James Watson said genes cause a difference on IQ tests between blacks and whites in a recent PBS documentary. Consequently he was stripped of honourary titles from his old laboratory, claiming his recent comments contradict his apology & retraction from 2007 over other controversial comments.
Crick died years ago. Watson has always been a weirdo. He's famous for it. (It's a kind of game among top-flight international geneticists of a certain age: To tell the most outrageous story about Watson's weirdness. Watson himself apparently relishes the attention, and is the author of his of biography-of-weirdness to a large extent.)
His, now repeated, attitudes towards Africa and Africans are pretty damn reprehensible. Which is why the Cold Springs Harbor Lab (Carnegie funded originally), where he has spent the bulk of his career, are pulling all kinds of recognitions, at the age of 90.
Hm. " He lost his position as chancellor at the lab in 2007 after he told the Sunday Times he was “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." He added that although he wished everyone were equal, “people who have to deal with black employees find this not true.” "
My interpretation of this is that the initial claim is either true or false, depending on (a) whether intelligence tests indicate that, and (b) whether such tests provide a reasonable and reliable indication of relative intelligence. That is a matter for empirical investigation, and the suggestion is not inherently racist. The second remark is purely anecdotal and could be interpreted as racist. These are difficult issues that are not usually approached in a rational manner, it is so much easier just to shut people up or brand them as 'racist' for raising issues that many would prefer not to be discussed. There is the further point that Watson is an old man with an apparently clouded mind, who has thus not been judicious about what he was saying. (It should be remarked that such generalizations merely apply to averages through populations rather than individual members of those populations, so hasty judgements should not be drawn from them even if the assertion should happen to be true.)
Sub-saharan Africans countries have much lower average IQ than, say, Europe. It seems hard to pin that down to genetics (what Watson is doing), issues with malnutrition and education obviously have a very large impact. If you measure IQs of blacks and whites in the USA, you'll also get some difference. However, if you factor out things like wealth and education level, this difference evaporates.
The canonical way of interpreting this, is that different races have (on average) equal intellectual potential, but that some are held back by socio-economic factor. Watson does the opposite, he says that they have different intellectual potential and, therefore, the same data can be used to explain the worse socio-economic position black people find themselves in. Essentially, they it is a question of interpreting the same correlation as being due to causation in opposite directions. Looking at other data sets, there is a large amount of evidence showing how improved socio-economic condition causes a rise in intelligence, something which is entirely unsurprising. There is however very little to link being more intelligent to better genes. That's not to say it can't be true (in fact, it logically must be some factor), only that it is either a weak effect, or hard to measure, or both.
So Watson is interpreting some data in a highly non-canonical way which goes against other things which we know. In doing so, he is insulting a rather large group people on a particularly politically sensitive area. Perhaps his punishment is over the top, but it should be entirely expected. Frankly, it's hard to see this as anything but the latent racism of an old man who grew up surrounded by certain prejudices and is now trying to justify them rather than being genuinely open minded about the implication of experimental results*.
[* people who also deny the possibility of any genetic component in intelligence are also guilty of not being open minded, and guided by unfounded beliefs rather than science]
Again, this is a matter for empirical investigation, and the 'canonical' interpreation is either correct or not; by the mere fact of questioning it, no one can be said to be 'insulting' anyone. Of course a particular person may be inclined to question it because of his own racist assumptions, I have no idea whether or not that is the case with Watson, but he would doubtless be accused of it even if it wasn't, because people are primarily concerned about the political implications of his claim rather than its scientifc justification. One might in fact guess that may be a reason why there is such a strong bias in favour of the 'canonic' interpretation. (Just for the record, I think that this is a can of worms that is best left unopened, and I am very wary in general about inferring too much from IQ tests!)
I do want to clarify that there are lots of *scientific* reasons to support the canonical view point. Namely, we know of myriad of ways that improved nutrition, education and general socio-economic status increases intelligence, but very few genetic determiners of intelligence. This should be investigated further, and should be questioned. But there is a huge difference between asking "Is the canonical view really correct?" and stating - as Watson does - "The canonical view is wrong". The former is good, the latter is what conspiracy theorists do.