Friday, 19 October 2007

Dr Watson and the Case of the Mad Scientists

A while ago, I published an article on how our children are being taught not to think. In the last two days, the failures of our educational establishment have been exceeded by our scientific and intellectual establishment in ways which (although they explain a lot) are, frankly, scary.

Unlike religion, which is supposedly about ‘faith’, science, we are told, is about objective facts and rationality.

Dear reader, it would seem it is not true, if the present furore surrounding Dr James Watson is anything to go by. Thanks to something he reportedly said, the establishment is full of mad scientists, not in the insane sense, but in the sense of being very angry.

Dr Watson, as you may know, was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1962, along with his colleague Francis Crick, for discovering the structure of DNA to be a double-helix. Imagine a spiral, then imagine it coiled into the shape of a lightbulb filament, and you’ve pretty much got the idea. It was a breakthrough discovery, and a brilliant vindication of the ability of the scientific method to enable us to understand the world around us.

I guess nobody who looked at their work, however, particularly minded whether Messrs Watson and Crick were nice people, the reason being, of course, that it doesn’t much matter. Nor did anyone ask whether they produced appealing results. The shape of the DNA molecule doesn’t depend on whether we find it attractive or not.

Now, however, Dr Watson is finding himself banned from a succession of scientific and intellectual platforms for the most unscientific of reasons - something which is both absurd and dangerous.

The reason is Dr Watson’s reported opinions on race and intelligence. According to an article in the Sunday Times, Watson said during an interview that he was, ‘inherently gloomy about the prospect 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.’

Coming, as it seemed, from a Nobel Laureate, you might have thought that would be an opinion worth noting. Certainly, like Dr Watson’s description of the shape of DNA, it is either true or false. What it cannot be is ‘unacceptably provocative’, the view expressed by the organizers of the Bristol Festival of Ideas, which has cancelled his speaking engagement. Nor can it be ‘beyond the point of acceptable debate’, which was the reason reportedly given by the Science Museum (of all places) for taking the same action. The latest absurdity, which finally persuaded me to take the step of publishing this, is the news that Dr Watson's own research institution has suspended him.

A conclusion based on research may be right, wrong, or open to question, but it cannot be unacceptable. Let me add, on the basis of the available evidence, I personally have absolutely no idea which of those applies in the present case. (Nor, may I add, do I particularly care.) I am writing neither to support nor condemn this suggestion. But what I do know is that the rightness or wrongness of Dr Watson’s statement has nothing to do with whether he, I, or anyone else, is racist or not.

As it happens, in today’s Times, Dr Watson is reported as denying he said, or meant, any such thing as has been suggested: ‘I cannot understand,’ he now states, ‘how I could have said what I am quoted as having said.’ Earlier, he is quoted as saying, ‘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.’ He concludes, ‘That is not what I meant. More importantly, there is no scientific basis for such a belief.’

Now of course, the real point is in the last few words. If there is no scientific basis for believing that the intelligence of Africans is not the same as that of Caucasians, then that is an end to it.

But saying that there is such evidence (as Dr Watson certainly appeared to do earlier) is no grounds for banning him from speaking. And it would be truly tragic if Dr Watson is now being pressured into a ‘retraction’ by the cancellation of his talks.

In any case, whatever Dr Watson said or meant, the real fault lies with the London Science Museum and the Bristol Festival of Ideas, if they have betrayed the principles of scientific enquiry and reason.

When one hears the repeated mockery of the Christian Church over what allegedly happened to Galileo (confused though it often is by clouds of historical myth), it is almost laughable to imagine that the intellectual establishment has rushed to silence a view which they themselves find unacceptable, not because it is proven to be inaccurate but because they themselves do not want it to be heard. To misquote the misquoting of Galileo, ‘Yet still, it may be true.’

Revd John P Richardson
19 October 2007

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  1. (Chelmsford)

    If Dr Watson said what he is alleged to have said, he used his authority as a famous scientist to make a statement "all the testing says not really" which is untrue and well known to be untrue. That should be enough grounds to get him into the trouble that he is in. If of course he did not say that, he should indeed issue a correction, and perhaps ask his lawyer to have a word with whoever put the words in his mouth.

  2. The point is, though, Dr Watson is not being censured for saying what is 'untrue', but what is 'unacceptable'. There is a difference between the two. It is unacceptable to point out someone's disability, for example, but it is not untrue to say they are disabled.

    Thus it may be questioned whether IQ testing is helpful, or whether it reveals differences which may be correlated with race. But that is not what we are hearing from the establishments which are cancelling Dr Watson's talks. (Allowing, of course, for misreporting.)

    Most importantly, it is not part of the remit of the scientist to decide whether certain results are 'acceptable', and it is against the spirit of scientific inquiry to start banning people on the basis that their conclusions are deemed 'unacceptable'.