James Watson Stripped Of Honorary Titles Over Racial Comments

James Watson in happier times. National Cancer Institute/Public Domain

James Watson, who shared the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for the discovery of the structure of DNA, has lost the honorary titles given to him by Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL), where he worked after 1968. The decision comes after extensive soul-searching and heated debate within CSHL. It exemplifies the conundrum of how to treat scientists who have made major contributions to their own field, but mistreat their colleagues, or make dangerously false statements about topics outside their expertise.

Watson has been associated with vile comments for a long time. He belittled the immense achievements of Rosalind Franklin, whose work made the DNA discovery possible, in his memoir because she didn't wear lipstick. Many years later he boasted he wouldn't employ fat people. 

However, after tolerating all these things, CSHL has drawn the line at Watson's racial views. Watson has repeatedly espoused the view that genetics make people of African descent less intelligent and more highly sexual than Europeans. The latter is particularly odd considering Watson's self-admitted ceaseless badgering of women for sex when he was younger.

So-called evidence for these claims relies on badly structured studies, usually conducted by white supremacists and funded by a wealthy admirer of Hitler. Credible research has almost always contradicted the claims, something Watson refuses to acknowledge. Meanwhile, his claims have emboldened bigots advocating violence against people with darker skin.

In 2007 Watson apologized for some of his remarks, but he's made clear his views are unchanged and apparently resistant to facts. He subsequently sold his Nobel Prize, saying he needed money as a result of losing positions long after the age most people retire.

When Watson reiterated these views in a television interview this month, it turned out to be the final straw. Cold Spring condemned the comments and severed their connection with Watson, removing the multiple honorary statuses they had bestowed on him.

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