This week’s Nature includes a report on the sequencing of James Watson’s complete genome by a new process developed by 454 Life Sciences. I just had to convey this gag-inducing quote from the news article’s conclusion:
James Watson is a brilliant scientist with a remarkable life story. He both laid the deep scientific foundations for genomic biology and devoted much of his life — through his teaching, his leadership and the sheer force of his personality — to building this science to its current productive state. Along the way, he stepped on more than one landmine. Future historians will find him a rich and elusive subject. Perhaps, informed by the advanced genetics of their day, they will scrutinize the data left behind by Wheeler et al. for clues to why he was the way he was. However, I suspect that they will have to rely instead, as historians do today, on what Watson wrote, said and did during his lifetime rather than on the order of the base pairs in his genome.
Olson MV. 2008. Dr. Watson’s base pairs. Nature 452:819-820. doi:10.1038/452819a
Posts Tagged ‘James Watson’
I was struck by the ambiguity inherent in this declaration – are giraffes the primary subject of this ukase, or unicycles? Or is it the particular combination of both? In the end, I have come to regard this notice as reflecting one of those juxtapositions on which surrealism is based – a statement as deliciously confrontational as Meret Oppenheim’s tea-cup made from fur or Magritte’s painting Threatening Weather.
The author of this curious notice was our daughter (aged 9) who has taken to posting all sorts of notices around the house lately. She is one of those rare (or rarely diagnosed) girls with Asperger’s Syndrome. That is, she is paddling in the shallow end of the autism spectrum.
Of course, it all ties down to the Watson fiasco:
People with Asperger’s tend to have a profound sense of justice that brooks no compromise with such subtleties as mitigating shades of grey. While watching the film Ratatouille at the cinema at the weekend, my daughter was so outspokenly outraged by a scene in which two of the rats examine a rat-catcher’s shop window, the display full of exquisitely varied methods of rodent dispatch – that I had to calm her down.
This, together with an ability to produce devastatingly articulate insults, and a near-total lack of much appreciation of what might be deemed socially acceptable, is a dynamite combination.
Recent utterances by Richard Dawkins and James D Watson seem to be typified by the seeming inability of these famous scientists to understand that they had said anything offensive. How could they be, they might say, if they were only speaking what they saw as the bald truth? Perhaps a touch of Asperger’s is beneficial for the inquiring, independent scientific mind, an attribute that incurs its own costs.
I removed the sign about giraffes on unicycles and put it on the door to my study. Whatever else it might be, it’s certainly effective. I have not had any trouble with unicycling giraffes since, and calm and serenity have been restored.
I have one small nagging problem about the piece though; while I agree with Gee that Watson might have the ability to produce devastatingly articulate insults, and a near-total lack of much appreciation of what might be deemed socially acceptable, I do not see any indication of the profound sense of justice in Watson’s analysis which resulted in his statements; if he had that, he probably would have criticised the ways in which intelligence is measured instead of criticising those whose intelligence is being measured; either that, or, he is an ass or a moron.
The wikipedia entry on James Watson has a very nice summary of the controversy surrounding his recent racist comments. Some of the issues that are being addressed is whether the suspension of Watson from CSHL is justified (Thus Spake Zuska and Pharyngula), if Watson should also be thrown out of his position as an adviser of the Seed Media group (Christopher Mims at the Scientific American Blog), and if Watson should have been allowed to continue with his speaking engagements (Nature editorial).
I disagree with Watson passionately, and he is completely wrong in his opinions about Africa and women and who knows what else…but he has the right to say it, just as we have the right to disagree vehemently and volubly with him. This does the CSHL no good: it’s a declaration that their director must be an inoffensive, mealy-mouthed mumbler who never challenges (even stupidly).
Thus Spake Zuska:
The contribution we need from leaders in the community like PZ at this point is to support the CSHL action as the very necessary step it is, not whine about poor mistreated Watson.
Scientific American (Christopher Mims):
Watson has done the wise thing and decided to distance himself from his by all appearances much-beloved Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.
However Andrew Berry, who wrote a book on DNA in 2003 with Watson, said “It seems to me a no-brainer” for Seed Media to remove Watson as an adviser.
“Watson is someone, whether he believed in his comments or not, who is damaged goods,” Barry said.
Meanwhile Howard C. Berg, “the Smith professor of physics and a friend and colleague of Watson for over 40 years… said that Watson would not associate himself with an organization on a superficial level.”
“If he didn’t participate directly in the work in a significant way, he wouldn’t attach his name to it,” Berg said of Watson. “In that regard, he’s very ethical.”
Given the media storm breaking as the week progressed, it would have required remarkable bravery on the part of those hosting Watson’s speaking engagements — part of the launch of his new book — to persist with them. Several high-profile establishments cancelled. This is regrettable: science is about nothing if not openness and critical debate. Scientists with controversial arguments need to be able to withstand the heat, defending or retracting statements as the evidence indicates is required. Watson, however unpleasant his utterances, has always been willing to act in this spirit.
As is clear from the arguments above, the question is whether it undermines the academic freedom if we curb Watson’s right to voice his opinion (however stupid they be). The argument is also a bit more nuanced as is clear from the comments on Zuska’s and Pharyngula’s blogs: Zuska feels that academic freedom argument does not hold for Watson since he is an administrator; Pharyngula opines that Watson’s administrative responsibilities themselves stem from his academic credentials.
Personally, I think Pharyngula is correct; we need to allow for dissenting voices and take their arguments down by having a discussion that is based on data and logical reasoning. I also believe that scientific administrators should first be considered as scientists and then as administrators (in the interest of science). However, as the Nature editorial puts it,
Crass comments by Nobel laureates undermine our very ability to debate such issues, and thus damage science itself.
But, the failure of an individual scientist-administrator should not bias our general views on the freedom that we accord to them. In fact, this view point is not too different from what Zuska herself suggests in her post (with a quote from Dr. Free-ride):
Last November, Dr. Free-Ride posited a ship whose sailors must make repairs on the open sea as a metaphor for the scientific enterprise. She concluded:
It’s a frustrating situation. Those who are in the community have a lot to lose by challenging the status quo. Those who are no longer in the community can speak out without the same risk of losing their standing — but, having no standing, they are also in a position where the community can safely ignore them. The status quo lumbers on, but that doesn’t mean the ship isn’t taking on water. Putting off real repairs for too long endangers the whole community.And maybe that means that members of the community who are not accustomed to stepping up to identify these problems or make the repairs need to take a turn facing the sharks.
Where I disagree with Zuska is whether such a repair is better achieved by throwing Watson out of the ship, or by arguing with him and showing him that he is wrong — however hard and painful that process be.
Finally, I have also seen Zuska arguing
So then, these are the two sad legacies of Watson’s pseudo-scientific hate speech: (1) a blurring of the line between science and pseudo-science, and (2) increased perception that the entire scientific enterprise is flawed at the core.
While the blurring of science and pseudo-science is indeed a serious problem, and needs to be tackled, the perception about the flaws of scientific enterprise looks like a bit of an exaggeration — in fact, if we can show that in science, no matter what stands one takes, using data and logical reasoning we can all (almost all) achieve the same conclusions should be seen as the strength of scientific enterprise; and, at least for that we need dissenting voices like Watson; if they happen to be Nobel Laureates, all the better. From that point of view, Greg Laden’s attitude is the perfect one:
Mo at Neurophilosophy calls him a senile old fool; Zuska calls him a moron (and the interviewer too); Pharyngula calls his statements shockingly offensive and bizarre; and, I thought it is only Bollywood celebrities who make controversial statements to gobble up newsprint!