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.”
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.”
NOT NECESSARILY THE NEWS
: Now infamous for its colossal bumbling in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina,
continued its reign of error October 23 when it staged a fake press conference to promote its response to the California wildfires. The agency announced its conference fifteen minutes in advance, and when–surprise–no reporters showed up, FEMA employees posed as journalists and pitched softballs to the agency’s deputy director,
. Meanwhile, actual reporters could only listen in on a telephone conference lineor watch the briefing live on cable news.
Having employees play journalistsis a new twist on an old theme for Bush Administration spin doctors. In the past, they’ve issued credentials to a gay escort, James Guckert, who was performing the role of
, a reporter for the online Talon News. They’ve also simply paid journalists (
) to champion Administration views. So will there be consequences for this latest stunt?
, who staged the fake briefing, not only lost his job as director of external affairs for FEMA but was canned from a job he had been offered but had yet to start–as head of public affairs for the Director of National Intelligence. KATHRYN LEWIS
FRANCE V. RUMSFELD
: In 2003 then-Defense Secretary
took rampant looting in Baghdad as an occasion to ponder freedom. “Freedom’s untidy,” he mused, “and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things. They’re also free to live their lives and do wonderful things.” Last week he learned that one wonderful thing free people do is sue leaders who commit crimes and do, well, bad things. While Rumsfeld was in Paris for a talk hosted by
magazine, four human rights groups took the opportunity to charge him in a French court with approving and ordering torture in Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib. They argue that an undeniable paper trail, damning testimony from former Army officials and the 1984
Convention Against Torture
obligate France to act. Five previous complaints in other countries have led nowhere. If the current effort forces Rumsfeld into court, perhaps he could explain himself by recycling some of his classic quips. On what he approved, he could say, “I’m not into this detail stuff. I’m more concepty.” On contradictions within his testimony, how about: “I believe what I said yesterday. I don’t know what I said, but I know what I think, and, well, I assume it’s what I said.” On waterboarding, try: “Well, um, you know, something’s neither good nor bad but thinking makes it so, I suppose, as Shakespeare said.” PETER C. BAKER
A SOLDIER FOR PEACE
, who died October 19 at Calvary Hospital in Brooklyn, New York, in the company of her daughter, her sister and her mother, was a hero of the nuclear age. In 1979 she took the lead in drafting
The Call to Halt the Nuclear Arms Race
, which became the foundational text for the nuclear freeze movement that erupted in the early 1980s. No movement like it had ever existed before and none has arisen since. On June 12, 1982, it inspired the largest political demonstration in the history of the United States. It gave birth to nine state referendums in favor of the freeze and won eight of them, and it succeeded in pushing a freeze resolution through the House of Representatives. At every stage, Forsberg served as a prime organizer, inspirer and one-woman source of expertise.
Her leadership of the freeze was her most conspicuous accomplishment, but it was perhaps not until the movement waned and eventually sputtered out in the mid-’80s that her character stood fully revealed. Hard as it is to lead a great movement, it is perhaps harder still to stay faithful to the cause when the crowds, the media and the politicians have gone home. Forsberg persisted. As head of the two-employee (she was one)
Institute for Defense and Disarmament Studies
, she continued to produce state-of-the-art information on military establishments and their procurement around the world. She possessed a soldierlike resolve and courage. When funds for her work ran low, she mortgaged the family house to continue it. If her stubbornness at times caused her to cross swords with colleagues, that same quality kept her steady on her course. If she had not been against not just nuclear war but all war, she would have made an outstanding general. Indeed, with her combination of prodigious knowledge, stamina and capacity for leadership, she could have served in any capacity in government–as Secretary of State, for example.
But her principles, including her loathing of nuclear weapons and her vision of ending war, led her in another direction–into work that, after the freeze, was more anonymous, less rewarded, less celebrated. Recognition did come. In 1983 she was awarded a
, sometimes calleda “genius” award. But the word, for allof Forsberg’s learning, does not quite fither. More striking than her great mental capacities was the rarer quality of her readiness, from early adulthood until the day she died, to pour her life into the service of her convictions. Forsberg’s death took place, as all of our deaths must today, in a world still shadowed by the peril of a nuclear holocaust. Against the background of this engulfing darkness, which she fought with every fiber of her being, the memory of her life shines with a brilliant light. JONATHAN SCHELL
HE’S NO JOKE
had better watch out: the fake newsman might have a real presidential candidacy on his hands. It is no surprise that “1,000,000 Strong for Stephen T. Colbert” is now the most popular political group on Facebook–far surpassing
. What’s even more telling is that the hostof Comedy Central’s Colbert Report, who announced his “not my mother’s favorite son” candidacy in mid-October, is now polling at 2.3 percent nationwide among likely Democratic primary voters surveyed by Public Opinion Strategies. That puts Colbert ahead of three “serious” Democratic contenders:
. Colbert, who is running as a Democrat and as a Republican, is not doing so well among Grand Old Partyers. Either the Republicans don’t get the joke or they’re still trying to figure out whether the celebrity candidacy of
is for real. JOHN NICHOLS