Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Watson puts foot in mouth

Watson, of Crick and Watson DNA fame, made some non PC comments about race and intelligence that seems to be getting him in trouble. If he's so smart why didn't he know that was going to get him in trouble?

He said that Africans aren't as smart as Europeans and that aid we give to them won't work if we keep assuming that Africans are as smart as we are.
The 79-year-old geneticist reopened the explosive debate about race and science in a newspaper interview in which he said Western policies towards African countries were wrongly based on an assumption that black people were as clever as their white counterparts when "testing" suggested the contrary. He claimed genes responsible for creating differences in human intelligence could be found within a decade.


He has a new book, Avoid Boring People: Lessons from a Life in Science, that I expect will get as much attention in the press as Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life did a few years ago.
His views are also reflected in a book published next week, in which he writes: "There is no firm reason to anticipate that the intellectual capacities of peoples geographically separated in their evolution should prove to have evolved identically. Our wanting to reserve equal powers of reason as some universal heritage of humanity will not be enough to make it so."

Bell Curve did a disservice to the debates on intelligence differences in the choice of title. It created a popular misconception that's part of what did in Lawrence Summers when he made his comments on gender, science, and women in science that got him canned as President of Harvard. It put a focus off interest on the mean of the distributions of intelligence, when it's not clear at all that the mean is where any differences might lie.

For example, in the case of gender differences, some of the evidence suggests that it might be that women have a slightly higher mean intelligence than men, but men have higher variance. Variance is a measure of the spread of the distribution, about dispersion. Men having a higher variance but lower mean is an explanation for why more men are leaders in science and math (what Summers was talking about) and also more men are in prisons. That might be true even with no discrimination at all, and even if women are smarter than men on the average.

There's more to differences than averages. And if you look at a third characteristic of distributions, skewness, it might be that averages don't even mean that much. Skewness is how much the distribution differs from symmetric, a skewed distribution leans to one side, having more than it's share of real smart or more than it's share of real stupid. So, even if blacks and whites have the same means and variance in intelligence it might be that blacks just have a differently shaped distribution and is skewed more to the left, having more stupid people but with an offset of a few very smart people.

I'm not saying there's any actual differences, just that there might be and that the differences are likely much deeper than just differences in averages.


Update:

I thought this post was a joke. But it's not.

Statement by Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Board of Trustees and President Bruce Stillman, Ph.D. Regarding Dr. Watson’s Comments in The Sunday Times on October 14, 2007

Earlier this evening, the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Board of Trustees decided to suspend the administrative responsibilities of Chancellor James D. Watson, Ph.D., pending further deliberation by the Board.

This action follows the Board’s public statement yesterday disagreeing with the comments attributed to Dr. Watson in the October 14, 2007 edition of The Sunday Times U.K.


This is just insane. There is a genetic component to intelligence and there's no way to argue that there isn't. That doesn't mean it's related to race, but it's certainly genetic. There's probably also a component related to environmental factors such as pre-natal care. There's no strong reason to think Watson's assertions are wrong.

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