Sunday, October 21, 2007

Spiralling down the lav

I wonder if Dr. Watson is really regretting the remarks that caused his ouster from Cold Spring Harbor. I think there is little doubt that he meant them, even if he wonders how it could have happened. If you are wondering what I'm talking about, James Watson (half of the famous Watson and Crick DNA double helix discovery) recently opined that the intelligence of Africans is not the same as "ours" (ours being the intellectually superior white folks that populate Long Island). Naturally there has been a PC flood of condemnation of his remarks and swift action. Perhaps he would like to think that science can back up his views, but it seems that, in the complex area of intelligence, there is no evidence. The interesting question would be, what would be the reaction if it did? Could society allow such a thing? Susan Greenfield, director of the Royal Institution, said that "nothing should stop you ascertaining the scientific truth; science must be free of concerns about gender and race". Easier said than done I suspect.

Watson seems to be continuing a tradition of famous scientists who have demonstrated a degree of nuttiness in their views outside of the realm of their expertise but yet believe their celebrated status bestows some kind of divine right upon them. For example, Shockley in the last century was an inventor of the transistor, a not insignificant enabler of the electronic age, but also demonstrated extreme nuttiness in his indefatigable prosecution of the hypothesis that blacks are inherently less intelligent than whites - a Watson forerunner. He went so far as to propose that those scoring below 100 on an IQ test should be sterilized. In the 19th century, the archetypal Victorian gentleman scientist Francis Galton contributed to important developments in a range of subjects from weather mapping, statistics and tea making; but he also founded the subject of eugenics, being convinced that superior intellects could be developed by breeding. He was notoriously dismissive when it came to the intelligence of women: if I remember correct there was a theory about the size of their brains or something. Way before that, Isaac Newton actually devoted more time to writing on Biblical interpretation than mechanics. Today his ideas would be viewed as occult.

I can't say I feel sorry for Watson since I have always felt that his celebrity (along with that of Crick) was achieved largely at the expense of Rosalind Franklin, whose critical X-ray data was used by them unbenknownest to her in their unravelling of the spiral. Her tragic early death denied her the ultimate prize that they achieved. Could it have been that her gender figured in the haste of the duet to publish in such a way?

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