End of the line for the field trip
1 hour ago in The Phytophactor
"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.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.
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.'
Surely a society based on denying a possible truth is not a healthy one. If there are such differences we need to be absolutely clear that they do not mean that some groups are intrinsically inferior, superior, or more or less deserving. If it is true that children of different races, by and large and on average, differ in their abilities, then we need an education system that encourages and develops all those varied abilities rather than one narrowly and rigidly based on glorifying the particular kind of intelligence and academic achievement that comes more easily to the dominant group."I am not so sure that cancelling his lecture at the Science Museum was uncalled for; I see it more as an angry rap on the old man's hand. On the other hand, I now am agreeing that suspending him from his CSHL job does not serve much of a purpose, and reflects badly on respecting academic freedom. After all, institutions have been known to distance themselves from their employees, especially academic ones, and most people don't equate institutions' opinions with those of their employees. For example, should MIT fire Noam Chomsky because he has sometimes espoused what some have claimed as radical and bigoted views? Of course not, and here the issue clearly is about academic freedom. If Lehigh University can simply get away with putting a disclaimer on their site distancing themselves from Michael Behe (whose creationist leanings are much more crackpot than even Watson's, if not as offensive-sounding), then why can't CSHL?