26 October 2007

You awful, awful man (No. 4)

I often find Bryan Appleyard's journalism entertaining. Nevertheless, I'm afraid he has just become the fourth recipient of my you-awful-awful-person award (following in the footsteps of numbers 1 to 3: Ben Rogers, Alexandra Frean and Ann Robinson).

BA says he is "delighted to see James Watson is in trouble again". By "in trouble" he means the fact that:
• London's Science Museum cancelled a talk that Watson was scheduled to give on 19 October;
• Watson's employer, New York's Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, suspended his administrative responsibilities;
• Edinburgh University withdrew the invitation to Watson to a lecture on 22 October.

Watson's career may survive this episode. He is, after all, considered a great scientist, and he is a Nobel Prize winner. Is that what makes it okay for BA to find the fallout from Watson's comments gratifying? What if it had been a scientist of average standing, who might never have been able to find work again? Would that have generated less Schadenfreude? There is nothing in BA's post to suggest this.

BA's justifications for feeling legitimately pleased appear to be as follows:
a) Watson is "a petulant little man".
b) Watson is "saying blacks do worse in IQ tests", which BA concedes "is true".
c) Watson is "arrogant".
d) Watson thought "the prenatal detection of homosexuality meant that most parents would abort any gay child".
e) When asked by BA what effect such a tendency to abort would have on society, Watson said 'Less ballet'. "This may be a harmless joke in the pub but, when you are a public figure with a tape recorder running, it's just nasty."

Why is it "nasty"? What sort of response was BA expecting to this question? Was it one of those trick questions where there is really only one permissible (evasive) response, i.e. "of course, it would be totally unacceptable"? Although obviously tongue-in-cheek, Watson's response is perhaps as near to a straight answer as BA's question deserved. If you ask "what is the effect on society of reducing the incidence of homosexuality", then apart from saying "no idea", the most obvious suggestion to make would be that it might reduce the incidence of activities that show some correlation with homosexuality.

BA adds in a PS: "The subject of Watson came up a few years ago when I was talking to some academics. They all murmured, 'Wonderful man, great man.' I said, 'No, he's not and you know it.' At once they agreed and a torrent of Watson horror stories emerged."

This seems little better than trial by innuendo. It reminds me of a blog post on former Leeds University lecturer Frank Ellis which I read some time ago, where an academic commenting on the case seemed to regard it as relevant that he knew Frank Ellis, and had thought he was unpleasant. That apparently made it all right that Ellis had lost his job for expressing ideologically unacceptable views about race. *

For the record, this is what Watson is reported as having said, in the Sunday Times interview that caused all the fuss.

He says that he is “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”, and I know that this “hot potato” is going to be difficult to address. His hope is that everyone is equal, but he counters that “people who have to deal with black employees find this not true”. He says that you should not discriminate on the basis of colour, because “there are many people of colour who are very talented, but don’t promote them when they haven’t succeeded at the lower level”. He writes that “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”.
A couple of points about the precise wording of this, which the media responses to it seem to have missed.

1) BA, along with several other commentators, argues that "IQ tests are culturally determined". In other words, IQ tests supposedly measure only one kind of intelligence, and different cultures supposedly have different types of intelligence. (A similar argument was made by Cameron Duodu, criticising Watson in the Guardian.) But in a sense this is not very different from Watson's statement that we do not necessarily all have "the same intelligence". Watson does not actually say "the same level of intelligence", and he does not refer to "superior intelligence".

2) Re employment, what he is actually quoted as saying is that “people who have to deal with black employees find this [that everyone is equal] not true”. "Equality" here is not defined, and could refer to (say) personality type — again, there is no obvious implication that any kind of superiority or inferiority is being alleged, although several commentators seem to have been very ready to read that into it.

Even if it were the case that Watson said some things which could justifiably have been regarded as offensive, that is surely no reason to sound pleased that his livelihood is being threatened. Even if Watson is sufficiently well set up to weather this storm, any reaction to his being punished — other than the reaction of condemnation — implicitly endorses the idea that intellectuals may be persecuted for expressing notions that are at odds with the prevailing ideology.

Attack enough people whenever they say anything objectionable, and soon all our intellectuals will be like our television and our theatre: dull, predictable and mediocratic.

* For background information on the Frank Ellis case, see The Devil's Kitchen.