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.


Ken said...

Mismeasure of Man by Stephen Jay Gould is an excellent book on the abuse of intelligence tests. I can't plug a biography, I don't think there is one and definitely not by me.

Joel Shurkin said...

We disagree. Gould managed to ignore 30 years of research, mostly on twin studies, to reach his conclusion, and the book is not particularly well-regarded in scientific circles.


Ken said...

I don't think Gould ever claimed (I will reread the book when I get time, it has been a few years now) that intelligence tests didn't measure something that wasn't at least partly inherited, just that IQ tests are a poor measurement and influenced by environmental factors. Twin studies aren't perfect, non-identical twins still share their mother's health and nutrition during pregnancy. I have seen the comments about his discussion of factor analysis, and it seems wrong but also irrelevant. It is also only part of the book, I expect no one has difficulties with his attacks on already discredited science, like craniometry. Not being well-regarded by psychometricians is not necessarily a bad thing.

Joel Shurkin said...

Let me know what you think after you reread it.