Friday, April 15, 2011

In defense of Watson

Nobel laureate James Watson was attacked yesterday (14 April 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...


  1. "including criminal activities such as attacking someone with intent to cause harm, or even kill." This is totally untrue. The law states clearly that any act against others immediately renders the asylum inactive! Get your facts right:) Now I am going to read the rest of the article. I am not giving an excuse for the stupid with the flag who tried to attack Watson, but the great idea of the university asylum has nothing to do with it!!

  2. Thank you Anonymous, but with regards to the asylum I was not referring to the letter of the law but in its prevailing perception and intepretation by a great number of students and academics. If you read my sentence you will see that clearly. So, no matter what the law really says, it is a common phenomenon - and a fact - in Greek Universities that the asylum does not become inactive when acts of the penal code take place.

  3. Watching the short video with the incident [ ], I did not spot "Hooded youngsters".
    But what I did see was that the invaders were quickly pushed out by the audience.
    Thus, it was clearly proven that the 'academic asylum' can be self-protected, in spite of the fishy calls for its abolition.

  4. I could not agree with you more TNS. If, as you argue - and is aslo apparent from the scene - the academic asylum can be self-protected, why should it be enshrined in law?
    BTW, the imbeciles who attacked Watson indeed had their faces covered. Please look more carefully at the video you quote.

  5. George, the academic asylum refers not just to hooligans, but also to official censors, where self-protection is not so feasible.
    The arguments against it focus only on the former, ignoring the latter.

    Thanks for the 'covered-face' correction; indeed, it appears that some had their faces covered.
    Perhaps they like the SWAT fashion...

  6. I had the impression i posted a comment yesterday
    but it was just an impression