Monday, February 25, 2008


So it seems that some people are visibly outraged at Jim Watson's appointment on the SEED group board of directors, which among other things runs the well-respected scienceblogs, featuring many well-known blogs like Pharyngula and The Scientific Indian. According to these people, Watson should be fired and not allowed to sit on any such committee because of his racist remarks.

With all due respect to the sentiments of these folks, I have to say I disagree.

I completely agree with what a ditzy old fool Watson was, and I have disparaged his actions in a previous post. But no matter how much you may hate the man, there are two things; firstly, that should still not take anything away from his past achievements and his capabilities (something that some have unnecessarily tried to do), and secondly, it also does not preempt him from offering his services in some valuable way to other organizations. Relatively few science administrators have the kind of experience that Watson has.

In fact, I now think that removing him from his age-old post at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory itself was uncalled for. This was not because he does not deserve to be marginalised, but we have to agree that his direction of CSHL has nothing to do with his racist remarks. I completely agree how difficult it must be to have such a man running your institution, but to be honest, I believe that keeping him in his position and subjecting him to daily scorn might have been a better punishment for him than just removing him from front of everyone's eyes.

And no matter what he has said, I think it sounds a little totalitarian to say that Jim Watson should not be allowed to sit on any committee or on any board at any time in his life, ever. He is going to get his due ridicule and punishment from the way people will be treating him from now on. But how about this- we can give him that due punishment and also take advantage of his knowledge of science.

Two birds with one stone I say.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree. In fact, I thought it nonsense to remove him from his CSHL post even in the aftermath of his remarks. Those were his personal views and not that of the institution. People should realize that Watson is the kind of person who would do anything in his power to help science and it is a pity that people oppose his appointments. I think that for most people, lesser scientists in particular included, their race, creed, gender etc. is more important than the progress of science, and hence humankind.

9:05 PM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

It's interesting that many prominent scientists (E. O. Wilson- I think his opinion convinced me that the media and others were exaggerating the whole incident, Richard Dawkins) have come to Watson's defense in this context of separating his scientific abilities from his opinions.

8:38 AM  
Blogger Vivek Gupta said...

I happen to have a different view. Let me explain why. We need to hold people in the leadership positions to a different standard then we do to the ordinary folks minding their own business in the privacy of their own homes or cubicles. Leader is somebody who must deserve the respect of people he wishes to lead, not only for his competency, but also for the strength of his moral convictions. Watson may be a competent scientist but not even his ardent defenders will accuse him of possessing a strength of character. I don't know about the CSHL post, whether it was a cushy chaired professorship or a position where he was supposed to lead his fellow workers. If it was the former then I don't see any reason for his firing. However, the board of directors is no question a leadership position and Watson fails the moral strength test with flying colors. In any case, such a position will force him to seek the company of the kind of people he is so keen to avoid that he wrote a book about it. Let him remain where he can safely practice his art of 'avoiding boring people', a pity indeed because no matter what he tries he can't really avoid himself.

10:43 AM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

I agree that we need to set higher standards for people who lead. But Watson was already well-known for his inflammatory remarks; in that context his standards were already questioned for years. What happened suddenly? Simple the intensity of his remarks, which by nature were not that different from what he had said earlier.
He had also provided strong leadership to CSHL and would have continued to do so. If people were so enraged, they could have marginalised him. Plus, it's naturally clear that his views were not the institutions. Watson was always a very valuable science administrator because he would never mince any words. Everybody had already tolerated the occasional garbage that came with the candor. But he had provided good service to the administration and institute. To suddenly want to have none of him and deprive everyone of his insights seems to be me to be a pity.

3:46 PM  
Blogger Vivek Gupta said...

As you said, the intensity-not to mention the stupidity- of his remarks crossed a line that he came perilously close to crossing many a times before. In that respect, it was bound to happen , the only surprise to the plot being that it took so long. Summers was castigated for much milder remarks in comparison. A person in a high profile leadership position should be very very careful about what comes out of his mouth in a public forum. Watson has now become an untouchable in the scientific circles and for this fate he has nobody else but only himself to blame.

6:01 PM  

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