Oh yeah, James Watson is racist too.

I wanted to write a loose follow up to my last piece. After reading it, my husband said to me, “I’m not really sure where you land on this.” Making my claims clear and explicit rather than suggestively gesturing toward them has always been a challenge for me. My dissertation advisor, Vicky Davion, used to slam her hand down on her desk, glare at me, and say, “own your claims!” This blog is more for conjecture and exploration than for rigorous argument, but the last topic is really important to me and to the more formal philosophical work that I do, so I wanted to clarify my position just a little bit. Essentially, on my view it’s rarely possible to isolate a thinker’s prejudicial comments and take the rest of the work at face value. Racialized and gendered biases are not like benign tumors that can be cut away from an otherwise healthy body. If you state that women are irrational and prone to hysteria, then it is unlikely that the way you think about rationality itself is gender-neutral, though it may be presented as such. Cutting away the prejudicial statements and proceeding as if everything else is neutral or objective only serves to make the biases more difficult to identify. That’s not to say that there is then nothing to be learned and/or appreciated about the thinker’s work. It just means that our engagement with that work requires more attentiveness, care, and reflection with specific attention to the ways that bias may infuse the concepts. This is work that feminist and anti-racist scholars do every day. It also means that we need to be especially aware of the way our own views reproduce bias-infused concepts when we draw on the ideas of these thinkers. To me this is the most important implication.

As the original post indicated, this kind of reckoning with the troubling beliefs of cultural pillars isn’t limited to philosophy, but is happening across politics and the arts as well. As my brilliant college roommate, Melissa, pointed out in a comment to my last post, scientific communities are publically grappling with the racism of some of their figureheads. This is an especially important arena for this kind of honest admonishment and reflection to occur given the general role that science has in establishing what we think of as objective knowledge, and given the specific, troubling history of “scientific racism.” “Race” itself is a cultural construct, born of colonial ideologies and codified by scientists whose adherence to those ideologies infused their theoretical work, methods, and analyses. Yet, white supremacists continue to attempt to use science to prove a racial hierarchy, despite the fact that there is no existing genetic evidence to support the view that whites are more intelligent, say, than people of other races. Melissa suggested that I comment on conversation surrounding Dr. James Watson, one of the Nobel-winning founders of modern genetics (who relied on unconsenting access to Roaslind Franklin’s data to uncover the double helix structure of DNA). About 10 years ago, Dr. Watson made some comments indicating his belief that black people are intrinsically less intelligent than whites. In a recent documentary aired on PBS, Watson reaffirmed those comments, reigniting the debate about what to do with Watson and his legacy. As New York Times contributor Amy Harmon puts it in a recent piece, “Dr. Watson’s remarks may well ignite another firestorm of criticism. At the very least, they will pose a challenge for historians when they take the measure of the man: How should such fundamentally unsound views be weighed against his extraordinary scientific contributions?”

Some biologists might suggest that media outlets like PBS and the Times ought to stop dedicating time and space to Watson and his ideas. To me, the time and space serves an important purpose that is not really about Watson’s legacy, but about what this controversy says about scientific communities, and the way that science news is received by the public, in the present moment. Here’s a quote from the Times piece:

“It’s not an old story of an old guy with old views,” said Andrea Morris, the director of career development at Rockefeller University, who served as a scientific consultant for the film. Dr. Morris said that, as an African-American scientist, “I would like to think that he has the minority view on who can do science and what a scientist should look like. But to me, it feels very current.”

In other words, we can’t just dismiss Watson and his troubling views as prejudiced relics and proceed as if cutting him away leaves everything else neutral. We might think about how the concepts themselves are racialized, for example, we might think about the merits of IQ as measure of intelligence itself in this regard. I think that excising the man who espouses explicitly prejudicial beliefs makes it more difficult to identify and have conversations about biases in science that are more hidden or that create conditions in the makeup of the scientific community itself that reflect those biases. To me, the most compelling part of the NYT piece is the suggestion that the homogeneity of scientific communities contributes to the persistence of racist pronouncements and racialized science in practice. A colleague who knows Watson well says, “If he knew African-Americans as colleagues at all levels, his present view would be impossible to sustain.” The science already demonstrates that Watson’s views are misguided, dangerous even. And many suggest that the impact of environmental factors (nutrition, stress, early education, etc) on IQ and an individual’s future outcomes provoke a moral obligation to rectify systemic disparities. It is then incumbent on scientists to reflect on how their communities, who is included and who is systematically excluded, bear the scientific findings out. In the end:

“It’s easy to say, ‘I’m not Watson,’” said Kenneth Gibbs, a researcher at the N.I.H. who studies racial disparities in science. “But one should really be asking himself or herself, ‘What am I doing to ensure our campus environments are supporting scientists from backgrounds that are not there?’”


I am still aiming for a post a week, though I may not always get there. I am currently working on a couple of other writing projects that begin to take precedence as deadlines approach. Hang with me, though. I have ideas for some more lighthearted posts for the future as well.



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