‘Watson Decoded’ didn’t do much decoding

That PBS documentary on James Watson wasn’t half bad, if you are able to abide a deep dive into the life of a man with almost Trumpian levels of self-delusion (but unlike Trump, with an actual germ of intelligence). The theme of the show, I would say, is that Watson is a man who says what he thinks, so they just let him speak.

So what does James Watson think?

He’s a scientific genius. Rosalind Franklin was an incompetent. DNA is a more important idea in biology than evolution. He’s smarter than Darwin. You are determined by your genes. No one has ever shown any evidence that environment plays a more significant role than genetics. Black people are less intelligent than white people. He regrets having to say that, but you have to speak the truth. He has black friends. He liked to surround himself with pretty girls in the lab. The stuff he said about how everyone knows black employees are inferior was said in a private conversation, and how dare that reporter publish it. His loyal wife argues that he’s not really a racist, because racists say mean things with the intent to make others miserable. Watson’s ego is immense.

I also learned a few things I didn’t know before.

His wife was an 18 year old undergraduate 20 years his junior, working in his office, when he started courting her (this would be considered a serious ethical problem now, but as we are reminded several times, the old boy network was strong.) I’ve met his wife, she was very nice, but seemed a bit frazzled by her efforts to moderate Watson’s comments when they veered off into apologetics for eugenics, as they seemed to do. He has a son with serious mental health issues and a history of behavioral problems…and Watson cared for and loved him very much, which was the one redeeming feature I took away from the show. He also has a lot of former students and colleagues who practically idolize him, but even they think he’s wrong in his genetics mania.

The way it portrayed Maurice Wilkins made him out to be a petty, spiteful little shit. How did Watson and Crick get Franklin’s crucial data? Because Wilkins was resentful of this woman working in his division, and just handed it over. Her data, not his. I guess you can get a Nobel prize for backstabbing.

There were some omissions. The program didn’t say much about his sexism — it shied away from giving any details of the objectionable lectures he was giving that led to his downfall. I would have used more quotes from The Double Helix. Those were his own words, he’s clearly proud of the book, but the way he demeaned Rosalind Franklin was blatant and deplorable. There’s a bit of that, but I would guess they were minimized because the details would have made the show too much of a hatchet job.

‘Watson Decoded’ was good journalism, just presenting the facts and letting Watson hang himself with his own words, but I worry about how some people will twist the facts. Here’s a SUPER-GENIUS who thinks BLACK GENES ARE INFERIOR, and rather than recognizing that he’s a flawed person with deep biases, as the program demonstrates, they’ll see it as a validation of racist ideas. But then, you can’t do much about people with willful, hateful prejudices, and they could have just put up a big black screen with blinking letters saying “HE’S WRONG” (as Nancy Hopkins plainly says), and those people would just ignore it anyway.


  1. says

    Back in high school my biology teacher showed us a docudrama about Watson and Crick called “Life Story”. Jeff Goldbloom was Watson, and one weird thing always stuck with me. Early in the film Goldbloom makes some comment about “Bird Watching”. My teacher explained that he was referring to women as “birds”. I didn’t really get it back then, naive little nerd I was back then, but I’m pretty sure now that he would be one of those repulsive “pick-up-artists” who only exist to objectify women.

    I didn’t realize how common this sort of attitude was in academia until fairly recently (like within the last decade or so). I guess I spent my college years with blinders on, but it’s still an ongoing issue.

  2. says

    Uh, no. He initially wanted to study birds at the University of Chicago — he was an avid birdwatcher. Literal birds. Feathered dinosaurs that fly.

  3. microraptor says

    Watson accomplishes the difficult goal of making Richard Feynman better looking by comparison.

  4. petesh says

    Did Watson inherit a birdwatching gene from his dad? I mean, if genes determine everything? Gaaah. See also my comment on the previous thread.

  5. twarren1111 says

    Dr Myers: did Watson contribute anything significant after the Nobel? I find it hard to believe low empathy (such as Watson) and no empathy (psychopaths) can significantly contribute in the arts and sciences bc of their impaired or total lack of ability to abstract. It seems to me that Watson didn’t do much with his discovery. I mean, at least Steve Jobs had ideas that maybe others are mostly responsible for implementing, but nonetheless Jobs had a serious string of ideas all the way to the end. Why not Watson? The structure of DNA, as they said in their one page paper, lent one to envision replication. So it just seems a “good” biologist would have gotten such huge funding and lab support that a TON of molecular biology should be credited to Watson.

  6. zoniedude says

    Black I.Q.s are lower than whites. We know this as a fact that results from the widespread lead poisoning of the black population confined to the inner-cities for much of the 20th century. Lead poisoning has been documented as causing lower I.Q.s, irritability, violence, and other social ills. Researchers even performed MRIs that showed lead dose related reductions in the physical size of the forebrain that controls inhibition. Strangely, no one wants to recognize this except in research journals and as a result the inner-city population continues to be lead poisoned even today. Murray, Watson and others were wrong to attribute the I.Q. difference to genetics, but it is equally wrong to claim that the difference does not exist so that we can conveniently avoid having to pay for lead poisoning interventions.

  7. nomdeplume says

    Interesting to hear Wilkins’ attitude to Franklin, that is another piece in the jigsaw. My impression is that Watson (and I guess Crick) thought women should have no place in Cambridge and certainly no place doing research, Franklin was not attractive, didn’t suffer fools gladly, and inexplicably failed to acknowledge the obvious male superiority of Watson and Crick. All of that made it ok to steal her work, because, really, come on, she was just a woman, what would she do with it? So an academic crime was committed. Watson and Crick had the chemistry and the theory and the models (literal physical models), Franklin had the data that was essential to decide which model was right. The right thing to do would have been to combine forces with her, and the famous paper would then have been Watson, Crick and Franklin. If she had been a male scientist it probably would have been. Instead Wilkins handed over her data secretly and the rest was history. Well, except for Franklin, who Watson wrote out of history.

  8. leerudolph says

    PZ: “He has a son with serious mental health issues and a history of behavioral problems…and Watson cared for and loved him very much, which was the one redeeming feature I took away from the show.”

    It’s not a whatever-the-opposite-of-“redeeming”-is feature, but by itself it isn’t necessarily a redeeming feature, either.

    There are scads of cases of, for example, Republican politicians (like Anthony Kennedy—as the good people at Lawyers Guns and Money keep explaining, the U. S. Supreme court has never been apolitical: the justices absolutely are politicians) with long records of aversion, bigotry, and promotion of legal structures that discriminate against homosexual persons, who suddenly find out that some people near and dear to them (I believe in Kennedy’s case some former clerks) are homosexual, and suddenly reject their previous bigotry and even (as in his Obergefell opinion) take positive acts to correct (some of) its consequences for other people their acts have harmed. Those people are (somewhat) redeemed (in some ways) by such acts.

    There are scads of other examples of Republican politicians (like Dick Cheney) who have a person near and dear to them (in Cheney’s case, one of his daughters) who is homosexual, and whom they (apparently) care for and love very much, yet continue to take positive acts that harm the generality of homosexual persons (in Cheney’s case, giving valuable support to the successful election campaign of his other daughter, despite her platform supporting bigoted laws). I don’t count such essentially self-interested behaviors as at all redeeming.

    Watson isn’t (I assume) so rich that he can use his own money to establish a foundation or other kind of institution dedicated to helping (directly or, through research, indirectly) other children “with serious mental health issues and a history of behavioral problems” (as one multi-billionaire—the only such that I have knowingly been in the same room with—has done). But he could use his social capital (to the extent it hasn’t been completely squandered by his deplorable speculations on race, gender, etc.), and his (presumably) still considerable money, to support such an institution. Maybe he has! That would be redeeming. Caring for and loving his son? Redeeming only to the (evidently, inconsiderable) extent that the task managed/manages to use up time he would otherwise be spending as a public asshole.