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Mouthing off: a cautionary tale

What are famous scientists allowed to say?

Bill Hanage 2 December 2007

Scientists of a certain pedigree, for better or worse, seem to be held to a much higher standard than anyone else

Until recently, bracketing scientist ’Honest’ Jim Watson and British football pundit ’Big’ Ron Atkinson together would have seemed distinctly odd. But since Watson’s fateful interview in the London Sunday Times magazine, in which he let slip opinions which were at best bizarre, and at worst racist, it seems they have more in common than a silly little adjective preposition in front of their names. Atkinson, it could be argued, is more of a closet racist, having directed his insults against the multilingual world cup winner Marcel Desailly when he thought his microphone was turned off. Watson, on the other hand, announced his opinion to the world as if nobody would be expected to find it remotely offensive. Maybe that is the case in the rarefied circles in which he moves. I suspect not.

To refute his comments here would be a waste of server space. It has already been amply done: he essentially treated a complex issue in a fashion so crass as to be indistinguishable from falsehood. Now that the dust has had a chance to settle, however, what I am more interested in is the response he generated. For the man himself this has been a disaster. He was on a tour of the UK to promote his new book, and was forced to cancel multiple engagements and return home in ignominy. He has also retired as Chancellor of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, his base for nearly 40 years. His career, it seems, is over; though at 79, it may be time his numerous medals got a good polishing.

Many critics pointed out that Watson’s name was hardly made studying the sort of thing that he was now shooting off his mouth about. Often this came from people who were displaying just a teensy bit of hypocrisy themselves in entering the debate. Take the peerless Steven Rose, a neuroscientist who after accusing a fellow commentator of stepping outside her permitted territory of expertise, went on to then lecture his audience about population genetics (interestingly, because Steven Rose is not exactly considered on the money among professional population geneticists). It is not obvious to me that phenotypic variation between different (carefully defined and distinct) human groups is a priori impossible. Yet to suppose we are certain what these differences are, we can measure them accurately, and that moreover they correlate so simply with old prejudices, is false.

The problem is not that Watson was speaking beyond his expertise; it is that his expertise, such as it is, is not relevant to how his comments were taken. Our culture has difficulty accepting the idea that winning a Nobel Prize in no way inoculates you against pettiness, foolishness or indeed racism. Few batted an eyelid at any of Einstein’s pronouncements, regardless of how far they strayed from theoretical physics, mainly because they fit nicely with our image of the gentle sage. Similarly, not many are fussed by Steven Rose’s off-piste declarations, mainly because he is not particularly famous. The combination of Watson’s high profile with the incendiary and quite unscientific nature of his comments is the problem.

My point, in short, is that a lot of people hold obnoxious views that aren't supported by current knowledge. What is interesting is why the reactions against Watson’s were so violent. The answer probably lies in the way society treats scientists of a certain pedigree who, for better or worse, seem to be held to a much higher standard than anyone else.

On the other hand I am generally quite sympathetic to the argument that Watson is somehow being censored. But this is to overlook Watson’s status. His idiocy has consequences beyond most people’s idiocy. In some ways the issue is not so much what he said, but that he said it as if he were speaking of an established scientific fact. It can give the impression that the scientific consensus lies in a place quite different from its actual location, and suggests a debate where none exists. To not discuss it then, is not censorship, just as we are not censoring those who still bang on about flat earths. We have better things to do. And besides, Watson’s cancelled speaking engagements were not scheduled for him to promote any brilliant new idea about genetics, but rather to plug his most recent memoirs. In short, he wasn’t censored so much as denied an opportunity to make some more cash.

Big Ron has been recently relaunched with some success and seems to have embarked on the slow road towards rehabilitation. He is unlikely, though, to regain the dizzy heights he once occupied in popular culture. Honest Jim is in a rather different boat: one which has been untied from the dock and pushed off to drift wherever it will. It is sad, but in some ways not unjustified, that we are lining up to blow it far away from shore.