Scientists as "people"

Long post alert!

The Science Museum in London has cancelled a talk by James Watson, of Watson & Crick fame. The museum takes exception to his remarks made to the Sunday Times where he says that black people are essentially “less intelligent” than “ours”. At the time of writing this post – Thursday 18 October 2007 – Watson’s scheduled appearance at the Cambridge Union Society is still on. Cambridge Union Society is a debating society so such people, as Watson or Jean-Marie Le Pen, are almost grist to the mill.

Reader and fellow blogger Madhuri, who is a biology PhD and (ed.: until July 2007) a post-doctoral researcher in the US, has also taken exception to this remark by a scientist held in high regard, even as his shortcomings as a person increasingly raise questions about his judgement.

There are two separate issues here – one is the appropriateness of Watson’s growing tendency to be direct and in current terms, politically incorrect; and the second is the issue of intelligence. In this post, which I aim to finish in the next 15-20 minutes, I shall only write about the former, hence the title of the post: Scientists as “people”.

The questions to ask are:

Why do some people express opinions that outrage most people today?

Where do these views come from?

Is there a “right” way to judge their appropriateness?

Are these views to be taken seriously?

If these views are likely to cause harm, what is the mitigation, short of confining such people to an institution?

Watson is now 82. When he was born, eugenics was a well-funded branch of scientific research. He comes from an age where social norms were different and certain behaviours were acceptable. For instance, Rosalind Franklin’s contribution to enabling Watson and Crick’s “discovery” was glossed over for a long time in history. The sort of behaviour meted out to Franklin would – in theory – be unacceptable behaviour today, but it was acceptable then. To turn the issue on its head, today perhaps a woman scientist will fight back. Why did Franklin not make that choice? For part of the reasons, I refer you to the brief history of women in Cambridge in the comments section from an earlier post. Franklin’s contributions being key to the Triple Helix discovery puts to rest any doubts about her inherent capability as a scientist. But since 1901, only 3% of Nobel Prize winners have been women.

In 21st century reality, women researchers are still treated as second-class in many laboratories. A super-smart friend of mine was a mature PhD student in environmental chemistry, in Cambridge. She told me of how a young 22-year old male PhD thought it was ok to talk down at her, asking her to run his errands. She set him straight, but one has to wonder where he learnt it was ok to talk down to a colleague like that? As Ali G would ask “Is it because I is a woman?” Not an insignificant proportion of his bad behaviour was down to his maleness and his evident sense of being born superior. But some of it was definitely learnt. It is hard today to fathom a life where a man can go unchallenged for a whole 22 years! Perhaps that is how his father treats his mother? Perhaps his laboratory seniors and Professors overlook his social faux pas and thereby encourage them?

Larry Summers found to his peril that the scientific establishment’s treatment of women can never be explained away satisfactorily, whichever way you frame your argument. Empirical evidence shows that it is a complex of factors – most of them institutional – that has held back women’s progress and participation in science, as well as their rightful claim to credit for some of the most lauded scientific achievements of the 20th century.

Just like the state of women in science is a complex reality, so are the views expressed by Watson.

Some of it is down to his upbringing. Some of it is down to an establishment that prized his genius so much that it never rebuked him. Some of it is down to the fact that he is antediluvian and therefore espouses antediluvian views. This is not an ageist comment. This is something that scientists have been struggling to understand for a while.

Recent research shows that while younger people, who make an effort to be politically correct and fit with the evolving norms of acceptable behaviour, can change, older people genuinely find it difficult to change. This is down to how our brains age. An older research paper suggests that older people say prejudicial things because they just cannot help it. They lose their inhibitions as their brain’s ability to inhibit inappropriate thoughts diminishes. Recent research by the same Bill von Hippel of University of Queensland confirms the finding that as we age, our brains’ frontal lobes atrophy and so do the functions associated with the frontal lobes such as planning, reasoning, judgement, impulse control and motor control.

This may also explain why Watson thinks that if it can be done, girls should be made pretty. Hardly an appropriate remark!

So is there a right way to judge the inappropriateness of some remarks? Back to Watson and Franklin, to judge events from back then through a lens of today would be incorrect. We cannot revise history but if we do not learn from it and change ourselves, we will soon be repeating it, to paraphrase Santayana.

If these views are not to be taken seriously, what about the harm they may cause? Madhuri suggests that people with bigoted views still serve on funding committees and can hamper the chances of perfectly good candidates who do not suit their criteria of being “ours”.

Here is my take on it.

I would immensely prefer a Watson, a poor old dear with diminishing control over his frontal lobe and his mouth, whose opinions are out in the open, to a smart-arse who espouses just the right views in public and then goes inside and strikes out all minorities – gender, race, colour – from the list of potential beneficiaries of funding.

Do Watson’s views harm his workplace? Cold Spring Harbour Laboratories, which host Watson, have a diverse community of researchers, even though a vast majority of them are male. But there are signs of hope. There are some women as well as several non-white – mainly Indian and Chinese – researchers. Admittedly I did not click to see each researcher’s mugshot. But from the name list, it appears there are no black/ African-American/ Afro-Carribean researchers at CSHL.

Is this all down to Watson’s racism? I do not think so.

The United States passed its civil rights act in 1964 and by all accounts, the country still struggles with where it stands on race. Surely even scientists appalled by Watson’s racism can see that it is not all his fault.

Watson will be dead in a few years’ time, but if the youth of the country is still bigoted, we have a bigger problem at hand than just the utterances of an old man of DNA.

23 Replies to “Scientists as "people"”

  1. Shefaly,
    I like your positive attitude to everything.
    I am NOT currently a postdoc researcher (since July 2007). I am healing a bad back (bending over the lap top for long hours is not helping either).
    I like the fact that Watson would want people who have interests in all fields to enter science. But basic research is no more for those who really crave curiosity, its become a race and in its madness only those who labor for long hours continuously at their work benches without any other interests in their surroundings, survive (if you call that survival). Cold Spring Harbor is just another such labor camp. When i visited it last month, I was amazed to see no researcher or postdoc admiring its beautiful natural surrounding, all of them were probably bending over their petri plates in gloomy lab interiors.

  2. Shefaly,
    I like your positive attitude to everything.
    I am NOT currently a postdoc researcher (since July 2007). I am healing a bad back (bending over the lap top for long hours is not helping either).
    I like the fact that Watson would want people who have interests in all fields to enter science. But basic research is no more for those who really crave curiosity, its become a race and in its madness only those who labor for long hours continuously at their work benches without any other interests in their surroundings, survive (if you call that survival). Cold Spring Harbor is just another such labor camp. When i visited it last month, I was amazed to see no researcher or postdoc admiring its beautiful natural surrounding, all of them were probably bending over their petri plates in gloomy lab interiors.

  3. I appreciate your citing of research in these areas – it adds weight to the discussion. It also allows me to thereby conclude that Watson should have no place in a role with a decision-making or influencing capacity. If we act (as many of us do) behind closed doors in ways that we know are not correct, even though we remain able to restrain ourselves from publicly voicing our wrongly held views, and if age impairs our natural inhibitions against voicing them, then age may also impair our inhibitions against acting on them even more than we already do. In other words, if he can’t control the verbal expression of his discriminatory thoughts because he’s advanced in age, how could he possibly reign in the acting out of those same discriminatory thoughts in the form of funding or staffing decisions?

  4. I appreciate your citing of research in these areas – it adds weight to the discussion. It also allows me to thereby conclude that Watson should have no place in a role with a decision-making or influencing capacity. If we act (as many of us do) behind closed doors in ways that we know are not correct, even though we remain able to restrain ourselves from publicly voicing our wrongly held views, and if age impairs our natural inhibitions against voicing them, then age may also impair our inhibitions against acting on them even more than we already do. In other words, if he can’t control the verbal expression of his discriminatory thoughts because he’s advanced in age, how could he possibly reign in the acting out of those same discriminatory thoughts in the form of funding or staffing decisions?

  5. Madhuri:

    Thanks! I have made a small amendment in the post. Sorry about the mistake.

    I would not condone this sort of rubbish from anyone, including from soi-disant luminaries. By virtue of being watched by the common man, they have a responsibility to behave in public. Especially in case of Science, from where I have never heard a researcher tell a story that does not involve misogyny.

    However I think in the end, the real test lies in whether such people are affecting anything adversely in the world. For all his hyperbole, Le Pen took over 20 years to convince a fifth of France to vote for him. And for Watson, I suppose, one has to see his employment record to test if he is all mouth and no trousers, or he has really damaged the cause of research.

    To me, the solution is not to bar him or any such people from debate. Even despite his atrophying frontal lobes, I would challenge him. Unless we know the “what” and the “why” behind the “what”, how will we strategise and act to counter it?

    Thanks for reading.

  6. Madhuri:

    Thanks! I have made a small amendment in the post. Sorry about the mistake.

    I would not condone this sort of rubbish from anyone, including from soi-disant luminaries. By virtue of being watched by the common man, they have a responsibility to behave in public. Especially in case of Science, from where I have never heard a researcher tell a story that does not involve misogyny.

    However I think in the end, the real test lies in whether such people are affecting anything adversely in the world. For all his hyperbole, Le Pen took over 20 years to convince a fifth of France to vote for him. And for Watson, I suppose, one has to see his employment record to test if he is all mouth and no trousers, or he has really damaged the cause of research.

    To me, the solution is not to bar him or any such people from debate. Even despite his atrophying frontal lobes, I would challenge him. Unless we know the “what” and the “why” behind the “what”, how will we strategise and act to counter it?

    Thanks for reading.

  7. Worth:

    Thanks!

    That, such people can still affect outcomes for funding applications and careers, is the point that Madhuri made in our conversation on her blog yesterday.

    Such people, as shoot their mouths off – and Watson did that, way before he started ageing – are immensely preferable to those who do not say anything but damage the system anyway through their quiet actions (Type II errors in the system if allowed into decision making processes).

    For both kinds, in my view, the solution lies in checks and balances, such as blind reviews of funding applications and job applications.

    Research in the US conducted as recently as 2003 shows that based on the names on the CV, candidates with identical CVs but with white-sounding names are more likely to get job interview calls than those with black or Asian sounding names. You can read Bertrand and Mullainathan’s paper here.

    The answer however is not in banning people like Watson from public appearances. I draw a parallel – despite all the evidence of harm, tobacco is still a legitimate industry. Why? Because banning it outright will send it underground and create parallel channels, generally out of the control and purview of any regulators.

    If we are serious about fighting discrimination on any ground, we need to be innovative and sensible, not politically correct and hyper-sensitive.

    My 2p 🙂

    Thanks for reading.

  8. Worth:

    Thanks!

    That, such people can still affect outcomes for funding applications and careers, is the point that Madhuri made in our conversation on her blog yesterday.

    Such people, as shoot their mouths off – and Watson did that, way before he started ageing – are immensely preferable to those who do not say anything but damage the system anyway through their quiet actions (Type II errors in the system if allowed into decision making processes).

    For both kinds, in my view, the solution lies in checks and balances, such as blind reviews of funding applications and job applications.

    Research in the US conducted as recently as 2003 shows that based on the names on the CV, candidates with identical CVs but with white-sounding names are more likely to get job interview calls than those with black or Asian sounding names. You can read Bertrand and Mullainathan’s paper here.

    The answer however is not in banning people like Watson from public appearances. I draw a parallel – despite all the evidence of harm, tobacco is still a legitimate industry. Why? Because banning it outright will send it underground and create parallel channels, generally out of the control and purview of any regulators.

    If we are serious about fighting discrimination on any ground, we need to be innovative and sensible, not politically correct and hyper-sensitive.

    My 2p 🙂

    Thanks for reading.

  9. I hate PC with a vengeance. One may not like or agree with the views/judgements people hold but the world is a lot better when everything is out in the open and not moulded/changed to conform to “someone else’s” point of view or socially accepted norm. You should fear what you dont know rather than what you do know.

  10. I hate PC with a vengeance. One may not like or agree with the views/judgements people hold but the world is a lot better when everything is out in the open and not moulded/changed to conform to “someone else’s” point of view or socially accepted norm. You should fear what you dont know rather than what you do know.

  11. That was a long post!! And a well written one, and good analysis.
    I didn’t know that our inhibitions decrease as we grow older! Is there a high point? Mostly I find myself far more inhibited now than earlier.
    In fact I find that young people today hold the most bigoted views…by bigoted I don’t mean the crazy things that scientist said…I mean the refusal to see another’s point of view. They have this feeling that ‘I am right’ but i guess it’s not being bigoted,it’s the arrogance of youth.

  12. That was a long post!! And a well written one, and good analysis.
    I didn’t know that our inhibitions decrease as we grow older! Is there a high point? Mostly I find myself far more inhibited now than earlier.
    In fact I find that young people today hold the most bigoted views…by bigoted I don’t mean the crazy things that scientist said…I mean the refusal to see another’s point of view. They have this feeling that ‘I am right’ but i guess it’s not being bigoted,it’s the arrogance of youth.

  13. Sorry forgot to mention. Read the Bertrand et al., paper. Sad but true.
    Humans are the most pathetic animals.
    Sometimes i feel cognition is going to take us to our ends.

  14. Sorry forgot to mention. Read the Bertrand et al., paper. Sad but true.
    Humans are the most pathetic animals.
    Sometimes i feel cognition is going to take us to our ends.

  15. @ Madhuri: Thanks! That is a great link and so many more links in there to read. I read the gist but will read the rest next week.

    That paper got a lot of coverage in NYTimes when it came out. I hope our cognition will help us improve our lives, which is why it is essential to discuss these difficult things. Thanks for sharing your views.

    @ Jamie: Thanks! I am blessed to have your friendship, which is so much more fun because none of us is PC. 🙂

    Being able to talk about things – rather than brushing them under the carpet – is a pre-requisite to building real bridges, rather than weak links forced through laws.

    “You should fear what you dont know rather than what you do know.” Touché!

    @ Nita: Thanks. I am glad you liked it.

    As for your question if there is a “high point”, looking at our examples, perhaps we should call it the “low point”! 🙂

    Jokes apart, I think when we lose our inhibitions and gain confidence in our adult years, it may be more experiential than biological. Our experience and exposure give us confidence to deal with things head-on.

    But losing inhibitions in advanced years is biological, as the researches cited here suggest.

    As for the ‘arrogance’ – or should that be ‘ignorance’ – of youth, as George Bernard Shaw said: “Youth is wasted on the young“. I think he was spot-on.

    Thanks, all, for your views.

  16. @ Madhuri: Thanks! That is a great link and so many more links in there to read. I read the gist but will read the rest next week.

    That paper got a lot of coverage in NYTimes when it came out. I hope our cognition will help us improve our lives, which is why it is essential to discuss these difficult things. Thanks for sharing your views.

    @ Jamie: Thanks! I am blessed to have your friendship, which is so much more fun because none of us is PC. 🙂

    Being able to talk about things – rather than brushing them under the carpet – is a pre-requisite to building real bridges, rather than weak links forced through laws.

    “You should fear what you dont know rather than what you do know.” Touché!

    @ Nita: Thanks. I am glad you liked it.

    As for your question if there is a “high point”, looking at our examples, perhaps we should call it the “low point”! 🙂

    Jokes apart, I think when we lose our inhibitions and gain confidence in our adult years, it may be more experiential than biological. Our experience and exposure give us confidence to deal with things head-on.

    But losing inhibitions in advanced years is biological, as the researches cited here suggest.

    As for the ‘arrogance’ – or should that be ‘ignorance’ – of youth, as George Bernard Shaw said: “Youth is wasted on the young“. I think he was spot-on.

    Thanks, all, for your views.

  17. I have read about the entire fracas…. and it is scary that someone who has such advanced scientific knowledge, has such retarded social/sociological insights…
    maybe a course in modern humanities should be a must for those who are scientists and vice versa, to get a feel of what is in…..

  18. I have read about the entire fracas…. and it is scary that someone who has such advanced scientific knowledge, has such retarded social/sociological insights…
    maybe a course in modern humanities should be a must for those who are scientists and vice versa, to get a feel of what is in…..

  19. Harini: Thanks for reading and for sharing your views.

    The thing with Watson is that he has always been a bit controversial. He was also – of the Watson/ Crick duo – the courter of publicity.

    As I mentioned in one of the notes above, it is important to understand whether he has caused any _real_damage. If he has not, then it is immaterial what he says. At any rate, the worse are those, who are PC when they speak and deeply prejudiced when they exercise their powers.

    However I _do_ like the idea of making compulsory some Humanities studies for scientists. Likewise a degree of basic scientific understanding should be required of those studying Humanities too.

    In my engineering school, we studied some humanities but it was no more complex or nuanced than economics!

    Choosing what in humanities should be prescribed to scientists would be an interesting project in itself, and wholly ridden by political agendas.:-)

    Thanks again.

  20. Harini: Thanks for reading and for sharing your views.

    The thing with Watson is that he has always been a bit controversial. He was also – of the Watson/ Crick duo – the courter of publicity.

    As I mentioned in one of the notes above, it is important to understand whether he has caused any _real_damage. If he has not, then it is immaterial what he says. At any rate, the worse are those, who are PC when they speak and deeply prejudiced when they exercise their powers.

    However I _do_ like the idea of making compulsory some Humanities studies for scientists. Likewise a degree of basic scientific understanding should be required of those studying Humanities too.

    In my engineering school, we studied some humanities but it was no more complex or nuanced than economics!

    Choosing what in humanities should be prescribed to scientists would be an interesting project in itself, and wholly ridden by political agendas.:-)

    Thanks again.

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