What do you think of the ongoing defenestration of James Watson, one of the scientists who receive a Nobel Prize 50 years ago for the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA? Here’s the background:
James Watson, the Nobel Prize-winning DNA scientist who lost his job in 2007 for expressing racist views, was stripped of several honorary titles Friday by the New York lab he once headed.
Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory said it was reacting to Watson’s remarks in a television documentary aired earlier this month.
In the film, Watson said his views about intelligence and race had not changed since 2007, when he told a magazine that he was “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa” because “all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours — where all the testing says not really.”
In the 2007 interview, Watson said that while he hopes everyone is equal, “people who have to deal with black employees find this is not true.”
My take is two-fold. On the one hand I suspect his observations about race and intelligence are incorrect because the effects of the non-genetic factors underpinning IQ overwhelm whatever genetic component there might be, IQ is only of limited use as a gauge, and “average IQ” is completely useless in dealing with individual human beings. Additionally, the actions by the labs and other organizations stripping him of honors appear opportunistic to me. He’s been saying stuff like that for decades. Many of the awards bestowed on him were conferred after he had already made comments along these lines by institutions that bestowed them for their own purposes. Any shame is on the institutions as well as on Dr. Watson. They’re acting now because the wind has changed and he’s no longer of any use to them. I don’t think they’ve escaped responsiblity for their actions. If they’d done due diligence they’d’ve known. I think they’re doubling their guilt by shaming an old man in his dotage.
There are also larger issues. Can only good people make great discoveries? Do you honor the discovery or the individual? Should these honors be conferred at all?