The title refers to this post, which preceded the surprising development of iconic movie mensch Morgan Freeman being exposed as a workplace harasser (alleged, that is) and suddenly seeing his image degraded to Dirty Old Man, and his movies devalued as “Ew!” Now even his voice-over work is in peril.
A famous scientist is a different kettle of fish, however.
At a genomics meeting at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York, the attendees gathered to listen to the keynote speech in an auditorium, where a large painted portrait of scientist James Watson–who lives in Cold Spring Harbor— hung. It was also Watson’s 90th birthday. Eric Lander, the director of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, lifted a glass of champagne in hand to toast the famous co-discoverer of the DNA molecule. Watson has “inspired all of us to push the frontiers of science to benefit humankind,” he said in part.
You would think, would you not, that simply recognizing a giant of science and a crucial and transformative figure in these scientists’ field would be able to escape political correctness and social media controversy, wouldn’t you? Nah, why would you think that, silly? This is 21st century America.
Watson, to catch you up quickly, began tarnishing his reputation years ago with a series of gaffes. Notably, he opined that there was no way to avoid the conclusion that African-Americans weren’t as intelligent, on average, as whites. The furious public backlash sent him into retirement. But he still couldn’t avoid inserting his foot in his mouth: speaking before he was to receive an Honorary Doctorate from University College Cork (in Ireland) in 2010, Watson told journalists that cancer research was being unnecessarily held back by an obsession with ethics.
So the man has some theories in common with Josef Mengele and David Duke. He also has made some jaw-droppingly sexist comments in his dotage….some that even Morgan Freeman might blanch at.
After the meeting, Caltech’s Lior Pachter led a furious repudiation of Eric Lander’s toast with a series of tweets documenting various sexist and racist comments by Watson. He later told industry reporters, “That people are willing to celebrate this individual in public was a moment of truth for me of what things actually look like in our community and what might be then happening in nonpublic venues behind closed doors when hiring and other important decisions are being made.”
Lander, since scientists have no more backbone than actors, politicians, comedians and bakery owners, immediately capitulated and grovelled for forgiveness. In an email addressed to the Broad Institute community, Lander wrote that his brief comment about Watson being ‘flawed” to introduce the toast “did not go nearly far enough.”
“I reject his views as despicable,” he wrote. “They have no place in science, which must welcome everyone.”
An article about the foofaraw in the The Scientist amply demonstrates why scientists are no more adept at drawing ethics lines than junior high school students. In the various accounts and arguments, Watson’s legitimately offensive statements are conflated without distinction with more ambiguous ones. For example, he once said, “Should you be allowed to make an anti-Semitic remark? Yes, because some anti-Semitism is justified. Just like some anti-Irish feeling is justified. If you can’t be criticized, that’s very dangerous. You lose the concept of a free society.” What is that? Is he talking about criticism of Israel’s policies, or is he supporting the First Amendment? As I reviewed the debate over Watson along with his own statements, one conclusion was unavoidable. A lot of scientists, including Watson, don’t communicate very clearly. Is that a surprise? They didn’t major in Literature and English for a reason. They are about as skilled at clear, unambiguous expression as I am at quantum physics.
There is also a lot of innuendo and hearsay being used as facts against Watson. For example, one of Pachter’s tweets reads, “I’ve heard countless other horrible stories from former CSHL students that reveal Watson to be a racist and misogynist not only in words, but also in deeds.” Oh? What’s “countless”? Third party accounts don’t “reveal” anything. Of course, we all know that students never gossip about other students or instructors or make unjustified accusations, right, professor?
The Scientist then opens up a utilitarian mess with this:
“There are signs that bullies and bigots are becoming less welcome in science. The National Science Foundation and the Wellcome Trust, for instance, have made it mandatory for institutions to report grant recipients who are found guilty of harassment. Powerful scientists have lost power after women have come forward with accusations of sexual misconduct (take the case of Inder Verma, who lost his job as PNAS editor-in-chief and premier cancer scientist at the Salk Institute this year after eight women complained of harassment).”
Let me try to cut through the confusion and the conflation with some clear assertions and some ethics nuts and bolts:
1. J.D. Watson is a brilliant scientist who holds some repugnant beliefs. His statements and beliefs do not, should not and must not diminish appreciation of his discovery and work in the field of genetics. That work would remain just as valuable to mankind if Watson were a cannibal, Jack the Ripper, or was married to a 6 year-old.
2. Thus the toast “He has inspired all of us to push the frontiers of science to benefit humankind,” is fair, appropriate, earned and accurate.
3. Misconduct in the workplace cannot be tolerated because of the talent or productivity of the individual who engages in it. Tolerating misconduct invokes the King’s Pass, and corrupts the culture.
4. The scientific work an otherwise reprehensible individual has done, and the benefits to mankind that work has conferred, is not diminished in any way by the scientist’s negative personal or even professional traits. Scientific discoveries are not like works of art. Newton’s laws do not become any less of a foundation of our knowledge of the universe if he is discovered to be a serial killer. We don’t have to like or admire or be charmed by science. We just have to use it. Nobody sane would say, “I just found out Darwin was a creep, so its back to creationism for me!”
5. We do not honor the character of a professional when we honor that professional’s contribution to civilization.
6. Important contributions to the progress of mankind should be honored, along with the human beings responsible for those contributions. Civilization has a duty to recognize its architects.
7. For geneticists not to recognize and honor James Watson’s work would be dishonest, ungrateful and irresponsible. What the uproar over a simple toast to his scientific achievement demonstrated was the vulnerability of scientists, like so many other professions, to grandstanding, virtue-signaling, and the failure to recognize proportionality.
8. They, like the other professionals, should restrain themselves. “The science jerks and bigots should be shunned—no matter if they have a Nobel Prize.,” says The Scientist. What an obvious slippery slope that is. Who defines “a jerk?” There are undoubtedly members of the scientific community who would like to shun any colleague who voted for Donald Trump, or who opposes open borders, affirmative action, abortion, or restricting the use of carbon fuels. I’ve seen enough evidence to make me wary of any profession’s desire to enforce opinions and belief systems on its members.
9. To return to the question in the post’s title: “If Artists Have An Obligation To Avoid Harming Their Art By Being Jerks (Or Worse) In Pubic, Does The Same Principle Apply To Scientists?”, my answers are:
- No, if we are talking about competed work. Science is not art. A scientist’s conduct doesn’t affect the value of his or her scientific work at all.
- Yes, if we are referring to work in progress. Inder Verma (see above) should not get a pass on intolerable conduct in the workplace because he can advance the goal of curing cancer. If his misconduct interrupts or undermines his ongoing work, that must be his responsibility alone.
10. For this last observation, I’m going to use a separate post.
Pointer: Arthur in Maine