The fall of Watson

Adam Rutherford thinks James Watson deserves to be shunned. I have to agree.

“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.

Discovering the structure of DNA was phenomenally productive — the biology that erupted out of the field after that revelation has been dazzling us for decades. I’m happy to say, “Thank you, Jim and Francis, that was most excellent,” and also to chastise Watson for having odious and unscientific beliefs. Really, you can do that: making a revolutionary discovery does not mean you get deified.

Dave Munger pointed out back in 2008 that Watson shouldn’t be advising anyone anyone about science, and that he should be kicked off Seed Media’s advisory board (I think that board has dissolved for other reasons now). Even though it means the HBD loons will whine piteously, I have to agree too that the crap Watson has been spewing is not useful, it doesn’t prompt any scientific analysis, it just rehashes long defunct arguments that have been knocked down over and over.

There are those who suggest that Watson’s remarks should be a springboard for true scientific discussion on the heritability and racial differences in IQ, but we say, enough is enough. These aren’t new arguments, and the discussion isn’t productive, especially when what counts for “discussion” are bigoted remarks to a newspaper reporter. We don’t think James Watson should be anyone’s science adviser — and we especially don’t think he should be advising those responsible for the system hosting our blog.

Have a happy retirement, Dr Watson.


  1. frankgturner says

    I met Watson many years ago. He was a smart man, though not a terribly pleasant one. Then again many say the same about me. My personal beliefs about him have nothing to do with his works though. I find it interesting that many people can’t separate the work from the person. I mean I think Ben Carson has done great work. I met him too, he is pretty pleasant in person in my opinion (or was when I met him). I think some of his personal views are a bit silly, but that has nothing to do with my admiration for his works.
    If Watson can keep contributing to our understanding of the universe, then go for it. If not, so be it.

  2. says

    You’re forgetting to thank Rosalind Franklin, who not only produced the X-ray that confirmed DNA’s helical structure but also asserted that the structural elements had to be on the outside with the base pairs facing inwards: both they and Linus Pauling had gotten it wrong. Watson himself said that Franklin ought to have been given a Nobel prize for her work.

  3. Donnie says

    PZ says:

    Really, you can do that: making a revolutionary discovery does not mean you get deified.

    Do not let the Dawkinists hear you write that…they may decide to do a mass protest and walk out of one of your presentations – even if they are not on the same continent as you let alone the same State or building, even.

  4. chrislawson says

    frankgturner@8: I think the point several are making is that Watson is no longer producing good science…in fact, he’s become counter-productive by continuing to blurt statements to the media that are both socially regressive and scientifically wrong.

    pyramus@2: it’s good to remind people of Franklin’s huge contribution to the DNA structure paper, but she had died before the Nobel committee considered the DNA discovery. The evidence for the Crick-Watson model did not become overwhelming until the early 1960s and Rosalind Franklin died in 1958. So she was never in the running for the Nobel. Having said that, there is no question that she did not receive due recognition in her lifetime and that some of that neglect was due to sexism.

  5. John Horstman says

    Considering that Watson’s discovery of the structure of DNA was based almost entirely on stolen unpublished work (mainly Rosalind Franklin’s X-ray crystallography, used pre-publication without her knowledge or permission) and that someone else would have put the pieces together in short order (likely within the year, and probably Franklin herself – the structure of DNA was discovered when it was because we had finally developed the necessary imaging techniques, and she was the one who convinced Watson and Crick that the long connective chains had to be on the outside, while their model had the chain on the inside with the base molecules pointing outward), I’m not even convinced that we should be celebrating Watson for his paper on the DNA double helix in the first place.

    Ah, I see pyramus has already noted this.

  6. frankgturner says

    I am aware of that, pardon I was rambling. Let me give a bit of background to my thoughts.
    When PZ Meyers here said that making a discovery does not mean that an individual is deified, I agreed. To claim that an individual becomes an authority on all other topics after making a great discovery is basically just an expansion of the argument from authority. It seems to be the news media that cashes in on this misconception, much in the way that Fox News did with Ben Carson (hence why he came to mind).
    I would ask whether it is really us as scientists and critical thinkers that fail to get that across to the news media, or whether the news media should be chastized for cashing in on a common misconception and hence promoting the misconception.
    Now if Watson wanted to continue to make deconstructive arguments, I would say go ahead because I know how to take ideas on their own merit as do many of us. Though a good point is made that unfortunately people don’t kn ow how to NOT give him authority and how to take what Watson says with a grain of salt, so maybe it is just better if he does not talk at all, but the same argument could be made for a person who IS making good contributions who is perceived as not doing so.
    If at some point Watson makes a constructive argument I will hear it. To argue that he can’t make any constructive arguments because he has made so many destructive comments is just the argument from authority in reverse. I doubt Watson will and I was going to make the same comments about sexism and Franklin myself that others did. One might say that the real issue is not that Watson makes destructive arguments, but that the media sees him as some sort of authority rather than taking his ideas on their own merits.

  7. microraptor says

    There’s a slightly higher than zero chance that Glen Beck or Pat Robertson might say something that’s actually valid and useful, but I’m not going to bother waiting around for them to do so. It’s the same with Watson- he’s spent so much time spewing garbage that it’s pretty much a waste of time to try sorting through it for anything good anymore.

  8. frankgturner says

    @ microraptor
    Like I said, if Watson says something useful I am opened to it. I am sure others can peer review his statements for something useful. Saying that I am opened to it does not mean I am willing to be the one who looks through it but I am sure that someone is willing to do so.