To revisit this passage from Laura Helmuth’s critique of James Watson:
It is a fundamental misunderstanding of how science works for him to think that his expertise at one level of analysis—a molecular level—predicts anything at a higher level of analysis. The structure of DNA does not predict the workings of a cell, which does not predict the shape of a body, which does not predict the characteristics of a culture.
Helmuth is absolutely correct on this point. I only wish she had applied this analysis to her own writing on creationists. Last year Helmuth endorsed the strange idea that Virginia Heffernan’s “dedication to facts” should be questioned just because she’s a creationist. But Helmuth commits the same error she accuses Watson of: confusing different levels of analysis. It’s true that you can’t cannot make broad cultural generalizations based on a molecular analysis. But it’s equally true you cannot make broad intellectual generalizations based on an individual belief. There are at least a few levels of analysis when it comes to evolution, creationism, and creationists:
- What is the best scientific evidence for life on Earth?
- Are there any differences in cognitive ability for people who say they believe in evolution vs. those who say they do not?
- Does believing or not believing evolution affect your ability to perform other cognitive tasks?
- What is there any actual harm, either to individuals or society, if people don’t believe in evolution?
- And so on…
If Helmuth wants the public to understand that scientists like Watson have a limited range of expertise, that we shouldn’t blindly trust them, and that science is complicated and must be analyzed on different levels, then she should embrace that stance in her own writing. But since so few scientists (or science writers) do so, it seems harder to criticize Watson.