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. Continue reading