In defence of Watson

Nobel laureate James Watson was attacked on  April 14th  2011 whilst giving a lecture at Patras University. Hooded youngsters invaded the lecture theatre crying “racist!”. One of them  jumped on the stage yielding a stick and attacked elderly Watson. The Nobel laureate escaped unharmed thanks to students and academics who rushed to his rescue.

I condemn this fascist incident which has to do with a twisted and quite insane idea that prevails in Greek Universities with regards to “asylum”; meaning that anyone within University grounds has immunity from the law, including criminal activities such as attacking someone with intent to cause harm, or even kill.

However, and because there will be many in Greece and elsewhere who apart from condeming the attack they might also accuse Watson for racism, let me remind what has happened; and then let me explain my take on this,

Watson had told the Sunday Times a couple of years ago 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.” The world media reacted violently against those comments, the result being that Watson is being branded a racist and widely discredited. His response to the uproar has been: “To all those who have drawn the inference from my words that Africa, as a continent, is somehow genetically inferior, I can only apologize unreservedly. That is not what I meant. More importantly from my point of view, there is no scientific basis for such a belief.”

So what did Watson really mean?

An undeniable and mysterious fact has been that during the half century or so in just about every industrial society average IQs have risen dramatically. This cannot be evolutionary. It takes many generations for evolutionary effects to take place and fifty years are simply not enough. So what has gone on? Many candidates: better diet, better education, even television aka the information revolution. All in all, what the findings mean is that Europeans and Americans – let us say predominantly “white people” (although black people in western societies are also included in those measurements) – were more “stupid” fifty years ago. This ‘stupidity” had nothing to do with the color of their skin. It is related to the level of social and economic development in the west. What Watson tried to say was that the same truth applies to Africa today. Africans’  measurements of intelligence (and not intelligence as a “natural” given whatever that may mean) are low not because they are black but because they are poor and uneducated, like us white ones were fifty years ago. His point is very poignant. When smart white people at the IMF and the World Bank develop their smart white policies to cure the ills of Africa, and then expect the Africans, at their present level of socio-economic development, to implement them, they are wasting valuable resources. Measures for Africa must be customized to reflect the situation on the ground. Imagine a World Bank expert on a time machine, flying back to Washington DC at the turn of the 20th century and expecting to implement modern policies in the all-white America of 1900s. I would dare to guess that our well-meaning time traveler will not be understood – by those white “stupid” folks, who would find it impossible to heed to our time traveler’s advise.

So why Watson did got so misunderstood? Because of two things. Firstly, because of media hysteria on anything that touches upon race and gender. Secondly, because when a scientist speaks to the media must tread very carefully. I have met many scientists in my life who thought that science communication in the media simply means “talking about science”. Well it does not, folks! It means, first and foremost, understanding the difference between a newspaper and a science journal. In the latter you have time to expand, retort, debate. In the former you do not. Elementary, dear Watson…