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Thursday, October 18, 2007

Indie refutes James Watson: could do better

Fair dos to the Indie. True, Steve Connor does his rather less than convincing best to patronize James Watson. And once again, the paper's readers are invited to misunderstand Watson at the most basic level: the crucial qualification 'on average' is missing when Connor says he has made 'remarks implying that black Africans are less intelligent than white westerners'. But at least Connor robustly defends Watson against the charge of racism - a charge which has been quite unashamedly (and successfully) levelled with the intention of silencing him.

Why does the patronage fail to convince? I must first reiterate that I'm totally unqualified to say whether Watson is right or wrong. But take this old chestnut from Connor: 'people who are good at IQ tests are merely demonstrating little more than they are good at IQ tests'. Then, a couple of sentences on, we discover that, where Chinese Americans are concerned, high scores in IQ tests correlate impressively with an ability to get into the top universities. It's politically OK to point this out, you see - and, no, I'm pretty sure it's not because Harvard and Stanford select their students simply by giving them IQ tests.

I suspect we can infer from this that, whatever it is exactly that IQ tests measure, it correlates rather strongly with skills which are crucial for societies seeking to lift themselves out of poverty. Like, say, China, or like, say, sub-Saharan Africa. Not that it's all you need (Koreans are near the top of the league, but that's little consolation for Kim Jong-Il's subjects), but you've got problems if it's in short supply. If we're going to dismiss IQ testing as an arbitrary construct, we could just as well say the same about our perception that Africa is poor, and save ourselves a lot of worry. But I doubt if a postmodern logic as consistent as that would commend itself to Mr Connor.

And what of environmental influences on IQ? Only responsible for 30% of the variation (and that admission by Mr Connor is an indication of how far the nature v. nurture battle lines have shifted over the last 30 years), but you can certainly do a lot with that 30%. What you can't do is eliminate the variation. So, whilst it's true that abundant food has made today's westerners far taller than the half-starved peasants we're descended from, we obviously haven't all become equally tall.

Suppose (to keep the argument on safe and neutral terrain) the braininess gene was more abundant in Scotland than in England. There would be plenty of environmental things the English could do top up their IQ levels, but if the Scots were simultaneously doing the same things the gap would remain.

These are not points I would dream of making for James Watson's benefit. They're not rocket science, let alone genetics. But it strikes me that Mr Connor would be well advised to do a little more thinking before he makes so bold as to accuse the co-discoverer of the double helix of being simplistic.


Anonymous said...

Interesting to compare the media and academic response to James Watson with the response to Richard Dawkins.

Anonymous said...

Dawkins and Watson? Look up this.