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Thursday, October 25, 2007

Science News Roundup: Gay Worms Arrive; Biology Legend Ousted as Chancellor after Racist Comments

Usually my science geek nature is unhelpful to my blogging.  But in the past few days, a science news site I read, PhysOrg, posted two stories arguably of interest to a legal audience.  At first glance, the two stories have little in common, but both touch upon difficult issues of which traits are socially determined and which are based in biochemistry.

Scientists Make Worms Gay:   "University of Utah biologists genetically manipulated ... worms so the[y] ... were attracted to worms of the same sex – part of a study that shows sexual orientation is wired in the creatures’ brains."  A few comments:

(1)  Worms aren't people, but this is some evidence sexual orientation is can result from biochemistry and isn't just a "lifestyle choice"; the worms didn't fall prey to the glamorous gay worm lifestyle Hollywood portrays.

(2)  Before gay rights advocates get too excited about this as evidence that gayness is biochemical rather than chosen: how long before we can turn gay worms straight -- and what would that do for the cause of gay rights?

(3)  This study was funded by tax dollars in Utah, one of the reddest, most socially conservative states; if it were a New York public university, wouldn't you expect, say, Mitt Romney to bash this study just like John McCain (correctly, in my view) bashed New York politicians' efforts to spend tax money on a "Woodstock museum"?

Nobel Laureate & DNA Discoverer James Watson Forced Out After Racist Comments:  "[T]he Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Board of Trustees decided to suspend the administrative responsibilities of Chancellor James D. Watson, Ph.D."  Dr. Watson, who won the Nobel Prize for co-discovering DNA, found himself in hot water for the following:

[T]he Sunday Times Magazine of London . . . quoted him as saying that he's "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."   He said that while he hopes everyone is equal, "people who have to deal with black employees find this is not true."

Before you call the PC cops who fight unfair firings of those who dissent from PC orthodoxy: I can be sympathetic to arguments that one bad remark shouldn't end your career, and Wats0n did apologzie for the above remark -- but he has a broader history of the same sorts of stereotypical negative assertions about the genetic mental and emotional traits of nonwhites, so the only real question is how he lasted so long in a leadship role at a major scientific institution:

In short, Watson isn't Larry Summers, a leader jettisoned for one isolated remark; his immense contributions to humanity -- it'd be hard to overstate how many lives have been, and will be, saved by scientific understanding of DNA -- are, sadly, at risk of getting overshadowed by his troublingly stereotypical harsh views of nonwhites.  In that light, firing Dr. Watson was a kindness that might help save his impressive legacy from some darker aspects of his nature.

Posted by Scott on October 25, 2007 at 05:09 PM | Permalink


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Scott, I believe that the reason Watson was able to remain a director of a major scientific institution for so long is that, as I read yesterday, he transformed a little-known lab that no one has ever heard of into a major scientific institution.

Posted by: Marianna Moss | Oct 26, 2007 3:22:26 PM

Yes, Watson should go. I agree w/ you on that.

However, it is amazing to me how many otherwise smart people completely misinterpreted Summers's remark as if he was saying that women are somehow genetically inferior. He said no such thing. What he in fact said -- and this is a rather elementary point, thus adding to my amazement -- was that *on average* there are more male geniuses (per their IQ) than woman geniuses, just as there are more males that are have severely below-average IQs (below 70). I believe he also pointed out that men, again, on average, score higher on visio-spatial test, while women, on average, score higher on verbal tests.

This is simple a matter of understanding statistics, or, more accurately, misunderstanding statistics.

Summers's presentation is available online http://www.nber.org/~sewp/events/2005.01.14/Agenda-1-14-05-WEB.htm

Posted by: Calvin TerBeek | Oct 25, 2007 5:52:47 PM

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