How to Separate the Science From the (Jerk) Scientist

A recent toast to James Watson highlights a tolerance for bigotry many want excised from the scientific community.

By Anna Azvolinsky | May 18, 2018

ISTOCK, USCHOOLSEarlier this month at a genomics meeting at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York, all of the attendees gathered in Grace Auditorium, where a large painted portrait of James Watson hangs, for the keynote session. Afterward, they held a brief celebration for Watson himself on the occasion of his 90th birthday. Eric Lander, the director of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, with a glass of champagne in hand, toasted the famed geneticist, saying, he has “inspired all of us to push the frontiers of science to benefit humankind.” The audience clapped.

Tucked discretely within Lander’s toast was a little caveat about the man they were all cheering for: “flawed,” Lander called Watson. It was a cryptic acknowledgement of Watson’s racist and sexist public statements, some made even recently. But for many in the scientific community who watched from the sidelines of social media, Lander’s speech was insufficient in condemning Watson’s ugly views.

The science jerks and bigots should be shunned—no matter if they have a Nobel Prize.

Among the first to respond on Twitter with a scathing criticism of the celebration was Caltech’s Lior Pachter. “That people are willing to celebrate this individual in public was a moment of truth for me of what things actually look like in our community,” he tells The Scientist, “and what might be then happening in nonpublic venues behind closed doors when hiring and other important decisions are being made.”

Following the backlash, Lander issued an apology on Monday (May 14). In an email addressed to the Broad Institute community and which he sent to The Scientist, Lander wrote that he was aware of Watson’s anti-Semitic, sexist, and racist views and stated that his knowledge of these is not secondhand. “I included a brief comment about his being ‘flawed,’” Lander wrote. “This did not go nearly far enough. I’d like to do that now: I reject his views as despicable. They have no place in science, which must welcome everyone.”

The scientific legacy of jerks

For some like Pachter and fellow critic Michael Eisen, a biologist at the University of California, Berkeley, the Watson toast is an example of the tolerance of misconduct among the scientific community when it comes from accomplished colleagues. Yet for Pachter, separating a person from his science is not so difficult. The science jerks and bigots should be shunned—no matter if they have a Nobel Prize—because the importance of science is the collective pursuit of truth to understand the universe, not the celebration of a few (mostly older white men) as science celebrities who may or may not have been the “first” to discover something.

“We need to put the spotlight on where most of scientific knowledge is coming from,” agrees Janet Stemwedel, a physical chemist who studies the ethics and philosophy of science at San Jose State University, “the seemingly ordinary but crucial students and postdocs from which objective knowledge comes.” When it is the scientist herself who should be applauded, it should be for her achievements as a role model and good scientist citizen.

Stemwedel believes that a scientist’s bad behavior or views is not independent of his scientific achievements. These researchers typically receive publicly funded dollars to conduct their work and support their trainees. “If this public money is funding a scientist who is doing or saying damaging things, that is undercutting our goal of training and mentoring young scientists. That is a problem and these researchers should be answerable to the public for it.”

Adam Siepel, a computational biologist at CSHL (where Watson formerly served as chancellor), says that individuals like Watson have a complex legacy and should not be reduced to mere villains even as he acknowledges that remarks Watson and others have made do have a real and damaging effect on science and society. In the case of Watson, “at one time, the defense of the public genome project, opposition to patenting of genes, and promotion of open release of data were big issues for progressive scientists! These were issues that Jim got right, in my view, and it was in recognition of these things that I understood us to be toasting him,” Siepel writes in an email to The Scientist.

Change on the horizon

There are signs that bullies and bigots are becoming less welcome in science. The National Science Foundation and the Wellcome Trust, for instance, have made it mandatory for institutions to report grant recipients who are found guilty of harassment. Powerful scientists have lost power after women have come forward with accusations of sexual misconduct (take the case of Inder Verma, who lost his job as PNAS editor-in-chief and premier cancer scientist at the Salk Institute this year after eight women complained of harassment). Stemwedel points out that much of the progress is coming from the bottom up, from students who are voicing their concerns and sharing their experiences with sexual harassment and other misconduct.

See “Dealing With Unethical or Illegal Conduct in Higher Education”

Vanderbilt University neurobiologist BethAnn McLaughlin launched a petition this month calling on the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to revoke the memberships of those who have been “sanctioned for sexual harassment, retaliation and assault.” As of May 17, there were 2,065 signatures. “My hope is that use of social media and platforms like Change.org will pop the bubbles of denial and privilege some have been allowed to live in unchallenged by common sense,” McLaughlin tells The Scientist.

For now, the academy’s stance is that the NAS bylaws do not mention anything about rescinding the membership of an individual. There is a straightforward solution, says Stemwedel: change the bylaw. “If the spectrometer no longer works, well, get a new one!”

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Avatar of: DrDaystrom

DrDaystrom

Posts: 3

May 21, 2018

Well this certainly sheds new light on his, uh, 'appropriation' of Rosalind Franklin's work on DNA.

Avatar of: Dr. Abbott

Dr. Abbott

Posts: 1

May 21, 2018

       Without a doubt Watson is a repugnant jerk, but his contribution to biological chemistry is undeniable. The work of scientists is truth in the physical world, and not being an arm of social justice. That work is for ethicists and others.

    If we carry the notion that we should remove repugnant workers from the field via procedures in the scientific community, we are becoming like the tribe mentality so popular in the USA these days. Many of the great contribution to humanity have come from jerks (and worse), and removing them from the practice of science for being jerks is not the task of scientists. Our  education and training is in science-not in dealing with  jerks. It is the job of others to regulate/discourage the activity of jerks. Ours is to find truth in physical reality.

Avatar of: dmarciani

dmarciani

Posts: 71

May 21, 2018

While not an admirer or a supporter of Dr. Watson’s ideas about sex, race, and other social issues, in his defense I would point to the fact that he has been honest in letting us know in a deliberate manner his biased opinions, without a veneer of progressiveness. Ironically, from the actions of many “progressive” scientists, it seems that Dr. Watson’s opinions are actually shared and practiced by many in the scientific community. The only difference is that those scientists are not honest enough to publicly voice what they believe and practice. This situation reminds us of the fact that scientists, contrary to the opinion of many, are not perfect or some breed of superhumans, but, that they are just plain human beings with all of the virtues and flaws of the average person.       

Replied to a comment from DrDaystrom made on May 21, 2018

May 21, 2018

Crick the  was the major investigator in the DNA work, and Watson was lucky to be in the right place (Crick's lab) at the right time.  As for Rosalind Franklin - I do not think there would have been such a fuss had she been a man.  But that is just my opinion.

Avatar of: PeterUetz

PeterUetz

Posts: 11

May 21, 2018

"Changing the bylaws" isn't that trivial, as people have different concepts of racism or sexism and the challenge is to define these terms, and especially the grey zones.

For instance, when Watson mocked Rosalind Franklin's "features" (honestly, I don't know what he meant) or her desinterest in fashion, I wouldn't call that "sexism" (although many probably would do so).

Avatar of: dsatt

dsatt

Posts: 1

May 21, 2018

At the end of the day, this is a job and we live in a civil society. He is a jerk and should be punished. He was given A LOT of power as a result of his award. Should that power go un-checked? How has science been harmed on the public's dime because of his sexism and bigotry? I think it's appropriate to remove that power and influence and re-define his role in the community.

May 21, 2018

The graduate students invited Watson to speak at the University of Texas perhaps a dozen years ago. As part of the program Watson went to lunch with 8 of the graduate students and he was sitting next to a very dark skinned Indian student. He was also extremely well published with a first author Cell and MCB papers. Watson asked him with all the other students listening in, "So Darkie, what do you do in the lab?"

 

Avatar of: Salticidologist

Salticidologist

Posts: 58

May 21, 2018

Watson's book on DNA inspired a generation.  Just because you disagree with someone you don't need to vilify them.  Science affords everyone the opportunity to test and to disprove any assertion that they disagree with.  You go over the line when you also vilify a person.  Science is different from a social agenda or thought control.  It operates differently, so clearly state your hypothesis and your test.

Avatar of: James Lachman

James Lachman

Posts: 5

May 21, 2018

Jim Watson was a good friend to my late father for several decades and also went out with my aunt for a spell.  He has many good traits but has always struggled to fit in with the world around him, and for all that he has said he has never acted with malice to anyone.  He needs to be accepted for what he is, sadly however the most intolerant people in the modern western world are those who demand tolerance.

My father was at Cambridge in the 50s and felt that Francis was the primary driving force behind the double helix while Jim played a supporting role.  Rosalind Franklin's contribution was significant and she may have been the third name on the Nobel Prize had she not died before it was awarded, she also reduced her influence by failing to collaborate effectively.

Avatar of: DrDaystrom

DrDaystrom

Posts: 3

May 21, 2018

It's sort of easy to see why there are two schools of thought on Dr. Watson, and folks like him.

One point of view is, I suppose, no more important than the other, until one realizes that the more heart-felt and painful ones come from minorities (such as myself) who may have been on the receiving end of this type of disrespect and abuse.

The other, more lenient and indulgent points of view tend to come from those who have NOT been on that receiving end, and may even have been personal acquaintances of the abuser.

Its very easy to be magnanimous about (and of) someone who has not abused you, or others 'like' you, and even forgiving. And yet, one can not logically 'forgive' someone for a transgression of which they themselves were not either the target or the recipient.

While his work in 'the field' may have been great, and while he may even admit himself that he is a jerk, neither of those facts exonerate him, nor should they.

Avatar of: DrDaystrom

DrDaystrom

Posts: 3

May 21, 2018

Final thought from me (I think): Tolerance of intolerance is not tolerance, but rather indulgence, submission, and complicity, and even a touch of cowardice. Only those who have not been on the receiving end of such treatment can even considering allowing it to go unchallenged, or being 'tolerant' of it.

Avatar of: Justwill

Justwill

Posts: 1

May 22, 2018

This article labels Watson, but doesn't bother to state what Watson's views actually are.

Avatar of: NatureAlley

NatureAlley

Posts: 13

May 22, 2018

Although I sympathise with the views I wonder how many would have stood up and addressed bullying while Dr Watson was still at work and of influence.

Avatar of: FrancisBacon

FrancisBacon

Posts: 15

June 20, 2018

Lets accept that many great contributors to science, have also behaved badly.

However, it is not rocket science to accept the conclusion that the contributions stand independently of the contributor. Another way of putting this is that one does not need to know who is the contributor in order to judge the contribution.
Except for the behaviour of plagiarism, the appreciation and assessmnet of scientific contributions should not be tied to personal behaviours.  

It is not only science but all fields of achievement are affected by the so-called jerks. "Jerks" include 'geniuses' capable of great contributions. 

Many 'greats' would not be approved today or in some cases in their own time for the manner in which they may have behaved towards other human beings.

Coming to mind are Vladimir Nabokov (pedophile love), Roman Polansky (underage sex), Pablo Picasso (seriously abusive behaviour to partners) , Dorothy Hewett (encouraging her own daughters to have sex with older male litterati), Charles Dickens (disturbing behaviours in his personal and family life), Brigitte Macron (sex with underage student), George Washington (kept slaves), Roald Dahl and Richard Wagner (Nazi sympathisers, antisemites), Rolf Harris etc.

The worst forms of bigotry vilify. They are often coupled with intimidation or bullying, and should never be tolerated, but let us not confuse unpopular personal opinion with these forms of bigotry. 

 

 

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