Bryan Caplan  

Watson on Summers: From Strange to Baffling

Flynn on IQ and Education... Mankiw Scores One...

After Nobel prize-winner James Watson publicized his views on African IQ, there was an angry backlash. Before long, he took most of it back and begged forgiveness. If this sounds familiar, it should; the same thing happened when Larry Summers publicized his views on female scientific achievement.

In both cases, it's hard to believe that the retraction was sincere - and even harder to understand how these brilliant men failed to predict that their remarks would stir up hornets' nests.

Even compared to the strange Summers affair, though, the Watson affair is simply baffling. Why? Because Watson dissected the Summers controversy in detail before he got into trouble himself! In Avoid Boring People, Watson observes that "Summers's inability to get outside his own head landed him in fatally hot water," and adds:

The women-in-science firestorm by itself did not lead to Summers's dismissal late last February as Harvard's president. It was merely the culmination of hundreds of more private displays on his part of disregard for the social niceties that ordinarily permit human beings to work together for the common good. While academia almost expects its younger members to be brash and full of themselves, these qualities are most unbecoming in more seasoned members of the society, and generally fatal in leaders.
But here's the line that makes my jaw drop:
To my regret, Summers, instead of standing firm, within a week apologized publicly three times for being candid about what might well be a fact of evolution that academia will have to live with.
Hopefully if (when?) the bell of public outrage tolls for me, I'll be made of sterner stuff.

HT: Bill Dickens.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (14 to date)
General Specific writes:

James Watson said that "He was further quoted as saying that his hope was that everyone was equal but that "'people who have to deal with black employees find this is not true'".

I find the above sentiments reprehensible.

I grew up with African Americans all around me--not far from Watts in Los Angeles--and worked with them at a shoe store for years when I was a kid, as well as at a very successful high tech company later in life. So what does Watson mean when he says that people "who work with black employees find this is not true [that they aren't equal]?" Which black people that we work with? All of them? Some of them?

More generally: What is the goal of this focus on IQ? Can someone tell me that? There are so many issues that people can pursue in this world--energy issues, biomedical issues, etc.--what support does he have and what goal in saying that Africa is the lost content because they're not smart enough to overcome their problems?

As I pointed out before here, Summers clearly had a bias in his presentation of his reasons why women were not well-represented--as well as dismissive of those with countering views--while still trying to pretend he was brainstorming and open minded. And James Watson tells us that everyone who works with blacks knows they are inferior.

Eli writes:

Definitely when.

Rick Stewart writes:

I read Summers' actual statement, and was unable to find it anything other than intellectually challenging. How he could have tread more lightly around the topic is beyond me. So - should we not pursue truth merely because so many people, including General Specific, find it inconvenient?

As for Watson, I have been unable to track down a full copy of the original article, but I did read what I believe was a full copy of his 'apology.' Yes, I wish he would have stuck to his guns, but I don't think his statement can be accurately called an apology for anything other than upsetting people with the truth (I guess we should be sorry that the truth upsets people, shouldn't we?).

But I don't see the issue as one of IQ. I see it as one of understanding humans, and our subgroups. This involves differences, none of which make any of us sub-human, some of which might make some of us better off, were they better understood.

For this purpose we obviously need more champions, as the forces aligned against us are both strong and relentless.

By the way, the science I have read suggests adult men have higher average IQs than adult women, and yellows have higher average IQs than whites who have higher average IQs than browns who have higher average IQs than blacks. More science might change those conclusions, but less science certainly won't.

Mark writes:


The faculty of GMU appears to be hearing the rumblings of the impending DNA data avalanche, and taking it seriously.

Congratulations gentlemen, you are ahead of the curve.

Bruce G Charlton writes:

Bryan, I believe you have this wrong. Watson did not retract his factual statements, he apologized for offending people. This was then misrepresented by the media as a retraction.

The lesson to draw from this is probably that you should never apologize for offending someone, because such an apology will inevitably be spun into a retraction.

Steve Sailer writes:

My article explains the full story of the Watson-Summers link:

eric writes:

I think watson mainly apologized for the potential implication of superiority and inferiority. He seems to still believe in human biodiversity, including the thought that Africans are worse at things like IQ tests and g-loaded tasks. But that is different than saying superior, because 1) lots of non-g-loaded tasks are important, morally and economically and 2) it isn't clear g-loaded proficiency is more successful from an evolutionary perspective, because their will be offsetting relative strengths. So I think Watson wanted to back off the whole superior/inferior labels.

Gary Rogers writes:

Are we better off if we always assume that there is no difference between sexes or races?

Is it possibile that there are differences?

If the second possibility proves to be true does that change the answer to the first?

If the first answer is true, is it in our best interest to attack anyone who tries to determine the truth of the second?

Something to think about.

8 writes:

Perhaps the problem isn't with Watson, but with people who view intelligence as a measure of man's worth?

Brad Hutchings writes:

It sure would be helpful if someone could post a transcript of what Watson said and to whom. rather than press accounts. Lost in all of this was seems to be his point that if our aid policies assume a similar distribution of intelligence to the US and European countries, when some of these countries (e.g. Nigeria) have intelligence distributions that would qualify more than half of the country for assisted living here, hooking them up with the OLPC program isn't going to make them the next Taiwan.

A neglected side effect of this scandal... Take IQ distribution off the table for tailoring aid programs to poor countries and you kinda have to take it off the table when evaluating whether Iran (or Iraq) could develop a nuclear weapon in-house. You have to have enough smart people to pull that off and IQ distribution and population size determine that supply.

B.H. writes:

The entire Watson affair has been covered thoroughly, carefully, and critically by Jason Malloy at Gene Expression:

And Summers was fired because of more than just the comment about labor economics. An very long article was published in Institutional Investor at the same time detailing the sad story of Andre Shleifer at Harvard Economics and HIID; it was a major financial scandal and Summers, who was a friend of Shleifer, had a small role in it all.

Mensarefugee writes:
Perhaps the problem isn't with Watson, but with people who view intelligence as a measure of man's worth?

(half tongue in cheek response)
Maybe the problem isnt with people who view intellgence as a measure of a mans worth. But with the people who dont and thereby take what the intelligent men produce to benefit the duller ones?

Freedom, Soar! writes:

"A serious life," said Allan Bloom in his "The Closing of the Amerian Mind," "means being fully aware of the alternatives, thinking about them with all the intensity one brings to bear on life-and-death questions, in full recognition that every choice is a great risk with necessary consequences that are hard to bear."
"All significant political disputes," he notes, "have been about the meaning of freedom and equality, not about their rightness."
Bloom challenges us to look beyond our taken-for-granted notions about political rectitude and ask, "for example, whether men are really equal or whether that opinion is merely a democratic prejudice."
(See Roger Kimball's essay in the November 2007 "The New Criterion")

Patri Friedman writes:

the science I have read suggests adult men have higher average IQs than adult women

I would be interested in seeing a source for this. I have investigated, and found that there is very little data. The standard IQ tests were actually balanced for gender equality when they were designed - they threw out questions that had very different correctnesses by gender because they assumed those questions were somehow biased. So the vast majority of IQ data, which is with the standard tests, cannot tell us anything about gender differences.

What little data there is, at least when I reviewed, suggested a mean difference of 0 - 2pts in favor of men. This is tiny compared to racial differences. And the effect on things like females in the sciences is tiny compared to the difference in variance of IQ. The difference in variance has way more effect at the top end than whatever tiny difference in mean there is.

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