I’ve developed this view of journalists lately as the mouthpieces of the intellectual world. That’s not much of a compliment, and if anything they exist on the bottom rung, where their modal operation is flapping their gums without being forced to put much thought into it. At one point there was an internal hierarchy in journalism with amateurs in local news and blogs being on the bottom and entrenched institutions like the New York Times being on top. But now the New York Times is nearly indistinguishable from BuzzFeed: it’s all click bait, no substance, no thought towards the impact of the drivel they’re putting out, and a complete condescension towards the intellects of its readers.
This week one of their science writers, Amy Harmon, made a fluke that honestly makes me wonder if there’s any editorial control. The piece, titled James Watson Won’t Stop Talking About Race, profiles the beliefs of molecular biologist James Watson, the winner of the 1962 Nobel Prize in Medicine along with Francis Crick for describing the structure of DNA. Watson’s beliefs are that there are genetic differences between races resulting in differences in intelligence. Anyone who knows anything about James Watson already knows this has been his position for at least the last decade. At the conclusion of the Human Genome Project in the year 2000, Watson was quoted saying, “We used to think that our fate was in our stars. Now we know, in large part, that our fate was in our genes.” It was hardly seven years after that when Watson went public with his belief in racial differences in intelligence.
I’m not going to talk about whether Watson is wrong or right because I find the debate over racial differences in IQ to be the messy convergence of three separate debates which are equally as unlikely to be resolved at any point soon in the scientific discourse:
- Race concepts (anthropologists and leftist population geneticists are going to be debating this conceptual scaffold with other pop gen folks until the end of time, as they did with David Reich earlier last year).
- The efficacy of IQ tests (psychometricians are going to be debating literally everyone on this until the end times).
- The genetic influence on intelligence (you can’t even argue this without resolving IQ first, and even then non-hereditarians are going to be screaming epigenetics until they’re blue in the face even if IQ tests are absolutely proven to work out).
Kudos to anyone studying and discussing those things, but it’s not for me. In any event, the reality is that these debates are unresolved. Amy Harmon seems to think Watson’s views reflect some ultra Nazi minority of the opinions of biologists and intelligence experts, but that’s simply not true, as Noam J. Stein pointed out:
The real problem isn’t that this is an unresolved debate, though. The problem is that anyone who knows who James Watson is, already knows what he believes. Anyone who doesn’t just now learned about it. But the geniuses at the New York Times assume that anyone who didn’t know is going to immediately disagree with him and is going to want to shame a 90 year old man into his grave. How naive!
The average person who doesn’t have a New York Times subscription isn’t going to read this and think James Watson is an idiot. They know he’s a genius. Now they know a genius’ opinion on something which they themselves may have thought very little of. The lack of foresight from the New York Times on this issue shows just how out of touch its writers are from the real world and how forced into the Twitter wars their work is.
Even if we publish follow-up articles refuting Watson, who is it that the public is going to believe when it comes to this stuff? James Watson, a household name and Nobel Prize winner, or Erik Turkheimer, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia? You tell me.
As a personal aside, I still remember the day when I was 12 years old and I saw articles about James Watson’s belief in race differences in intelligence prominently displayed all over the internet. My thought wasn’t that he was wrong. My thought was that one of the most influential people in biology believed this, so it might be true. Things change, and I later went on in college to major in anthropology and statistics, where I developed a nuanced opinion over the course of my four years of re-education. But who else out there that isn’t your average NYT subscriber is going to read Amy’s blurbs and agree with Watson? Not everyone actually gets to major in anthropology like I did. Not everyone is going to take the word of a science writer over one of the fathers of the molecular revolution.
Good job, Amy.
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