Won a Nobel? Go Nuts!

Posted by Philip Yam, October 19, 2007

As a long-time science journalist, I have learned to take what James Watson says with a grain of salt. Even so, I was caught off guard by the outrageousness of his latest words. Watson gets all the kudos for his genetics work, and his discovery with Francis Crick of the double-helical structure of DNA unquestionably deserved the Nobel Prize. But maybe that's what's wrong.

For most research scientists, winning the Nobel Prize stands as the pinnacle of success, the ultimate goal that takes intelligence, dedication, luck and ambition (and don't be fat, Watson would say, because fat folks are not ambitious). Once the king of Sweden drapes that medal around your neck, life is good—people want to hear you speak, offer you prestigious positions and are more inclined to give you what you want.

To their credit, some scientists take the opportunity to tackle very “out there” research. Soon after he won his 1995 Nobel in Physics, Martin Perl launched a project to find “free quarks.” Conventional thinking says there can be no such things—quarks must remain bound in the particles in which they build—but some scientists speculate that some quarks might have been left over during the big bang. Perl recognized the long-shot odds of finding these quarks, but it was a project he could do because of his Nobel. A graduate student would be committing career suicide.

Other researchers run from the glory. Brian Josephson, who discovered the quantum effect in which superconducting electrons could jump across a narrow barrier, went off to study mysticism and psychic phenomena. (His problems, though, may run deeper; not many people would choose Taco Bell for a [free] lunch meeting.)

After the wacky things James Watson has uttered over the past decades—on women, homosexuals and the obese, to name a few—now comes his decision to join hands with the transistor-developing, eugenics-advocating, sperm-donating William Shockley, who, I recall, blamed his wife's genes for his kids being less than genius. As a geneticist, Watson arguably has better credentials to rant about race and IQ than Shockley. But that still doesn't make him an expert on IQ studies. It's true that blacks have historically scored 15 points lower than whites on IQs. What's been debated endlessly is how much is tied to heredity and how much to environment. Intelligence researchers such as James Flynn have found that IQ can change over time, suggesting a strong environmental influence. Others, such as Philippe Rushton and Linda Gottfredson, say the data are at least as consistent with hereditarian arguments as they are with environmental ones. I don't want to get into a whole discussion about IQ again—we've covered it a lot in this magazine (see, for instance, “Unsettled Scores” [February 2007] and our Intelligence special issue [Scientific American Presents, Winter 1999]). But while I'm at it, one question I have for the hereditarians: How do you separate genetic explanations from womb conditions—a crucial environmental factor?

Without having mucked around in the morass that is IQ research, Watson can at best be only a casual observer. He's reportedly dim about the prospects of Africa because of that continent's lower intelligence test scores. What—cultural conflicts, religious attitudes and greed are less important? That's hard to justify when you look at what's going on in different parts of the world right now.

Yet because of his Nobel and past accomplishments as a geneticist, Watson's words take on added meaning and weight beyond what they deserve. Winning the Nobel grants a great deal of power. Too bad Watson didn't channel Stan Lee and recognize that with great power comes great responsibility.