The Controversial Birthday Toast: If Artists Have An Obligation To Avoid Harming Their Art By Being Jerks (Or Worse) In Public, Does The Same Principle Apply To Scientists?

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

10 thoughts on “The Controversial Birthday Toast: If Artists Have An Obligation To Avoid Harming Their Art By Being Jerks (Or Worse) In Public, Does The Same Principle Apply To Scientists?

  1. Using my own thumb as a general rule, I’d have to say that scientists are only brilliant (or, at least, well-informed) in their own field. They are, then, myopic outside of that field, and might hold some strange opinions in others. Possibly even unethical opinions. Doesn’t mean their WORK is unethical, or even wrong.

    • Absolutely! In my own science education we were thoroughly hammered with the reminder that you’re only an expert in what you study, not in “science.” Linus Pauling was our common but-for-the-grace-of-God example, a brilliant physicist who later beclowned himself by trading on his legitimate scientific fame to endorse Vitamin C miracle cure quackery.

  2. I was actually going to forward you an article about sexual harassment in the Scientific Community. The May 1918 National Geographic was the only periodical available from this century, while I awaited cataract surgery ~ two weeks ago.

    Unfortunately it lies behind a paywall, but it’s worth the read if you can make your way to it somehow

    Sciences Missing Their #MeToo Moment (Kathryn Clancy, National Geographic. 04/29/2018

    ”In many fields, sexual harassers have lost their jobs. But in the sciences, they’re often still getting paychecks instead of punishment.”

    • In a way that makes sense. The king’s pass/star syndrome is a problem everywhere, of course, but in many other fields the person is part of the product (you can’t watch Cosby reruns without seeing Cosby, for example). In science, with a vanishingly small percentage of exceptions, even the most brilliant and earthshaking discoveries are made by researchers who are essentially anonymous. Their output is the entirety of their public persona once you get beyond a small circle of close contacts.

      You can get all irate every time you see a movie with a harasser in it, or every tine an abusive athlete is lauded in the media. It’s harder to personalize the idea of “Hm- well the primary author on the first cited work in this NATURE article got accused of being a predator…”

  3. Glad to see you finally got around to this one, Jack – it’s an absolutely loaded ethics topic.

    I’m not a scientist; I did study the sciences for a fair amount of time until Organic Chemistry said “sorry, you don’t make the cut.” But during the time I was concentrating in it, I learned to respect the method of science as it used to be practiced.

    It’s not just the social re-engineering upon which this post (and article that serves as its source) centers that concerns me. That “#metoo has now touched hard sciences, as it has (or will) touch nearly every endeavor, isn’t surprising – nor is it the greatest sin in science today.

    The personal failings of Watson are chump change when compared to the larger corruption of science – a corruption involving government grants, agenda-driven foundations and NGOs, biased scientific journals and peer review committees, individual scientists seeking the limelight and programs designed to train them not how to become better scientists, but better storytellers. All of these combine to create fodder for politicians seeking a place to set up their tents and a news media far more interested in scary headlines than truth.

    Due to work that I’ve done as as a communications consultant, the two areas of scientific endeavor with which I’m most familiar are climate change and fisheries science. The corruption and dishonesty in both is staggering.

  4. Warning: Semi-rambling post involving topics in scientific ethics.
    Watson is an interesting case in that his important, enduring work was unethical. I remember reading The Double Helix in high school and was shocked when my teacher gushed over Watson and Crick. I was horrified that they were allowed to continue work in science. I was also horrified that Watson gleefully related their slimy behavior as if to taunt their victims and show the world how important they were. Linus Pauling (the 2-time Nobel Prize winner) was also working on the structure of DNA. Watson and Crick knew he and his son were having difficulty and they obtained a confidential manuscript of Pauling’s revealing his triple-helix hypothesis from his son, Peter. They also bragged about how they convinced Rosalind Franklin’s boss to show them her X-ray diffraction pattern of DNA without her knowledge or approval. With her X-ray data and Pauling’s manuscript, they were able to determine the structure of DNA. They brag about how clever they were to get this information from the other chumps and bag a Nobel Prize. I never had much respect for either of them after reading Watson’s book.

    What I have noticed in science is the insularity that leads people to lose sight of other concerns. In some areas, this isn’t such a big deal (he is so focused on electron correlation in f-orbitals he can’t even clean his house), but in others, it can be an issue. My wife was watching a special about a research project involving twins that were separated by adoption agencies. The adoptive parents were never told they were adopting a twin, but researchers followed and studied the children. When the study was over, no one bothered to tell any of the involved parties that twins were involved. In the special, the twins are reunited and brought together with some of the researchers. None of the researchers could even understand why the children were upset about not being told they were twins. They needed to do this to get the data they wanted about nurture vs nature, so they did it. A more brutal example is in the paper “Early Management and Decision Making for the Treatment of Myelomeningocele”, Gross, R. H. et al, Pediatrics, 72, 450-458. In this paper, physicians evaluated children born with Spina Bifida for either aggressive treatment or supportive care (leading to death). They determined which children would live based on the income and education level of the parents. Now, the outcome of the decisions was known (aggressive treatment = life and supportive treatment = death). The point of the study was to see if you can advise the poor people to let their babies die while treating rich people’s babies without the poor parents finding out and the researchers were quite happy to find out that you can. This was typical medical practice, fluids were withheld from disabled babies until they died from dehydration (at least if the parents were poor or poorly educated).

    This is why we need transparency and why the public needs to have a say in research. I know it is a double-edged sword, but the myth that the intelligentsia know what is best for us and we should trust them has been shown false over and over again. What happened when the public finally found out about these medical practices of letting babies die of dehydration? The Reagan HHS sued to stop this practice, but courts summarily dismissed such suits. The enlightened medical establishment and the media were also against the Reagan administration. Reagan then threatened to cut off federal funding and instituted rules to that effect, which were struck down by the courts. The Reagan administration held that Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 that prohibits discrimination against the handicapped was violated by these practices. The media, the medical community, and the federal courts disagreed. The American Academy of Pediatrics rejected the idea that these policies violated Section 504 and instead suggested internal review committees were sufficient to prevent abuse. It took the Reagan administration and his “uneducated, backwards, and superstitious” general public to push through regulations to stop this.

    On the flip side, we need to preserve the right to publish the truth. The post mentioned Watson’s assertion that African-Americans aren’t as intelligent, on average as whites. If find that the least objectionable thing about Watson because that actually IS what the research says. It also says that Jews are more intelligent that whites, on average. Why? We don’t know. Perhaps we aren’t measuring intelligence correctly or perhaps different populations have different distributions of what we call intelligence. Maybe it has to do with how we define intelligence. Should you suppress research if you don’t like it? What other fields of knowledge do we suppress because we don’t like or are afraid of the answers it might yield? Evolution? Big Bang Theory? Canada has gone so far as to remove ‘truth’ as a defense in their hate-speech laws. Do we want that? Isn’t that one of the things we Americans fought to establish, that truth is a defense against libel or slander (in a case involving, of all people, Bill Cosby)?

    • A good friend of mine is getting a Psych PhD and his research involves how scientists perceive the need for transparency, Internal Review Boards, ethics standards, etc.

      He was pleasantly surprised to find that the vast majority of working scientists love all of the controls and protections, find them extremely valuable both personally and for science at large, etc. etc.

      He doesn’t want to believe my take: nearly every scientist, myself included, has a little voice in their head that says “transparency and controls are important for OTHER scientists, but damn do I wish I could just do as I pleased without all the red tape. THEY need to be watched, but I would be careful, take no needless risks, and be acting for the advancement of the species. If I had to do something unsavory it would only be because it was absolutely necessary.”

      I believe it’s a peril that comes with the territory of working in abstractions, in numbers, in impersonal cause and effect. I can tell you a million reasons why it would be a bad idea, but a little part of me says “Sure, I could hybridize the cold and the flu. Don’t worry, I’d be extra careful…”

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