Thursday, October 25, 2007

The ghosts of Cold Spring Harbor

Dr. Watson meet Dr. Shockley—James Watson, he of Watson & Crick, the double-helix guys, apparently never heard of William Shockley. Biologists don’t hang around with physicists much. Watson, 79, caused an uproar and got fired from his job, for saying almost exactly the same thing Bill Shockley said 40 years ago and will likely meet a similar end. Coincidences abound.

Watson, who actually is fairly famous for stupid, poorly considered statements, told the Times of London last week that there really was no point in worrying about the people of Africa because there were limits to how much help you can give them. They are not as bright as white folks. When the world went “huh,” he apologized, saying “there is no scientific basis for such a belief,” which of course raises the question of why he said it in the first place. He got fired from his plush job as chancellor of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, which he served as president until 2003. All kinds of speaking engagements were canceled and he is now something of a pariah in science. He is triggering a debate on whether scientists should be shunned or silenced because what they say is not socially acceptable--or is even silly.

Those who do not study history and all that crap. Forty years ago, Bill Shockley, co-inventor of the transistor, said essentially the same thing. Blacks repeatedly score 15 points lower than whites in IQ tests and therefore, as a whole (not individually) were less bright than whites. Moreover, he said, there was little point with welfare programs since they wouldn’t work. Sounds familiar?

[Your humble servant, is, of course, Shockley's biographer. For more on Shockley, you are all invited to purchase Broken Genius, The Rise and Fall of William Shockley, Creator of the Electronic Age, which by coincidence, comes out in paperback next January. I would like to thank Dr. Watson for the news hook].

Shockley also agreed that the statement had little scientific support beyond the IQ tests, but spent the rest of his life trying to get the scientific establishment to study the matter and see if he was right. They, of course, had no intention of doing any such thing, and in a classic instance of scientists behaving badly, went after Shockley, destroying his career. He was shunned and the establishment did its best to silence him. He died in 1979 at the same age Watson is now, alone and in disgrace. The same thing is likely to happen to Watson.

Shockley was a firm believer in the inheritance of attributes such as intelligence (nature) and ran up against an establishment that believed that intelligence was more a matter of environment (nurture). We now think it is both, but Shockley was far more right than the scientists of his time were willing to concede. Except for the race aspect, he actually won. It was when Shockley got into race, he lost the argument.

IQ tests measure one aspect of what we call intelligence. The tests were invented at Stanford by Lewis Terman [your humble servant also is his biographer. See Terman’s Kids. Do you note a pattern here?] They do not measure creativity, attention, motivation, talent, aspects of reasoning. Shockley even took Terman’s tests twice to see if he would qualify for Terman’s study of the gifted and failed twice. He was one of the smartest men of the 20th century and won a Nobel Prize but did not score dramatically on IQ tests. (The physicist Luis Alvarez also failed to qualify). Yet he used these tests as the basis for his racial profiling. Intelligence is much too complicated for testing or even definitions, and in one aspect, at least, Shockley was not as intelligent as even he thought.

The establishment at the time first attacked Shockley on grounds he was a physicist and didn’t know squat about biology (something they certainly can’t say about Watson, who headed the American efforts in the Human Genome Project), but Shockley learned what he needed to learn and could do statistics better than they could. So they carried the attack to the personal, behaving disgracefully. Shockley, however, was a terrible debater, a seriously unpleasant person, and he lost the argument.

Missing in much of the press coverage is another coincidence. Shockley was a eugenicist, the notion that smarter, better people, need to out-reproduce the less smart, less better people. Much of the work in eugenics in the first half of the 20th century was done at—wait for it—Cold Spring Harbor. The lab has happily moved well beyond that difficult time of its history, but the coincidence is notable.

Watson, if he pays attention, will learn from this that the best thing he can do now is shut up. He likely won’t.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

That's Jane Austen swinging from that tree! Darcy, quick, drop the banana!

"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single baboon in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife"--We are not nearly as far removed from our evolutionary cousins as we like to think. Nick Wade's story in the New York Times on the work of Dorothy Cheney and Robert Seyfarth of the University of Pennsylvania is a case in point. The two, husband and wife, study baboons in Botswana and they tape the behavior of their subjects. The results, as Wade points out, is that baboons think. Slowly, perhaps, but we who allow ourselves to be governed from Washington have no right to feel smug.

The biologists set up tests for the baboons and actually taping what looks awfully like intellect. One male baboon has the hots for a female but she is being serviced by the alpha male. Suddenly, he hears the sound of another female nearby ("If you can't screw the one you love, love the one you screw?") and you can watch him think it out. "Hmmm. The boss is busy and we have this opportunity nearby, maybe I can knock off a quickie before he returns and...." Unfortunately for him, when he goes to find her, he finds a loudspeaker playing a recording of the second female's flirtatious call. Bad biologists! But the point is made.

The two suggest that there are pointed similarities between baboons and the women in 19th century English society. "Stay loyal to your relatives (though perhaps at a distance, if they are an impediment), but also try to ingratiate yourself with members of high-ranking families," they say. Sounds like the Bennet family, doesn't it? Female status is passed from mother to daughter and female society stays constant, while the males change regularly as new upstarts upset the reigning alpha male. They sort of move into Netherfield Park, put all the females into a tizzy, and walk off with the best-looking of the higher rank. Like the women in Jane Austen novels, the female baboons who do best are the ones with the best social skills.

I'm sorry, but is that vagina a Versace?--Speaking of females with social skills, I write this very carefully. The medical establishment in Britain is in a bit of a tizzy about the newest fad: cosmetic vaginal surgery. The number of procedures to reduce the size of vaginas has doubled in six years. Women claim they are having problems wearing tight clothing, ride a bike, show up in bathing suits or take communal showers and want surgeons to do something about it. It is called genitoplasty or labial reduction. The authors of a story in the British Medical Journal said they did a Google search of labial reduction and found 490,000 results. (I got 92,400). Most were ads for clinics in Britain and the U.S. that did the surgery. The Brits have been treated to television and magazines pieces on "designer vaginas." Can we expect knock-offs from China? No. It will be a sign of my maturity that I will drop the subject without the usual bad taste humor it so richly deserves. Aren't you proud?

Who are you going to believe, that printer or your lying eyes?--Everyone has had it happen. Your printer software proclaims you are out of ink (aren't you glad I moved from vaginas?) and you toss the cartridge out and put in a new one. If you suspect that you are somehow getting screwed, you may be right. A study from German suggests that in at least half the time, the software is lying--it isn't out. A German research company,TÜV Rheinland looked at all brands and both single-ink and multi-ink cartridges. Results did vary. Epson (which financed the study) was the most honest (told the truth 80% of the time) and Kodak the worst (told the truth 64%). Sometimes the printer said it was out of ink when there was still enough for hundreds of pages. Sometimes a multi-ink cartridge reported itself empty when only one of the inks was out. You are better off with cartridges with the inks in separate tubes, so that you can replace the one running low and not have to pay for the ones still in sufficient supply. Sometimes, the problem is just that if you don't use the printer for a while, the ink dries. If you are waiting for answer to how to solve the problem, I can't help you. They have us by the short hairs.

Vaginal statue photography by Dan Heller