Jim Watson seems to be genuinely taken aback by the furore his recent comments on race and IQ have aroused. He looks a little like the teenage delinquent who, after years of being a persistent neighbourhood pest, finds himself suddenly hauled in front of a court and threatened with being sent to a detention centre. Priding himself on being a social irritant, he never imagined anyone would deal with him seriously.
The truth is that there is more than metaphor in this image. Watson has throughout his career combined the intelligence of a first-rate scientist and the influence of a Nobel laureate with the emotional maturity of a spoilt schoolboy. There is nothing particularly remarkable about that – it is not hard to find examples of immaturity among public figures – but the scientific community seems to find it particularly difficult to accommodate such cases. For better or worse, there are plenty of niches for emotionally immature show-offs in politics and the media – the likes of Boris Johnson, Ann Widdecombe, Jeremy Clarkson and Ann Coulter all, in their own ways, manage it with aplomb. (It is not a trait unique to right-wingers, but somehow they seem to do it more memorably.) But although they can sometimes leave po-faced opponents spluttering, the silliness is usually too explicit to be mistaken for anything else.
Science, on the other hand, has tended to be blind to this facet of human variety, so that the likes of Watson come instead to be labelled “maverick” or “controversial,” which of course is precisely what they want. The scientific press tends to handle these figures with kid gloves, pronouncing gravely on the propriety of their “colourful” remarks, as though these are sober individuals who have made a bad error of judgement. Henry Porter was a little closer to the mark in the Observer, where he called Watson an “elderly loon”—the degree of ridicule is appropriate, except that Watson is no loon, and it has been a widespread mistake to imagine that his comments are a sign of senescence.