James Watson’s Racism has Highlighted our Poor Understanding of the Social Consequences of Scientific Research

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James Watson announced today that he would be selling his Nobel Prize medal, having been left with ‘barely enough to live on’ due to being shunned for his racist views. There’s been some pretty good coverage of the fact that he’s hardly the nicest of characters, as well as his interesting motives for wanting to sell the medal (expected to fetch over $2 million).

However, the most interesting part of this story hasn’t been the revelation that – surprise! – you can be a genius and also a terrible person. Rather, it’s the way that the commentary has highlighted our flawed understanding of how scientific research operates in a democratic society.

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First, there’s the idea that if IQ scores show that there are differences between people of different races, then it must be true that these reflect real differences in intelligence. IQ is hardly an ‘objective’ (whatever that means) measure of intelligence. Some of the fathers of the original tests were the leading lights of the eugenicist movement, including Francis Galton and Henry Goddard, who were hardly unbiased in their views on race, class, intelligence and heredity. Further, IQ scores have steadily increased over time – and unless this reflects the general population of the world generally getting a lot more intelligent, then there is a component in the score which is cultural, social or educational, rather than a product of inherent intelligence.

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Second, there’s the idea that Watson’s views would be fine, if only they were based on ‘pure science’. This is often accompanied by the suggestion that science is cold and disinterested, and if only we could do the research on IQ differences, then we would be able to vindicate once and for all the view that there are no differences in intelligence between people of different races, and therefore all the racism would disappear overnight.

This fails to recognise a few things about scientific research. One, every project we choose to fund has an opportunity cost, in that other projects will necessarily be deprived of funds. Therefore in choosing to fund research into racial IQ differences, we are saying that this is important research that needs to be done, and losing out on other research that could be done instead. This would be fine, if the research yielded good consequences. The fact is that it would not, and could not, ever lead to anything good.

Racism isn’t a rational state of mind. If we were to fund research into racial IQ differences, and find that there is no significant difference between people of any races, or that, say, people of African origin score more highly than Caucasians, then they wouldn’t turn around and say, ‘Oh, damn! Guess I’ll have to stop being a racist now that my views have been invalidated by scientific research’. They’re going to keep being racists, because it’s a position based upon sociocultural upbringing, conditioning, fear and insecurity. The results of the tests are likely to be inconclusive (because it’s the social sciences, and they’ll be very lucky to get p < 0.05), and so they’ll explain them away as artefacts, or say that they don’t show anything definitive, or that IQ is a silly measure anyway.

What’s more, most of them don’t even recognise that they’re racist, but either lie about it, harbour the views subconsciously, or engage in some really exceptional doublethink. Telling them that it’s okay, they don’t need to be racists anymore because the research has shown that there’s no substantive evidence to it is likely to result in them just denying that they were racists in the first place, but carrying on as they were. There’s unlikely to be any substantial change in voting behaviour, or in the way that they treat others, or even in media coverage. If we do the research and the results come back negative, very little changes.

But if the results come back positive? Well, then we’re going to have a bad time. Suddenly, all the people who say ‘I’m not racist but’ and read the Daily Mail and have a vague distrust of anyone brown or black will be vindicated. They’ll say that they were right all along, and of course there’s no reason for us to push through affirmative action bills, of course there’s no reason for us to try to bring up the educational standards of ethnic minorities, because it’s all down to genetics. The political consequences would be dire. Even if the results are inconclusive but lean towards a positive, then they’re more likely to make the inferential leap from that to the affirmation that what they secretly believed was true all along.

Scientific research takes place in a society. It has consequences for the people who live in that society. Whenever we make a decision to fund research into one question we have about the world around us, we decide to prioritise that question over other, unfunded questions. It doesn’t seem too controversial to say that we shouldn’t be funding research that would have give us little gain in the way of knowledge, but which could have hugely damaging consequences for politically vulnerable groups.

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One thought on “James Watson’s Racism has Highlighted our Poor Understanding of the Social Consequences of Scientific Research

  1. Really well written, Tim! It’s so important to understand the process of scientific research in order to properly interpret its results. It was well into the 2nd year of a science degree when I was first taught to read results more critically. Wish I’d known earlier…

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