October 21, 2007


From Michael Loughlin:

Re: Nobel scientist suspended from job over race comments (Oct. 18): This is really well worn and stupid stuff. Watson refers to ‘testing’ but you know very well that an empirical test has only as much validity as the conceptual assumptions that frame it, and the assumptions behind the tests Watson and his supporters refer to have been comprehensively discredited. If you accept the methodology of the ducking stool then you can ‘prove’ that many people were really witches, but the associated conceptual framework has for so long been discredited that one simply has to question the motives of anyone wanting to revive it.

Watson and his supporters like Gottfredson are clearly racists. Their conclusions conflict with the experience of any reasonably well travelled person. When one thinks of all the white Europeans one knows, and all of the Africans one knows, it is just plain obvious that there is no systematic difference in intelligence based on race, where ‘intelligence’ is defined in any credible way, eg in terms of the ability to comprehend and formulate logically valid arguments. Any ‘test’ that causes us to question this undermines its own credibility and invites us to look at the assumptions behind it, just as Zeno’s paradoxes, which purport to ‘refute’ our common experience of motion and change should lead us not to question the reality of motion and change but to look critically at the assumptions that generate the paradoxes. (Here is my ‘intelligence test’: anyone who fails to grasp this basic point about the status of such tests has failed a fundamental test of intelligence, however many letters s/he may have after his/her name.)

Dr Michael Loughlin
Reader in Applied Philosophy
Department of Interdisciplinary Studies
MMU Cheshire


Following are additional com­ments on this ent­ry. Type your own in­to the space right of the first one.

3 Comments:

Anonymous motherofjehu said...

Finally a voice of reason.

October 25, 2007 6:04 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ignoring the politically and ideologically-based umbrage that have accrued around this issue (which are just as misplaced as the comments reputedly issued by the Nobel scientist, if not more) -- the question is no different than any other question science might pose.

As such, like any other scientific query, the terms involved must be precisely defined. This is the actual problem. First, there is no such thing as a definition of intelligence, nor any measure of it. Both of these are fundamental open problems of the field of Artificial Intelligence and can only be resolved there, and only then when it has actually been implemented. Even then, there will still be the issue of whether what's been implemented actually corresponds to what we call intelligence!

Second, to address the question of intelligence with respect to people of a certain kind requires actually defining what people we're actually speaking of. What measure of Africanness or blackness is used for this hypothesis, for instance? Are we speaking of specific segments of the DNA?

We already know that SOME segments of DNA underlie whatever it is that goes under the attribution of "intelligence", however it may be defined. So, the underlying question is, which segments, where are they, and how are they distributed in the primate population at large (as well as in other species)?

This is not as trivial as it may seem. The emergence of intelligence is not a one-time-only affair. The DNA markers expressing the semblance of intelligence may be found in many places, rather than on just one, and along separate lines of evolutioary descent.

For instance, it is known that bird songs can exhibit centrally embedded recursion, which is a characteristic property of type 2 languages in the Chomsky hierarchy -- formerly thought to have been unique to humans. Birds and primates can exhibit tool-using behavior, even to the extent of being able to improvise and fashion tools suited for a given purpose. These are separate lines of evolutionary descent, we're speaking of.

So, the task of resolving the question will not be easy by any account; neither by way of defining intelligence, nor by way of identifying its DNA markers.

November 01, 2007 8:47 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is, in fact, how the issue has fared out, so far, by various readers (as of November 1) in the World Science Poll http://www.world-science.net/surveys/watson-survey.htm

This gives you a better idea on what the greater weight of consensus appears to lie. The most troubling aspect (as reflected in the consensus) is that this simply partisan bum's rushing and railroading of people over their opinions is but a part a larger phenomenon that has seen, for instance, ranging from the Dixie Chicks in the US virtually blacklisted (spurred on mostly from the partisan Right), to calls (spurred mostly on by the partisan Left) for banning certain kinds of speech outright in the US following racist comments by Richardson and comments by Imus.

The partisan extremes have simply gone awry -- not just in the US where we have seen a radical polarization from the eve of the 2000 election onward, but in Mexico, Germany (which nearly went without a government for a while), Palestine, Pakistan, Iraq, China (where there are riots out in the country side while conservatives and liberals in the Communist party have gone into divorce), France, Italy, Israel (where Sharon even resorted to trying to start a third party to get out from under the partisan polarization before he suffered a stroke).

This is the larger problem we are facing, that this latest bru-ha-ha is just an outcropping of, and the larger issue that these discussions actually speak to, under the cloak of the particular question being addressed here.

My opinions are squarely in line with the majority on each question, especially that relating to free speech. To clarify on the first: in an earlier reply I cited that such questions are always legitimate scientific questions to ask, and that the umbrage that might be taken over their mere posing is the actual menace and villain here. However, the well-definedness of such a question is in doubt since there is no such thing as a definition of intelligence nor any measure of it.

Watson's claim is
372 55% Legitimate Opinion
195 29% Racism
106 16% Don't know/other votes

London Science Museum's cancellation appropriate?
145 25% Yes
414 71% No
26 4% Don't know/other votes

Cold Spring Harbor's suspension appropriate?
Was Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory 130 22% Yes
428 72% No
37 6% Don't know/other votes

Will this put a chill on scientists' free speech?
416 70% Yes, and that troubles me
49 8% Yes, but only for racists
113 19% No
14 2% Don't know/other votes

Leave Watson alone?
299 52% He did nothing wrong
100 17% He's been punished enough already
97 17% He deserves everything he's getting
83 14% Don't know/other votes

Are you a scientist
300 54% Yes
260 46% No

November 01, 2007 9:28 AM  

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