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Last week James Watson, one of the scientists involved in the discovery of DNA's double helix structure, made some very racist remarks. Basically, he said current policies for African aid were pointless because they are based on the assumption that Africans have the same intelligence that we do, which they do not. Naturally, this caused an uproar, leading to his resignation today from the lab that he lead.

In one way, it's very disappointing to see a renowned scientist behave in such a way. It's hard to imagine how a scientist could look at studies that do show that and think that it's because of African's natural capacities. Of course, the problem is lack of proper nutrition and education in many places combined with the fact that IQ tests are well known to be biased towards certain cultures. Dr. Suzette Hagin has frequently worried about what poor nutrition does to the intellectual development of poor children in this country and, as a linguist, what would be the best way to inform people of the consequences without causing defensiveness. If it's a real problem here, of course it's a problem in parts of Africa where people starve to death.

On the other hand, Dr. Watson's mistake is also very humanizing. While it's not an excuse, given that he's nearly 80, it seems likely that some of his views come from the time he was raised during. Also, scientists are not unbiased. Much as anyone, scientist or not, might try to be, it's impossible. We are all influenced by our backgrounds, our education, the people we associate with, the part of the country we live in, and on and on. That fact is not reason to dismiss any scientific hypothesis or theory a person might disagree with, but in cases like this, it is important to remember that nobody is perfect and their behavior at times will reflect that.

October 2012

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