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.

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