Field of Science

Don't squelch eccentricity

Distinguished scientists including Edward O. Wilson (who for the record despised Watson before) and Richard Dawkins are now coming to James Watson's support. I suspect that the gut reaction that surfaced right after he made his statements obscured any kind of objective reasoning and patient analysis, as often happens with such socially explosive issues. Nobody can say that he had every justification for saying what he did, but more are now rallying to his side and denouncing his dismissal from Cold Spring Harbor and the cancellation of his lecture at the Science Museum. I have already stated my opinion in the last post; while the lecture cancellation was probably more aimed by the Science Museum at avoiding bad press, his dismissal from Cold Spring was unwarranted. One interesting point of view says that he in fact should have been allowed to appear at the Museum and quizzed in detail about his statements.
Robin McKie in the Guardian reports:
"In the end, Watson decided to return home, so no meetings occurred, a move that has dismayed many scientists who believed that it was vital Watson confront his critics and his public. 'What is ethically wrong is the hounding, by what can only be described as an illiberal and intolerant "thought police", of one of the most distinguished scientists of our time, out of the Science Museum, and maybe out of the laboratory that he has devoted much of his life to, building up a world-class reputation,' said Richard Dawkins, who been due to conduct a public interview with Watson this week in Oxford.

Nor is it at all clear that Watson is a racist, a point stressed last week by the Pulitzer-winning biologist E O Wilson, of Harvard University. In his autobiography, Naturalist, Wilson originally described Watson, fresh from his Nobel success, arriving at Harvard's biology department and 'radiating contempt' for the rest of the staff. He was 'the most unpleasant human being I had ever met,' Wilson recalled. 'Having risen to fame at an early age, [he] became the Caligula of biology. He was given licence to say anything that came into his mind and expected to be taken seriously. And unfortunately he did so, with casual and brutal offhandedness.'

That is a fairly grim description, to say the least. However, there is a twist. There has been a rapprochement. 'We have become firm friends,' Wilson told The Observer last week. 'Today we are the two grand old men of biology in America and get on really well. I certainly don't see him as a Caligula figure any more. I have come to see him as a very intelligent, straight, honest individual. Of course, he would never get a job as a diplomat in the State Department. He is just too outspoken. But one thing I am absolutely sure of is that he is not a racist. I am shocked at what has happened to him.'
I especially find Wilson's remarks revealing, because Wilson has always been known to be a compassionate, fair and objective scientist who would be loathe to offer unabashed support for pet ideas and people. I have read several of his books and never have found him to be biased or narrow-minded. I think that him saying something like this about Watson, a man who was his bete noire for years, surely says something. And Wilson's depiction of himself and Watson as the two grand old men of American biology is quite accurate. The two grand men made a rare appearance on Charlie Rose quite recently.

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