This is getting really old. It is also sad. Every one of us wants to be remembered. It is just human nature. In the particular case of us scientists, we generally want to be remembered by our contributions, however minor, to the better understanding of nature. In the case of ground-breaking, paradigm-shifting discoveries there is little doubt that the scientists credited with such discoveries will be remembered. And, if you are a science enthusiast, you’ll have no problem naming more than one scientists whom you admire.
However, let’s not forget that scientists are human. There’s the good, the bad, and the plain ugly, and plenty of intermediate states. After all, one can be the greatest person in the world to one person and at the same time be seen as evil incarnate to another. In my role as a university professor, I am both, however unfairly.
Then there are those who possess the rare ability to be disliked by pretty much everyone by virtue of how they treat people. In the end, this is mostly the way they’d be remembered, no matter how great their discoveries were, or how distinguished their scientific careers were. This is sad.
One of the most recent and I’d say, the proverbial “poster boy” of these cases is Dr. James D. Watson, of DNA fame. I will not talk too much about his scientific achievements, because they have been very well-documented in many other places. What I want to state again is that it is extremely sad that because his tendency to allow himself to be carried away by his prejudices, he has been essentially shunned from the scientific community that he helped create, including Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL), a true world-class institution that he helped fund and grow.
Based on some statements and/or reiterations of statements made in a recent documentary and elsewhere, CSHL issued a blunt and unambiguous rebuke of Dr. Watson. You can read all they said by clicking the link above, but just to give you a taste of it, here’s the first paragraph:
“Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) unequivocally rejects the unsubstantiated and reckless personal opinions Dr. James D. Watson expressed on the subject of ethnicity and genetics during the PBS documentary “American Masters: Decoding Watson” that aired January 2, 2019. Dr. Watson’s statements are reprehensible, unsupported by science, and in no way represent the views of CSHL, its trustees, faculty, staff, or students. The Laboratory condemns the misuse of science to justify prejudice.”
**Sigh** Can you imagine being (justly and rightly) rejected in such a way by a place that you helped create? I guess you reap what you sow…
I wrote a blogpost about that five years ago, reproduced below. In it I go in a little more detail of his racist, misogynistic, and a few other “-istic” thoughts and actions. The figure that I found to illustrate this blogpost represents to me the breaking of his scientific contribution, in other words, he broke the helix.
Original post: “Consistently stupid thoughts from a world-class mind” (2013)
Ladies and gentlemen, Dr. James D. Watson does it again! I do not know whether to laugh or laugh (yes, I said that). I do not think that I need to extensively introduce you to Watson, but I will remind you that he and Dr. Francis Crick came up with the structure of DNA. This story is well-known and there is a lot of information out there if you are interested.
What I want to comment on is about his consistent paradoxical behavior, as illustrated by a sample of his verbal “oops” over the years. His latest one touched upon autism…
Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaand it’s on…
At the most recent Allen Institute for Brain Science symposium “Open questions in neuroscience” he advocated for people to have kids while they are young to minimize the possibility of genetic mutations that may result in mental illness. He said that if a mother “waits” to have children until she is older and has a kid with autism, she should blame herself.
Refrigerator mother, anyone? I do know that this is not what he said, but that was the phrase that came into my mind immediately after reading this (look up this sad reference about the history of autism).
I do not think that I need to argue too much about the insensitivity of this comment. This is made worse by the fact that he has a son with mental illness who is incapable of living by himself. You’d think that this would give Watson some degree of empathy, but alas, this is not the case.
Also, to anyone that knows a modicum about biology, these kind of generalizations about complex diseases betray a profound ignorance of the biomedical sciences. This is, well, unbecoming of a scientist of such stature, but I digress.
The main point that I am trying to make in this post is about the contrast between Watson’s undeniable first-rate mind and the well, idiocy of his comments. Oh, and this is not an isolated incident, not at all! I am aware of another autism-related comment of his, when he offhandedly commented that Dr. Rosalind Franklin, the chemist whose work gave Watson and Crick the key to decipher the structure of DNA was “partially autistic” (hint: he did not seem to have meant this as a compliment). Incidentally, look up the Franklin-Watson-Crick affair, it is top-notch science gossip and certainly provides an alternate perspective on this important chapter in the history of science.
When doing research for this post, I found a Wikipedia listing of Watson’s “selected comments” over the years. Some of them I knew about and some of them I did not. He is an equal opportunity offender of people; overweight, black, Irish, Japanese, women, and the lists goes on. I even read in one of his recent books an account of how he “fooled around” with the daughter of a fellow professor, he actually named her, first and last name (just like a true gentleman – not! Am I too old-fashioned? I think not…).
Anyway, he’s paid the price more than once for this kind of things though. For example, he was forced to resign as president of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory based on comments that disparaged Africans. Can you imagine how much do you have to screw up to be fired from a place that you helped grow in prestige over the years? Also, some people say that he tends not be invited anymore to speak at most top scientific events because of the possibility of these kind of comments. This is plainly sad.
Also, do you think he is the way he is because he is 85, that all these comments can be ascribed to the rumblings of an oblivious elderly person who means well but does not know any better?
In 1968 (when he was 40) Watson published “The double helix“, a one-sided account of the discovery. In all fairness it is a fascinating read, but it was not without controversy (here he wrote his first disparaging comments about Rosalind Franklin for example). Even his co-Nobelists Crick and Wilkins seem to have considered the idea of suing Watson because some of the things he said in it, among other things. Also in the 1960s while a professor at Harvard, Watson was one of the main instigators that argued that molecular biology was superior to the “old biology” which was considered “stamp collecting”. Edward O. Wilson, one of the top biologists ever, considered Watson one of the most unpleasant people he ever met. You can see my take in this matter here.
Now, it is undeniable that however he did it, he was one of the scientists that made possible the early development of molecular biology and genetics (he did not make any real fundamental discoveries after the double helix, as opposed to Crick, who tackled the genetic code and later on consciousness itself).
The molecular sciences is an ongoing field that has contributed a lot of fundamental knowledge and is arguably beginning to bear fruit into actual medical benefits for humanity. However, I think that it is really sad that his contributions to science are eclipsed by his faulty comment filter. His “indiscretions” are much better known than all the science he ever did, and this is a true tragedy. All of this makes me wonder why he is the way he is. I suspect that even though his DNA’s been sequenced, we’ll never know.
One thing is for sure, education is not equal to intelligence; heck, intelligence does not equal common sense, or even character…
want dare to know more (Warning: You may experience hypertension upon reading about Watson’s charming comments):
Picture credit: thetechjournal.com.
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