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

Home-Grown Mengeles, And What We Must Learn From Them

Josef Mengele: researcher, utilitarian, monster

We knew, or should have known, that this extremely ugly shoe was bound to drop eventually.

Last autumn, when the U.S. apologized for federal doctors infecting prisoners and mental patients in Guatemala with syphilis 65 years ago, it put us on notice that a vile and unethical cultural standard had taken hold of the American medical and scientific communities in the 20th century, one that held  it was “right” for the weakest, most powerless and most disposable of human beings to be tricked, coerced or bribed into serving as subjects for experiments that could lead to miraculous cures and treatments for the rest of the population. This–depriving human beings of their rights and lives in the interest of science—is “the ends justify the means” at its worst. But the Guatemala experiments proved that this was once flourishing and respectable in the U.S. scientific and medical research communities, so it would have been surprising if there weren’t more stories of home-grown Mengeles, and sure enough, there were. The U.S. acknowledged as much when it apologized for the Guatemalan tests. Now we have details. Continue reading

Dr. James Watson: There, But For Red Tape, Goes Dr. Mengele

Dr. James D. Watson, Nobel Prize winner, will always have a place among the highest echelons of scientific achievement, no matter what thoughtless and dangerous things he says. Still, the co-discoverer of the double helix is slowly tarnishing his reputation by a series of gaffes. A few years ago, he opined that there was no way to avoid the conclusion that African-Americans just weren’t as intelligent, on average, as whites: the predictable uproar sent him into retirement. Now, as Watson reaps the well-deserved bounty of career honors in his eighties, he is endorsing the retreat from the standards of medical research ethics originally inspired by the diabolical human experimentation performed on helpless adults and children by nightmarish Nazi researcher, Dr. Josef  Mengele. Mengele believed that human beings could be reasonably sacrificed if the benefits to society and humanity generally were great enough, in his estimation, of course. Apparently, so does Watson. Continue reading

The Ethics of Helen Thomas Awards

When does an honor start honoring the wrong values? This tricky ethical problem is now in the spotlight thanks to the sudden self-destruction of Helen Thomas, who blurted anti-Semitic sentiments to a Rabbi, on camera, in an impromptu interview.

There are journalism awards named after Thomas, including The Helen Thomas Award for Lifetime Achievement given by the Society for Professional Journalism. Now that Thomas has included among her life time achievements a demand that the Jews “get the hell out of Israel” and go back to Germany and Poland—you know: “where they belong,” what does her name on the award mean to future recipients? Is accepting it a tacit endorsement of her views? Or should individuals be assessed on the totality of their careers, and not solely identified with their inevitable missteps. no matter how reprehensible? The latter was a common theme of eulogizers at President Richard Nixon’s funeral. Continue reading