The Fault in Our Stars of Science

Much has been made this past week about James Watson’s intention to auction off his Nobel Prize, which he was jointly awarded for his part in the discovery of the structure of DNA. The act of auctioning off a Nobel Prize is normally cause enough to raise a few eyebrows, but in this case the reasons and the person behind it take those eyebrows to another level.

First some context, Watson is a great scientist and his contributions to science helped bring about the field of modern genetics. Watson is also a bit of a jerk. Until recently the most glaring example of this would be first his treatment of fellow scientist Rosalind Franklin (he and his collaborator, Francis Crick, used her data and failed to appropriately credit her at the time), and his description of her in his bestselling 1968 book The Double Helix as a haggy, naggy, old maid caricature. From the book;

By choice she did not emphasize her feminine qualities. Though her features were strong, she was not unattractive and might have been quite stunning had she taken even a mild interest in clothes. This she did not. There was never lipstick to contrast with her straight black hair, while at the age of thirty-one her dresses showed all the imagination of English blue-stocking adolescents. So it was quite easy to imagine her the product of an unsatisfied mother who unduly stressed the desirability of professional careers that could save bright girls from marriages to dull men.

This is just one example of Watson spouting some biased and ignorant statements, ideas, and notions. Watson is a bit of a provocateur. He has made remarks to the effect that fat people don’t get hired because they lack ambition, and noting that “Whenever you interview fat people, you feel bad, because you know you’re not going to hire them.” He has also lectured on how sunlight (and darker skin) is the source of the “Latin lover” libido, claiming a biochemical link between exposure to sunlight and sexual urges, and noting “That’s why you have Latin lovers, and you’ve never heard of an English lover. Only an English patient.” Time and time again, Watson has been given a pass on these behaviours because of his impressive scientific resume, and these comments have been chalked up to his penchant to stir the pot. Those close to him wouldn’t call him racist or sexist, merely insensitive. But that changed in 2007, when in an interview with the Times of London, to promote his book, Avoid Boring People: Lessons from a Life in Science, Watson made some unfounded and racist remarks. Some of the highlights include, “all our social policies [regarding Africa] are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours – whereas all the testing says not really” and for his hope is that everyone is equal, he counters that “people who have to deal with black employees find this not true.” The fallout from those comments (and perhaps from the sum total of all those previous comments) led to Watson retiring from his position at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island, New York (he still holds the position of chancellor emeritus), and being fired from the boards of many companies. Watson has stated that his being ostracized has led to his income plummeting, and becoming an un-person in the eyes of the scientific community.

Back to the auction, Watson hopes that by auctioning off his Nobel Prize, he will not only get the income he needs, (he intends to donate some of the money to schools, but also to buy a David Hockney painting), but also re-enter public life. It is important to note that Watson did immediately apologize for his remarks, noting in his apology that “I cannot understand how I could have said what I am quoted as having said,” and has since insisted that he is not racist in a conventional way. Francis Wahlgren, the Christie’s auctioneer who is handling the sale of the medal, has said to the Financial Times that he is confident the medal would fetch the $2.5 million reserve, and does not expect Watson’s previous remarks to affect the sale. He notes that “There are a lot of personalities in history we’d find fault with – but their discoveries transcend human foibles.”

It is that statement that gives me trouble. Does past performance give you a free pass in the present? I have seen this before, where revered scientists take missteps later in their careers. Jane Goodall plagiarizes her latest book;  E.O. Wilson doesn’t think math is important, other Nobel Laureates like Lynn Margulis have drifted away from good science in her late career. In the case of Watson, his behaviours tend to get written off as less being an arrogant bigot, and more of an enthusiastic if misguided old man, who does not quite understand that people won’t always take his provocative remarks as innocently as he intended. Can we excuse bad behaviour/science/thinking from scientific heroes just because they are old and have done great things? Can we separate the legacy of the scientist from the legacy of the person (or that of Dr. Huxtable from Bill Cosby?). It troubles me to think that Watson’s legacy may be more about being racist than about being a great scientist, but I am also troubled by his racist remarks. To help make sense of this dichotomy, I look to Richard Feynman, not for advice, but as an example.

One of many Feynman quotes beautifully illustrated

One of many Feynman quotes beautifully illustrated

Richard Feynman’s legacy, which is quite impressive and full of anecdotes, has been reexamined in the light of his “casual sexism” and disrespectful behaviours towards women. Feynman has a certain celebrity about him in the pop-science community, his quotes frequently show up in Twitter streams and inspirational posters, which are just beautiful, and he is revered as a hero to some. But few heroes can survive scrutiny unscathed. They all have flaws, by virtue of being human. At Galileo’s Pendulum, Matthew Francis points out that hero-worship blurs those flaws, leveling them: truly nasty aspects of a person’s personality or behavior become on par with little quirks and eccentricities. In that way, we justify our worship. Over at Mathematigal, the author makes a great point about examining the legacy of Feynman, which easily applies to many other of our heroes, “Feynman did amazing work, it’s true. Talking openly about the uglier aspects of his life doesn’t diminish that. But glossing over his reprehensible behavior towards women, or trying to explain it away, alienates those of us who have had to struggle with that same behavior from our own friends and colleagues.” Speaking of explaining it away, there is even a Feynman excuses Bingo Card;

Excuses that get thrown about when discussing Feynman's

Excuses that commonly get thrown about when discussing the less savory aspects of Feynman’s legacy

Through all of that, what can I say. I still admire the work of James Watson. I have waited in line for an hour to meet Jane Goodall, and would do so again. I still want to have a drink with E.O. Wilson. I will still be filled with awe when I read a Feynman quote or think about the Challenger investigation. I know that the scientific heroes that I hold in high regard are not perfect, and while that does not diminish their accomplishments, it does make me a bit sad and disappointed, which is all too often part of the price of hero worship.

As I reflect on these scientists, Watson in particular, and their legacies there are a couple of thoughts that I can’t get out of my head;