Sunday, October 21, 2007

James Watson: an inconvenient father of the double helix

I have put this week's most discussed text at the top and added this fascinating Google talk:



Video 1: Google talk about biology. The introduction starts at 6:50, the main speaker starts at 10:40, and the questions start at 50:50. Google has chosen one of the most authoritative biologists, James Watson, and asked him to talk about a very appropriate topic, namely "DNA and the brain". Dr. Watson explains that the key to uncovering the causes of brain disorders such as schizophrenia, depression, fragile X syndrome, Alzheimers, etc. is in our genes. He depicts the strides being made by scientists at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, a research institution in the biological sciences, as they search to find the genetic basis of neurological disorders. CSHL scientists search to root out disease genes related to mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia...




He answers the "nature vs. nurture" by the word "nature", talks about many details of male brains vs female brains, and recommends you not to be the smartest person in the room because you have no one to help you (very true; elsewhere, he wrote that his IQ was only 122 - three point below Feynman - and as far as I am concerned, I do believe him - he is fascinating but he is also a normal wise guy at the same moment). He shows the DNA patterns behind autism and other interesting things. He recommends mathematically ingenious men to marry beautiful women to avoid autism of children - probably a great idea. ;-) He explains that children's autism is analogous punishment for two intellectuals as HIV/AIDS is a punishment for two homosexuals. ;-) At 48:50, he starts to talk about inequality and political correctness.

Back to his young years. Watson decided to quit bird-watching once he read "What is life?" by Erwin Schrödinger. He chose a university with a good basketball team, discovered the molecular essence of genetics after Rosalind Franklin - an autistic woman and crystallographer who didn't know crystallography too well and who hated other people and especially Francis Crick, the physicist with a loud voice - saw a helix on a picture (she died of cancer...), won a Nobel prize, and became the boss of one of the leading U.S. science institutes. Watson's talk says a lot about the confusions of his contemporaries.

The first question is about the name of a psychologist who studies male vs female brains. Watson mentions Baron-Cohen (and recalls Summers' comments). The second question from a black woman is about the correlation of race and autism: Watson quotes no definite results and makes no predictions. The same woman asks a third question about John Nash: Watson is not sure how the problems can be distinguished. The fourth question is about Craig Venter who left the human genome project and who is called "a Hitler" by Watson. ;-) Watson says that the reason for Venter's exit was different than she thought but sticks to technical points. The fifth question of an excited guy is how the (CS) audience can help him. He answers that large databases are needed. The sixth question is from a female fan who is however irritated by "one-dimensionality" of Watson's picture - IQ axis or male vs. female mind. She thinks that the lesson of DNA is that it is enormously multi-dimensional. He answers that everything is complex but when you want to answer particular questions such the origin of autism, you must make projections and they are useful. The level of testosterone surely matters.

At 60:40, Watson says that Summers' statement on 1/14/2005 was correct and his mistake was the apology. The self-described empathetic woman :-) says "Not at all!" But I must add that Watson's comment in the interview was probably correct but his mistake was the mortified apology! :-) Watson says that the origin of autism is important for some parents but PC at MIT is blocking some research. A male alarmist claims that there must be non-genetic essence of autism because it is rising rapidly. Watson says it does not, only the definition is changing. Another PC guy argues that phenotypes and nurture are the "real frontier" as opposed to genotypes and nature. ;-) Watson explains that we study the genome and the genetics of autism because it recently became possible and the phenotype has to wait when we understand its structure and definition. The reductionist approach dictates to study the genes first. The last question, from a woman, is how the progress in computational biology will improve our knowledge of evolution etc. Watson says that computers are necessary and predicts that 50% of the future genetics departments will be mathematically trained - one half of the likes of Franziska Michor, so to say.

Wise guy.

Other Google talks discussed on this blog: Gell-Mann, Taylor, Boussard
James D. Watson, a 79-year-old American co-discoverer of the role of the DNA molecule - one of the most profound discoveries of the 20th century science - and a Nobel prize winner for a hard discipline became the latest target of political correctness.

Why? During an interview in England where he promotes his new book "Avoid Boring People", he avoided boring people and subtly suggested that tests indicate (and employers of black employees confirm) that the Africans are not as intelligent as whites. He predicted that Africa won't be equally successful because the society requires a certain degree of intelligence - or a smart fraction - that seems to be non-existent on the black continent, according to the tests. Whoops.
CNN story
His lectures are being canceled because of his "incendiary" claims. Yes, some DNA pioneers are no longer acceptable in the Science Museum. The blogosphere is full of statements that he is racist and his comments about genetics are not even wrong. Those people don't find it strange at all to dismiss the DNA discoverer's credentials in genetics. He says something inconvenient so he must surely be a bigot, right?



The black-white IQ gap remains at 15-18 IQ points, about 1.1 "white" standard deviation. Whatever is the cause of this difference and whatever is the right reaction to it, the number seems to be so perfectly reproducible and rather accurate so that some people have nicknamed it the "fundamental law of sociology". I don't like the word "denial" too much but I feel that in the case of this piece of cold hard data, it is rather appropriate.

To be sure: this politically correct attack is not limited to leftists. Some creationists use Watson's words as a proof that evolution is inherently racist. Well, I don't know whether it is inherently racist and what this description is supposed to mean. What I find more important is that evolution is true. More generally, I am already disgusted by so many people from so many groups who first look at the political or religious impact of certain answers in science before they decide which answer they are going to believe and defend.

Because others call the facts behind Watson's opinions garbage science, we should ask: is this dispute really about some shaky IQ tests only? I don't think so. I think that a disagreement with Watson's trivial observation is indeed a direct attack against all of evolution. I don't think that someone understands evolution is he or she thinks that groups of organisms that have been virtually isolated from other groups for millions of years keep the same characteristics such as the intelligence. I would say that it is, in fact, the very basic point of evolution that these characteristics are evolving in various ways that are influenced by the environment and other factors. In the case of homo sapiens, the isolation of races has lasted for 50,000-100,000 years only but it is still many thousands of generations!

At any rate, this episode is another example of the fact that even if you work hard, if you are lucky, and if you make one of the three most important scientific discoveries of the century, you will still have no right to talk about your own discipline freely. It's sad but I hope that the politically correct societies will die out sometime in the future and the future scientists, whatever their skin color is going to be, will have a somewhat easier life.

And that's the memo.

P.S. As expected, under the gigantic pressure from the PC gestapo, Watson said he was "mortified" and "unreservedly apologized". That's a well-known ritual that often saves people's lives but it doesn't clean one because some semi-rational members of the PC gestapo still correctly realize that Watson thinks what he thinks, despite "apologies".

P.P.S. Of course, the prediction was correct. One day later, Watson's administrative responsibilities as chancellor of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory were suspended which is a politically correct way of saying that he was dumped.

7 comments:

  1. Well, the way I see it, there is no evidence to claim what Dr. Watson claims to be true (Although he has every right to speak his mind even if he is being completely irrational, after all being a member of the "smallest fraction" he is still human). The article about GDP and IQ has several flaws. The main one probably, the fact that IQ is very hard to measure, IQ tests are language and culture dependent and I am not sure if someone has a good way around that.

    GDP and IQ are also independent for white populations (not mentioned in the article), Europeans colonized cultures more advanced in science and astronomy that themselves or anyone else in the world at that time. That alone argues strongly for a environmental rather than a genetic explanation of intelligence.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Given the nature of this subject, before making my comment I need to state that I am opposed to racism in any form because racism demeans and harms people.

    It seems that Roberto has missed the point that the progress of science is being attacked.

    There is no doubt that there are different races with different characteristics which are genetically determined. For example, northern Europeans such as me have fair skins and Africans have dark skins.

    There is a test known as IQ that repeatedly shows a difference between the mental abilities of different races. For example, Asiatics have higher IQ than Europeans and Europeans have higher IQ than Africans. The difference is a fact worthy of investigation.

    On face value, the IQ results indicate significant difference between the mental abilities of different races. Such a significant difference – if it exists – could only be genetically determined. Watson accepts this face value as being true so he concludes probable effects of the genetically determined difference.

    Roberto rightly observes that the face value may not be correct because the difference in the IQ test results obtained from different races may be a function of the test. Simply, the apparently significant difference between the mental abilities of different races may be a result of systematic error in the measurement method. I tend to agree with Roberto and would like to see much more investigation of the validity of IQ as a metric and much more investigation of its measurement method.

    However, what I, Roberto or Watson thinks is not the issue.

    Watson accepts the results of the IQ tests and concludes from them. Challenge of Watson requires assessment of the basis of his arguments (e.g. assessment of the IQ test, its meaning and its validity) and challenge of his conclusions (e.g. assessment of his reasoning to reach his conclusions).

    Challenge of Watson may refute Watson’s conclusions or it may fail to defeat them. But no challenge of Watson is possible if he is denied ability to state his case.

    Science in all its forms – including genetics – progresses by arguments based on evidence and attempts to challenge those arguments. Refusing a voice to Watson – whose conclusions I deplore – is an attack on the progress of science.

    A similar example is the repeated assertions that the complex and largely unknown science of climate change is “settled” so “deniers” should be refused a voice for their opinions.

    The progress of science is much more important than what I or anybody else may want to be true.

    All the best

    Richard

    ReplyDelete
  3. I cannot understand the "race"for saving the fighters of science. Who says that science has all the answers anyway? Why are we so obsessed about upholding science when science is only a couple of hundred years old, how could it hold answers to a universe that is so much older??

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  4. Roberto again misses the point.

    Refusal to permit Watson a voice prevents debate of Watson’s conclusions that may result in confirmation or disproof of Watson’s conclusions. This is true whatever reasons there may be to doubt the IQ test. Indeed, investigation of doubts concerning the IQ test is inhibited by denying a voice to those who accept the test as a valid metric because that investigation would be part of the debate.

    As I said;
    “Science in all its forms – including genetics – progresses by arguments based on evidence and attempts to challenge those arguments. Refusing a voice to Watson – whose conclusions I deplore – is an attack on the progress of science.

    ….

    The progress of science is much more important than what I or anybody else may want to be true.”

    Richard

    ReplyDelete
  5. That wasn't me missing the point this time ;). I cannot agree more with Richard in his more articulate defense of the issue of how giving a voice to Dr. Watson is about the progress of Science and not whether we like what Dr. Watson says or not.

    That said, Watson missed the opportunity of clarifying his stance, and to put it in less anecdotal and more scientific terms (but at that point he was already being pressured by his own lab to retract)

    ReplyDelete
  6. "the way I see it, there is no evidence to claim what Dr. Watson claims to be true"

    Among scientists who actually work on this or related topics, there is strong consensus that IQ is real, predicts outcomes in an incredible variety of situations, that within-group variation is heavily or mostly heritable in developed countries, and that it maps on to physiological correlates such as the development of particular brain regions.

    The consensus report of the American Psychological Association is that IQ is valid and reliable, predicting a vast host of outcomes, from the ability to solve math problems to rates of car accidents, the time it takes to teach almost every skill in military training, job performance in almost every task for which performance can be measured objectively, etc. It is highly heritable, thus monozygotic twins are much more similar in IQ than dizygotic twins, whether raised together or apart.

    Here is the full report:
    http://michna.com/intelligence.htm

    Anonymous polling of psychologists, geneticists, and related disciplines way back in 1987 revealed that most believed that the black-white gap (this was an American study) was at least partially genetic, with a quarter saying that there was too little data to draw a conclusion and less than a fifth saying that black-white differences were all environmental.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Snyderman_and_Rothman_(study)

    Since that time further research has shown that IQ is strongly related to MRI measurements of brain size, trajectories of brain development, and the development of particular brain regions. These neuroanatomical characteristics are much more similar between monozygotic than dizygotic twins.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neuroscience_and_intelligence

    James Flynn, discoverer of the ‘Flynn Effect’ (the secular increase in IQ scores during the second half of the 20th century), a committed egalitarian socialists who thinks and hopes that black-white IQ differences are probably environmental, nonetheless admits that the evidence is mixed and he may be proved wrong (or right) soon using modern DNA technologies.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_R._Flynn

    Scientists whose work touches on IQ usually attack research to test whether racial differences are genetically based using arguments based on the negative consequences of learning that the gap was genetic. But arguments of that type only make sense if you think that there *really is a substantial chance that the gap is significantly genetic,* otherwise you would just do the tests and prove the Bell Curve people wrong. Many explicitly say that they don’t want to know the truth, and want to prevent anyone from finding out.

    Moving on from the formal consensus, you have to consider the the actual data and arguments of the scientists who have published numerous peer-reviewed articles strongly suggesting that black-white and white-Asian (people of Chinese and Japanese ancestry consistently outscore whites) are substantially due to genetic factors. The review article below, by Arthur Jensen (considered one of the top 50-100 psychologists of all time, and an honest and open-minded scholar by scientists who disagree with him) and Phil Rushton (who has been tarred with accusations of racism more often). Examining this data, it’s extremely difficult to argue that an at least partially genetic explanation for racial IQ differences better explains the collection. At the least, it shows that the question is open. Within 10 years it will be fairly simple to resolve the question decisively using genomics (it could be done even now, but no one will fund the research, so it probably won’t happen until the cost is low enough to do with a small amount of money)

    http://www.udel.edu/educ/gottfredson/30years/Rushton-Jensen30years.pdf

    http://www.gnxp.com/blog/2007/10/james-watson-tells-inconvenient-truth_296.php

    ReplyDelete
  7. "the way I see it, there is no evidence to claim what Dr. Watson claims to be true"

    Among scientists who actually work on this or related topics, there is strong consensus that IQ is real, predicts outcomes in an incredible variety of situations, that within-group variation is heavily or mostly heritable in developed countries, and that it maps on to physiological correlates such as the development of particular brain regions.

    The consensus report of the American Psychological Association is that IQ is valid and reliable, predicting a vast host of outcomes, from the ability to solve math problems to rates of car accidents, the time it takes to teach almost every skill in military training, job performance in almost every task for which performance can be measured objectively, etc. It is highly heritable, thus monozygotic twins are much more similar in IQ than dizygotic twins, whether raised together or apart.

    Here is the full report:
    http://michna.com/intelligence.htm

    Anonymous polling of psychologists, geneticists, and related disciplines way back in 1987 revealed that most believed that the black-white gap (this was an American study) was at least partially genetic, with a quarter saying that there was too little data to draw a conclusion and less than a fifth saying that black-white differences were all environmental.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Snyderman_and_Rothman_(study)

    Since that time further research has shown that IQ is strongly related to MRI measurements of brain size, trajectories of brain development, and the development of particular brain regions. These neuroanatomical characteristics are much more similar between monozygotic than dizygotic twins.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neuroscience_and_intelligence

    James Flynn, discoverer of the ‘Flynn Effect’ (the secular increase in IQ scores during the second half of the 20th century), a committed egalitarian socialists who thinks and hopes that black-white IQ differences are probably environmental, nonetheless admits that the evidence is mixed and he may be proved wrong (or right) soon using modern DNA technologies.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_R._Flynn

    Scientists whose work touches on IQ usually attack research to test whether racial differences are genetically based using arguments based on the negative consequences of learning that the gap was genetic. But arguments of that type only make sense if you think that there *really is a substantial chance that the gap is significantly genetic,* otherwise you would just do the tests and prove the Bell Curve people wrong. Many explicitly say that they don’t want to know the truth, and want to prevent anyone from finding out.

    Moving on from the formal consensus, you have to consider the the actual data and arguments of the scientists who have published numerous peer-reviewed articles strongly suggesting that black-white and white-Asian (people of Chinese and Japanese ancestry consistently outscore whites) are substantially due to genetic factors. The review article below, by Arthur Jensen (considered one of the top 50-100 psychologists of all time, and an honest and open-minded scholar by scientists who disagree with him) and Phil Rushton (who has been tarred with accusations of racism more often). Examining this data, it’s extremely difficult to argue that an at least partially genetic explanation for racial IQ differences better explains the collection. At the least, it shows that the question is open. Within 10 years it will be fairly simple to resolve the question decisively using genomics (it could be done even now, but no one will fund the research, so it probably won’t happen until the cost is low enough to do with a small amount of money)

    http://www.udel.edu/educ/gottfredson/30years/Rushton-Jensen30years.pdf

    http://www.gnxp.com/blog/2007/10/james-watson-tells-inconvenient-truth_296.php

    ReplyDelete