Watson Creates Controversy Again

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“If
only closed minds came with closed mouths”
~
A bumper sticker seen on many cars in Berkeley, CA

I don’t
know Jim Watson, and I don’t have any scientific insight into genetic
factors of intelligence, but I am familiar with Watson’s tendency
to make controversial statements. He blends science and his personal
experiences to make statements that cross the politically correct
borders. In fact, he makes statements that cross all borders — offending
the left and the right, sometimes simultaneously. His position in
the scientific community (he’s a Nobel Laureate) gives his claims
apparent scientific justification. This leads to more attention
to his every word by the press and more nervousness on the part
of his colleagues that someone might take him seriously.

I attended
the infamous “lecture in 2000″ that is being referred to in numerous
news articles. It was held at UC Berkeley. I was 3 months into my
PhD studies and I got there early enough to get a seat in the lecture
hall; many others sat on the floor or stood in the back. As you
may imagine, scientific lectures are generally not sold-out, but
occasionally speakers such as Jim Watson draw a big crowd. I had
no idea what to expect, as I was fairly uninformed about science-community
gossip as a young student. Some students I knew did not attend because
they were aware of Watson’s tendency to make unseemly comments.
I suspect senior students, postdocs, and professors knew better,
but many of them attended anyway; and many of them left before the
hour was over, outraged by Watson’s comments.

I stayed
for the whole lecture and question and answer period. I was fascinated.
It was apparent to me that Watson’s statements about Latin lovers
and happy fat people were not definitively supported by the evidence
he presented. I knew better than to take what he said for fact and
to not question his conclusions. But this is what an analytical
scientist must do when faced with any research: challenge the methods,
data, and conclusions before declaring that a universal truth has
been identified.

The reason
I was fascinated, therefore, was not because I learned of some amazing
new discovery or was drinking any Kool-Aid he may have been passing
around. I realized that what he was doing was making people think
about topics that they ignore every chance they get. Are Latinos
better lovers? If so, is this genetic, cultural, or both? If not,
why is there a rumor that they are? Can the root of this rumor be
identified? A touchy subject, to be sure.

And then
there’s one other question, which I think is partly what motivated
Watson’s statements: Do I care? Everyone is susceptible to buying
into stereotypes, but most people dispose of those stereotypes during
one-on-one interactions: People in Berkeley are left-wing hippies
(oh yeah, except that guy that owns the hot dog stand. And the pro-Bush
grad student. And the Berkeley undergrad who writes for a libertarian
news site. And…). What if Latinos are better lovers insofar as
they remain virile into their 80′s due to a specific genetic predisposition?
Could this be applied to the booming erectile-dysfunction field?
By considering this question are you automatically affirming a stereotype?
Does it make you incapable of taking into account individual encounters?

I believe
that Watson makes these statements because he is curious and prefers
to understand the world from a scientific (i.e., genetic)
perspective. I think he also is dedicated to getting donations for
the research at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, where he is director
(he was suspended as director on Thursday evening).

I find
some of his other comments and the controversies surrounding them
even more provocative than what I heard him say in 2000. Again,
by provocative, I mean that I think they stimulate discussion of
taboo subjects, not that I think what he is saying is true or false.
One comment
I keep reading about in the news is:

If you could
find the gene which determines sexuality and a woman decides she
doesn’t want a homosexual child, well, let her.

What if “sexuality”
and “homosexual” were substituted with any number of other traits
or with a genetic disease? In that context, this is merely a pro-choice
statement. Currently, fetuses can be tested for Down Syndrome and
abortion is presented as an option to mothers of those who test
positive. This is socially acceptable. If I had to guess, Watson
chose the words “sexuality” and “homosexual” because the statement
no longer becomes socially acceptable: it is ripe with controversy.
It is well-known that Watson is a proponent of this type of eugenics
— where parents choose to terminate pregnancies based on genetic
testing. In this statement, he joins the leftist view of being pro-choice
with the right’s opposition to homosexuality. In the end, no one
is happy, but everyone is talking about the statement, him, the
human genome project, and the cutting-edge research of the Cold
Spring Harbor Lab.

So his
latest statement
is on intelligence. Now, everyone is again
talking about Jim Watson, genome research, and the Cold Spring Harbor
Lab. But, and in my opinion this is the value of free speech, people
are also talking and learning about the validity of measures of
intelligence, and discussing the definition of “intelligent” and
whether this is determined by nature, nurture, or both.

The ban
on Jim Watson giving speeches at certain British venues, and his
suspension as director of the Cold Spring Harbor Lab are not going
to shut the man up. He seeks the spotlight and will always find
a way to get people to talk about something they don’t want to even
think about. You don’t have to agree with the man to recognize that
he gets people talking and thinking critically.

I’m sure
the irony of the bumper sticker I quoted at the beginning of this
article was immediately apparent to many of you. Whenever I saw
it, I could not decide whether I should be baffled or angry. I don’t
know if the action taken by those banning Watson is brave or cowardly.
It is certainly their right to ban whichever speakers they like.
If the thinking is that Jim Watson’s speeches are not scientific
in content, then it is reasonable to not invite him to give science
seminars. Or if it is found that there is no longer any interest
in attending his lectures, he should surely not be invited to speak
to an empty room. But if he is merely not politically correct, then
those that ban him can not claim to be advocates of free speech.

October
20, 2007

Kathryn
Muratore [send her mail]
has a PhD in biology from UC Berkeley and is currently a postdoctoral
fellow at Johns Hopkins.

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