Scientists should never be censored

In turning James Watson into a pariah, Britain’s scientific community failed miserably in its responsibility to challenge unreason through open debate.

David Perks

Topics Politics

James Watson, co-discoverer of DNA and a Nobel laureate, has become a scientific pariah in the space of a week. The cause of his downfall? He made comments on race and intelligence in which he implied that there are significant genetic differences in intelligence between Africans and Caucasians.

On 14 October, Watson said in an interview with The Sunday Times that 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’ (1). Three days later the Science Museum in London withdrew an invitation for him to speak. The museum declared that Watson had gone ‘beyond the point of acceptable debate’. Today, 24 October, Watson was due to speak at the Festival of Ideas in Bristol, England – but the festival organisers followed the Science Museum’s lead and withdrew their invitation, too. Now, the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York, of which Watson is chancellor, has suspended him from his administrative duties.

Should there really be a red line between ‘acceptable debate’ and ‘unacceptable debate’? And if someone crosses the line into ‘unacceptability’, should they be silenced? In the past, science museums and institutions might have encouraged open and rigorous debate about scientific questions; now they seek to shut it down.

There is no question that Watson’s comments were trite, an attempt to explain away massive social problems in Africa by describing them as the product of alleged natural racial differences in intelligence. Watson is a proselytiser for genetics as a science of human behaviour, but in this instance he has confused science with politics. Whatever the explanatory powers of human genetics, it cannot tell us anything about why large parts of Africa remain impoverished, or about inequality between blacks and whites in parts of the developed world. Such impoverishment and inequality are products of political and cultural factors, not genetic traits possessed by black people. Yet silencing Watson is no way to counter his ideas.

In its press release explaining why it banned Watson from speaking, the Science Museum said that it does not ‘shy away from debating controversial topics’ – and then it went right on to say that Watson’s comments went ‘beyond the point of acceptable debate’ (2). This is an act of political cowardice by the Science Museum: it has taken it upon itself to act as the moral conscience of the scientific community by silencing one of the most famous living scientists because some of his ideas are too unpalatable to be heard. Yet in the same week, the museum held a meeting titled Scientific Racism: A History (3) as part of its programme of events to mark Black History Month. Scientific racism and ideas about genetic determinism are surely better out in the open, where they can be debated and challenged, rather than hidden away from public view.

The Science Museum’s moral posturing did nothing to clarify the veracity of claims that there is a scientific basis to racial difference. And in this sense, the museum failed in its scientific responsibilities as well as acting cowardly in relation to Watson. Some scientists do have a tendency to see human beings as little more than biological machines playing out the potentialities endowed upon us by our genes. This leaves them open to the temptation to look for biological explanations for social problems. But genetics has proved much less revealing than Watson suggests in this regard. The idea that personal characteristics can be reduced to a single gene trait identifiable by a DNA test has been rejected by modern genetics. Even looking for the influence of multiple genes on the developmental pathways in the brain has revealed little about the character of the person who carries those genes, let alone group differences between us.

Watson is way off the mark in hoping for such differences to be revealed in the next decade. Yet his views are actually informed by today’s broader view, especially in the scientific world, of human behaviour being determined by nature and genes. Watson may take this view too far, and distort it – but it is an inconvenient truth for some scientists, and the moral arbiters of science at the Science Museum, that Watson voices an extreme expression (an ‘unacceptable’ expression) of what is a fairly mainstream idea.

Recent history should teach us that it is only when views such as Watson’s are exposed to a thorough critique that we can clear the air. In 1994, Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray published their notorious book The Bell Curve, which argued that significant differences existed in IQ between blacks and whites in the US. Its authors claimed that attempts to improve blacks’ relatively poor IQ in comparison with whites’ IQ had failed, and called for an end to welfare programmes that supported low-income women with children. The book sold over 400,000 copies, and in the furore that followed the American Psychological Association (APA) was compelled to convene a task force to restate its position on the issue.

This led to the publication in 1995 of Intelligence: Knowns and Unknowns, which claimed that there was no ‘support for a genetic interpretation’ of differences in psychometric intelligence between black and white groups in the US; the APA said that such differences were apparent but, at present, ‘no one knows what causes this differential’ (4). Many scientists and commentators stepped up and explained the differences in social terms, as springing from inequality and impoverished living conditions. These responses to The Bell Curve were good for science and good for society: important issues were interrogated and the politicised use of science was challenged, rather than being brushed under the carpet.

If the Science Museum thinks that by denying airtime to biological determinists like Watson it can change the terms of debate, it is sorely mistaken. We need a rigorous and open debate about science and its relationship with society; we don’t need censorship, thanks very much, no matter how unpalatable are the views being put forward.

David Perks is head of physics, Graveney School. He is speaking at the sessions Debating Darwin at the Battle of Ideas festival in London on 27-28 October.

Previously on spiked

Brendan O’Neill interviewed American free speech warrior Wendy Kaminer. Frank Furedi discussed new campus based threats to academic freedom. Maria Grasso and Lee Jones said that if we want open borders, we need open debate. Dolan Cummings argued that ‘Free Speech’ is more than a slogan. Jack Jordan warned against whitewashing academic debate. Or read more at: spiked issue Free Speech.

(1) The elementary DNA of Dr Watson, Charlotte Hunt-Grubbe, The Sunday Times, 14 October 2007

(2) Dana Centre Statement, 18 October 2007

(3) Scientific racism: a history, Dana Centre

(4) Intelligence: Knowns and Unknowns, American Psychological Association, 1995

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Become a spiked supporter