Saturday, 20 October 2007

Watson's elementary mistakes

The things we do can have most unexpected consequences.

A little more than eleven years ago, in what might be considered a liberal gesture towards equal opportunities in science, the DNA pioneer James Watson offered a young female student from England a placement in his Cold Spring Harbor laboratory, and even accommodation in his own home.

Today James Watson is returning from this country to the United States, his book-tour and lecture-series cancelled, his tail between his legs, after making a few admittedly outrageous remarks about race to that same student, now become a journalist writing for the Sunday Times. A talk due to have been given at the Science Museum in London was the first to be called off, after the museum announced that his views were "unacceptable in public debate." Bristol and Edinburgh universities followed suit. Even his position at the Laboratory, which he has directed and overseen for fifty years, has been suspended.

Support for Watson has come from Richard Dawkins, Colin Blakemore, Sue Blackmore and others, and has focussed on the need for science to be free to explore controversial evidence. Yet it's not his science, but his opinions, which came in for censure: opinions which, while tempered with talk of research, sound suspiciously like the ravings of a demented old racist.

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

Precisely what flirting, what degree of journalistic subterfuge, what subtle playing on the ambiguity of her status - old student or new reporter - Charlotte Hunt-Grubbe engaged upon to get her scoop, only she knows. There can be little doubt, however, that she stitched him up good and proper. His attempts, in an article for the Independent, to extricate himself from the mess ranged from the pitiable - "If I said what I was quoted as saying, then I can only admit that I am bewildered by it" to the downright incredible.

"To those who have drawn the inference from my words that Africa, as a continent, is somehow genetically inferior, I can only apologise unreservedly. That is not what I meant." If that isn't what he meant, it's very hard to see what he did mean. "More importantly from my point of view, there is no scientific basis for such a belief." So what about all those tests he referred to?

Watson's Independent article attempts to shift the terms of the debate, as his supporters do, away from his colourful remarks and onto the safer territory of science's duty to explore the truth, wherever that quest might lead, however uncomfortable. Referring to the Human Genome Project he writes,

"I knew that many new moral dilemmas would arise... Since 1978, when a pail of water was dumped over my Harvard friend E. O. Wilson for saying that genes influence human behaviour, the assault against human behavioural genetics by wishful thinking has remained vigorous.

But irrationality must soon recede... science is not here to make us feel good. It is to answer questions in the service of knowledge and greater understanding."

It sounds good, but it's nonsense. Science is not, and never has been, neutral. Scientists do not inhabit an ivory tower: they both influence, and are influenced by, the wider world. Just like politicians or historians, they rarely find it difficult to discover evidence that proves their preconceived point of view, justifies their research budget or answers to their prejudices. Watson, a convinced genetic determinist, has devoted much of his life to explaining and decoding the influence of genetics in determining bodily, behavioural and now mental characteristics. So it isn't surprising that he finds it. Yet Steve Jones, equally a geneticist, can look at the same evidence and reach diametrically opposed conclusions.

Nor do even Watson's more considered views, as set out in The Independent, show much evidence of, well, evidence. Discussing the genetic influence on behaviour, for example, he makes the extraordinary, little-noticed, claim, that one in three people looking for a job in temporary employment bureaux in Los Angeles is a psychopath or a sociopath. On closer analysis, this turns out to be a reference to a study looking into the neurological characteristics of habitual liars. Volunteers had been recruited from five employment agencies selected precisely because a high proportion of their clients had criminal records. And the proportion of volunteers who exhibited psychopathic or sociopathic tendencies was actually a quarter. This sort of lazy manipulation of evidence hardly displays the kind of fearless scientific rigour that Watson's supporters promote and seek to defend.

We expect science to be objective. It is part of its myth, and its justification. In almost any area public discourse, from abortion to obesity, road safety to global warming, vaccination to nuclear power, politicians appeal to science as kings once appealed to the Pope: for vindication, for absolution, to take the blame. This quasi-sacerdotal role gives a handful of leading scientists the potential for immense power, and equally immense harm.

Science, the scientists tell us, is different. Unlike other forms of knowledge (the social sciences, say, or religion) it depends on careful, dispassionate evaluation of evidence, upon corroboration, upon high standards of proof. And so it does. Yet away from the laboratory and the peer-reviewed research papers, scientists are no more immune from vanity, political bias and tendentiousness than anybody else. By making moral claims to higher legitimacy, on the basis of their scientific "objectivity", Watson and his ilk attempt to skew the terms of debate. And in so doing they are behaving less like scientists than politicians.