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.

Other significant scientists, while disagreeing with Watson's statements, have previously defended his legal right to make them, and argued institutions such as Cold Spring should continue to give him a platform to propound them.

No one in science disputes the significance of the discovery to which Watson's name will forever be attached. Identifying the structure of DNA was arguably the most important scientific achievement of the 20th century, unleashing as it did all the genetic analysis and modification of genes that followed.

There's more debate on Watson's share of the credit. Modern science is a collaborative effort, and often only a few names get all the public credit for group efforts. In the case of DNA, it is Watson and his collaborator Francis Crick who have received the accolades, but it's unlikely they would have solved the problem without Franklin's work. Moreover, if Watson had bothered to listen to what Franklin had to say in a lecture he attended, instead of obsessing on her gender and appearance, it's likely the structure of DNA would have been solved more than a year earlier.

Unfortunately, a culture of lionizing superstars allows prominent figures to harm the careers of others. If you consider science to be mainly the work of a few geniuses, you might be willing to overlook their flaws. However, those who believe most of the millions of scientific papers published each year advance human knowledge, and think the cumulative contribution of their many little-known authors outweighs that of the big names, are much more concerned about the environment the best-known figures make for others.

We'll never know what the female and non-white scientists whose careers Watson obstructed might have achieved but in future, their younger counterparts may get a chance to show.

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