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