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False Prophets | The Nation

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False Prophets

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Francis Crick once described his fellow Nobel laureate James Watson's second book, The Double Helix, as "the history of science as gossip." According to the October issue of Nature, Watson's latest opus, Avoid Boring People, goes one better in that it "might be viewed as the history of gossip presented as science."

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Patricia J. Williams
Patricia J. Williams
Patricia J. Williams, a professor of law at Columbia University, was born in Boston in 1951 and holds a BA from...

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Indeed. In recent weeks Watson has created much furor with his assertion in the Times of London that he's "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," and that while he really, really wishes Africans were up to snuff, "people who have to deal with black employees find this is not true."

Most of the ensuing attention has focused on that particular quote, but Watson has a long and well-documented history of baselessly biologizing social stereotypes. In his view "stupidity" and "ugliness" are biological diseases that one day will be cured by altering the human gene line. Skin color and lots of sunshine are related to sexual potency, which is "why you have Latin lovers. You've never heard of an English lover. Only an English patient." Women don't have the same genetic hunger for science as men. Rich people should be paid to have babies.

It seems pretty obvious that Watson has a social problem. Unfortunately, he is remarkably seductive in projecting his personal anxieties onto the population at large. He is dead wrong about the science, but just try arguing that to the average person. The blogosphere is ablaze with credulous exuberance at Inferiority Unmasked: racial difference is obvious but no one wants to talk about it. Racial sensitivity and political correctness are holding empiricism back. The worst part is how James Watson's position of authority substitutes for science. After all, isn't he Mr. Genome? Father of the genetic revolution? And who are you, Mad Law Professor und ilk, but self-interested avatars of the genetically malapropic, African-descended lesser orders intent upon silencing the great man with steadfast unwillingness to "debate" what Watson himself calls--brace yourself for crashing irony--"unarguable truths without the support of evidence."

"Either he hasn't paid attention to his own field for the last decade or he's lying," says my colleague Dr. Robert Pollack, quietly and matter-of-factly. "I'm not sure which is worse." Pollack is a former dean of Columbia College. He has been a professor of biology since 1978 and teaches a required course that covers DNA-based evolution to 500 first-year students each year. He spent the early part of his career at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory--from which Watson, its head for forty years, was recently dismissed. Pollack was a senior scientist there, and one of Watson's first independent researchers. He remains one of his most distinguished mentees.

"This isn't about anything remotely contestable," continues Pollack. "The genes that regulate the amount of melanin beneath the skin are simply not expressed in the brain. It's been tested, reproduced, published, established. The social responses to skin color differences are real; race is not. Race is a choice. Watson chooses to hold on to a false construct about Africans. He could choose not to."

I put a question to Pollack that I see reiterated so much that it makes my head ache: what about the argument that even if an African "inferiority" gene hasn't been discovered yet, one day it might? "This isn't about what 'might' be shown," he says. "For at least the last fifty years we have known that we are a single species that began in Africa and spread over the globe. It is not about political correctness. This is about DNA and nothing more. Any human can have a baby with any other human. There has not been enough time for us to have evolved into separate breeds or subspecies, as Watson insinuates."

What about that crack about black employees? I ask. Are we just genetically predisposed to the bucket and broom? "Behavior as Watson describes it is not genetic," Pollack responds. "That too has been tested, reproduced, published, established. He's not been honest about the data already in hand, and that to me is the one failing no serious scientist can let pass. I wish he would say he'd gotten the facts wrong, and then his apologies might lead to social changes that would give them some force. So far, he's gone down another path: he's made his initial remarks even worse by suggesting that data on the role of childhood experience, as shaped by nature versus nurture, are not yet in, and that when they will be in, we will know that one's DNA is indeed one's fate. But the facts are in, and the results are just the opposite. Watson is just wrong. And what's alarming--shocking even--is that he ought to know he's wrong."

A lot of people think a debate would be fair. What would Pollack say to a face-off? "You must understand: the London Science Museum and Rockefeller University revoked his speaking invitations not because of anything to do with free speech or fear of debate. He's been allowed to retire from Cold Spring Harbor because he no longer speaks as a scientist. Under the First Amendment, you can be any kind of nut case and babble your piece. But honesty is the cornerstone of empirical inquiry.... You don't, you simply cannot, either ignore or make up facts. Watson has trashed that precept. Watson's fame rests on his being a consummate icon of the scientific profession. But he tanked the clearest of data. This is as inexplicable as it is inexcusable. The only legitimate question for debate is what conceivably could be in it for him."

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