Arrogant jerkwad creates meaningless kerfluffle, News at Eleven

October 18, 2007

Notorious arrogant bastard* and Nobel laureate, James Watson shoots off again, this time descending into race/intelligence minefield [Pharyngula, Zuska, denialism blog]. Consequently gets talk cancelled. The ass kick by Greg Laden here and here, pre-empts my need to get into the intelligence literature. Blogosphere and MSM goes nuts for a news cycle or two.

Necessary…

…but useless.

Scientists are arrogant bastards. I’m actually not sure why. But the best of the best, as measured by our usual metrics like C/N/S pubs and Nobel prizes, are asshats. They are. Clues are provided by the types of reputations and scandals accumulated by those at the pinnacles of our business and political environments. A certain level of functional sociopathy is require to reach the peaks of human societies and accomplishments. Why should science be any different? What on earth is going to be accomplished by hooting about one jerkwad sociopathic scientist of at least one recognized accomplishment revealing that, gasp, he’s a jerkwad sociopath?

Now it is true that those of us in various psych subfields are probably a little more sensitive to Nobel laureate blathering than most. Why not? After all we’re in the fields where so many people feel perfectly comfortable expressing firmly held opinions on matters for which there are scientific data, unfortunately with which said blatherers are not really familiar. The “intelligence” literature being prime suspect number one. So I get a specifically and professionally pissed when some Nobel laureate in some far removed field thinks he knows all there is to know about autism, women and black intelligence and the nature of consciousness (the latter is astonishing, I tell you). But is old Jimbo really all that unique?

Hell no. The reins of power and influence in the scientific enterprise are held all up and down the ranks by people who are similar. That have very little understanding of internal biases, the nature of “evidence” from human judgment, the fallacies of predicting the capabilities of an individual from group stats, the difference between innate capability and the environment that permits full expression of genotype, etc. And that express idiotic and bigoted behavior both overtly and covertly in ways that are detrimental to the conduct of science while they believe very firmly they are doing the opposite! People who seem further to confuse the recognition of excellence/brilliance for what is often a reflection of the coincidence of time/place/random luck as it is actual unique personal brilliance are particularly annoying of course. Especially when they take this as some sort of life-time free pass from logic and evidence and an elevation of personal biases to “truth”. But they are not unique.

Racists? Every institute and possibly every department has ’em. Sexists? In spades. Dickweeds who had one or two great papers two decades ago and patrol the corridors denigrating people in gossipatory whisper campaigns? Yep. Actually brilliant scientists who are complete shits as humans? Check. Numbnuts motivated to prop up their own “category” at the expense of others because they fear competition on an open market of ideas? <sigh>…

Let us not pile upon one possibly senile and inhibitory control-challenged Nobel laureate.

Let us instead reconfirm our commitment to challenge similar behaviors and attitudes in our daily professional lives that may be detrimental to science.

Update: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Board of Trustees has suspended Chancellor James Watson from his “administrative responsibilities” pending “further deliberation from the Board”. The NYT article I linked in the comments earlier seems to be datelined tomorrow (Oct 19th), the above CSHL announcement today (Oct 18th). Interesting that it took at least 4 days after the original article for Watson to “apologize” and that it came so close upon evidence that his institution is ReallyMadAboutThis. Of course, they have a specific reason for being a little touchy. According to Wikipedia:

During the years 1910 to 1940, the laboratory was also the home of the Eugenics Record Office of biologist Charles B. Davenport and his assistant Harry H. Laughlin, two prominent American eugenicists of the period. In 1935 the Carnegie Institution sent a team to review their work, and as a result the ERO was ordered to stop all efforts. In 1939 the Institute withdrew funding for the ERO entirely, leading to its closure. Their reports, articles, charts, and pedigrees were considered scientific “facts” in their day, but have since been discredited.

UPDATE 2 (10/19/07): Watson has published a defense (in which he once again references his schizophrenic son as evidence of his humanity). A prior interview in Esquire in which he came across as a bit of a bigot required a similar apology and correction.

*the evidence of hearing him speak publicly on two occasions is consistent with the reputation.

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8 Responses to “Arrogant jerkwad creates meaningless kerfluffle, News at Eleven”

  1. physioprof Says:

    “A certain level of functional sociopathy is require to reach the peaks of human societies and accomplishments.”

    I am personally acquainted with a Nobel laureate who is a down-to-earth nice person, and everyone who knows him agrees.

    “Let us not pile upon one possibly senile and inhibitory control-challenged Nobel laureate.”

    There has got to be an element of age-related dementia here, because even if you believe the kinds of things Watson is reported to have said, someone as smart and politically savvy as Watson once was would never say them in today’s public environment.

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  2. […] is all somewhat relevant to a prior post on Jim Watson’s little dustup. Posted by drugmonkey Filed in NIH Careerism, NIH funding, Scientific Mentoring, […]

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  3. JSinger Says:

    But the best of the best, as measured by our usual metrics like C/N/S pubs and Nobel prizes, are asshats. They are.

    This is not, in my experience, remotely true. The Nobel laureates I’ve met (at least 15 or 20) have been entirely friendly, likable people, with a single exception (whom you might be able to guess). Maybe it’s different if you’re postdoc’ing with them or competing against them, but socially they’ve been impeccable.

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  4. physioprof Says:

    “asshats” “socially they’ve been impeccable”

    These two features can be completely compatible in a single individual.

    I do, however, agree that Drug’s characterization is too broad. I, too, know many big cheez investigators who are genuinely nice, friendly, likable people. We have a large number of National Academy of Sciences members at my institution, and I find them nicer and more approachable than the norm.

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  5. drugmonkey Says:

    it would appear Watson’s going with some version of the dementia excuse.

    ““I cannot understand how I could have said what I am quoted as having said,” Dr. Watson said in a statement given to The Associated Press. “There is no scientific basis for such a belief.””

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  6. Serendipitous that this Neurology paper (discussed on Medscape):
    “Higher Education Delays Dementia Onset But Is Linked to More Rapid Progression”

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  7. Oops..should have read “Serendipitous that this Neurology paper (discussed on Medscape) appeared earlier this week: “Higher Education Delays Dementia Onset But Is Linked to More Rapid Progression”

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  8. bikemonkey Says:

    I imagine this is discussing Hall et al, 2007 : Neurology. 2007 Oct 23;69(17):1657-64? Abstract from the journal site is here.

    There’s also a recent-ish paper on the loss of cognitive inhibition as one ages which I keep meaning to search for. It got a little bit of play in the popular media with the theme of “why granny says the most inappropriate things at the wedding”, that sort of approach. I think the study may have focused on bigoted statements and trying to show that the actual underlying attitudes were unchanged, just the threshold for talking about them got lower. that’s from memory though…

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