Thursday, October 25, 2007

Apparently even many scientists don’t think James Watson is racist

A World Science poll has the following findings about Nobel laureate and co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, James Watson:

1. Some 57 percent of respondents find his comments about black intelligence legitimate opinion, 26 percent racism, and 17 percent unsure.

2. A full 75 percent said the London Science Museum was wrong to cancel a lecture he had scheduled.

3. Even more, 79 percent said the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory was wrong to suspend Watson as president.

4. A similar percentage, 74 percent, said this would chill scientific discourse.

5. Between two responses, for two different reasons, 70 percent said Watson’s critics should leave him alone.

6. Just over half of respondents to the poll were scientists.

I’m not advocating censorship of legitimate opinion, but, this went beyond opinion. It was racism.

And, in science terms, it was pseudoscience, clear and simple.

Now, per a reader of Talking Points Memo, it turns out this is nothing new from Watson. In fact, he’s got Read this SF Chronicle story. He made similar comments in a conference at Berkeley seven years ago. Had anybody short of a Nobel-level scientist said this, we’d immediately label him as nutbar.
Witnesses were flabbergasted when the 72-year-old discoverer of the double helix suggested there was a biochemical link between exposure to sunlight and sexual urges. “That’s why you have Latin lovers,” Watson said. “You’ve never heard of an English lover. Only an English patient.”

In a lecture hall jammed with more than 200 Berkeley students and faculty members, Watson showed a slide of sad-faced model Kate Moss to support his contention that thin people are unhappy and therefore more ambitious. …

Botchan, who presided over the session, said Watson was merely trying to call attention to a protein (pom-C) that helps create several different hormones: One determines skin color (melanin); another enhances a sense of well-being (beta endorphins); and the third plays a role in fat metabolism (leptin).

Botchan said Watson was wondering out loud why evolution had linked these hormones, and whether the interrelationship of these mood and behavior-influencing compounds might be affected by exposure to sunlight.

Unfortunately, said Botchan, Watson advanced his hypothesis with “comments that were crude and sexist and potentially racist.” But Botchan, who did post-graduate work under Watson, said he doesn't think the Nobel laureate is racist or sexist, merely insensitive. …

Berkeley genetics professor Thomas Cline said Watson's lecture ``crossed over the line'' from being provocative to being irresponsible because the senior scientist failed to separate fact from conjecture. …

Berkeley biology professor Susan Marqusee walked out about a third of the way through Watson's hourlong lecture. …

A spokesman at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, a research institute on Long Island where Watson serves as president, confirmed the gist of his remarks and said Watson has voiced similar sentiments at other scientific gatherings.

Read the whole thing, if you have the stomach for it. The reporter notes that Nobelist William Shockley, inventor of the transistor, was ostracized for years because of similar comments. Why wasn’t that done years ago to Watson?

Being dismissed now as president of Cold Spring is less than punishment enough.

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