Watson: Surprising? Predictable? Racist?

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Did I Say That?

James Watson is at it again. His "opinions" -- in reality bigoted remarks and racial slurs, were published in a piece in the London Sunday Times. Watson noted that although "social policies are based" on the intelligence of African's being "the same as ours", this assumption is "not really" true. The London's Science Museum canceled an appearance by Watson for Friday's Black History Month event because his comments had "gone beyond the point of acceptable debate".

Despite his appalling comments, some news agencies still tiptoe reverently around Dr. Watson. For instance BBC said, "within scientific circles, the 79-year-old is known as someone who loves debate and discussion."

But in the science circles I run in, his comments don't qualify as "debate", but as racism. The New York Times said: "Famed Scientist Apologizes for Quoted Racial Remarks". "Quoted", they say as if leaving open the possibility that Watson might never had said that. A transcription error perhaps? According to the London Times "Kate Farquhar-Thomson, his publicist, refused to say whether Watson believed The Sunday Times had quoted him accurately. 'You have the statement. That's it, I'm afraid,' she said". The London Times said Watson read the article before it was submitted.

CNN, a paper of increasingly dubious record, yanked reporters away from stories on movie stars long enough to fill in some background information on Watson:

"In 1997, Britain's Sunday Telegraph quoted Watson as saying that if a gene for homosexuality were isolated, women who find that their unborn child has the gene should be allowed to have an abortion.

During a lecture tour in 2000, he suggested there might be links between a person's weight and their level of ambition and between skin color and sexual prowess. "That's why you have Latin lovers," he said, according to The Associated Press, which quoted people who attended the lecture. "You've never heard of an English lover. Only an English patient."

And in a British TV documentary that aired in 2003, Watson suggested stupidity was a genetic disease that should be treated."

Watson actually has a longer record of insults then their brief history tells, he has been slandering woman and minorities for as long as he's been basking in the warm glow of appreciation for revealing the structure of DNA. This isn't the late life meanderings of a little old man. "I cannot understand", he said. As in -- oh dear, did I say that?

His reputation for deriding women and their intelligence is based on decades of remarks, though every once in a while, fortunately for that 50% of the population, he stumbles across an intelligent woman.

On autism, Watson "hopes that by diagnosing autism early, 'we might prevent some autism-prone families having subsequent children'". [Emphasis ours]. As I see it, he's situated on a bit of a slippery slope, though he may be impervious to it. One of his children was "seriously incapacitated", a fact that he attributes to his age at the time of conception-- 42, not to his original genome. Viagra is one culprit he says. So for him anyway, sterilization would not have helped? A Science writer noted in an 2003 book review that Watson promoted "vintage eugenics".

Watson apologizes now for his most recent comments. A couple of writers quickly leapt to his defense, and admirers who warn that they're canceling their visit to that science museum. Confusingly, the same writers argue that the economic rewards for Watson's ideas should flow unfettered, that his book tour with its museum stop (and profits) should continue. Allow "the debate" they say, feature the evidence. But scientific evidence will not convince racists not to be racists. If it did, and if Watson's as smart as he says he is, wouldn't he have changed his tune by now?

Toeing the Jagged Moral Line

Although most of us would not defend Watson's remarks, we ably justify some level of racism for various self-serving reasons. We're capable of separating Don Imus's rampage or Michael Richards' from James Watson's. At least one individual will no doubt read this paragraph and immediately start listing all the differences between the aforementioned players. But James Watson is Dr. James Watson, they'll say, just think of his contribution to society! He's not just a two-bit celebrity, as entertaining as a racists as he is as a comedic actor--- he's Dr. James Watson.

Do we selectively elevate the opinions of others based on assumptions we make about their status, their power, intelligence, or fame? Of course. Do we sometimes privilege the James Watsons, professors, and presidents to pursue whatever agenda they coyly reveal? Sure. Not that Watson needs to be coy. Watson has learned that audiences will wrap his offensiveness in a cocoon of awe, and may even secretly question whether in all his brilliance, he knows something that they don't about genetics. We're capable of handily interpreting the same spiel different ways depending on whose mouth it spews from and our judgment of the speaker's power.

Why, we ask, has Watson been allowed to get away with this to date, to prosper? Is it Watson's science prestige? He has long floated along unhinged in his outrageous beliefs but unhindered by his habit of unfortunate comments; acquiring grants, lending his name to new buildings, trying to find cancer genes, promoting himself, enjoying the limelight. He's a charming man, blithely tossing out abusive zingers all along the way. Seduced by his power, convinced that his intelligence informs his remarks, we're dangerous because years of entrenched bigotry pass by. Our spurious evaluations collectively become society's schismatic moral code.

See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Succeed

Collectively and individually, we have spastic notions about what's acceptable. Said one biologist of the Nobel Laureate: "This is Watson at his most scandalous. He has said similar things about women before but I have never heard him get into this racist terrain". As though, women, that's one thing -- but now my dear Watson, you've really crossed the line. The biologist has a confusing moral code.

Many scientists, like Dr. Watson, are afforded "proteges" who listen with rapt attention, diligently recording whatever the master says in their notebooks.The author of the London Times article, introduced as one of his "proteges", said she was "unnerved by his devil-may-care compulsion to say what he believes". Her careful article obviously fueled the current public response. But why only now, after all this time, did she dare to be "unnerved"? Had she had the courage to be a bit more emotive long ago, "aghast" perhaps, which was the Merriam Webster's word of the day for October 18, 2008, would she still be Watson's "protege"? Would she be able to dine in his presence? Would she have the honor of reviewing his book?

There are payoffs to allowing famous people, Nobel laureates, university presidents, politicians, and celebrities who we encounter in our daily lives their little "indiscretions". After all, they may reward us. They may nod in our direction one day if we keep bowing just right. We're careful about "career limiting moves", speaking out at the wrong time, challenging the principal. But the more we excuse these 'otherwise fine men and women', the more we rationalize their aberrant assertions, the more we empower bigots.

These are not intuitive decisions, science politics is brutal. But, how much collateral damage is endured as we practice delicate political sensibilities that benefit the bottom line of only a select few? If minorities and woman suffer to get ahead, it's in no small part because of pervasive racist, sexist attitudes. It's also because those of us who are empowered to speak out, choose to let inflammatory comments slide. Humans are sociologically astute, which leads to our collective success. But as "team players" we can be weak, we're often indiscriminate about accepting the claims of those who charm us with their authority, and as recent history shows, many of us can be conditioned to accept corrupt power.

Perhaps it's this gene, the one for cancerous bigotry induced by reflexive idolatry, for which we should be most hopefully hunting.

Speak Out

As a society we're rampantly inconsistent. We express very little tolerance for similarly degrading physical abuse. The idea of sending Watson to do janitorial public service, which was Naomi Campbell's punishment after she beaned an assistant on the head with a cell phone and drew blood, is laughable not just because he's 80 and doesn't have a cute cap to don while he's sweeping. We wouldn't consider such a thing, a man of his credentials, however, incongruously Watson has maligned an entire continent of individuals.

Watson may be "mortified" by his comments, but he is unscathed. The damage, the deadening of spirit and hope will manifest in young scientists who are compelled once more to double check the science literature on IQ, will effect Africans and African-Americans who endure century after century of the same numbing tirades, and will demoralize women who fear that they'll always be judged on anything but their intelligence.

Some argue that we continue to accept racism because we're "hypocritical racists". That we need to come up with strategies other than pressing fleeting apologies from racist offenders. Otherwise "we find scapegoats in these men...It becomes too easy to deny the fact that [the] internalized beliefs [of distant public officials] might be similar to our own". This is no doubt true. Fortunately though, we're not all racists. Among the many, many, many, people who fight against racism Bob Herbert of the New York Times often, convincingly and eloquently argues the importance of continuing to speak out. We should not hesitate to do so, just because it's Mr. Watson.

Then Forget?

1Now we hear that Watson has been suspended from his "administrative position" and his book tour canceled. Cold Spring Harbor officials said they were "bewildered" by his latest statements. Should we believe their "bewilderment?". Will the "bewilderment" over Watson's assertions pass once the dust settles? Watson is still strongly associated with CSHL and the new, spiffy, well-funded Watson School of Biological Sciences.

Ex-president Summers was taken to task at Harvard for (not only) his comments about women's intelligence. Today, though not the president, Summer maintains his professorship, is allowed ample space in papers the write columns on liberal topics, and is paid handsomely to speak on topics of economic and business import. He has maintained his authority and platform.

2As we're in the height of the row over Watson's comments, we tend to pay less attention to following up on past national racism forums. A broadcasting executive recently announced that it's time for the public "to forgive Don Imus". The radio personality's impending return to the airwaves with his own show is reported in only a handful of publications, according to Google. Yet its only six months after his racists sexist remarks dominated news headlines for weeks and massive public outrage erupted.

We seem to have endless capacity to expurgate the appalling from the biography of any personality judged to be sufficiently important or economically useful. What does this signal? How short our attention? How shallow our indignation? How sheer our values?

4 Comments

Unfortunately, the way the "Watson affair" is progressing, he *does* sound very much like Don Imus. Incidentally, Imus had a long, more or less ignored, record of stupid, racist, sexist, homophobic remarks, too. The parallels are startlingly similar. But OTOH, Imus didn't discover the structure of DNA.
Anne

Imus and Watson histories are typical. Others have commented (ie L Lapham) about the Imus hypocrisy, one moment a comment flies, the next he's thrown of the air. For Watson the internet probably caught him off-guard. It's a sometimes cloistered tough environment, academic labs. Watson's comments are not new knowledge, the Science article 4 yrs. ago didn't pull any punches. You can tell from other scientists though that some are taken aback by the current reaction. Unfortunately the lack of furor over Imus's return to the airways 6 mo. later seems indicative of real intentions to change anything.

Anne: "Imus didn't discover the structure of DNA"

Yes, Watson did, but don't forget Franklin, Wilkins, and Crick

Imus -- back:

http://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/03/business/media/03cnd-imus.html?hp

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