“Not A Racist In A Conventional Way”

James Watson speakingIn a recent interview with the Financial Times, James Watson explained his decision to auction off his Nobel Prize medallion (won, with Francis Crick, for discovering the double-helix structure of DNA). He claimed that since his controversial comments about race in 2007, “I was an ‘unperson,’ I was fired from the boards of companies, so I have no income, apart from my academic income.” In that 2007 interview, he said he was “gloomy” about the prospects 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,” and attributed that difference to genetic differences. Nonetheless, in his latest interview, FT reports that Watson “insisted he was ‘not a racist in a conventional way.’”

What do we do when scientific idols fail to live up to the ideals we hold them to? Watson and Crick’s elegant work on the DNA structure is a fantastic case study of how science can succeed, a product of elegant theoretical work, some ingenious modeling, and (sadly unacknowledged) collaboration with experimentalists like Rosalind Franklin to test and refine their modeling.

When a prominent scientist abuses the power and prestige his science won him, especially when he abuses his science to advance a political agenda, and most especially when his claims are at odds with the science itself, it is critical to call him out.

It’s natural to revere people capable of such remarkable work. But it’s also wise to be cautious with such reverence: even winning a Nobel Prize, running the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, and stewarding the Human Genome Project doesn’t make one a universal expert. Nor does discovering how genes are built and rebuilt make one’s pronouncements on genetics infallible. Time and again Watson showed a willingness to attach genetic explanations to human differences where the science simply wasn’t there. Referring to the same 2007 interview in which he denigrated the intellect of Africans, science journalist Adam Rutherford commented recently in The Guardian, “he told the Sunday Times in 2007 that ‘while people may like to think that all races are born with equal intelligence, those who have to deal with black employees find this not true’. Call me old-fashioned, but that sounds like bog-standard, run-of-the-mill racism to me.”

But, of course, no one wants to believe that their racism is “conventional,” or acknowledge their racism even to the degree Watson seems willing to do. Decades of research on implicit bias show that all of us are racists (and sexists, ageists, etc.), even if we don’t recognize how perceptions of race change our interactions with others. (The Implicit Bias and Philosophy group has a good reading list, and the National Conference of State Courts has a good summary of the concept, its consequences, and how to overcome it). As an example, research shows that white Americans often perceive black Americans as stronger, less sensitive to pain, and otherwise “superhuman.”

However subconscious that bias, it has real consequences, as when a white police officer shoots an unarmed black teenager to death and later claims, “I felt like a 5-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan” (the officer and victim were within an inch of the same height); says of the youth’s face “it looks like a demon”; and asserts under oath, “it looked like he was almost bulking up to run through the shots, like it was making him mad that I’m shooting at him.” Addressing Officer Darren Wilson’s shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Slate’s Jamelle Bouie observes:

the lesson of Wilson is that he isn’t unique. That his fear is common. And that the same forces that drove Wilson and Brown to confrontation can—and will—drive another Wilson and another Brown to another confrontation with the same deadly results.

(That was written before a grand jury failed to indict the white NYPD officer who choked unarmed African-American Eric Garner to death, and before a white officer in Cleveland killed twelve-year-old African-American Tamir Rice for carrying a toy gun.)

Wilson’s actions, like Watson’s words, are rooted in a morass of history, economic structures, political and cultural struggles, cultural stereotypes, and evolved cognitive biases. These influences are inescapable, and easy to surrender to. Thanks to research exposing the ways that perceptions of race shape society, we can recognize those subconscious influences in ourselves and work to counter them consciously and remove their influence around us. Watson may be able to cloak his un-“conventional” racism with scientific credentials and pseudoscientific jargon, but in the end, his gut reaction to race is shared with many.

Watson’s reference to “conventional” racism is ironic, since the “races” we recognize are ultimately a matter not of science, but of convention. The discoverer of the structure of genetic material ought to know more about the structure of population genetics. Consider: his sort of racism lumps all Africans into one homogeneous group, yet we know there is more genetic diversity within African human populations than within any other single geographic, ethnic, or racial category. This is hardly surprising, since as Baba Brinkman (channeling the work of Dead Prez) observes, everyone can say “I’m a African”:

(This is but one reason why Brinkman deserved one of NCSE’s Friend of Darwin awards.)

Luckily, Watson’s insensitivity is not the only path for scientists (or the rest of us). Understanding our family relationship to all humanity can help us undercut racism, but just as crucial is opening ourselves to others’ experiences. Way back in 1946, Albert Einstein accepted an invitation to speak at Lincoln University, a historically black college in Pennsylvania. Einstein explained, according to passages quoted in the black press at the time (and ignored by mainstream media):

My trip to this institution was in behalf of a worthwhile cause. There is a separation of colored people from white people in the United States. That separation is not a disease of colored people. It is a disease of white people. I do not intend to be quiet about it.

Nor was he, and nor should he have been. He was able to connect the experiences of his black neighbors in segregated Princeton with his own experiences as a German Jew, and forged friendships with civil rights leaders and spoke out on the issue. He could see what Dr. King said so eloquently in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”:

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.

I see the work we do here at NCSE through that same lens. Denying students a science education is an injustice. Teachers or school districts or policymakers or heckling parents who try to use the public schools to impose their religious or political beliefs are inflicting an injustice. And by that same token, I do not intend to be quiet about injustice, especially when it emanates from eminent scientists or entails the misuse of science for political ends.