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James Watson's Views on Race Have Not Changed

In a new documentary set to air on PBS this week, James Watson makes it clear that his views on the relationship between race and intelligence have not changed, reports the New York Times.

It was in 2007 that Watson earned widespread condemnation and was forced to retire from his job as chancellor of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory after he told a journalist that he was "inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa" because "all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours, whereas all the testing says, not really." According to the Times, he then added that although he wished everyone were equal, "people who have to deal with black employees find this not true."

He later apologized, and has suggested both that he was being a provocateur and that he didn't realize the comments were on the record.


However, in the new documentary "American Masters: Decoding Watson," when asked if his views have changed, Watson replies on camera, "No, not at all. I would like for them to have changed, that there be new knowledge that says that your nurture is much more important than nature. But I haven't seen any knowledge. And there's a difference on the average between blacks and whites on I.Q. tests. I would say the difference is, it's genetic."

Watson adds that he takes no pleasure in the difference between the races, the Times reports. "It's awful, just like it's awful for schizophrenics," he says. "If the difference exists, we have to ask ourselves, how can we try and make it better?" The Times also notes that Watson's son Rufus was diagnosed in his teens with schizophrenia. 

These new remarks are likely to set off a new round of criticism, the article says. In response to questions from the Times, Francis Collins said that most experts on intelligence "consider any black-white differences in I.Q. testing to arise primarily from environmental, not genetic, differences." He also called Watson's statements "profoundly unfortunate," noting disappointment that such an accomplished scientist would be "perpetuating such scientifically unsupported and hurtful beliefs."

Other researchers who spoke to the Times noted that Watson's remarks are noteworthy because they signify that ingrained racial biases are on a collision course with advances in genetics that are allowing researchers to explore the genetic underpinnings of behavior and cognition.
"It's not an old story of an old guy with old views," Andrea Morris, the director of career development at Rockefeller University, who served as a scientific consultant for the documentary, tells the Times. As an African-American scientist, she adds, "I would like to think that he has the minority view on who can do science and what a scientist should look like. But to me, it feels very current."
The University of Washington's Mary-Claire King, who knows Watson well and is not in the film, tells the Times that his views on race were likely shaped by the racially homogeneous culture of science. "If he knew African Americans as colleagues at all levels, his present view would be impossible to sustain," she adds.

If that is the case, the Times says, combating prejudice in biomedical research will be much harder than it seems. African Americans represent only 1.5 percent of grant applications to the NIH and biases in hiring by medical school science departments have been well documented in the past, the article adds.

"It's easy to say, 'I'm not Watson,'" Kenneth Gibbs, a researcher at the NIH who studies racial disparities in science, tells the Times. "But one should really be asking himself or herself, 'What am I doing to ensure our campus environments are supporting scientists from backgrounds that are not there?'"