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19 October 2007

Their views may be offensive, but trying to silence Martin Amis and James Watson's religion and race comments is even more so

The science Museum has just made a fool of itself. In fact, it has done worse.

In cancelling an invitation to the Nobel Prize winner Professor Sir James Watson because it regards his recently expressed view on racial differences in intelligence as "beyond the point of acceptable debate", it has chosen censorship over open scientific discourse, thus betraying everything for which it is supposed to stand.

We are used to attacks on freedom of speech these days. At present Martin Amis is coming under heavy attack from radical Muslims for his trenchant criticisms of the violence that is inseparable from extreme Islamism.

We surely live in a mad world when Mr Amis is condemned as a bigot yet Ken Livingstone, a self-styled champion of gay rights, is proud to embrace Yusuf al-Qaradawi of the Muslim Brotherhood - a man who thinks it's fine for a Muslim state to chuck homosexuals off cliffs.

Martin Amis and Sir James Watson
Provocative: Martin Amis and Sir James Watson have made controversial comments about race and religion


Indeed, it is increasingly hard not to conclude that the West-loathing Left has become so besotted with the rights of minorities that it has lost all moral sense.

Theirs is a world where freedom of speech is dependent on spouting politically correct opinions - even if that means blaming the victims of terrorism and exonerating the suicide bombers.

(Remember it was Cherie Blair who once stated that young Palestinians had 'no hope' but to blow themselves up.)

Well, there is nothing politically correct about Martin Amis. He has struggled with much honesty to examine the more disturbing aspects of extreme Islam and has written thoughtfully and at length about the implications of 9/11 and the cult of death it has inspired.

In so doing, he has attracted the ire of Professor Terry Eagleton - a mediocre but always modish literary critic.

Having, in my view, distorted Amis's words, Eagleton claimed that the author was 'hounding and humiliating' Muslims - and the usual suspects have followed in his wake with shrieks of 'Islamophobe' and 'racist'.

Amis is neither. For while Islam is one of the world's great religions, he is surely correct when he says that Islamic extremists are "anti- Semites, psychotic misogynists and homophobes".

He has every right to say our society is more evolved than repressive and brutal Muslim states like Saudi Arabia, which is being permitted through political inertia to fund Europe-wide centres peddling the pernicious doctrine of Wahhabism (which promotes global Jihad) to impressionable young men.

But even if Amis is wrong - which I don't believe he is - he should have the right to express his views and to have them countered in robust debate.

The gagging of Sir James Watson, however, is even more surprising - and more frightening.

This time it is not just the self-pitying and hysterical self-styled representatives of an aggrieved minority that are trying to silence critics. It is an institution that exists to celebrate the search for truth.

Science is supposed to be about the acquisition of knowledge through observation and experimentation. One of its basic tenets is that the quest for knowledge requires a completely open mind.

No ideas or theories should be off-limits, but they should be examined with a cool and objective mind and challenged vigorously.

Sir James's crime was to contend in an interview in the Sunday Times that black people are less intelligent than white.

"All our social policies," he said, "are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours - whereas all the testing says not really."

Now that is an argument that most of us instinctively dislike - indeed, find offensive - but that is no reason to gag Sir James, who with Francis Crick discovered the structure of DNA and has spent his long life studying genetics.

He may be off his head. His theory may be fatally flawed. Or it might even have some validity.

There are certainly many people who believe Asians are smarter than whites or blacks. Perhaps religion or culture comes into the frame?

Watson has written that "there is no firm reason to anticipate that the intellectual capacities of peoples geographically separated in their evolution should prove to have evolved identically. Our wanting to reserve equal powers of reason as some universal heritage of humanity will not be enough to make it so."

It is an opinion that certainly causes one to pause and think.

Could it be that we are perhaps fixated on measuring intelligence in our Western terms? Alexander McCall Smith's novels about Botswana posit the view that wisdom is the greatest virtue and is unrelated to the academic cleverness that we so fixate on in the West.

But whether wrong or right, Watson is owed a hearing from his peers, as they are owed the right to argue with him. Instead, they have chosen to gag him for being politically incorrect.

The Science Museum, an institution that contains many fine exhibits relating to the great Galileo, who in the 17th century was persecuted by the Roman Catholic Church for heretical scientific opinions, can apparently see no irony in its refusal to listen to an eminent scientist propounding a theory it dislikes.

This is a travesty. As the scientist Susan Greenfield, Director of the Royal Institution, put it: "Nothing should stop you ascertaining the scientific truth; science must be free of concerns about gender and race."

Sadly, Baroness Greenfield is an unusually free spirit in a world of academic pusillanimity and stifling political correctness.

The humanities have long been surrendered to the PC bullies. In the Western world, academics watch their words and temper their opinions lest they face a tribunal for causing offence. The most important scalp taken by the intolerant was that of Larry Summers, the President of Harvard.

At a conference in 2005 convened to discuss how to attract more women to science, he applied himself objectively to the problem, asking: Were women in short supply because a) they were discriminated against, b) the commitment for a scientific career was incompatible with their family responsibilities, or c) there were innate differences between men and women which made science more suited to men?

This question so offended biologist Nancy Hopkins that she stormed out of the meeting on the grounds that if she hadn't left, she "would've either blacked out or thrown up".

Despite grovelling apologies, Summers had to resign from Harvard for having even allowed the possibility that men and women were not intellectually absolutely identical.

As I know from the research I did for a novel about the state of the humanities in American universities, free speech in the U.S. is under constant threat on campuses.

It seems you can compare George Bush to Hitler or call Israel a fascist state, but dare to suggest that Yasser Arafat was corrupt or that Arab states bear responsibility for the condition of Palestinians and you'll be cast out of campus as an intellectual pariah.

Now, alas, that same intolerance of unpopular opinions is becoming ever more common in Britain, with deranged Leftwingers in some universities trying to boycott Israeli academics for their supposed complicity in persecuting Palestinians.

As these so-called intellectuals would quickly realise if they lived in Putin's Russia or in most Muslim states, free speech is one of the greatest achievements of Western civilisation and should be cherished and upheld.

Those in charge of the Science Museum have just joined the ranks of the fools and knaves who are putting this hard-won right in jeopardy.

Have they forgotten what the Enlightenment meant for science? Or Voltaire's dictum: "I do not agree with what you have to say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it"? Or do they not care?

Either way, they should be ashamed of themselves.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

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© Ruth Dudley Edwards