James Watson Throws a Fit

Laura Helmuth in Slate:

WatsonJim Watson is one of the most important scientists of the 20th century. He is also a peevish bigot. History will remember him for his co-discovery of the structure of DNA, in 1953. This week, Watson is insuring that history, or at least the introduction to every obituary, will also remember him for being a jerk. In a fit of pique and self-pity, Watson is selling his Nobel Prize medallion. He will become the first Nobel laureate in history to do so. He gave the Financial Timesseveral reasons why, this Thursday, he will auction off the gold disk, symbol of the highest honor in science (expected price: up to $3.5 million). He claims that, even though he ran major research institutions and served on corporate boards until the age of 79, he needs the money. He might donate it to universities, he said, or buy a David Hockney painting. Oh, and he also mentioned to the FT that he’s selling the medal because he has become an “unperson,” and “no one really wants to admit I exist.” This is not about the Hockney. Selling the medal is Watson’s way of sticking his tongue out at the scientific establishment, which has largely shunned him since 2007. Watson had been making racist and sexist remarks throughout his career, but he really outdid himself seven years ago when he told the Sunday Timesthat 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.

Watson was also famously insulting and arrogant as a professor at Harvard, even for a professor at Harvard. Fellow faculty member E.O. Wilson described Watson in the 1950s and ’60s as the “Caligula of biology” for his contempt of scientists who studied anything other than molecules. Wilson wrote that, unfortunately, due to Watson’s stroke of genius at age 25, “He was given license to say anything that came to his mind and expect to be taken seriously.” In 2000, Watson told an audience at Berkeley that there was a link between sunlight exposure and libido, and therefore “That’s why you have Latin lovers.” In the same speech, reported by the San Francisco Chronicle, he said that thin people are ambitious. “Whenever you interview fat people,” Watson said, “you feel bad, because you know you’re not going to hire them.” 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.”

More here.