Phi Beta Cons

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Academic Fight: Gates v. Watson


After the famed co-discoverer of DNA was kind enough to grant him an interview, Harvard’s Henry Louis Gates Jr. accuses James Watson of being on the wrong side of the “last great battle over racism.” Watson isn’t a “racist” but a “racialist”; in other words, he believes that genetic differences between the races might explain differences in ability and behavior, and that’s a travesty.

Now, the comments Watson got in trouble for were unprofessional, and they went beyond the findings of science — as an academic, and as a public figure, he should not have said what he did. But the very same thing could be said of Gates, and this is a printed piece, not a spoken remark taken down by a reporter.

Gates writes:

[I left] Cold Spring Harbor convinced that Dr. Watson believes that many forms of behavior—such as “Jewish intelligence” (his phrase) and the basketball prowess of black men in the NBA (his example)—could, possibly, be traced to genetic differences among human beings, although no such connection has been made, and will probably never be made on any firm scientific basis, it seems to me.

He also states as fact that ethnic variations are “sociocultural.”

Is he kidding? First of all, there are documented physical racial differences, such as those addressed in Jon Entine’s Taboo, that are unlikely to result from environmental differences. (Entine has also written about “Jewish intelligence.”) People descended from specific parts of the world, for example, win certain Olympic events almost all the time.

As for intelligence, it will certainly be awhile. Scientists are combing through the human genome, trying to sort out what functions different genes serve. As Jim Manzi shows in the current print NR, their tools for doing so are far from foolproof. But never? Given the ridiculous speed of DNA research’s progress, I can’t imagine we won’t eventually know one way or the other.

Reading the whole article, it’s clear that Gates isn’t really concerned about the science. After all, Gates has used DNA to trace blacks’ ancestry for PBS, so he knows that people from some regions of the world carry some genes more frequently than people from others do. Rather, Gates is worried that discovering the truth about race and DNA might lead racists to use science as support:

Such conclusions—say, about an entity called “Jewish intelligence”—would deleteriously affect me as a black person because it would reinforce stereotypes about Jewish people being genetically superior to us. … If such differences in intelligence were purported to have a genetic basis … all of the social intervention in the world could have only so much effect. (Head Start? Why bother, when nature is to blame.) Sooner or later, in a time of increasing economic scarcity, members of these supposedly “different” or “lesser” ethnic groups or genetic populations could very well find their life possibilities limited and perhaps even regulated. Who among us can doubt that this would be true?

None of this follows from actual scientific reasoning. For starters, everyone who matters agrees that the black-white IQ gap is at least partially environmental — blacks grow up disproportionately in poorer circumstances, and it’s clear this affects their mental development (see, for example, Arthur Jensen’s environmental-cumulative effect research). This in itself means that improvements in blacks’ situations can help; the only debate is whether there is also a genetic component.

And even if a government wanted to use IQ to limit some people’s freedom (though I can “doubt that this would be true”), it would be much more effective to test for IQ rather than to use race as a proxy. It’s a terrible proxy, as many blacks have higher IQs than many whites.

It’s always possible for racists to misuse science, but if Gates wants to use that as a reason to abandon the pursuit of truth — or, as Manzi does (buy the issue already), simply warn against misusing science — he should say so explicitly. Instead, he makes misleading statements, and claims that Watson’s views (his thought-out views, not the ones that made headlines) are somehow inaccurate.


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