Debate about sensitive scientific issues needs to be forthright but not crass.
So 'Honest Jim' Watson has finally fallen victim to his notorious propensity for making outrageous statements — forced to cancel a UK lecture tour and suspended from his leadership role at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York after being quoted in a British newspaper as claiming that black people are less intelligent and employable than whites (see page 960).
Watson certainly has a track record in making distasteful remarks. He has on many previous occasions voiced unpalatable views tinged with racism and sexism, ranging from a desire to see a world full of genetically engineered pretty girls to his belief that sex drive is related to skin colour. He has been largely indulged over the years, mostly in light of his towering achievement of 54 years ago in helping to deduce the structure of DNA, his ensuing Nobel prize, and his role in founding the Human Genome Project.
His latest outburst marks the point at which his views have finally been deemed beyond the pale. And rightly so — for one of the world's most high-profile scientists to state such views demonstrates a sheer unacceptable offensiveness. Watson has apologized and retracted the outburst, claiming to have been “mortified” at the outcome of the interview although he did not deny its contents. He acknowledged that there is no evidence for what he claimed about racial differences in intelligence. But the damage has been done, lending succour and comfort to racists around the globe.
Given the media storm breaking as the week progressed, it would have required remarkable bravery on the part of those hosting Watson's speaking engagements — part of the launch of his new book — to persist with them. Several high-profile establishments cancelled. This is regrettable: science is about nothing if not openness and critical debate. Scientists with controversial arguments need to be able to withstand the heat, defending or retracting statements as the evidence indicates is required. Watson, however unpleasant his utterances, has always been willing to act in this spirit.
The cancellations run the risk of playing into the hands of those who wish to suppress scientific inquiry. Many human geneticists are engaged in the sensitive task of unravelling differences between the world's population groups, all the while acknowledging that 'race' is an emotive and unscientific word. Others are investigating the equally sensitive genetics of 'desirable' traits, such as cognitive ability.
Asking such questions has always been controversial, given the potential for abuse of the outcomes demonstrated by the history of eugenics. Scientists explore the world as it is, rather than as they would like it to be. There will be important debates in the future as we gain a fuller understanding of the influence of genetics on human attributes and behaviour. Crass comments by Nobel laureates undermine our very ability to debate such issues, and thus damage science itself.