First a hero of science and now a martyr to science: The James Watson Affair – Political correctness crushes free scientific communication
Medical Hypotheses. Volume 70, Issue 6, 2008, Pages 1077-1080
Bruce G. Charlton, Editor-in-Chief – Medical Hypotheses
Available online 16 April 2008.
In 2007 James D. Watson, perhaps the most famous living scientist, was forced to retire from his position and retreat from public life in the face of international mass media condemnation following remarks concerning genetically-caused racial differences in intelligence. Watson was punished for stating forthright views on topics that elite opinion has determined should be discussed only with elaborate caution, frequent disclaimers, and solemn deference to the currently-prevailing pieties. James Watson has always struck many people as brash; however this blunt, truth-telling quality was intrinsic to his role in one of the greatest scientific discoveries. Much more importantly than ‘good manners’, Watson has consistently exemplified the cardinal scientific virtue: he speaks what he understands to be the truth without regard for the opinion of others. The most chilling aspect of the Watson Affair was the way in which so many influential members of the scientific research community joined the media condemnation directed against Watson. Perhaps the most egregious betrayal of science was an article by editorialists of the premier UK scientific journal Nature. Instead of defending the freedom of discourse in pursuit of scientific truth, Nature instead blamed Watson for being ‘crass’ and lacking ‘sensitivity’ in discussing human genetic differences. But if asked to choose between the ‘sensitive’ editors of Nature or the ‘crass’ genius of James D. Watson, all serious scientists must take the side of Watson. Because when a premier researcher such as Watson is hounded from office by a vicious, arbitrary and untruthful mob; all lesser scientists are made vulnerable to analogous treatment at the whim of the media. A zealous and coercive brand of ‘political correctness’ is now making the biological truth of human genetic differences intolerably difficult to discover and discuss in US and UK. This needs to change. My hope is that truth will prevail over political correctness and James Watson will not just be exonerated but vindicated as an exemplar of the true morality of science: that scientific communication needs to be allowed to be clear, direct – even crass – in the pursuit of truth. James Watson has been a hero of science for the achievements of his career, and also a martyr for science at the end of his career.
In 2007 James D. Watson, perhaps the most famous living scientist, was forced to retire from his position as Chair of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and to retreat from public life in the face of international mass media condemnation following some remarks he made concerning genetically-caused racial differences in intelligence .
The substance of Watson’s remark was the speculation that the low average IQ of sub-Saharan Africans may be a contributory cause for slow economic development  and .
The Watson Affair is, so far, the most shocking example of coercive ‘political correctness’ imposed by the US and UK ‘mandarin’ intellectual class (i.e. the cultural elite who run public administration, education and the media). In other words, Watson was pilloried and punished for stating forthright views on topics (which include sexual, class and racial differences) that elite opinion has determined should be discussed only with elaborate caution, frequent disclaimers, and solemn deference to the currently-prevailing pieties.
Watson’s ‘brash’ personal style has also been his scientific strength
But ‘nuance’ has never been Watson’s style. Watson has always struck many people as disturbingly bold, direct, and brash ,  and . Not to put too fine a point on it, Watson has apparently often been rude and harsh in his personal relationships, and terse to the point of being elliptical or ambiguous in his pronouncements – seeming especially so to the vast majority of people whose intellectual powers are nowhere near a match for Watson’s, or who do not pick-up on his unusual sense of humor.
However, in the conduct of science, there are many things which are much more important than good manners, and many of the greatest scientists have been difficult characters . But James Watson displays – in extreme and stark form – the cardinal scientific virtue: he speaks what he understands to be the truth, and does so without regard for the opinion of others  and .
And of course this blunt, truth-telling quality was absolutely intrinsic to his role in one of the greatest scientific discoveries – establishing the structure of DNA in 1953  and . And Watson’s directness/brashness was essential to other great career achievements including his role in establishing the science of molecular biology from a base in Harvard, in fund-raising and building-up the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, and in launching the human genome project .
Indeed the world has abundant cause to be grateful for James Watson’s brash personal style since this was inherent in his achievement, and few individuals have contributed more to human well-being.
Nature’s editorialists betray science
While it is perfectly understandable that non-scientific zealots of political correctness (as well as those who have been hurt or offended by Watson’s brashness in the past) would be delighted at the opportunity to destroy James Watson’s career and reputation – the most chilling aspect of the Watson Affair was the way in which so many powerful and influential members of the scientific research community joined the howling mob of media condemnation directed against Watson .
Perhaps the most egregious example was the article by editorialists of the premier UK scientific journal Nature – that same journal where Crick and Watson published the original paper describing structure of DNA .
Instead of publishing a clear and uncompromising defence of the freedom of untrammelled discourse in pursuit of the scientific truth; in an editorial entitled ‘Watson’s folly’ Nature instead chose to support political correctness as being more important than science.
In the context of just 500 words, the anonymous Nature authors spent most of the space attacking Watson’s interpersonal style, with a veritable diatribe of outrage. The editorial included such comments as: ‘his notorious propensity for making outrageous statements’, ‘a track record of making distasteful remarks’, ‘on many previous occasions voiced unpalatable views tinged with racism and sexism’, ‘his views have finally been deemed beyond the pale’, ‘demonstrates a sheer unacceptable offensiveness’, ‘unpleasant […] utterances’, and ‘crass comments’.
In a brief respite from attacking Watson’s personality, the Nature editorialists make two factually incorrect statements. Firstly they wrongly state that ‘Watson has apologized and retracted’ his ‘outburst’. Secondly they state that Watson ‘acknowledged that there is no evidence for what he claimed about racial differences in intelligence’. This is doubly false in that Watson never made such retractions or acknowledgments , and for the very good reason that any such retraction or acknowledgement would be untrue.
Indeed, the opposite is more nearly true, as Jason Malloy describes in the current issue of Medical Hypotheses . There is no evidence that all human races have identical intelligence despite many generations of genetic separation and with widely different selection pressures, and on good theoretical grounds it is extremely unlikely. On the contrary, there is a very large and robust literature documenting significant racial and ethnic differences in average IQ . But the Nature editorialists did not even attempt to argue the falsity of this large evidential database – instead, they simply denied its existence.
‘Sensitivity’ versus truth-telling
What the Nature editorialists advocate is described in the subtitle: ‘Debate about scientific issues needs to be forthright but not crass’. It is Watson’s ‘crassness’ that Nature seems to hate more than anything else.
This is later amplified in remarks about the investigation of racial differences which is described as a ‘sensitive task’; “‘race” is an emotive and unscientific word’ – according to Nature; and so is the investigation of the ‘equally sensitive genetics of ‘desirable’ traits’.
It is clear that Nature sees the crucial issue of the Watson Affair as one of crassness versus sensitivity. It is the ‘sensitive’ people (such as the Nature editorialists – i.e., the people who have ‘deemed’ Watson’s views ‘beyond the pale’) who stand as a bulwark against a ‘crass’ individual whose ‘outbursts’ are ‘lending succour and comfort to racists around the globe’, and whose behaviour will ‘undermine our very ability to debate such issues’.
In other words, Nature states that genetic differences can only be studied and discussed within a framework of political correctness as defined by the cultural mandarins of the US and UK, or else such matters had better not be studied or discussed at all.
If scientists are now being asked to choose between being sensitive or crass – between picking sides with either the anonymous editors of Nature or the ‘crass’ genius of James D. Watson – then it should be no contest: serious scientists must take the side of Watson.
But if Nature’s editorial comments are an index of elite intellectual opinion in the Anglosphere – which sadly seems to be the case – then this is evidence of an anti-scientific ‘fifth column’ of coercive, dishonest and vindictive political correctness which has infiltrated into the very heart of high-level scientific discourse.
The real ‘Science Wars’ of our time
When asking who it really is that is most likely to ‘undermine the ability to debate race and sex differences’, it seems clear that the US and UK zealots of coercive political correctness are the ones causing the problems, not people like Watson who are trying to move the science of human genetics forward as fast as possible.
When a premier league researcher such as Watson is hounded by elite commentators in such a vicious, arbitrary and untruthful fashion, then any and all scientists are potentially vulnerable to similar treatment at the whim of the mass media if – for whatever reason – they happen to step over a line defining the boundary of sufficiently ‘sensitive’ discourse. And any single such step over the sensitivity-line into ‘crassness’ is enough to undo a lifetime of stratospheric attainment.
This, then, is the real ‘science war’ of our era: a war of the ‘sensitive’ versus the ‘crass’ – in other words, the escalating conflict by which coercive political correctness in the UK and USA increasingly-successfully intimidates and controls scientific communication.
Biology is poised on the brink of extraordinary insights into the genetic determinants of human differences ; including sexual, class and racial differences. In order to make progress on all fronts (whether scientific, medical or social), we need to know the facts about humanity and genetics. But political correctness is making this truth harder to discover and discuss: almost impossibly hard in the US and the UK where scientists are at constant risk of being ‘denounced’ and demonized at the caprice of the mass media in collaboration with the cultural elite. This needs to change.
If UK and US mandarins are too squeamish even to mention or discuss research into the most exciting areas of human genetics in a clear and honest fashion, perhaps they should stand aside and allow other nations – for example from East Asia – to get-on with this vital work without harassment. If the anonymous Nature editorialists are too ‘sensitive’ to hear the truth about genetics from ‘crass’ individuals such as James D. Watson, then they should perhaps make way for those who are more emotionally-robust.
The scientific necessity for a major journal such as Nature is not merely to allow discussion of human genetic differences under sufferance and hedged-about with complex linguistic constraints; but actually to encourage straightforward and forceful scientific communication on human genetic differences without the slightest regard to notions of political correctness. Nature should be fighting political correctness on behalf of science, not joining a vigilante gang of self-appointed moral guardians who are crushing forthright scientific discourse under the banner of ‘sensitivity’.
From hero to martyr
James Watson has – for more than 60 years – been an exemplar of the essential morality of science; advocating by his words and displaying in his deeds the necessary freedom that scientific communication must be allowed to be clear, direct – even crass – in the pursuit of truth.
I believe that science is the most powerful cognitive system yet discovered by humanity  and , so that eventually truth will prevail and James Watson will be not just exonerated but vindicated. My hope is that soon there will be general recognition among scientists that James Watson was not just a hero of science for the achievements of his career, but also a martyr for science at the end of his career.
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