James Watson’s sense of entitlement, and misunderstandings of science that need to be countered.

James Watson, who shared a Nobel Prize in 1962 for discovering the double helix structure of DNA, is in the news, offering his Nobel Prize medal at auction. As reported by the Telegraph:

Mr Watson, who shared the 1962 Nobel Prize for uncovering the double helix structure of DNA, sparked an outcry in 2007 when he suggested that people of African descent were inherently less intelligent than white people.

If the medal is sold Mr Watson said he would use some of the proceeds to make donations to the “institutions that have looked after me”, such as University of Chicago, where he was awarded his undergraduate degree, and Clare College, Cambridge.

Mr Watson said his income had plummeted following his controversial remarks in 2007, which forced him to retire from the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island, New York. He still holds the position of chancellor emeritus there.

“Because I was an ‘unperson’ I was fired from the boards of companies, so I have no income, apart from my academic income,” he said.

He would also use some of the proceeds to buy an artwork, he said. “I really would love to own a [painting by David] Hockney”. …

Mr Watson said he hoped the publicity surrounding the sale of the medal would provide an opportunity for him to “re-enter public life”. Since the furore in 2007 he has not delivered any public lectures.

There’s a lot I could say here about James Watson, the assumptions under which he is laboring, and the potential impacts on science and the public’s engagement with it. In fact, I have said much of it before, although not always in reference to James Watson in particular. However, given the likelihood that we’ll keep hearing the same unhelpful responses to James Watson and his ilk if we don’t grapple with some of the fundamental misunderstandings of science at work here, it’s worth covering this ground again.

First, I’ll start with some of the claims I see Watson making around his decision to auction his Nobel Prize medal:

  • He needs money, given that he has “no income beyond [his] academic income”. One might take this as an indication that academic salaries in general ought to be raised (although I’m willing to bet a few buck that Watson’s inadequate academic income is at least as much as that of the average academic actively engaged in research and/or teaching in the U.S. today). However, Watson gives no sign of calling for such an across-the-board increase, since…
  • He connects his lack of income to being fired from boards of companies and to his inability to book public speaking engagements after his 2007 remarks on race.
  • He equates this removal from boards and lack of invitations to speak with being an “unperson”.

What comes across to me here is that James Watson sees himself as special, as entitled to seats on boards and speaker invitations. On what basis, we might ask, is he entitled to these perks, especially in the face of a scientific community just brimming with talented members currently working at the cutting edge(s) of scientific knowledge-building? It is worth noting that some who attended recent talks by Watson judged them to be nothing special:

Possibly, then, speaking engagements may have dried up at least partly because James Watson was not such an engaging speaker — with an asking price of $50,000 for a paid speaking engagement, whether you give good talk is a relevant criterion — rather than being driven entirely by his remarks on race in 2007, or before 2007. However, Watson seems sure that these remarks are the proximate cause of his lack of invitations to give public talks since 2007. And, he finds this result not to be in accord with what a scientist like himself deserves.

Positioning James Watson as a very special scientist who deserves special treatment above and beyond the recognition of the Nobel committee feeds the problematic narrative of scientific knowledge as an achievement of great men (and yes, in this narrative, it is usually great men who are recognized). This narrative ignores the fundamentally social nature of scientific knowledge-building and the fact that objectivity is the result of teamwork.

Of course, it’s even more galling to have James Watson portrayed (including by himself) as an exceptional hero of science rather than as part of a knowledge-building community given the role of Rosalind Franklin’s work in determining the structure of DNA — and given Watson’s apparent contempt for Franklin, rather than regard for her as a member of the knowledge-building team, in The Double Helix.

Indeed, part of the danger of the hero narrative is that scientists themselves may start to believe it. They can come to see themselves as individuals possessing more powers of objectivity than other humans (thus fundamentally misunderstanding where objectivity comes from), with privileged access to truth, with insights that don’t need to be rigorously tested or supported with empirical evidence. (Watson’s 2007 claims about race fit in this territory .)

Scientists making authoritative claims beyond what science can support is a bigger problem. To the extent that the public also buys into the hero narrative of science, that public is likely to take what Nobel Prize winners say as authoritative, even in the absence of good empirical evidence. Here Watson keeps company with William Shockley and his claims on race, Kary Mullis and his claims on HIV, and Linus Pauling and his advocacy of mega-doses of vitamin C. Some may argue that non-scientists need to be more careful consumers of scientific claims, but it would surely help if scientists themselves would recognize the limits of their own expertise and refrain from overselling either their claims or their individual knowledge-building power.

Where Watson’s claims about race are concerned, the harm of positioning him as an exceptional scientist goes further than reinforcing a common misunderstanding of where scientific knowledge comes from. These views, asserted authoritatively by a Nobel Prize winner, give cover to people who want to believe that their racist views are justified by scientific knowledge.

As well, as I have argued before (in regard to Richard Feynman and sexism), the hero narrative can be harmful to the goal of scientific outreach given the fact that human scientists usually have some problematic features and that these problematic features are often ignored, minimized, or even justified (e.g., as “a product of the time”) in order to foreground the hero’s great achievement and sell the science. There seems to be no shortage of folks willing to label Watson’s racist views as unfortunate but also as something that should not overshadow his discovery of the structure of DNA. In order that the unfortunate views not overshadow the big scientific contribution, some of these folks would rather we stop talking about Watson’s having made the claims he has made about racial difference (although Watson shows no apparent regret for holding these views, only for having voiced them to reporters).

However, especially for people in the groups that James Watson has claimed are genetically inferior, asserting that Watson’s massive scientific achievement trumps his problematic claims about race can be alienating. His scientific achievement doesn’t magically remove the malign effects of the statements he has made from a very large soapbox, using his authority as a Nobel Prize winning scientist. Ignoring those malign effects, or urging people to ignore them because of the scientific achievement which gave him that big soapbox, sounds an awful lot like saying that including the whole James Watson package in science is more important than including black people as scientific practitioners or science fans.

The hero narrative gives James Watson’s claims more power than they deserve. The hero narrative also makes urgent the need to deem James Watson’s “foibles” forgivable so we can appreciate his contribution to knowledge. None of this is helpful to the practice of science. None of it helps non-scientists engage more responsibly with scientific claims or scientific practitioners.

Holding James Watson to account for his claims, holding him responsible for scientific standards of evidence, doesn’t render him an unperson. Indeed, it amounts to treating him as a person engaged in the scientific knowledge-building project, as well as a person sharing a world with the rest of us.

* * * * *
Michael Hendricks offers a more concise argument against the hero narrative in science.

And, if you’re not up on the role of Rosalind Franklin in the discovery of the structure of DNA, these seventh graders can get you started:

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