Adam Rutherford doesn’t have much sympathy for James Watson’s complaints of undue neglect.
The great scientist James Watson is to auction his Nobel prize medal. He told the Financial Times this week that following accusations of racism in 2007, “no one really wants to admit I exist”, and as a result his income had plummeted and he has become an “unperson”.
If his income plummeted as a result of people avoiding him, that can mean only that he no longer gets big fees for speaking or lecturing. Well…yes, and?
If people no longer want to pay to hear him talk, then they don’t. If that’s because he revealed himself to be a racist, then well done people who no longer want to hear him talk. He’s not simply automatically entitled to big speaking fees.
This sounds awful: an 86-year-old hero ostracised for his views, shooed from public life by the people who walk in his scientific shadow.
But it’s not awful. Watson has said that he is “not a racist in a conventional way”. But he told the Sunday Times in 2007 that while people may like to think that all races are born with equal intelligence, those “who have to deal with black employees find this not true”. Call me old-fashioned, but that sounds like bog-standard, run-of-the-mill racism to me.
And this current whinge bemoans a new poverty born of his pariah status. Apart “from my academic income”, he says, Watson is condemned to a miserly wage that prevents him from buying a David Hockney painting.
In short, he’s no longer popular, because of his bog-standard racism. Well there you go.
With Nobels, we put people on pedestals and gift them platforms to say whatever they like. Here, they represent science, but contrary to stereotype, there isn’t a typical scientist. We’re just people.
Some Nobel laureates say stupid ignorant things. Most say little beyond their expertise, and some, such as the president of the Royal Society, Paul Nurse, are great leaders and campaigners for science and society.
And the same applies to non-laureate scientists. A famous scientist can be both a great campaigner for science and a racist or sexist or both. This is a thing that can happen.
“No one really wants to admit I exist” says Watson. That’s not it. It’s more that no one is interested in his racist, sexist views. Watson, alongside Crick, will always be the discoverer of the double helix, to my mind the scientific breakthrough of the 20th century. Here’s our challenge: celebrate science when it is great, and scientists when they deserve it. And when they turn out to be awful bigots, let’s be honest about that too. It turns out that just like DNA, people are messy, complex and sometimes full of hideous errors.
And we can always look at David Hockney paintings in books or museums.