Can a racist still be a great scientist?

James Watson was jointly responsible for one of the greatest triumphs of 20th century science: the unravelling of the DNA molecule. But today his reputation, he is now 90 years old, lies in tatters. He believes black people are less intelligent than white people, and he has repeated this a new TV documentary. The Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York, where he was once director, has revoked all his titles and honours, the implication being that his racial views have tainted his work on DNA.

But it “makes no sense. Watson may be an unpleasant man (as I found when I interviewed him) with some nasty views, but what bearing does that have on his scientific discoveries? A DNA molecule is still a double helix.”. If Copernicus had been a rapist, the Earth would still orbit the Sun. It’s trickier when it comes to judging the art of discredited artists – Roman Polanski, say, or Eric Gill – since “their work is all about value”. But science is, or should be, value-free and impersonal. Watson is “a fantastically irritating man who happened to be the co-discoverer of DNA’s structure. No more needs be said.” (Bryan Appleyard, The Sunday Times, reproduced in The Week, 26 January 2019)

If Epicureanism is about tolerance, kindness and acceptance and the pleasant life one might conclude that Watson should be excluded from any Epicurean garden. As the writer says, “not a nice man”. I don’t know whether Watson claims any scientific basis for his comments, or whether they just reflect his personal racist bias, but I rather agree with the journalist, Mr. Appleyard. Shun the man, let him know the vast majority of the world disagrees with his views, and why; don’t invite him home; write a critique of his words. But to revoke all the titles and honours is over the top. In a hundred years time he will only be remembered, along with other great scientists, for his research and scientific break-through, which will have benefitted medical science in ways we can only barely grasp at the moment. He has done more for the people of the world than the vast majority of us. Let it drop.

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