, a masked way of saying “I like our kind. And I don’t like blacks.” Watson’s people, those who share such views, understood the code right away.

It goes without saying that Watson would be unable to speak intelligently about the points of comparison and contrast between Scottish folksong, Yoruba oriki and Carnatic music. He would have no access to the depths of intelligence and subtlety contained within each. Such specific knowledge is outside his ken. He doesn’t know it, but he doesn’t even know that he doesn’t know it. Why would he wish to get bogged down in such specificities? He simply wished to air a prejudice.


accra,  10:52 pm  

jeremy, that was pretty deep and to the point of the matter. the best commentary on this sordid pice of rubbish.
keep the good work up!

Jeremy 11:00 pm  

If only I had written it, I could bask in the glory of the pen. However, I am not Abdul-Walid, and I do not hail from Acerbia..

Akin 1:14 am  

Hello Jeremy,

Thanks for sharing this perspective, there is no doubt that this man's comments would be dissected to nano-strips and people would come up with varied perceptions.

When I addressed this in my blog, I realise now that my focus was narrowed to the black/white dichotomy but then that has been the starkest case of racial supremacy as exemplified by slavery and the Jim Crow laws in James Watson's world in America.

By inference, slaves of old and their descendants now, cannot now be considered smart in America but the source of these slaves which was Africa is presently stuck in something difficult to express and hence the same.

Worse still, his background in DNA science inadvertently allows for social commentary to gain so-called scientific validation in genetics, it is malevolent and dangerously provocative even if unintended.

Someone called this mental state of mind - Nobel Syndrome.

obinna izeogu 2:42 am  

not to take anything away from the poignancy of the matter, but it is a great example of critique.

Anonymous,  6:24 am  

i like the commentary. to make a sensible commentary about such an issue in the 21 century, one has to be deep, because history seems to have not solve anything. i am sad! i am Nigerian and i leave in the States. this country's race issues makes me sad,weak and tired. i am here for many reasons i don't understand. i do understand one thing thou,i love what they* made me love. ex: before African saw no value in diamonds but now we kill for the diamonds. nigeria was colonized by Europeans who had a different logic. so i/we were thought all my(our) life to think that way, speak , act and believe that way. so now i am half of what i wanted to be ( according to Watson). that makes me confused. maybe that was why my ancestors thought the way they did. why they never left their shores to explore the world like the Europeans(who had a different logic pattern). Jared Diamond says its our location that influenced our thinking. Africa is underdeveloped and Watson sees that. one thing he does not know is that Africa is caught in two logic patters, that of our ancestors and that of the Europeans. what i know is that if there is a god, then this was a course put on us for some reason.(but the idea of a one god is a European pattern of thinking)

Beauty 12:37 pm  

Abdul-Walid of Acerbia, your conclusions "Watson no doubt knows these things in theoretical terms"
& "In other words, he’s not wrong like Copernicus, he’s wrong like Goebbels" cannot be true for the great scientist that helped to unlock a 'Secret of life'. What is a great scientist? You will get funding when you are the best in your chosen field (Watson’s latest project value, $100m) and be called great on succesful delivery.

Skin colour as a surrogate for race is a social concept not a scientific one, but beyond the stereotypes and clichés, It is Better to be inviting, rather than invisible. I may not agree with his concept but I will defend his right to lament and attempt to explain the root causes of the chaos in Africa. Watson also said, "This is not a discussion about superiority or inferiority, it is about seeking to understand differences, about why some of us are great musicians and others great engineers."

Great scientists included Albert Einstein who said "I know why there are so many people who love chopping wood. In this activity one immediately sees the results". Einstein spent the last thirty years of his life trying to find a theory that would unify electromagnetism with gravity, but success eluded him.

The great French mathematician Henri Poincaré declared: “The scientist does not study mathematics because it is useful; he studies it because he delights in it, and he delights in it because it is beautiful. If nature were not beautiful, it would not be worth knowing and life would not be worth living. And it is because simplicity, because grandeur, is beautiful that we preferably seek simple facts, sublime facts, and that we delight now to follow the majestic course of the stars.”

To understand the findings of these great scientists, teams of experts have had to publish volumes where the great scientist have put in an astonishingly brief piece of work that could have been elaborated over many pages and are often compressed.

Watson was inherently gloomy about the prospects for Africa because, the continent has barely moved on after decades of aid and investments. Is it racist to point out that the pain that our governments go around the world begging for aid disguised as investments while our people die to leave our rich continent ? Why
join Ken Livingstone, the Mayor of London, and his short sighted statement "racist propaganda masquerading as scientific fact". Watson has not publised a scientific result rather his unorthodox private thoughts to a student who happens to be working for mainstream media. "Avoid Boring People: Lessons from a Life in Science" may yet become a bestseller.

It is clear that James Watson's opinions were unacceptably provocative" and he has said sorry, "To all those who have drawn the inference from my words that Africa, as a continent, is somehow genetically inferior, I can only apologise unreservedly." The debate must focus on the root causes of Africa's regression and not on a self discribed sad old man.

Anonymous,  1:17 pm  

Heres another binary position taken from Orwells' Animal Farm, and loosely paraphrased, [(school was such a long time ago alas, or wait, according to the good doctor, might be because i am a)black, and also b) an employee. oh but wait, i'm self employed, so..tho i'm black, i'm not an employee, so..phew! my intelligence might be equal to herr doktor mengele, er, i mean watson)]-- back to Orwell:

All animals are born equal, but some are more equal than others.
SCARIEST thing about this is his(Watsons') legion of defenders...

Anonymous,  6:55 pm  

@ beauty , i can't believe you are defending watson...... i don't think it will take a rocket scientist to understand why africa faces some of the problems that it does.
a journey through the history of africa can point to many causes of our problems. for a man od watsons statuus to utter the unscientific statement about africa's genetic inferiority with regards to intelligence is simply unacceptable to most normal thinking people!

OGURO,  1:15 am  

why? oh why ? would anyone waste such talent critiquing the tired and obvious? all Watson has done is say what everyone who is white thinks... it is the silent ones that are dangerous... it is that same silence that permitted 400 years of slavery ... the same silence that permitted the subjugation of 'other' races... it is the same silence that elevates the needs of the northern hemisphere above the 'others' ... justifying incursions into sovereign lands ... destabilizing the space of this detested 'other' ... it is the silent treatment by the white colleague who refuses to acknowledge your existence on the streets during the lunch hour after you've spent 3 hours in a meeting on he same side!!!

I prefer to know that I am not regarded, then at least I can act ... not react to nuances and coded meanings... I wish we had more Mr Watsons who can say what every white man has been conditioned to think ... that they are the prime homo sapien... and the rest are there to dance to his tune ...

as we say back home 'everyday na for the thief, one day for the owner of the house' ... we pray there is no blood when the owner reclaims what is innately his ... his dignity ...

ijebuman 4:14 pm  

My thoughts exactly. I'm not impressed by the 'pretend outrage' of the media to Watson's comments.

The reality is, we're not bound by the same rules, that’s why we have 'tribes' and they have 'ethnic groups'
That’s why a white person who has difficulties learning is said to be 'dyslexic' while a black person is just 'thick'

KreativeMix 12:58 am  


Mike,  8:34 am  

@ Oguro - 'what everyone who is white thinks' and 'what every white man has been conditioned to think'

These statements seems a bit racist to me mate and I think if we substituted 'black' for 'white' there would be all kinds of accusations bandied about.

I don't hear any outrage from either side when it is claimed that black men are better endowed than white...

But setting aside the hysteria etc the important issues here are:
1. is it morally acceptable to investigate such differences and publish the results?
2. are the results likely to be of any use/benefit?

What if the results came out that black people are more intelligent than white? What if the results came out that white guys are better endowed than black?

In the God Delusion Dawkins examines prayer and an experiment that was carried out in the USA to see if prayer actually helps the sick. The experiment proved, scientifically, that it doesn't. Christian groups made all sorts of excuses (God refused to help because it was an experiment etc.) but what Dawkins gleefully points out is that should the experiment have proved the efficacy of prayer then the various Christian groups would have been shouting it from the roof tops.

Watson was foolish but that shouldn't distract from what might actually be true - or not. And it certainly shouldn't be used to discredit or distract from the real issues.

babatunde 9:01 am  

"Watson no doubt knows these things in theoretical terms"
& "In other words, he’s not wrong like Copernicus, he’s wrong like Goebbels"

Is really all that need be said, unfortuately many of the worlds greatest talents are flawed human beings, maybe it has something to do with the fact that to be very, very good at one thing means that your soul suffers who knows, but one thing is clear, Mr Watson is a racist in his soul.

Chude,  9:48 am  

“Quite apart from the inaccurate assertions he makes about differences in intelligence..”

Inaccurate according to who? Science? Emotion? Facts verifiable by Abdul-Walid and the army of Watson critics?

Decent, inquisitive men and women like Watson and Lawrence Summers efficiently challenge popular, emotive, beliefs (like “the earth is flat”) and we say ‘Oh no, you CAN’T’.
I also believe in political correctness, but every once in a while, it helps for someone to cut through the bullshit and confront our comfortable beliefs. Watson’s statements are only ‘foolish’ and ‘unwise’ to the extent that he should have known the debate would turn petty and illogical and personal and emotional and every other thing that qualifies the anti-scientific and anti-intellectual.

This is not about race. This is about science. That’s the basis on which Abdul-wahid should confront Watson. We might be able to shut him up with our hue and cry, but nothing enduring comes without engagement.

Beauty has said it all. And when someone says ‘I cannot believe you are defending Watson’ – the person is saying: ‘There are some things that shouldn’t be discussed – whether they will be proved true or not’. Exactly the kind of thinking that has left us where we are.

Chude,  10:02 am  

As Watson says. “There is no firm reason to anticipate that the intellectual capacities of peoples geographically separated in their evolution should prove to have evolved identically," he writes. "Our wanting to reserve equal powers of reason as some universal heritage of humanity will not be enough to make it so.”

The different between Watson and Goebbels is that Goebbels made a ‘social statement’, Watson makes a scientific one. Abdul-Walid called it ‘pseudo-scientific’ - well there go the emotions!

Anonymous,  12:30 pm  

Such poetry Babatunde: "Mr Watson is racist in his soul".(Nice)

@ Mike:here's an experiment for you(created by schoolteacher Jane Elliott immediately after the assassination of MLK jr. to teach her students about racism)

A TV sudio audience was separated by eye color: those with blue eyes from those with brown eyes. The blues, who were given a green collar to wear, were sent to a waiting room with no food for two hours; the browns were offered doughnuts and took their seats ahead of all those with blue eyes. Once they were in the studio, Jane Elliott explained what her "study" had proved: Blue-eyed people were obviously less intelligent than brown-eyed people.

The audience actually became convinced that Jane Elliott was telling the truth. The blues began to revolt, trying to persuade Oprah (the presenter)that they were just as intelligent as the browns; the browns sat by smugly, obviously beginning to believe that they'd always been superior. The purpose of the experiment was to demonstrate how easily human beings can be taught to discriminate based on arbitrary features.

If an hour's worth of propaganda can convince 300 audience members, what other lies might we fall prey to? That was Jane Elliott's point exactly.
[Featured in 20th Anniversary Celebration! About Oprah from the October 2005 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine]

Anonymous,  12:36 pm  


..or the white kid running around the dr.s office is precocious, and my black son doing the same is aggressive.

i know EXACTLY what you're talking about! altho, really, i disagree. cmon, not everyone is racist... but heres an idea, howsabout we promote HUMANISM!?!

ijebuman 1:58 pm  

@(last) Anon
Don't get me wrong i'm not saying ALL white people are racist, i'm just trying to point out that we live in a world which accords white people many advantages (aka 'white privilege').
Watson and his like conveniently refuse to acknowledge this "advantage" and then turn around and claim that black people are less intelligent. We've all seen examples of what happens when black people compete on a "level playing field", (e.g in Sports like Tennis, Formula One and Golf)

OGURO,  2:26 pm  

@mike 8.34

... surely your analogy could have sought more depth ...

I think you miss my point; there is deeper issue here... it is the extent to which racist attitudes underpin European modernity ... it is the tragedy of the depth of it's entrenchment and acceptance as norm that I hope to point to.

no doubt my ability to observe and accept a sub text may be uncomfortable, but truths are always uncomfortable. I am being totally unsentimental and wish a tougher debate on difference and most importantly the global power constructs that define these relationships. You call it racist, I call it realist

Lola 2:41 pm  

i commented on this on my own blog about this study. It's quite interesting to me as a researcher first and foremost and as someone who's actually had this argument with a black african man who thought exactly like Dr. Watson. I'm not really about putting scientific results down as I would really like to know if evidence does exist that shows different intelligence levels between races. My thing is, can this sort of study be done without any bias? (i doubt it) and two, who determines what exactly intelligence is? I think once those two questions can be answered accurately we can begin to look at these things properly.

Although really, what's the real value of such a study i wonder?

also the person who's talking about endowment surely must be joking? big penis as to genetic inferiority?!?!?!?

mytalkingbeginnings,  5:45 pm  

@ mike:
what a pathetic argument to put forward...i suggest you read beauty's entry in detail. Whilst you're at it, do some reading on the works of the Harlem renaissance writers. You've only served to confirm you suffer from TWM syndrome...oh, that actually means Typical White Male syndrome i.e. white male who hasn't got a clue!

Anonymous,  3:37 pm  

i really wish someone would take the initiative to challenge all africans based on arguments like this.

it is pathetic that while we continuously lag behind in almost every aspect, people can come out with guns blazing when a personal opinion like this is given.

in my university, more than half of the people who resit are black... we make up less than 20% of the uni.

i'm from northern nigeria, i know i don't need to spell out the nigerian 'intelligence gap'... not just in nigeria but even here in the uk... while i see some yoruba and igbo 1st and 2.1s i'm surprised when i hear a hausa boy has graduated with more than a 3rd class. so tell me how many of you dont think your superior to hausa people? i get it all the time from southerners.

if africa was the leader in world progress would we be so mad?...we have LESS than 1% of the world's GDP and our people die faster than leaves in winter yet we wonder why people see us as inferior??
for Godsake wake up!!!!!

and yes, of course there is racism but we as africans need to stop hiding behind that everytime we see one of these comments.

its high time we stopped running to countries like the US and UK, we need to make some changes at home... our mentality and all the other things... the people in ur village don't think an oyinbo man is superior for no reason. start acting and achieving superior results and we'll be counted!

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