About seven years ago, I heard that James Watson, the man credited with discovering the structure of DNA along with Francis Crick, was speaking in Chicago. I had to see him — who knew when that opportunity would come up again? The event itself was fine. I remember his making jokes about the silliness of religion and saying that he was hesitant about being quoted on the back of Richard Dawkins‘ The God Delusion so he wrote a blurb that was so bad, it was unusable. I’m sure I laughed at that.
But I also remember being a little taken aback by some of the politically incorrect statements he was making. (I don’t remember specifics.) It wasn’t so bad that I felt compelled to walk out of there; I was just surprised that someone so intelligent would just say whatever came to mind with no filter whatsoever.
And now he’s auctioning off his Nobel Prize because, he says, he needs the money:
He said he is selling his prized medallion because he has no income outside of academia, even though for years he had served on many corporate boards. The gold medal is expected to fetch between $2.5 million and $3.5 million when it goes to auction Thursday… Watson said that he will use the money to purchase art and make donations to institutions that have supported him, such as the University of Chicago.
Man, it must be nice to need money so badly… so that you can buy a painting. I hope I’m that needy one day.
There’s a reason no one is eager to hire him, though. His public comments over the past several years have been racist, sexist, and just generally disturbing. (To be sure, they may have always been that way, but I didn’t start noticing it until a few years ago.)
Slate‘s Laura Helmuth explains:
… he told the Sunday Times 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.” He further said that while we may wish intelligence to be equal across races, “people who have to deal with black employees find this not true.”
And there’s this:
He just wouldn’t stop dismissing whole groups of people, even after his disgrace in 2007. At a science conference in 2012, for instance, he said of women in science, “I think having all these women around makes it more fun for the men but they’re probably less effective.”
And there’s this:
In a lecture hall jammed with more than 200 Berkeley students and faculty members, Watson showed a slide of sad-faced model Kate Moss to support his contention that thin people are unhappy and therefore more ambitious.
“Whenever you interview fat people, you feel bad, because you know you’re not going to hire them,” Watson said.
You can rationalize all of these statements to make them sound less awful than they come across; his defenders sure as hell do. But at some point, the flippant way he just dismisses people who don’t meet his particular set of standards is deplorable. It’s not just that he deems certain groups of people inferior, it’s that he also seems to show little or no empathy for their situations. (It’s not like he plans to use his auction money to benefit minorities or women in science. Because, you know, he has a painting to buy.)
I respect the guy for everything he did for science… but if he didn’t discover the structure of DNA, I don’t think people would be parsing his statements as they seem to be doing in many comment threads online. They’d dismiss him as a racist or sexist and not give him a second thought.
Given all that, I don’t know how the sale of his Nobel Prize will give him the chance to “re-enter public life” as he wishes. If anything, he ought to hold on to one of the positive symbols of his life’s work, especially since every time he opens his mouth, he just gives more people even more reason to want nothing to do with him.
This stunt is a strong reminder that just because you’re brilliant in one area of life, that doesn’t necessarily extend to all the others.