People are still unaware of Jim Watson’s reputation?

The Illinois News-Gazette has an interesting twist in an editorial. Read it and let’s see if you can detect a bit of bias here.

One recent blot on the UI’s reputation, one that received statewide attention, was the disgracefully successful effort by a faculty ideologue to block a planned speech on cancer research by a Nobel Prize-winning scientist. Alas, the faculty members who were so agitated by the Salaita episode were conspicuously silent about the cancellation of a talk by Dr. James Watson, an esteemed 89-year-old molecular biologist, geneticist and zoologist.

Kate Clancy, a faculty member at the University of Illinois, is a faculty ideologue.

James Watson is an esteemed 89-year-old molecular biologist, geneticist and zoologist.

Clancy is a well-regarded anthropologist with a commendable record of public outreach. Watson, on the other hand, as every biologist knows, has a reputation as a raving loose cannon with deplorable ideas about women and black people. You wouldn’t go to a talk by him to hear about new developments in cancer research, you’d go anticipating the moment when it would go off the rails and produce a spectacular crash, and you’d be disappointed if he managed to stay focused (which he wouldn’t). It would be very exciting in the way that a NASCAR race is — cars going around and around in circles, livened up with the occasional disaster.

That editorial is grossly misinformed about the actual situation, and the author is relying on superficial information with an authoritarian twist — Watson has a Nobel prize! He would never deliver a talk about oversexed African men, spiced up with slides of women in bikinis! Except that he did. I’ve had my own encounter with Jim Watson, and really…he’s not a good choice for a speaker anywhere.

Unfortunately, that misleading editorial has now led to online harassment, and for Clancy to fear for her safety. This looks trivial, but it’s actually rather chilling.

Why would you email someone, and then drive to their home and leave a note to tell them to check their mail? One reason: to let them know that you know where they live.

Clancy has a recommendation. Let this newspaper know how dishonest and dangerous they were by publishing such nonsense.

Jim Watson needs to retire to a nice, remote beach somewhere far from everyone else

Dr. James Watson, Cold Spring Harbor, NY, 7.23.06

It’s long past due. He’s been shooting himself in the foot and then stuffing it in his mouth to gnaw on it for decades. He was in the news for his racist, sexist views ten years ago.

The article is like a summary of Watson’s greatest gaffes.

In 1997, he told a British newspaper that a woman should have the right to abort her unborn child if tests could determine it would be homosexual. He later insisted he was talking about a “hypothetical” choice which could never be applied. He has also suggested a link between skin colour and sex drive, positing the theory that black people have higher libidos, and argued in favour of genetic screening and engineering on the basis that “stupidity” could one day be cured. He has claimed that beauty could be genetically manufactured, saying: “People say it would be terrible if we made all girls pretty. I think it would great.”

Zuska has another one.

He smiles. “Rosalind is my cross,” he says slowly. “I’ll bear it. I think she was partially autistic.” He pauses for a while, before repeating the suggestion, as if to make it clear that this is no off-the-cuff insult, but a considered diagnosis. “I’d never really thought of scientists as autistic until this whole business of high-intelligence autism came up. There is probably no other explanation for Rosalind’s behaviour.

At that time I thought he was a horrible old man but I argued that he ought to have the right to speak freely…and he does. He speaks very freely. But what he says is neither intelligent nor insightful, and he doesn’t deserve respect for his stupid opinions. Especially when tolerance just means he never learns and keeps doing the same thing over and over again.

Now the Carl Woese Institute for Genomic Biology at Illinois has cancelled an invitation to speak.

A research institute at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign agreed to host James Watson, a Nobel laureate whose work is credited with discovering the structure of DNA, to give a lecture there. But the event was quickly called off amid faculty concerns about whether it was appropriate to host someone like Watson, whose statements have been widely condemned as racist.

Watson has made numerous controversial comments over the years and also has been condemned for sexist and homophobic statements.

But his comments on race have led many to say he should be shunned.

In a 2007 interview, he said that he was “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa” because “all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours — whereas all the testing says not really.” Further, he said that while people hope that all groups are equal, “people who have to deal with black employees find this not true.” (He also said that some black people are smart, and has apologized, although many question the sincerity of his apology.)

I had dinner with Watson at a small restaurant in New York several years ago. It was the most uncomfortable two hours of my life. All he wanted to talk about was race, and the conversation was all about our geneaology. He asked what my ancestry was, and when I told him half Scandinavian, half Scot/English/Irish he immediately judged me acceptable company, and started explaining my personality to me. Scandinavians are intelligent but cold and aloof, and share the same problems that the Japanese have: they are among the smartest people in the world, but they lack the passion and drive to accomplish great things. You know who may not be as intrinsically intelligent, but make up for it with their aggressive need to get things done? The Scots/Irish! Best people on the planet! The perfect combination of ambition and smarts!

I think he thought he was flattering me, but I just wanted to sink into my chair and down through the floor and drop into a subway tube. Heck, dropping into a sewer line would be preferable.

It was difficult to get a word in edgewise with this guy, but after that pronouncement he looked at me expectantly — I could tell there was a question he wanted me to ask. So I obliged, knowing exactly what the answer would be. “So, Jim, what’s your ancestry?”

“Scots/Irish!” he cackled.

And then he regaled the table with tales of brave explorers and pioneers and soldiers, all his people. I tried to strike up a conversation with his wife, instead, who seemed very nice and a little distressed at her husband’s mania.

So, yes, I’ve heard more than enough of Jim Watson. I think we all ought to be a bit Watsoned out at this point, and I don’t see any purpose in inviting him to give public lectures anymore. You never know: he might launch into a fact-free fairy tale about having dark skin, being fat, and being over-sexed as linked properties caused by exposure to the sun and living in tropical countries, illustrated with a slide show of women in bikinis.

He really did that.

I’m just surprised that any professional organization would be so unaware of his reputation that they’d invite him in the first place.

I thought they didn’t like hyperbole?

Tim Hunt's very bad day

Tim Hunt’s very bad day

Here we go again. Eight Nobel prize winners have come out to defend Tim Hunt.

They warned of a chilling effect on academics’ freedom to speak their minds after Sir Tim was forced to resign his honorary post at University College London amid pressure from social media users.

Sir Andre Geim, of the University of Manchester who shared the Nobel prize for physics in 2010 said that Sir Tim had been “crucified” by ideological fanatics , and castigated UCL for “ousting” him.

[Read more…]

You know I’m a sucker for heresy

So you won’t be surprised that I really like that Erin Podolak has asked, Can We Stop Talking About Carl Sagan?

It feels like I’m committing an act of science communication sacrilege here, but I have a confession to make: Carl Sagan means absolutely nothing to me. No more than any other dude from my parents 1970′s yearbooks that could rock the turtle neck/blazer combo with the best of them. There, my secret is out.

I’m not saying I don’t like Sagan – I’m saying Sagan has zero influence on me or what I do. To me, Sagan is a stereotypical old white guy scientist who made some show that a lot of people really liked more than 30 years ago. That show – Cosmos: A Personal Voyage -was on air nearly a decade before I was even born. The reason I bring up my own age is because I’m as old, if not older, than the prime audience for science communication. I think anyone can learn to appreciate science at any age in life, but we stand the best chance at convincing people that science is something they can understand (and even do themselves) early in life when their beliefs are not so entrenched.

So then why, WHY as science communicators do we keep going around and around among ourselves about how Sagan – who is so far outside my life experience, let alone that of people younger than me – was the greatest science communicator of all time? We keep talking about who will (or won’t) be the next Carl Sagan but I promise you, no high school kid gives a f*&^ about Carl Sagan let alone whether or not science communicators think he was great. We spend so much time and energy talking about a guy that isn’t  relevant anymore. The topics of space, the natural world, and how to communicate wonder are totally relevant to the public and to the science writing community. But, this one guy? Nope.

Oh, good. Now I can confess that I too was not a Sagan fan boy. I liked him all right, I appreciated what he was doing for astronomy, and I’m not going to argue with you if he inspired you. He did great work! But his voice didn’t resonate with me.

To me, he was completely overshadowed by that other white guy with a documentary popularizing science at the same time, Jacob Bronowski. There was no comparison. I watched Cosmos and learned stuff, but the man who inspired me and made me think was Bronowski. You do appreciate that different people will respond to different messages, right?

My other big inspirations in the 70s, when I was getting fired up to go study science, were Edward Abbey, Rachel Carson, Stephen Jay Gould, EO Wilson (that those last two were feuding was so discouraging to me), and Jacques Cousteau. A bit later I was avidly reading Peter Kropotkin and Aldo Leopold. When I was acquiring a focus on developmental biology, it was D’Arcy Thompson, John Tyler Bonner, and Gould (again!) — and when I really was deeply into the field, the brains that blew me away with their work were those of Christiane Nusslein-Volhard, Mary Jane West-Eberhard, and Susan Oyama. Notice — they were biologists or biology-centered. It was nothing personal against Sagan, he just wasn’t writing about things that interested me as much.

Another important point, though, is “this one guy? Nope.” I worry that one of the problems we see in getting people focused on a movement is idolatry and hero worship — if you’ve got only one name in your roster of science heroes, you’ve got a serious deficiency: get out more. Read more. I don’t care how great Sagan might have been, Sagan is not enough. And if you want an example of a related problem, notice this complaint on Podolak’s blog: No more reading your blog for me, what a shame. Really, dude? If someone doesn’t share your same idols in all things, you won’t read them any more?

Then, of course, the other reality is that these people are all human beings, not saints. Feynman was a pickup artist of the worst sort; Einstein was a jerk to his wife; James Watson is a racist bigot. When we set up individuals as idols who must be respected, we’re simply setting ourselves up for disappointment. Appreciate the work they do with an appropriate perspective on their strengths and limitations.

So can we stop talking about Carl Sagan now? Yes, if you’d like; no, if you’d rather.

How about if we talk about Jacques Monod instead, or Rita Levi-Montalcini? It takes more than one voice to make a chorus.

Stasia Bliss: Disgraceful phony, fraud, and quack

Stasia Bliss is the Senior Editor of Health and Science at The Guardian Express on-line Newspaper. Keep that in mind. Senior Editor of Health and Science.

We encountered Ms Bliss yesterday, when I was criticizing that ghastly Newagey article on cystic fibrosis that she authored, and which the Guardian Express later withdrew. She babbled some nonsense about genes from host tissue somehow migrating into lung transplants, and then went on about how cystic fibrosis, a genetic disease, is somehow caused by bad emotions. It was total garbage, through and through.

Remember, she is the Health editor for this online newspaper, and her head is full of pseudoscientific quackery.

She’s also supposedly the science editor. She’s full of shit there, too. You must read her piece on DNA and evolution. She knows nothing about biology — she’s reduced to spewing nonsensical crap right from the beginning.

Inside each and everyone of our cells is an amazing blueprint containing all of the information to create you again. Scientists have identified 2 strands of these amazing building block storage containers of life and call them DNA or Deoxyribonucleic acid, the molecules containing all the genetic information and instructions for your being. So, what about these other strands which scientists have not identified as useful…the one’s commonly called ‘junk’ DNA and now refer to softly as noncoding DNA? Did you know that somewhere around 98% of all human DNA fits into the category of noncoding DNA? Only 2% accounts for the genetic functions and life-building codes we are familiar with. We do know that some of that 98% has functions such as translation regulation of protein-coding sequences, but what is the rest for? Is it possible our DNA contains within it codes for our evolution as a species? Is it possible that by activating our noncoding DNA we would start to experience reality very differently?

Your first clue that she doesn’t have the slightest grasp on the concepts is when she tries to tell you that there are 2 strands called DNA that contain all the genetic information, and there’s…these…other strands? That are junk DNA? WTF?

I want to give her a test. A very simple test that I’m confident that she would fail miserably.

Draw the 2 strands of DNA. Just a rough sketch, no deep details needed, I’ll even grade generously. Show me that she knows what the hell she’s talking about when she says “strands”. And then I’ll ask her to point on the sketch to where the junk DNA lies.

This isn’t hard, and I’m not expecting a lot. For example, James Watson was asked to give a simple drawing of what he thought was an important formula or principle, and here’s what he came up with.

watsonDNA

See? Easy! I don’t think Stasia Bliss could do it. Especially when you consider the next paragraph of her essay.

Many mystics, philosophers and spiritual teachers agree that the key to our evolution as a species lies within our DNA. If all strands of DNA were active, we would have 12 strands. According to some, each strand correlates with a different dimension of consciousness, or a different perspective by which we can experience this reality. Those who study and practice DNA activation techniques say the 2 basic DNA strands keep us at a very dense, physical structure and perspective of reality, but as we activate more DNA, our bodies change to become less dense and more ‘full of light.’ This state can be recognized in beings known in spiritual and religious traditions as ‘ascended masters’ with glowing halos and radiant skin. As evolution in consciousness occurs, and DNA ‘turns on’ it is speculated that this would mean a transformation from a carbon-based matter body, to a silica-based, and finally a crystalline liquid-light pre-matter state body, where the body would glow with light. According to sources, most of us have approximately 3-3.5 strands activated, allowing for the experience of only three dimensions of reality.

Hey, did you just feel something sticky and damp? Sorry. That was my brains, blood, bile, and colon contents exploding forcefully and spewing debris through my screen, up the ethernet line, out in a misty cloud of pulverized organic matter contaminating the interwebs, settling into your ports and dribbling out onto your keyboard. Sorry.

First order of business, Stasia: FUCK mystics, philosophers and spiritual teachers. You’re supposed to be a goddamn science editor, and these are your vaguely cited sources? Some mystic somewhere, who you can’t even name?

For that sin alone, Bliss ought to be fired. She is grossly unqualified for a position with that title.

At the end: “According to sources”. WTF again? According to who? She is unqualified to have a position in journalism, period. Fire her.

Next test: Draw a picture of 12 strand DNA. I double dog dare you. Be prepared: a squiggle like Watson’s above is only a preliminary answer, and if you manage to make up something coherent at that level, I will also drill down further and ask about the interactions of the nucleotides in your model.

I’ve encountered this “12 strand DNA” bullshit before: it’s a money-making scam from a quack who promises to show you how to activate your psychic powers if you buy his videos. It’s a fucking fraud. And here’s Stasia Bliss parroting it as if it’s reasonable science.

If this is symptomatic of the Guardian Express’s attitude towards science, that they’d hire this wretched incompetent buffoon to be their science editor, I hope their bankruptcy is imminent. It’s disgraceful.

Jonathan Wells talks about history

Oh, boy. Jonathan Wells explains why some of us reject the outrageous interpretations made from the ENCODE work claiming 80%+ functionality of the genome. It was really an effort to get past this sentence.

Some historical context might help.

Bwahahahahaha! First sentence, he makes a joke. Wells is a creationist clown notorious for his tortured abuse of the history of science. He doesn’t have a merely whiggish view of history — it’s more of a Burke&Hareish perspective, where if History isn’t conveniently dead to permit him to commit ghoulish atrocities on it, he’s willing to take a cosh to it’s skull and batter it into extinction. When Wells announces that he’s going to provide “historical context”, brace yourself for a graceless exercise in ugly alternative histories.

After James Watson and Francis Crick discovered the molecular structure of DNA in 1953, Crick announced that they had found "the secret of life," a popular formulation of which became "DNA makes RNA makes protein makes us."

What? I don’t even…OK, second sentence is wrong. That looks like a mangled version of the Central Dogma of molecular biology, with a weird appendage tacked on to claim that it “makes us”. Crick did not discover the secret of life. What the Central Dogma is about is the irreversibility of information flow: nucleotide sequence specifies the order of amino acids in a protein, but there is no mechanism to translate a sequence of amino acids back into a sequence of nucleotides in RNA/DNA. It’s an important concept, but not the secret of life.

But biologists discovered that about 98% of our DNA does not code for protein, and in 1972 Susumu Ohno and David Comings independently used the term "junk" to refer to non-protein-coding DNA (though neither man excluded the possibility that some of it might turn out to be functional).

More garbage. NO. No one equated non-protein-coding DNA with junk. Unless it was a creationist. In 1972, we knew about lots of non-coding DNA that wasn’t just functional, it was essential — genes for tRNAs and regulatory sequences, for instance. The term “Junk DNA” was initally coined to describe pseudogenes — gene duplicates that had been rendered nonfunctional by mutation. We knew that gene duplication was common, but that successful gene duplications, that is events that resulted in a copy with novel functions that would be maintained by natural selection, were going to be rare. So Ohno expected large quantities of such relics to be found in the genome.

Why didn’t biologists simply call non-protein-coding sequences "DNA of unknown function" rather than "junk DNA?" For some, it was because "junk DNA" seemed more suited to the defense of Darwinism and survival of the fittest.

No, because the term was initially applied to a specific class of sequences that were recognized as failed duplications. They weren’t of unknown function…they were the debris left over from unsuccessful natural experiments.

Now we know of other mechanisms that produce repetitive, non-functional sequences. There are transposable elements that have no purpose but to replicate themselves over and over in the genome, there are viral insertions, for instance. We know how they get there, and it’s not because their existence confers greater fitness on the bearer, or because they make active contributions to the phenotype. They’re just splatters of DNA.

The term “Junk DNA” is perfectly reasonable to apply to such mostly-useless sequences. I think the only legitimate argument against the term is that we have so many different classes of the material that more specific labels would be more useful…but the argument that these sequences are functional is a nonstarter.

In 1976, Richard Dawkins wrote in The Selfish Gene that "the true ‘purpose’ of DNA is to survive, no more and no less. The simplest way to explain the surplus [i.e., non-protein-coding] DNA is to suppose that it is a parasite, or at best a harmless but useless passenger, hitching a ride in the survival machines created by the other DNA."

Hey, Wells gets something mostly right! Yes, that’s correct, and it’s the explanation born out by observations of things such as LINEs and SINEs, which code for enzymes (or sequences recognized by such enzymes) that insert copies of themselves back into the genome. This isn’t just a supposition, we know how this works.

He gets the motivation behind the dispute completely wrong, however. We aren’t calling some sequences “junk” because we don’t know what they do: to the contrary, it’s because we know where those sequences come from and what they do. It’s also not because, somehow, it is a Darwinian prerequisite that “junk” exist in the genome. Again, to the contrary, there was initially resistance to the idea of junk because of a Darwinian bias towards seeing adaptedness in everything. The idea of non-functional DNA sequences that don’t contribute significantly to the phenotype emerged from observations of what we actually found when we started taking apart the components of the genome.

That’s why a lot of us are irritated with the ENCODE interpretation that the whole genome is ‘functional’. It’s not because of a philosophical predisposition, or because we apply the label by default to sequences we don’t understand, but because that conclusion rides roughshod over a lot of well-established evidence.

Oh. Right. In addition to history, evidence is another of those esoteric concepts that Jonathan Wells can’t comprehend.