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Unfair to James Watson?

A reader writes:

I usually enjoy your blog, but when I saw the first sentence of this recent post it left a bad taste that just didn’t go away.

The post in question was titled, “New England Journal of Medicine engages in typical academic corporate ass-covering behavior,” and its first sentence began, “James Watson (not the racist dude who, in 1998, said that a cancer cure was coming in 2 years) writes . . .”

The reader continues:

You could have said “not the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA”, but instead to identify him, it is the “racist” label you had to use. Was that really necessary? What was the point of that? To show that you are among the enlightened and moral in identifying that as his most important characteristic? (Besides racist is a entirely vague term now as it can include someone saying “All lives matter” or disagreeing with an African-American).

When a commenter took issue with his mention your response was rather bizarre. So what if cancer cure forecasting and racism were his side gigs? That’s what he is famous for now? And no other great scientists have made bogus predictions? It was all rather petty, unbecoming, and unnecessary. The treatment of Watson has been a disgrace and is one of many episodes leading to the culture of fear in academia for saying something offhand that will get you unpersoned. Thanks for adding to that.

I disagree, but I appreciate the open criticism. Here is my reply:

1. Publicity goes both ways. There was nobody holding a gun to Watson’s head telling him to say, in 1998, that “Judah is going to cure cancer in two years.” Watson seems to love publicity. If the cancer cure had really come, Watson could rightly claim credit for calling it ahead of time. When it didn’t come . . . then, yeah, he’s due for some mockery. Don’t you think it’s a little bit irresponsible for one of the mast famous biologists in the world to tout a nonexistent cancer cure? I don’t like it when Dr. Oz does this sort of thing either.

2. The reason I called Watson is a racist is not that he said “All lives matter” or that he disagreed with an African American. I called him a racist because he’s said things like this:

Some anti-Semitism is justified.

All our social policies are based on the fact that [Africans] intelligence is the same as ours – whereas all the testing says not really.

The one aspect of the Jewish brain that is not first class is that Jews are said to be bad in thinking in three dimensions.. it is true.

I think now we’re in a terrible sitution where we should pay the rich people to have children.. if we don’t encourage procreation of wealthier citizens, IQ levels will most definitely fall.

Indians in [my] experience [are] servile.. because of selection under the caste system.

East Asian students [tend] to be conformist, because of selection for conformity in ancient Chinese society.

3. You refer to “the culture of fear in academia for saying something offhand that will get you unpersoned.” First, I don’t know that Watson’s statements were so “offhand”; he seems to have pretty consistent views. Second, I’m not unpersoning the guy. He’s a person, and one of the things he’s done as a person is to trade in some of the fame he got from his youthful scientific accomplishments to promote racism and cancer cures that don’t work. Third, what about the culture of fear for ethnic minorities and women in science? Watson was head of a major lab and a big figure in American biology for many years. It doesn’t bother me so much that people might want think twice before spewing some of the opinions that Watson’s expressed.

In the meantime, I don’t think they’ll be taking DNA out of the textbooks, even if one of its discoverers was Rosalind Franklin, who Watson apparently couldn’t stand. She couldn’t do maths, she couldn’t think in three dimensions very well, she didn’t even curl her hair . . . jeez! It’s amazing she could do science at all. I guess standards were lower back in the 1950s.

Look, I’m not saying Watson was evil. He was a complicated person, like all of us. But scientific politics, sexism, and racism were not just part of his private opinions. They were part of his public persona. If you go around saying “Some anti-Semitism is justified,” then, yeah, you’re gonna piss some people off!


  1. Anonymous says:

    I like your comments here a lot. Reminds me of this section from a recent article (

    “Faulkner expressed his desire for authorial anonymity in other venues, too. “If I had not existed, someone else would have written me, Hemingway, Dostoyevsky, all of us,” he told The Paris Review. “Proof of that is that there are about three candidates for the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays. But what is important is Hamlet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, not who wrote them, but that somebody did. The artist is of no importance. Only what he creates is important.””

    Shouldn’t good ideas be more about the idea than the person? DNA’s legacy is DNA, not Watson.

  2. John Palkovic says:

    Bravo. Watson deserves scorn and derision. Your post reminds me of an old science joke.

    Q: What did Watson and Crick discover?

    A: Rosalind Franklin’s lab notebook.

  3. JW Defender says:

    You accuse James Watson of racism for writing:

    > All our social policies are based on the fact that [Africans] intelligence is the same as ours – whereas all the testing says not really.

    Which part of this do you, AG, disagree with? Can you point to any tests given in the US — SAT, ACT, GRE, LSAT, GMAT, PISA, any state-level academic testing — in which there are not significant racial gaps?

    • Jonathan (another one) says:

      I’m not AG, but I’ll take a stab at it. The omitted adjective “potential” from the initial clause misstates what all our social policies are based on, and the cited tests do not measure potential intelligence.

    • Anonymous says:

      Your premise that standardized testing measures “intelligence” precisely or accurately is not convincing

      • Steve says:

        +1000. Watson deserves derision as do all of these people who pose as rational and scientific, when spewing this racist garbage. They are perfectly will to generalize from a pen and paper test results to biological innate features of subgroups, uncritically. Then, accuse those of us sceptical of such BS of being unwilling to accept the data. Shaming people may be overused right now by the so-called woke crowd. I don’t know. But, shaming people has always been a tool to maintain decency in society.

        • anon says:

          It is indeed appalling how uncritical some scientists have been in their thoughts about race.

          That being said, what is the most fair critical account of the race/iq issue? I’ve read about it but worry my level of understanding is inadequate. It works be great to have a statistician’s thoughts here.

          • Steve says:

            Nassim Taleb has a nice critique. Joel Mitchel also has a very interesting critique of the measurement problem for all psychometric measures.

            • I may align with Nassim Taleb’s view on IQ. It is so overrated measure. In any case, what is so interesting in the fact that most intellectuals score between 119-140-45.

              • Identifying individuals and groups by their ethnicity always struck me as weird. Stereotyping is bred into individuals and groups. Sad to say, I don’t know anyone over 50 who hasn’t indulged in both.

                Thank goodness younger generations are more accepting of difference. They are so friendly, in my experience.

              • Ali Ibrahim Kandil says:

                Stereotyping, also known as filtering, also known as dimension reduction, also known as abstraction, is not the kind of thing you can give up without also giving up your capacity to discern anything at all.

                Whether you like it or not, you have stereotypes about cats, dogs, tables, cars, computers, and yes about ethnicities, because “stereotyping”, by drastically reducing dimensions of what they represent while preserving crucial information, provide cognitive discounts indispensable for deciding otherwise intractable problems.

                Social stereotypes, or “common predictors of behavior”, exist, because they pass millions of replication tests every day. They’re the hardest empirical foundation any social science can hope to be built upon.

                Here’s a stereotype: people who score below average on IQ tests don’t make good O-ring industry employees, in fact employing them is catastrophically risky. Here’s another: People who score below 115 in IQ tests can’t hack undergraduate level physics or mathematics.

              • Andrew says:


                Since you’re into stereotyping, here are a few more fun statements:

                Some anti-Semitism is justified.

                All our social policies are based on the fact that [Africans] intelligence is the same as ours – whereas all the testing says not really.

                The one aspect of the Jewish brain that is not first class is that Jews are said to be bad in thinking in three dimensions.. it is true.

                I think now we’re in a terrible sitution where we should pay the rich people to have children.. if we don’t encourage procreation of wealthier citizens, IQ levels will most definitely fall.

                Indians in [my] experience [are] servile.. because of selection under the caste system.

                East Asian students [tend] to be conformist, because of selection for conformity in ancient Chinese society.

                Dimension reduction at its finest!

              • Joshua says:

                Ali –

                People who write comments like that are usually racists.

            • Anonymous says:

              I looked at an article written by Taleb. And I just get this sense that IQ in particular is singled out. How is IQ not real but other psychometric things are not dealt with as harshly – or are they – do people argue if “personality” exists, for example? I couldn’t find anything by Joel Mitchell. Links please.

              • IQ has been a major criterion for measuring intelligence, which is why it has been singled out. As I mentioned earlier, what is so interesting in learning your IQ score?

              • Curious says:

                The author’s name is Joel Michell:

                Also see work by Denny Borsboom:

                & Paul Barrett (was a student of Hans Eysenck):

              • Anonymous says:

                It still seems that IQ is singled out uniquely for criticism. I can understand that the concept of IQ and its tests are misused and misinterpreted by many (and used to justify racism for example). So it seems like the problem should be more with the misuse/abuse of IQ research and not so much with the concept of IQ itself. Are other less well-known psychometric measures as harshly criticized? I can’t imagine other psychometrics being so much more perfect and tied to the thing they actually want to measure than IQ is. Or are IQ measures particularly bad, inconsistent, biased, etc? Surely there is a lot of bad research in various other psychometric areas as well. Where is the intense commentary on those? Or maybe it has to do with the fact that the sheer volume of poor IQ research is so high relative to other psychometrics? Is the pushback against IQ research driven by the misuse of that research or the quality of the research?

                I read over a long medium article by Taleb and it gave me the feeling that his point is that IQ measures are meaningless. Does he think other psychometrics are also meaningless? Are all psychometrics then meaningless?

              • Curious says:


                See Van der Maas, H.L.J., Kan, K. -J., & Borsboom, D. (2014). Intelligence is what the intelligence test measures. Seriously. Journal of Intelligence, 2, 12–15.

                The problem is entirely about inference. Psychometric assessments are by their nature and construction crude measures of some latent construct. When this model was not legally defensible in the United States courts, the professional societies changed the meaning to “the test measures what the test measures” which is a rather absurd approach to the measurement of of something real. Thus, the tests can only represent position within a distribution of results and cannot precisely represent some amount of a latent construct.

                IQ is singled out most directly because it is the measure used most often and about which the strongest claims are made. It is typically accepted within psychology that personality is a crude construct simply given the methods used, but IQ is treated with much more reverence.

              • Curious says:


                One issue is the existence of asymmetry in measurement error. A respondent can erroneously increase one’s score via guessing, but can erroneously reduce one’s score via a substantial number of unmeasured causes such as motivation, attention, item context, experience, etc.

                When attempting to measure something called intelligence, these unmeasured sources of error affect the types of inferences that can be made. However, when the “test measures what the test measures” they are rendered unimportant and the inferences beyond the test rendered ridiculous.

            • Dom says:

              There was a response to Taleb:


              That website is partially about IQ.

          • Keith O’Rourke says:

            There was an enlightening talk at JSM2020 on Eugenics that explained the context and how the IQ data was not thoughtfully analyzed by leading statisticians, who knew better but liked the false inferences too much.

            Apparently one of the stakes in the heart driven into the vampirical understanding was the data on IQ of mixed family children.

            Could not find it the last time I looked.

            A really nice example of trying to understand bad behavior the same as a miss-diagnosis (why/how did it seem sensible to those doing it).

      • JW Defender says:

        It is the same “premise” on which admissions to, say, Columbia are based.

        • John Williams says:

          If they still do, that’s a problem, which is why the University of California no longer uses them for admissions.

          • jim says:

            One reason often expressed reason that universities use to justify ending testing for admissions is that test scores don’t correlate with “success”. Well no shit George Bush was president, right? Trump too.

            So hey, that’s great, tests are meaningless!!! So why have grades and even degrees?

            The university system apparently is seeking to justify it’s own demise and I’m starting to think that’s appropriate.

          • jim says:

            Hey man, why do we have these tests like the BAR exam, the exams for engineering, exams for financial advisors? Testing is meaningless!!! All these tests are just tools of cultural oppression!!! Stop the testing and the oppression now!!!

            • Joshua says:

              There is a difference between criterion-referenced testing and norms-based standardized testing. They shouldn’t be conflated. You should examine that difference.

              • dhogaza says:

                “Hey man, why do we have these tests like the BAR exam, the exams for engineering, exams for financial advisors? Testing is meaningless!!!”

                These tests exist to assess what you have learned, and whether or not your knowledge is sufficient to license you to practice a profession. If you have genius-level IQ but haven’t learned your DiffEq you ain’t going to pass your Professional Engineering exam.

                IQ tests profess to, in some sense, assess what you CAN learn. Which is why in the “Bell Curve” the authors suggested that african-americans be shunted to avocational schools because they mostly aren’t capable to higher learning, etc.

    • gec says:

      I may not be the Attorney General, but it’s clear that Watson was using the emdash gratuitously. Indeed, your follow-on sentence may not require it either (the list of tests might have worked better as a parenthetical).

      Watson’s racist statement did not require any punctuation between “ours” and “whereas”. It might have been clearer to instead write two racist sentences, one about “all our social policies” and another about testing.

      For additional detail, I refer you to one of our recent discussions on punctuation:

    • Unknown says:

      Ha, doing better in such tests as SAT, ACT, GRE, LSAT, GMAT, PISA than another person does not necessarily mean you are genetically smarter!!!! There are so many confounding issues that lead to this (especially racial issues in America). You may have the privilege to have all the necessary materials (including a paid teacher) to prepare you for a GRE test unlike the other person, and doing better in such a test does not mean you are genetically more intelligent than the other! Take this and extend to Watson’s thinking! It is completely fair to call Watson a racist, at least at a minimum!

    • Tom Passin says:

      What has anyone’s “intelligence” got to do with their standing under US law? Should social policies only support the upper 1% of tested IQs? Say you have three children. One of them will have a higher IQ than the others. Should that one be more loved and educated than the others?

      This notion that if a group’s “intelligence” is or can be made to seem lower, it is an obvious rationale for discriminating against them, enslaving them, or degrading them is a long standing and pernicious excuse. And that’s even if we could actually measure “intelligence” and even if it were not affected by one’s upbringing and living conditions.

      • dhogaza says:

        “This notion that if a group’s “intelligence” is or can be made to seem lower, it is an obvious rationale for discriminating against them”

        Definitely. The book “The Bell Curve” was very explicit about this.

    • TBW says:

      @JWDefender Perhaps you can enlighten us as to why any of this would even matter? On average men are stronger than women, yet there are many individual women stronger than individual men, so how in the world does some global statement about the strength of men vs women have any bearing on how any individuals should live their lives? Even if such a generalization is true is it not utterly irrelevant? Also, the notion that those tests are indicative of useful intelligence is comical.

    • Michael Schwartz says:

      Looking at the marginal distributions, especially in complex situations like this one, is (almost) always misleading.

      You need to consider the counterfactual condition(s) – like – what would the scores look like if race roles had been reversed since at least the 1600s, but more likely starting even earlier than that.

      • smarmy says:

        “You need to consider the counterfactual condition(s) – like – what would the scores look like if race roles had been reversed since at least the 1600s, but more likely starting even earlier than that.”

        What about the relationship between East Asians and whites, where I think it’s fair to say whites have generally been dominant, yet East Asians score higher on IQ tests? Or what about gentiles and Jews, where Jews also score somewhat higher on IQ tests? I suppose one thing is that even if there was a dominance relationship in both cases, the disadvantaged groups still had an ability to access education, which wouldn’t always be true.

        I can’t think of an example of this counterfactual involving Africans and whites, but if there is such an example, it would be interesting to study.

  4. I’m reading Gordon Allport’s The Nature of Prejudice. Quite fascinating. Allport was one of the central psychologists to enlist Black leaders in the civil rights project that was embarked on in the 50s’. Gunnar Myrdal was also chosen to acclerate this process. I learned this from Erik Erikson I think. I know, a little off the main subject of this blog.

    I think that ‘ethnocentrism’ is a more encompassing term that describes individual’s and group’s identity and self-image. Racism is often used. But I see that as a corollary of the term ethnocentrism.

    Identity politics are complex. Here in the US especially.

    • Joshua says:

      Indeed. The term “racist” serves a purpose but in many respects it is sub-optimal. For example, it implies some kind of binary condition when indeed all of us hold some degree of prejudicial beliefs, and many people who are largely ignorant of the impact of policies thereby support policies which have disparate impact on different racial or ethnic groups.

      But that shouldn’t be seen as an excuse for those who seek to leverage the ambiguity and inadequacy of the term as a way to diminish the impact of prejudicial beliefs. That is an unfortunate trend IMO.

    • Joshua says:

      On thinking more about the term “ethno-centrism” (or even “otherism”) …

      Many times those terms are more accurately applied than “racism” and they could lead to a more nuanced and beneficial analysis. But on the other hand, there could be a downside if they’re applied when “racism” is more apt. I guess I think it’s important to (1) recognize the differences and (2) be careful to apply the more accurate term in context.

      • Greetings Joshua,

        Yes that is what I’m trying to convey; the term ‘ethnocentrism’ is more accurately applied. I am not suggesting that the term should be substituted for the term ‘racism’ either.

        As an aside, you many enjoy Samuel Huntington’s ‘Who Are We?’The 1st few chapters delves into nuanced and precise classifications of ‘identity. If I find the book, I’ll list them.

  5. morris39 says:

    I occasionally browse this forum and I like the thoughfulness and curtesy shown here even though I am not particularly convinced of the usefulness of some of the undertakigs.
    But the first rule of rationality (my view) is the effectiveness of the action. Your gratuitous criticism of Watson is not effective either for you or everyone else regardless of Watson’s true beliefs.No matter what you say no value will accrue. Noise will likely result and I apologize for this bit of noise.

    • Steve says:

      Morris39 writes, “Your gratuitous criticism of Watson is not effective . . . No matter what you say no value will accrue.” False, Watson’s scientific fame lent credibility to truly abhorrent racist views. Having Andrew criticize and ridicule those views is helpful. I have seen Watson comments lifted up by racists as evidence that their views are “scientific.” Knocking that down is of real value.

    • Andrew says:


      Regarding your comments on effectiveness and noise: I take your argument to be in the “don’t feed the trolls” variety. If Watson wants to go around bullshitting on racial stereotypes and cancer cures, we should just ignore him. You might be right. But one problem is that the news media does not always ignore these sorts of pronouncements. We’re dealing with the usual dilemma when dealing with trolls, and I don’t have any easy answer here. Sometimes we ignore trolls, other times we shine a light on them. I don’t have a consistent policy.

      • Morris39 says:

        Thanks for replying Andrew.I probably should have mentioned that my motivation is that I condider you to be very ojective (Sgt Frisay!) which is something to be admired and encouraged. Possibly your comment (in my view) udercuts that.
        Secondly I did not stress that effecviness as I used it ,is very narrow, so context. What was the essay focus, who is the audience, what is the core messsage.

        • Joshua says:

          Morris –

          As you suggest, the definition of “effective” in this context is rather subjective and vague. But I would argue that at least a few people reading this thread walk away better informed about Watson and/or more stimulated to think about the related issues. As to whether people have had a change of opinion – pre- to post-reading the OP and perhaps the comment thread – would be, imo, a rather weak standard to apply.

          Would ANYONE be better informed or more inclined to deeper thought about these issues absent the post and comments?

          • morris39 says:

            If you define upfront what your aim is and then measure the effect of your action then this not vague etc. Of course here we must think in terms of probabilities only,all understood.
            How many people here have not heard of Watson? How much information is presented here on the “Watson” issue?
            I’m afraid I’ve been seduced to respond against my better judgement. As much as I want to say that I respect your opinion,I think you might have considered your post more carefully.

            • Joshua says:

              > How many people here have not heard of Watson?

              My guess is few.

              > How much information is presented here on the “Watson” issues?

              Hmmm. Well, I would imagine that a reasonable % of people who are familiar with his scientific contributions, are not aware of his comments on race.

              And on top of learning something about that from the post, people have looked at the comments to read pushback and related discussions. There must be some reason that people click through to read the comments and to offer comments, right? So we might measure that in a variety of ways. Maybe we could say that no one has changed an opinion but I’d day that some have been informed and some have developed their thoughts a bit more.

              > I’m afraid I’ve been seduced to respond against my better judgement.

              Why did you click through? Why have you added a few comments? Why did you go against your better judgment. We all probably think something similar related to commenting on blogs – and while probably for many of there our time could be better spent, I’d say that we usually get something out of it.

              > No matter what you say no value will accrue.

              But in the end, for all the inadequacy in my ability to clearly measure the net value gain, I’d say that you have no better ability to measure the lack of “effectiveness” of Andrew’s post. So why, then, were you so totally and completely sure in your assessment – to the point where NOTHING that could be said would change it?

            • Clyde Schechter says:

              “How many people here have not heard of Watson? “

              Given the high level of scientific literacy among the followers of this blog, I would imagine the answer is very close to, if not exactly zero.

              But another question, perhaps more relevant to Morris’ point, is how many were heretofore unaware of his views on race? I have only one data point to offer you: I was.

              • JDK says:

                Me too! First time for everything…

              • Joshua says:

                I only knew about it because of Andrew’s precious posts. Which is why I questioned Morris’ assertion of “no value.”

                That said, I do wonder often as to what the net value of social media engagement truly is (outside of fulfillment of addictive inclinations).

              • Joshua says:

                Ha. Precious = previous.

      • Yet another Josh says:

        I think your comments are absolutely effective. There is a big battle currently in genetics on scientific racism. The framing right now is that one side, where the loudest voices are not quantitative folks, is trying to cancel the other side who are only presenting objective quantitative scientific reality on race/sex differences. This framing is despicable. To counter this framing requires more quantitative voices to point out how the arguments of the latter side are extremely flawed and based on fundamental misunderstandings of psychometric models. This is really a war right now for the ethical soul of science. For the most part, more-vulnerable members of the scientific community (like the MSU grad students who helped oust an eugenicist administrator) have been bearing the load.

  6. Udge says:

    > Racism is really the least interesting thing about Fisher.

    Why downplay it for Fisher and emphasize it for Watson?

    • Andrew says:


      I have no absolute answer. I guess it depends on the context.

    • anon says:

      Influential historical figures / scientists who otherwise made quality contributions to human thought and society, many if not most of them also made bad contributions too (e.g. *-ist speech). Racism might be the most interesting part for some, but of course that is a subjective opinion as to what is most interesting.

    • Mikhail Shubin says:

      Being racist in 1930 and in 2000 is a very different thing

      • NickMatzke says:

        And AFAICT there is no particular evidence that Fisher was anything like as bad as Watson on race. Fisher made what was basically a then-mainstream comment on the UNESCO race statement in about 1953, and that seems to be about the only public statement he ever made about race (there was ~1 similar private statement IIRC). Watson has festooned his public record with nasty statements against just about every race. Heck, Julian Huxley said way worse things on race (including e n-word etc) and he was the founding head of UNESCO during the time of the statements.

      • Anonymous says:


        Being racist in 1980 is even different from 2000 which is different from 2020. We shouldn’t excuse historical figures for being ignorant. It is what it is. We should recognise both the good and bad they did.

        • Mikhail Shubin says:

          I have no idea when (and why) we should forgive historical people for their evil doings and wrong believes. This is a complex question, and I dont claim I have the answer. But I can speak about the category of “interesting” – it is way easier.

          It would be very surprising to learn that some modern public figure is arguing for slavery. Pro-slavery is not a popular position nowadays. But I would not be surprised if an Ancient Greek philosopher was fine with it. This does not mean slavery is fine now or what it was fine back then.

          So I think racist believe are more rare (and thus they are more surprising to find) in modern academic elite than in these born in 1890

          • Anonymous says:

            I don’t think we should excuse or forgive such behavior, and I didn’t mean to sound like I presumed you or anyone here was attempting to excuse or forgive such behavior. I agree it is interesting to learn about that stuff too. I don’t think it is the *most* interesting part of those historical figures though (at least not generally). Let’s take someone like Francis Galton. He was very racist (he clearly stated that slavery was justified), but he also made real contributions to science. It is interesting to me to learn about his racism since it is new to me. But the more and more I learn about historical figures who were racist, it gets less interesting because I come to expect it.

            • Andrew says:


              Galton’s racism is relevant because it was directly relevant to his scientific contributions. His statistical thinking about populations and variance was tied very closely to his racist beliefs. It’s something we have to wrestle with. A non-racist Galton might never have been interested in studying what he studied.

              Watson’s a little different. It seems easy enough to imagine non-racist non-sexist Watson doing all the same research, maybe with the only difference being that he would’ve given Rosalind Franklin some more credit. To me, his racism is interesting in the same way that it’s interesting that various mid-twentieth-century scientists were outspoken Stalinists. For better or worse (I’d say worse), these political and racial views were key parts of their identities.

              To put it another way, if we’re only talking about DNA, we can just talk about DNA, and who cares that one of its discoverers was a racist. But if we’re gonna be talking about “Watson and Crick” as culture heroes, then, yeah, I think Watson’s publicly expressed attitudes are relevant.

              • Anonymous says:


                I agree essentially completely. I don’t know enough of the details about how Galton’s racist views impacted his research to really comment much (I imagine you are quite well read and thought on that). Presumably it *could* have been done by a non-racist Galton, but as you said, his racism was (presumptively) a motivating factor for racist-Galton. It is relevant and important to discuss the racism of historical scientists, yes! I think it is important that we wrestle with the nuance and dirt of real history. I don’t think we should strip their names from textbooks though. I don’t know how quite to properly walk that line. I don’t want students (especially students of color) to avoid science because many famous historical scientists were racists (and even if the motivation for their work was racism). We need some kind of solution, but I don’t know what it is (simply deleting names clearly isn’t a solution, at least not by itself).

              • Andrew says:


                I agree that we should not strip the names from textbooks. I also think, irrespective of racism or whatever, that we should reduce the hero-worship in science. I guess I should apologize here because I’m always promoting my academic heroes such as Laplace and Ulam. Back when I was a math student, I remember all the stories about the brilliance of Gauss, Euler, etc etc. I think this had a malign effect on me, and on other students, in that it promoted the idea of math as being about genius rather than math being a job. It’s a tough balance: we want to celebrate people’s achievements while keeping the focus on the science. Otherwise we end up like the Association for Psychological Science in some sort of prestige-protection racket. And when that intersects with racism, we get some real problems.

              • Anonymous says:


                I am with you on that. Hero-worship is a huge issue. Same goes for religious figures, sports players, etc. Humans are fallible. Let’s celebrate human achievement and be honest about human failure. As long as we are honest and realistic, it’s fine to have a sense of wonder about a particularly powerful mind. I’m in awe at the mental ability of many historical scientists/mathematicians/etc (and modern ones too!). Even if they weren’t racists, maybe they were absent parents — which is also terrible in my opinion. Maybe they were arrogant pricks — also terrible (of course not on the level of extreme overt racism!). If they are racists, I can still be in awe of their mental feats while recognizing their problematic sides.

              • NickMatzke says:

                I think that it is totally unavoidable to avoid some degree of “hero-worship”-like behavior, in the sense that certain figures are so incredibly influential in the history of certain fields that you just can’t (a) avoid being astonished at what they accomplished and (b) in order to be properly educated in those fields, you have to know a fair bit about what those “heroes” achieved, the process by which they got there, who they influenced, etc.

                That said — we have really, really got to move away from the non-critical-“worship” part of it. An equally important part of learning about the heroes/geniuses of a field is, along with their achievements, we learn about their mistakes, their oversights, their misunderstandings, their unresolved debates, their disagreements with others, etc. etc. I think this

                (a) humanises the “heroes” and lets ourselves/our students start to see how “only human” fairly normal people like themselves can make discoveries and have brilliant insights, some which might be

                (b) fixing the flaws / unresolved questions in what the “heroes” did, and

                (c) help stop us from making similar mistakes in the future, particularly along the lines of justifying oppression with science-ish arguments.

                I think folks can see no shortage of examples in the present! E.g. many of the debates about GWAS/genetics and intelligence and other traits, and genetic screening etc. trace back to Galton & eugenics. Huge debates in statistics trace back to Fisher & his disputes with others. Etc. etc.

                * I put “hero” in scare quotes because I couldn’t think of another word except “significant figure” which seems boring. The fact that someone had flaws isn’t IMHO enough to de-hero someone — anyone ever found interesting had flaws, so there needs to be a stronger argument than that. I do think that systematic and deliberate racism, in a day and age where the flaws in this position have been litigated extensively in society, is a pretty good reason to de-hero someone like Watson though.

              • Bradley Stiritz says:


                >[Watson] would’ve given Rosalind Franklin some more credit.

                I enjoyed reading the Wikipedia article about Ms. Franklin, thank you for mentioning her. Just so you know, the article mentions several claims to the contrary, e.g. “Watson has suggested that ideally Wilkins and Franklin would have been awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.”


              • Andrew says:


                Do you have a reference for the statement that Watson said that Franklin should’ve won the prize? (I followed the wikipedia link but didn’t find any reference for this particular statement. I’m not doubting he said it; I’d just like to know the content.) If he did say that, I guess it’s a good thing. Too bad he spent so much time publicly insulting her (see some of the quotes here).

            • rm bloom says:

              If my friend, acquaintance, relative, spouse offends me, I can decide whether and how to “forgive” or reconcile.
              If he predeceases me I cannot; but that certainly doesn’t stop me from stewing about it.
              Many of us hold grudges against our parents for what they did or failed to do.
              It is said that we pass a significant milestone on our own life’s road, when we finally come to terms with the contradictory feelings we carry along with us; toward our deceased elders.
              It is said as well that we are actually *attached* in some surprising sense to our enemies.
              Chairman Mao records that when he learned of the death of Chiang Kai-Shek he was profoundly moved; for now the real and symbolic figure of his life’s struggle was no longer there to struggle against; and moreover he knew too it meant his own time was near (in fact he died the year next).

              But to “reconcile” (or not) with persons with whom we have no relationship; other than through a text book? What can that possibly mean? Perhaps it can only mean that we pass a milestone on our own life’s road, when we come to terms with the fact that persons have talents and dispositions which both please and displease us; and that it is not up to us what that combination happened to be. Nero and Caligula and Catiline are recorded by the chroniclers for us to despise; so they are easy to despise. When I learn some revolting truth about some childhood hero of mine I say, well I’m not such a saint myself after all, but thank the lord I never went as far as he (though put my hands on the levers of power, I too might have been tempted).

  7. jim says:

    Well I think all these comments on testing are kind of amusing. Here we have a bunch of scientists claiming that testing can’t measure anything. Apparently intelligence and ability are so mysterious that we don’t eve know how to measure them! My goodness.

    • Joshua says:

      jim –

      > Here we have a bunch of scientists claiming that testing can’t measure anything.

      Where did anyone make that claim? The closest I can see is you mischaracterizing, perhaps due to your misunderstanding, what people have said to match that description.

    • Robert says:

      We have scientists claiming that proposed tests of inherent genetic potential are not up to the task, while acknowledging that several tests of relevant skill levels at test time can be done. I do not believe for a second that you don’t understand the gap between these things, or why someone might object to the first but not the second.

  8. Roger says:

    “irresponsible … to tout a nonexistent cancer cure”

    No. Watson expressed some enthusiasm for some cancer research done by others. So did the NY Times and a lot of others. You act as if he were selling snake oil. It is a cheap shot.

    In googling this issue, I found dozens of complaints about IBM’s Watson AI computer, and not much about Jim Watson.

    And calling him “racist” is just meaningless name-calling. Say that he has made some offensive generalizations about ethnic groups, if that is your gripe.

    Here is an anecdote for you. In 1953, he and Crick walked into a pub and said “We have discovered the secret of life!” Actually all they did was to build on the work of others to propose a molecular structure for DNA. There is a lot more to life than one lousy molecular formula.

    • Jackson Monroe says:

      “Offensive generalizations about ethnic groups” you say? I don’t think so, more like he made over-broad statements about racial segments. I don’t think Watson “expressed enthusiasm” about “cancer research” either, it seems more like he communicated his keenness about experimentation regarding malignant growths in the human body. You’ve really mischaracterized Watson here, it’s just shameful.

    • somebody says:

      “Expressed enthusiasm”

      > Other scientists are not so restrained. ”Judah is going to cure cancer in two years,” said Dr. James D. Watson, a Nobel laureate who directs the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, a cancer research center on Long Island. Dr. Watson said Dr. Folkman would be remembered along with scientists like Charles Darwin as someone who permanently altered civilization.

      Watson was by far the most utopian in that article, including the researcher himself and even the reporters. Maybe you should just accept that smart people occasionally say stupid shit rather than saying even stupider shit yourself to try and defend them. I’ve got a pretty odd perspective, but imo bigotry is excusable, so is irrational exuberance; lazy illiteracy is not.

      • Andrew says:


        The problem is that Watson was using “letter of recommendation” language rather than science language or journalism language. Letters of recommendation are full of B.S.; it’s practically required. For example, I recall years ago being asked to fill out a recommendation with options that went something like this:
        – best student I’ve ever seen
        – in top 1% of all students
        – top 5%
        – top 15%
        – top 50%
        – bottom 50%.
        Top 15% is pretty good, right? But it’s on the bottom half of the scale. So to fill out this form in the way that’s expected of me, I had to do some mental gymnastics, where first I considered some narrow category where this particular student was excellent, and then I could honestly declare the student to be in the top 5%. I don’t remember who the student was, I just remember this annoying form which is pretty much demanding that I do some exaggeration.

        The flip side of this is recommendations that are too honest. For example, I remember once receiving a letter of recommendation from an econ professor saying that a certain student was pretty good, not good enough for one of the top 8 programs but ok for anything from 9 through 20. This was just obnoxious, in no small part because of the ridiculous implication that the student could be evaluated at that level of precision, also in the assumption that qualifications could be summarized in a single dimension.

        Anyway, the connection to Watson is that he was an academic administrator for many years, so I guess he got in the habit of writing letters that were full of hype so he could justify each hire and promotion he made, and so he could promote his students and postdocs to jobs elsewhere.

        • somebody says:

          I’m less concerned with why Watson said something ridiculous and more with why so many people feel compelled to say up is down and left is right in defending him. I get why the racism stuff triggers the racialists—the IQ stuff is at least quantitatively motivated on its face. But the cancer thing—he said what he said and there’s no mistaking it. He’s not Jesus, he doesn’t have to be right for the double helix to be useful. Isn’t dispensing with the authority and the prophecy the whole point?

          It feels like there’s a tide of humorless “rationalists” who view science as an identity and doctrine rather than an epistemic process of eliminative search. The type who learned about Galileo and the Church and, instead of thinking “there should be no Papacy over truth”, thought “Galileo should have been the Pope.”

          Newton was an alchemist, Einstein disliked the Chinese, and Crick once argued seriously that DNA was more likely seeded deliberately by aliens than evolved terrestrially, making him, a stupid, bitch

          • Martha (Smith) says:

            “Somebody” said, “making him, a stupid, bitch”,

            Hey, if you’re going to use pejorative labels to describe someone, it behooves you to at least use gender appropriate or gender neutral ones.

          • einstein fan says:

            Einstein was a flaming racist by this blog standards, too.

            Regarding the Chinese, he said that they were “industrious, filthy, obtuse people” and “often more like automatons than people.” He wrote that China is a “peculiar herd-like nation” and that “It would be a pity if these Chinese supplant all other races. For the likes of us the mere thought is unspeakably dreary.”

            Not much appreciation for the Japanese either: “Intellectual needs of this nation seem to be weaker than their artistic ones — natural disposition?”

            Or the Egyptians: “Levantines of every shade… as if spewed from hell”

            Should we refer to him henceforth as “that racist dude” who dabbled a bit in physics as a hobby when not too busy working in the Bern patent office ? If not, why not ? Why would he be exempt from being called a racist and Watson is not ?

            • Andrew says:


              Of course Einstein is not “exempt from being called a racist.” You just did it right there!

              • einstein fan says:

                Well,I did not. Nice try, though.

                Neither Watson nor Einstein were “racist”.

              • somebody says:

                @einstein fan

                I’m really very curious about your position then. Do you think that claiming Chinese people are more like automatons than people is:

                1. Incorrect but not racist
                2. Not racist but correct

                It’d be fascinating someone who thinks I am in fact, not a person, but merely a complicated machine, decided to start a dialogue with me nonetheless. Did I just pass the Turing test?

            • Andrew says:


              I was thinking about his more, and I think there’s a difference between Einstein’s racism and Watson’s racism. I’m not saying either one was worse, just that they’re different. Both Einstein and Watson had causal racism. Watson seemed to talk about more than Einstein, and he very directly described his colleague Rosalind Franklin using racists and sexist slurs. Given that Watson is famous not just for his discoveries but also for writing a book about the experience, this seems pretty core to his public identity, more than that of Einstein whose racism seems more like a hobby.

              Again, I’m not saying that Watson was worse than Einstein, whatever that would mean, just that the two cases have some differences.

            • rm bloom says:

              The striking thing that struck me on first arrival in China years ago was indeed how industrious and how filthy it was. I remember the perfectly typical habit, the peanut shells we shucked right onto the floor; save some we’d leave on the table-cloth, making it easier to put out one’s cigarette butt right there. When the whole meal was done, along came a waiter, gathered up the four-corners of the table-cloth, arranged it like a knapsack and heaved it into a back corridor, to eventually be dealt with by the dishroom staff. And it wasn’t just eating out that we’d carry on like this — more or less the same at supper with my friends’ at home. My aunt Muriel who was an old pioneer (having ran away from home in ’48 and gone to Palestine to carry a rifle and cook for 150 people out in the desert someplace) spent a few months in China in the early ’80s. On their way out, the spent the overnight in Tokyo. My uncle heard her weeping behind the bathroom door. He went to see what was wrong. There she was on her hands and knees, weeping for no other way to express the sentiment, “My *god*! It’s so clean! It’s so spotlessly clean!” (Like Roddy MacDowell in the penultimate scene from The Legend of Hellhouse, “It’s *clear*! It’s *completely* *clear*!” — after which all hell breaks loose).

              • rm bloom says:

                I should have said “on first arrival in Beijing”. That is key.

              • somebody says:

                When my cousin from Taiwan came stateside for the first time and saw an American supermarket, her eyes went wide as dishplatters as she exclaimed “it’s so clean!” She quickly learned though that without the rows of fish tanks and boxes of crabs–and the smell of fish guts and wet floors that come with them–the quality of seafood goes way, way down.

            • somebody says:

              “by this blog standards”

              So, presumably, by your standards calling the Chinese “filthy, obtuse people” “more like automatons than people” is not racist???

              Anyhow, I have no problem calling Einstein racist. Einstein was, privately at least, very racist. I love him just the same. I was reading “The Foundations of General Relativity” earlier this week and was moved by his clear epistemological grounding and pedagogically motivated writing. I don’t need to lie to myself or twist myself in knots to appreciate some Einstein, I don’t need to do a historical revisionism, I appreciate him just as I appreciate many racists today. If you need Einstein to have never said or did anything wrong to believe in relativity, then it’s not science to you, it’s religion.

              • rm bloom says:

                Being myself of a sort of sour disposition, I discovered some years ago I understood much of the interesting psychological obiter-dicta in Schopenhauer. I said, now there’s an honest fellow, albeit truculent and no one I’d wish to spend too much time with. Sooner or later, as these things go, with the 19th century intelligentsia anyway, one comes to his remarks about “The Jews”. Well, it’s a bit hard for a jewish kid to sort that stuff out, let’s just say. I think I had the same trouble when I was quite young, with Dickens’ Oliver Twist (the frightful ‘Jew’ appears on nearly every other page and it’s ugly). And if you dig around a little you certainly find it in the wonderful Russian masters (who I don’t think are so wonderful anymore anyway). How do you sort it all out when you’re 9 years old? Of course Dickens is rather a sentimental fraud in many respects; and the Russian masters curse you for the very bread and butter you eat; so why worry about their occasional imprecations? I do not know. But there’s something to be said for the tedium and grind of mathematics: it might cool the tempers and keep the devil occupied with something less harmful than politics.

  9. MJ says:

    It is my steadfast belief that 100% of the people who defend racists and racist behavior are people who are afraid of being judged for their own racist thoughts and behavior.

    The “academic culture of fear” is an entirely made up phenomenon that exists to allow racists to feel persecuted. As a white male academic, I have never once felt afraid of the academic culture, because I don’t have racist thoughts or racist beliefs. And on the occasions in which I have expressed something offensive or insensitive (it happens!), I immediately apologize and make an concerted effort to learn and improve. The only repercussion I have ever experienced is humility and personal growth.

    The “academic freedom” argument is equally hollow. Everyone—even racists—are free to conduct research on whatever topic they want. But comments like those of Watson’s do not constitute research, they’re just dumb, speculative ramblings about something far beyond their area of expertise. Watson’s thoughts on race are no more supported by academic freedom than are my thoughts on medieval Icelandic philology. But the difference between people like Watson and myself is that Watson believes he is *entitled* to have his thoughts on race heard, whereas I wouldn’t dream of imposing my thoughts about philology on anyone.

    For better or worse, academics are perceived as authorities on all things. We all have the choice to abuse that authority by speaking authoritatively about subjects we know nothing about or to respect that authority by making measured comments about the subject matter about which we are intimately familiar. People who choose the former should be subjected to scorn and derision at every turn.

    The “shut up and listen” option is ALWAYS available. If you choose something else, your reasoning should be better than “I’m entitled to have my voice heard.” Academic freedom doesn’t exist to shield you when you’re being an asshole.

    • Anonymous says:

      As woke as your post sounded, it wasn’t woke enough. You are still showcasing some of the more ingrained aspects of white silence and white fragility. You need to shut up and listen some more because it’s pretty disgusting that you are denying your inherent racism as a white person. Reflect on this, and do better next time. /s

      • Ney says:

        Was this irony or was it sarcasm?

      • Those of my father’s generation who had emigrated to U.S. had experienced prejudice. I spent a fair amount of time listening to his experiences. Ironic in that he was in the company of academics who were central to the civil rights and interfaith circles in U.S. and England. I have to say though that the WASP academics played a helpful role in desegregation and in placing minorities in roles where they could have a voice. That effort extended to many minority communities.

    • Matt Skaggs says:

      “For better or worse, academics are perceived as authorities on all things”

      I also see that as an important aspect. Just like Lake Woebegone, there is a perception that all academics are above average, which provides an automatic imprimatur for offering opinions on subjects in which you have no expertise.

      Of course, we are also subject to the pontificating of folks like Curt Schilling and Clint Eastwood, so I can hardly focus on academics with this screed!

  10. paul alper says:

    Just to shed some light on the subject, the term, antisemitism, despite what most people assume, does not go back to antiquity. According to, prejudice against the Jewish race, was coined in 1879 (!):

    “The term anti-Semitism was first popularized by German journalist Wilhelm Marr in 1879 to describe hatred or hostility toward Jews.”

    Previous prejudice against Jews was religious based and called “anti-Judaism.” The distinction is important because the new term precludes purification via conversion to Christianity. Hence, the justification for annihilation.

  11. Oncodoc says:

    The thing about Jews and three-D thinking bothered me when I first read it. I thought of Jewish artists, but the ones that came to mind were Marc Chagall and Mark Rothko whose works were actually flat. Then I thought of Jewish scientists, and Richard Feynman came to mind, but he is most known for his diagrams that are clearly two-dimensional. I was wearing a bathrobe that my mother had sown at that time and had a eureka moment. Sewing starts with a flat piece of material and turns it into something that works in 3-D on the human form. My mother was obviously skilled in 3-D thinking! There’s lots of Jews in fasion; they are all 3-D thinkers! Those fat guys smearing marmalade on their toast in diners on Eighth Avenue were 3-D thinkers!
    I met Watson once when he spoke at a luncheon at an oncology conference. He sat at my table. He was a cold fish socially, quite nerdy, and this was what I expected. I’ve met one other Nobel laureate; I met E. Donall Thomas who was very pleasant.

    • rm bloom says:

      I met Feynman once and he had a remarkable talent: I was led to believe I understood his lecture. This state of belief lasted for the duration; but by the time I took three or four steps out of the building, I realized it had been an illusion. I understood nothing. A phenomenal illusionist! A Houdini he was!

    • Martha (Smith) says:

      Oncodoc said, “I was wearing a bathrobe that my mother had sown at that time and had a eureka moment. Sewing starts with a flat piece of material and turns it into something that works in 3-D on the human form. My mother was obviously skilled in 3-D thinking! “

      This brings back memories of when I worked one summer in the 1960’s as a “program assistant” in an Upward Bound program (a program designed to help prepare disadvantaged high school students for success in high school and improved preparation for college. It focused on math and English. The “program assistants” were college students who were math or English majors, and played a role vaguely like camp counselors.). As an incentive to enroll in the program, the students each got a weekly stipend. One girl in the group that I was program assistant for said that as soon as she got her first stipend, she was going to buy a pattern and the sewing materials to make herself some new clothes. She did so, and invited her classmates and me to come to a “cutting out the fabric from the pattern” party in her dorm room. As a math person, I realized that that was an activity very appropriate for helping someone develop the visualization skills important in math, so of course I attended her party. (As it happens, I had made myself a couple of sleeveless dresses to wear that summer, so she probably recognized that I was a sewer myself.) At the end of the summer, one of the directors of the program told me she was amazed at how well I (a very white girl) had such good rapport with the girls ( all Black except one Latina) in my group. I think was probably part of it (but I think that intertwined with the fact that I had gone to a high school that was about 1/3 black and was what is now called a magnet school, so I had known a lot of bright black kids. And also, my patrol at the Girl Scout Roundup had a couple of black girls in it. In college, I was surprised at how few black kids there were in my classes and in my dorm.)

  12. Renzo Alves says:

    IQ scores were originally intended to identify kids who needed special educational attention. Somewhat later it was used as a quick and dirty (rough)way to mass-sort people for general categories of jobs in the US military during the so-called First World War. IQ scores have been misused since then, based on my understanding of the historical literature. They aren’t precision instruments and it really isn’t clear what they represent, except possibly vague predictors of future (especially academic)performance.
    Lee Cronbach (of Cronbach’s alpha fame) has written about this issue (back when it was a hot issue, neither for the first nor the last time). His advice is for academics to stay out of politics. It isn’t their game and they can’t win.
    I am one of those who would prefer to read less name-calling and political emotionalism, but as Andrew Gelman says, it’s his blog and he can do what he wants.

    • Howard Gardner has done a nice job laying out the history of IQ testing. I recall that the book highlights its use as a criterion for government postings abroad during the reign of the British Empire.

      In my experience, it’s the quality of intellectual engagement in childhood. I base this on reading biographies of exceptional thinkers. It’s very rare to have to be exposed to it during childhood today. Unfortunately wealthier families have managed it.

      The wider problem is pedagogy in our K-12 educational system. I see this even more clearly now than I did 10 years ago. The thing is what to do about, given that there are so many special interests that guide it too. US Literacy scores hacw not budged much in last 10-15 years.

      I think that kids are under too much pressure to do well; especially in elites. There is a lot to be said for serendipity and solitariness in our learning. Enough of helicopter parenting.

  13. Zhou Fang says:

    > Besides racist is a entirely vague term now as it can include someone saying “All lives matter” or disagreeing with an African-American

    This is probably the point at which I’d have stopped reading.

    • KF says:

      I mean we live in a world where without irony people declare “objectivity” to be “white supremacist.” ( Based on the mainstreaming of this type of of activist “scholarship,” I think the position that the term “racism” hasn’t lost a whole ton of precision in untenable.

      • Curious says:


        It is not “objectivity” that has been declared “white supremacist” but “purported objectivity” where context is left out of the analysis entirely, either intentionally or unintentionally. If intentional, then the racism is overt, and if unintentional then it is implicitly grounded in an analytical process that avoids relevant context. It is the avoidance of context that is grounded in an attempt to defend the current structure of power.

      • Joshua says:

        > I think the position that the term “racism” hasn’t lost a whole ton of precision in untenable.

        What was the “precise” meaning of the term in the past, that was a ton clearer?

        Say in 1960 – what “precisely” did racism mean then?

    • Anonymous says:

      “Racist” has a clear modern meaning. It’s just watered down relative to the classical dictionary definition. According to modern usage, essentially everyone (or maybe every non-POC depending on whether racism against whites is considered racist) is racist. That racism usually just takes the form of unvoiced discriminatory thoughts. The vast majority of Americans probably have discriminatory thoughts about outgroup members, but those thoughts are just an inbuilt bias/reaction and don’t lead to actual discriminatory actions for the vast majority.

      • Joshua says:

        > . According to modern usage, essentially everyone (or maybe every non-POC depending on whether racism against whites is considered racist) is racist.

        Different people use the term differently. How have you determined which usage = “modern usage?”

        > That racism usually just takes the form of unvoiced discriminatory thoughts. The vast majority of Americans probably have discriminatory thoughts about outgroup members, but those thoughts are just an inbuilt bias/reaction and don’t lead to actual discriminatory actions for the vast majority.

        How do you determine how discriminatory thoughts translate into actions for “the vast majority” of people – assuming that you think that actions can be discriminatory even if they fall short of something like not allowing someone to ride in the front of a bus?

        • rm bloom says:

          You have to be privy to the evil that lurks in the hearts of men. That was once the prerogative of the high church and the confessional. With the reformation, it became *everyone’s* damn business!

        • Anonymous says:


          Any current usage is modern usage. Of course, it is helpful of there is some similarity between how people use words, for obvious reasons.

          I don’t determine anything about how thoughts translate to action. I simply claim that most people think discriminatory thoughts, and do so in a fleeting way such that these thoughts don’t affect how they treat people in actual inter-personal interactions.

          • Joshua says:

            Anon –

            > and do so in a fleeting way such that these thoughts don’t affect how they treat people in actual inter-personal interactions.

            How do you determine this? Sure, NOT ALL biased attitudes translate into discriminatory actions but discriminatory thoughts affect actions in myriad ways. Just because someone doesn’t lynch someone else doesn’t mean their bigoted thoughts don’t affect their actions.

            • Anonymous says:

              I’m just making a claim. I’m not saying it’s confirmed by research. You can believe otherwise or explain to me why on likely wrong or other.

              • Joshua says:

                OK. Maybe you could have qualified with an “I think” or two.

                I highly doubt you are correct. For one, it just seems implausible to me that biased thoughts don’t affect actions. Biases obviously affect how people interact. I certainly know that my biased thinking affects my actions – at least in subtle ways.

                Second, sure there’s tons o’ empirical evidence that bias plays out in contexts like hiring situations.

              • Anonymous says:


                Of course biased thoughts affect actions. My claim is not contradicting that general statement. I am saying that the effect for individual thoughts is small. A single racist thought by your average white American rarely translates to racist action with a real physical effect. Institutional racism can even have little to do with actual individual racial bias but only the aggregate of many biases — and most individuals have very little effect (save for, say, police, judges, prosecutors, human resources personnel, etc — much research on that). Joe Schmoe construction worker Trump voter may be racist but doesn’t refuse to tip black restaurant workers, and probably treats them with dignity keeping his thoughts to himself. Of course the opposite does happen (and maybe a little more frequently now than 10 years ago), but it is RARE. I don’t know of any research quantifying this, but I suspect that I am correct.

          • Joshua says:

            > Any current usage is modern usage.

            But you are equating “modern usage” to just one of many current usages (to make a political point)

            • Anonymous says:

              No, I’m just saying it is indeed a popular modern usage (e.g. with many on the left of the political spectrum). And it is a valid usage regardless of what dictionaries say. Dictionaries are even starting to adapt to definitions that could be construed to mean that any slight discriminatory thought is indeed racist.

              Either way, any reasonable person can see that racial bias can be slight or severe and that most people in the US are going to be closer to the slight category with a historical population level shift away from the severe category.

              Again, I am just saying things here, not claiming to be an authority or to have research and data to back it up. You are free to believe otherwise or argue why I’m wrong etc.

    • Andrew says:

      Zhou, Kf, Curious, Anon:

      This is all interesting, but in the case of Watson we have the specific racist things he actually said, which was not “All lives matter” or disagreeing with an African-American or unvoiced discriminatory thoughts.

    • Other Anonymous says:

      Ah yes, I’m so very a glad a noted white nationalist and ableist who leans heavily on IQ as a way to discriminate against immigrants and refugees has collected resources critical of Taleb’s critique.

  14. Renzo Alves says:

    Absolutely straight on. I don’t know what any particular speaker means by whatever word(s) he, she, s/he, they, or it, or other preferred pronoun, is or are using, unless he, she, s/he, it, they or other pronoun, provide or provides a clear meaning, definition, which doesn’t usually happen in emotional political discourse)but I’m definitely against everything, just in case it might be wrong, offensive, micro-aggressive,or unacceptable in any way to any individual or group. Conversely I support everything that is true and just and doesn’t offend anyone in any way. I hope I don’t offend anyone by saying the above. If so I retract it and mean the opposite. All I’m trying to say is that I agree that is important the we attack people who say unacceptable things. Unless you disagree with me, in which case I don’t.

    • Joshua says:

      I never bother worrying about whether anything I say might be in any way offensive to anyone because I can’t be perfectly sure that no one might be offended by anything I might say. So therefore I can be as offensive as I like and then call myself a victim of political correctness if anyone might criticize me because they’re offended by anything I might say.

      • Joshua says:

        In fact I go out of my way to be as offensive as possible to as many people as possible because then I can maximize my chances to whine that I’m a victim if anyone gets offended, and nothing feels more righteous than being a victim.

        • redneck physicist says:

          if I were to go for the converse of what Renzo said (which is what you seem to intend, Joshua), I wouldn’t write that.

          I would write “I only say what is objectively correct according to a fixed value system/set of definitions”.

          After all, his post is from the perspective of a character who has no such system.

          Perhaps I think too highly of him, but I didn’t get a “I’m a victim” vibe from Renzo, lol.

          • redneck physicist says:

            oopsie, meant inverse :)

          • Joshua says:

            RP –

            Fair point.

            That said, I didn’t mean to characterize Renzo as an “I’m a victim”-er, but to make the point that often I see parodies similar to one he made, being made (unintentionally) ironically by people who position themselves as victims of political correctness (even though they generally reside in groups that have disproportionate agency to shape their own life trajectory, as they have had pretty much always had).

            Renzo has a point, but in the full context, or should I say when I see it being made divorced of any context, I get kinda triggered.

  15. John says:

    but what if what he said was correct? Can something be racist and correct? And if the latter is true, should we enforce social punishment for making true observations, in relevant contexts?

  16. Expert says:

    A typical case of academics rejecting “controversial” (but the most accurate, given all available data) conclusions because of potential distasteful reactions upon acceptance of them. No one serious actually, truely believes that Aboriginals and Icelandics have the exact same intelligence, however you’d like to define the term.

    Is it possible that these differences are meaningless and more or less irrelevant? Sure, but there is zero possible academic discussion allowed without severe social consequences, which is concerning given that the majority of psychological experts when polled agree that the genetic component of IQ (which correlates greatly with income / SES success) is greater than 50%.

    • Andrew says:

      John, Expert:

      It’s a free country. James Watson, David Duke, etc. are free to come out publicly in favor of antisemitism and racial stereotypes, and the rest of us are free to draw the conclusions we’d like from that choice that they’ve made.

    • Curious says:


      At the end of the day, the most well reasoned arguments win and Borsboom’s arguments about intelligence on the one hand and IQ tests on the other are the most well reasoned I’ve come across. If you are really interested in reading further start with the papers pasted below.

      Kievit, R.A., van Rooijen, H., Wicherts, J.M., Kan, K.J., Waldorp, L.J., Scholte & Borsboom, D. (2012). Intelligence and the brain: A model-based approach. Cognitive Neuroscience, 3, 89-97.

      Van der Maas, H.L.J., Kan, K. -J., & Borsboom, D. (2014). Intelligence is what the intelligence test measures. Seriously. Journal of Intelligence, 2, 12–15.

      Penke, L., Borsboom, D., Johnson, W., Kievit, R.A., Ploeger, A., & Wicherts, J.M. (2011). Evolutionary psychology and intelligence research cannot be integrated the way Kanazawa (2010) suggested. American Psychologist, 66, 916-917.

      Wicherts, J.M., Borsboom, D., & Dolan, C.V. (2009). Why national IQs do not support evolutionary theories of intelligence. Personality and Individual Differences, 48, 91-96.

      Borsboom, D., & Dolan, C.V. (2006). Why g is not an adaptation: A comment on Kanazawa. Psychological Review, 113, 433-437. This is a comment on Satoshi Kanazawa’s (2004) paper on general intelligence.

      Borsboom, D., & Mellenbergh, G.J. (2002). True scores, latent variables, and constructs: A comment on Schmidt and Hunter. Intelligence, 30, 505-514. This is a comment on a paper by Schmidt and Hunter.

  17. Poincare says:

    I think now we’re in a terrible situation where we should pay the rich people to have children. If we don’t encourage procreation of wealthier citizens, IQ levels will most definitely fall.”

    I mean, c’mon, Prof. Gelman. Really. What in the Sam Hill is “racist” about this?

    Surely you’re familiar with the work of Gregory Clark.
    Or the evidence of dysgenic selection for IQ in Iceland.

    If intelligence is heritable and positively correlated with wealth, but reproductively uncompetitive, well, by golly, it stands to good reason that Watson might have a point!

    I really fail to understand where you come off thinking “racist” is even an appropriate or meaningful response. It’s not even wrong! Is Maxwell’s theory of Electromagnetism fat? Who the Hell cares if it’s racist. Is is right?! That’s your concern.

    This bizarre, pernicious, moralizing social contagion infecting the minds of liberal academics inevitably results in the suppression of true but inconvenient facts.

    • Andrew says:


      We should care about public figures being racist for the same reason we should care about them being authoritarian communists. These are ideologies that have been used to enslave and kill many millions of people. You, James Watson, and David Duke might believe it’s “true” that anti-Semitism is justified, Africans are unintelligent, Indians are servile, etc. Fine. But don’t kid yourself that it’s not “meaningful” to label eugenics as racist. You might not care, but there’s a reason why people do.

      • Poincare says:

        Dear Lord, I am Jewish; stubbornly philosemitic; and a Zionist to boot!
        The idea that I’m anti-Semitic would come as a surprise to my Rabbi and family.

        I have no problem caring about real, virulent, overt racism — the sort of thing that *actually* enslaves and kills people. But it applies to moral propositions (or people and their hateful motivations); not strictly empirical claims like temperature or measured psychometric IQ.

        My contention was not that it wasn’t possibly meaningful to label eugenics as racist — that there aren’t indeed racist eugenic applications or racist eugenicists. Rather that it’s incidental and not substantially much less essentially what eugenics is about at all.

        Do you for even a moment appreciate the crazy cognitive dissonance of bemoaning eugenics while being choosy about whom you marry? Getting genetic counseling before having children?

        Eugenics is why we *violently* enforce a prohibition on sibling marriage. If you don’t favor eugenics, well, then you favor dysgenics.

        Eugenics is why when people go to sperm banks or solicit egg donors, they *discriminate* against any number of physical and psychological maladies. It’s why they advertise in Ivy League student newspapers for youthful, tall, smart, and healthy
        egg donors.

        Or, most outrageously, what about selective abortion — of, say, Down’s babies?
        Why isn’t all this bemoaned by liberals as eugenics?
        Seems to me we all uncontroversially practice eugenics implicitly and explicitly in thousands of ways.

        And, again, I’d love to know what any of it necessarily has do with racism?

        Eugenic science has had, of course, genuinely racist and malevolent particular applications. But the great evolutionary theorist Bill Hamilton, for example, made it abundantly clear that the basic lessons of eugenics are incontrovertible and we ignore them at our peril.

        Neither are races some angelic category necessarily immune from critical description.

        If you can morally believe individuals are different — variously unintelligent or servile or whatever (and doubtless many are!)– there’s no reason it’s necessarily immoral to believe collections of related individuals like families, tribes, or races couldn’t be as well.

        The idea that Africans might be less intelligent than Europeans, has no more moral import than the fact that I am most assuredly the intellectual inferior of Noam Elkies, ok? It doesn’t suddenly become permissible to murder me because I’m less bright. Any more than it’s kosher for me to abuse mentally handicapped children — which is incidentally about where I stand cognitively relative to Noam.

        • Carlos Ungil says:

          One of those “Watson in his own words” quotes (in the list that Andrew linked to) is “If we knew our son would develop schizophrenia, we wouldn’t have had him.” Doesn’t seem so different from the mainstream eugenics thinking and practice in modern society but if Watson said it it must be very bad.

        • gec says:

          This post is too long. I need to get back to sneezing on students to spread my bizarre, pernicious, moralizing social contagion.

        • Curious says:


          You want to divorce morality from your generalizations that measures intended and structured to assess individual differences can be correctly and without fallacy be extended to groups based simply on the existence of calculated differences in the estimate of the average score and grounded in the assumptions of a historical method of science that cannot be experimentally tested.

          I don’t think you can, but for the sake of discussion, let’s. We can focus instead on the analysis and inference extending from beliefs that continue to be proselytized despite being unsupported by the quality and imprecision of available data. There exists far more uncertainty in the genetics of behavioral traits and the epigenetics of environmental pressures than there is of the genetics of opposable thumbs.

          If we focus on enslavement, and we adopt the sloppy inferential methods you seem to favor, one could argue that increased levels of sociopathy, psychopathy, & laziness among caucasians have resulted in the prevalence of enslavement as a source of cheap labor among predominately white nations.

          And finally, while you may believe that we all engage in eugenics based on the possibilities genetic science provides wanting or expecting parents, I believe you would find that the percentage of people who actually agree with those things is far lower than you assert and that the decisions made far more difficult and agonizing for most who do.

        • einstein fan says:

          “Dear Lord, I am Jewish; stubbornly philosemitic; “

          No doubt you are racist, by the standard of this blog, because being “stubbornly philosemetic” automatically makes you culpable, and not only of racism, for obvious reasons. As does me.

    • Curious says:


      I encourage you to read this article:

      The Paradox of Intelligence: Heritability and Malleability Coexist in Hidden Gene-Environment Interplay
      Bruno Sauce and Louis D. Matzel

      • Anonymous says:


        The underlying assumption in that paper is still that there is a real genetic component to intelligence though. Their overall point is simply that the heritability estimate can lead one to overestimate the contribution of genes alone to intelligence at the individual level and overall to the variability in the population. There are also problems with their arguments (as is to be expected, just like there are problems with the positions they argue against), but I’ll leave it at that as I don’t feel like making a list. It’s a very good paper though! I look forward to seeing their model play out with data.

        • Curious says:


          The point I am trying to convey is that the argument made by Poincare is both lazy and wrong.

          1. Some genetic variation with a score.
          2. Modest correlation between score and an outcome.
          3. THEREFORE, we should devise policy to induce procreation in those high on the outcome variable.

          A far more realistic position is that the resources that would have been used and from which the children of those high on the outcome variable will now be used by other children, some of which will be in similar positions on the score distribution. The causal argument made by Watson and his defenders here is far stronger than is reasonable when the underlying assumptions are identified, explicated, and challenged.

          • Anonymous says:


            1. Some genetic covariation with a score.

          • Poincare says:

            Thank you for the paper.

            1) Look, I’m completely happy with smart, informed, courteous criticism of Watson’s ideas.
            Reasoned argument, even empirical falsification is to be welcomed and encouraged.

            My point, however, is that it be just that. Many seem to be under the delusion that there’s actually
            disagreement with their political bromides about the wrongness of racism. Sadly, this is erroneous.

            So pointing and sputtering about “racism” is really unhelpful and senseless in this instance.
            People act as if racism would suddenly become good if Watson’s empirical premises were confirmed.

            I don’t believe that is the case! That is the most absolutely monstrous, “dangerous” belief of all: that the evil of racism somehow hinges on this or that undecided, purely contingent scientific question. There exist many possible worlds were races differ in cognitive aptitude. While Watson may or may not be right, racism is never right.

            It’s an utterly outrageous implicit premise.

            2) My chief argument was against sloppily referring to eugenics as racist when it encompasses innumerable sensible, even morally imperative precepts like opposing incest. And as eugenics goes, the lessons remain the same regardless of race. You might call eugenics ableist or classist or whatever. But, as there are plenty of wealthy and intelligent blacks, eugenic considerations favor them, too.

            3) As to your three points: I think you may misunderstand the point. Obviously a policy based solely on wealth would be a extremely blunt, imprecise, and unjust. I very much doubt Watson had this in mind. Rather I think he’s pointing out the general truth that to the extent there is any positive correlation btwn genetic IQ and income, whatever policy you do end up enacting will relatively favor those with higher income. So if you’re policy doesn’t favor those with higher income, it’s a sign something is going wrong. There’s a huge difference in blindly favoring the procreation people just because their rich, and instead encouraging people with high SAT scores to have children. But in both instances you’re going to end up disproportionately favoring the rich.

            The corollary is that if your policies currently encourage the relative increase of the poor, and there is a negative correlation btwn wealth and IQ (a positive relationship btwn poverty and low IQ), well, then you’re in a dysgenic regime. This is Watson’s point. So Watson is probably saying we’re encouraging the relative increase of the economic bottom of society. On average they have lower genotypic IQ (and host of other dysgenics). If they’re increasing at a greater rate than those with higher genotypic IQ, you’re going to have a population that gets dumber (or crazier, more violent, infertile, sicker, etc) over time.

            It’s more than just positive selection (you say: “devise policy to induce procreation in those high on the outcome variable”); it’s negative selection. It’s as much about encouraging tiny fraction of smart people as it is about not encouraging the dumber, violent, etc to relatively outbreed.

            You must account for the fact that already existing policies induce procreation in a vastly more numerous population of those who score low on important outcomes variables — be they IQ, physical or mental health. When your large bottom is trebling and your tiny top is halving, you have a problem.

            Society cannot tolerate a doubling in the rate of sickle cell, schizophrenia, major depression, alcoholism or imbecility. Dysgenic trends can catastrophically and extremely swiftly impair the functioning of a population. Dysgenic breeding creates costly problems in large, exponentially growing populations that will swamp all else. Billions of years of (eugenic) evolution can be nullified in a few generations. Our high-technological society is quite fragile and kept afloat by relatively few, highly specialized people.

            • Curious says:

              This is where both you and Watson go off the rails inferentially:

              “The corollary is that if your policies currently encourage the relative increase of the poor, and there is a negative correlation btwn wealth and IQ (a positive relationship btwn poverty and low IQ), well, then you’re in a dysgenic regime.”

              A positive correlation between IQ and wealth DOES NOT MEAN there is a causal law by which these two variables are inextricably intertwined such that a manipulated increase in IQ score will result in a linear increase in wealth.

              • Curious says:

                The point you seem to be missing is how much variation is the result of environment*genetics and how your analysis is grounded in the historical error that greatly overestimated the genetic component as an exclusive cause.

              • Curious says:

                Eugenics as promoted by those we are discussing was in fact racist. Genetic research is not necessarily. The desire to maintain the label eugenics seems odd given the history of the movement unless one is in fact racist.