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.
The fact is that Watson has always considered it great sport to say foolish things that will offend people. He is of the type that likes to display what they deem to be “politically incorrect” as a badge of pride, forgetting that they would be ignored as bigoted boors if they did not have power and position. It is abundantly clear that behind the director of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory still stands the geeky young man depicted behind a model of DNA in the 1950s, whose (eminently deserved) Nobel has protected him from a need to grow up. “He was given licence to say anything that came into his mind and expect to be taken seriously,” said Harvard biologist EO Wilson (himself no stranger to controversy, but an individual who exudes far more wisdom and warmth than Watson ever has).
That’s a pitfall for all Nobel laureates, of course, and many are tripped by it. But few have embraced the licence with as much delight as Watson. For example, there was this little gem over a decade ago: “If you are really stupid, I would call that a disease. The lower 10 per cent who really have difficulty, even in elementary school, what’s the cause of it? A lot of people would like to say, ‘Well, poverty, things like that.’ It probably isn’t. So I’d like to get rid of that, to help the lower 10 per cent.” Or this one: “Whenever you interview fat people, you feel bad, because you know you’re not going to hire them.”
Watson has been called “extraordinarily naive” to have made his remarks about race and intelligence and expect to get away with them. But it is not exactly naivety – he probably just assumed that, since he has said such things in the past without major incident, he could do so again. Indeed, he almost did get away with it, until the Independent decided to make it front-page news.
Watson has apologised “unreservedly” for his remarks, which he says were misunderstood. This is mostly a public-relations exercise – it is not clear that there is a great deal of scope for misunderstanding, and evidently Watson now has a genuine concern that he will be dismissed from his post at Cold Spring Harbor. At least by admitting that there is “no scientific basis” for a belief that Africans are somehow “genetically inferior,” he has provided some ammunition to counter the opportunistic use of his remarks by racist groups. But it is inevitable that those groups will now make him a martyr, forced to recant in the manner of Galileo for speaking an unpalatable truth. (The speed with which support for Watson’s comments has come crawling out of the woodwork even in august forums such as Nature’s website, is disturbing.)
The more measured dismay that some, including Richard Dawkins, have voiced over the suppression of free speech implied by the cancellation of some of Watson’s intended UK talks, is understandable, although it seems not unreasonable for an institution to decide it does not especially want to host someone who has just expressed casual racist opinions. More to the point, it is not clear what “free speech” is being suppressed here – Watson does not appear to be wanting to, and being prevented from, making a case that black people are less intelligent than other races. (In fact it is no longer clear what Watson wanted to say at all; the most likely interpretation is that he simply let a groundless prejudice slip out in an attempt to boost his “bad boy” reputation, and that he now regrets it.) In a funny sort of way, Watson would be less deserving of scorn if he were now defending his remarks on the basis of the “evidence” he alluded to. In that event, any kind of censorship would indeed be misplaced.
Beneath the sound and fury, however, we should remember that Watson’s immense achievements as a scientist do not oblige us to take him seriously in any other capacity. Those achievements are orthogonal to his bully-boy bigotry, and they put no distance at all between Watson and the pub boor.
The real casualty in all this is genetics research, for Watson’s comments past and present can only seem to validate claims that this research is in the hands of scientists with questionable judgement and sense of responsibility.
Cross-posted at Philip Ball’s personal blog