Jim Watson, My Racist Corporate Overlord

You know, when you join a new organization, you don't typically scan the board of directors looking for people who have previously been publicly identified as over-the-line bigots no reasonable person should associate with ever. Or at least I don't. I certainly didn't when I signed on as a minion for ScienceBlogs.

So I was surprised to learn that the over-the-line racist sexist bigot biologist Jim Watson is still on the Seed Media board.

Of course, if I refused to work for anyone who associated with what I consider to be unacceptable racism or sexism, I would never have a job ever again. I couldn't even work for myself. Given the editorial freedom we have here at ScienceBlogs, I'm not really worried about stains to my personal political purity that might result from the association. I am, however, worried about the effect that Watson's poison might have on this organization, and on the public perception of the scientific establishment.

(Note: I am a better person than Jim Watson. I do not harbor conscious prejudice and I like to think that I engage in less -ismy jerkwadishness than the status quo. I have never stolen even the weest of wafer-thin ideas from Rosalind Franklin. You don't have to tell me any of these things. But I also have not extricated myself from a social structure built on racist sexist jerkwadism, with all the advantages that brings me as a middle-class white person, and I occasionally find myself harboring unconscious prejudices which I must then work to isolate and unroot. I'm of the school that says -isms are pervasive structural problems and Mother Culture is very sneaky with the unwanted memes.)

I'm not going to explain why it's an offensively bad idea to put an out-and-out bigot on the board of directors of a company whose mission is to improve global science literacy. Nor will I detail the evidence supporting the proposition that Jim Watson is an out-and-out bigot no reasonable person should associate with ever. If you need to catch up on either of those things, you can go follow Zuska's links. Nor am I at liberty to comment on discussions in the sooper-seekrit internal backchannels.

But I have never been shy about telling people what I think they should do about the racism and sexism in their midst, and this is what I think Seed should do: Fire Jim Watson. Fire him as quickly and as thoroughly as possible, and replace him with someone who cares about bringing science to all of the public, not just the white male public.

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Wow. How very self-congratulatory of you. True enough, Jim Watson is a crotchety old bastard, "old" being the operative word; I suppose no one ever pointed out that you should be respectful of your elders. Here's what I think SEED should do: ignore your ass, which is exactly what they're going to do.


Of course Seed will ignore my ass. If they pay too much attention to it I will scream sexual harassment.

@neuraldump: Elders earn respect the same way everyone else does, by behaving respectably. Continuity of vital signs does not automatically confer respectability.

I suppose Watson's achievements, rather than mere "continuity of vital signs," as a source of his elder-hood is a point lost upon you all.... Dithering old fool or not, I think he deserves your respect and not your ineffectual effrontery.


Neuraldump: Perhaps you could specify where the threshold lies for lifetime "achievement" that gets one a pass on asshattery on the sustained scale of Watson?

In terms of the double helix, look there are two kinds of outstanding "success" in science. The first is by making advances that nobody else would have been able to make or even think of at a given time (if ever). This is brilliance. The second kind is by getting to an answer that a bunch of people are seeking and will eventually reach first. The latter is what Watson accomplished. It is far lesser in terms of "achievement" in my view. Good for them and all that but really, no evidence of personal brilliance that outshines the other ReallyBrightFolks of the time.

Then there's the genome project. Which he pushed through, true. And should be respected for. But some of this ability (all?) rested on his aforementioned credit for the double helix. So again, what did he accomplish that was so clearly above-and-beyond?

We are left with his "other" scientific accomplishments. Which are much, much, much less discussed. Perhaps you could fill us in?

and again, what part of these accomplishments gives the guy a lifepass for his sustained (and really, quite unnecessary) hating on people unlike him?

DrugMonkey? Formerly DrugNazi? It could only be you... who else has your fetish for the term "asshat"? It figures that it would take the foolishness of a damned pillpusher to question the merits of the double helix. Of course, if we follow your line of reasoning, none of us in science have any merit, since the argument can always be made that someone else could have done it "first". Of course, that's why such ad hoc arguments are so often dismissed out of hand, and will be again here. And, once again, I said the man deserves your respect, not your condoning of his racist comments. Try and appreciate the difference.


Watson isn't noted for offering others the respect they deserve. But we can of course be better than him- we can *respectfully* tell him to leave Seed.

Indeed, none of us in science have achieved enough to give us a free pass for bigotry.

I'm quite happy to respect Watson's scientific achievements. That's not the same as respecting his presence on the board of an organization dedicated to the public communication of science, or even respecting him as a human being, nor should it be.

Maria, you should put something on the line, like the your continued participation on this site, if you really are serious about this and want SEED to take notice. If people like you start leaving for other blog hosts, only then will SEED will take notice. Otherwise it is like complaining about a restaurant but continuing to eat there all the time and give them your money -- no motivation to change. With no consequences, your objections are just talk.

By Son of Priam (not verified) on 12 Feb 2008 #permalink

So exactly how does firing cause either him or others to become less racist? Or is the goal of the exercise to make racists more devious in their use of language?

Oh hai, neuraldump, isn't it a shame that Watson didn't respect his elder Franklin enough to credit her experimental work (which, let's face it, is science, rather than random hypothesising without doing any real research like some...) or refrain from bitching about her appearance and ability in his writings? When she was no longer around to defend herself, rather than, say, on the board of publishers for his book, for example.

I fail to see how Maria has been disrespectful here, in discussing, without personal insult, the publicly stated opinions of a 'scientist' speaking as such. I fail even more at seeing how respect is deserved by someone who gave none to better scientists than himself.

Failure to take a stand against bigotry may seem 'neutral', but that is only how it appears to those who already benefit from the privilege of being unaffected by said bigotry.

Lemming: How sacking a racist prevents racism: unless one is taking an extremely metaphysical attitude towards racism and defining it as a purely internal state (which again is a privileged abstraction), then isn't it pretty damn obvious that sacking a racist makes it harder for racism to affect others?

Son: Like I said, I am not at liberty to discuss what might or might not be happening in the sooper-seekrit internal backchannels.

LL: Racism = prejudice + power. Remove a bigot from power, and you have lessened his ability to perpetuate racism.

Remove a bigot from power, and you have lessened his ability to perpetuate racism.

Plus, it might send a signal to other bigots that there may be a personal cost to being a racist/sexist/general asshat.

For the record (and if neuraldump comes back to spew more insanity), DrugMonkey is completely different from the blogger formerly known as DrugNazi, who writes Your Pharmacist May Hate You. You needed only to click on DrugMonkey's hyperlink to know the difference.

I didn't know about Watson's association with ScienceBlogs. It certainly changes my view of the entire enterprise, and makes me much less interested in visiting the site. Which is too bad, because I check some blogs here (Maria's, Chris's, and ScienceWoman's) every day, and I go to the main page frequently, as well.

I wish SEED has a science advisor whose view of the world was more in line with SEED's supposed mission.

I hate to bring this up now, but Watson didn't join the board yesterday. Where was this outrage months ago?

If you want the moral higher ground, you should have left then. If you want people to believe "I am a better person than Jim Watson.", you'd better get cracking in the lab, because he's done more to advance the cause of science and bring funding to worthy causes than I expect you ever will, and he did all this WHILE being a grade A asshole.

neuraldump was right - you can respect what a guy did, even if you don't like the guy. People still listen to Cat Stevens occasionally, don't they? Just let it die, again.

Mr. Gunn: When I joined ScienceBlogs all of two weeks ago, I found that there was an active internal discussion about Watson's presence on the board. People wanted to resolve things in private, if possible, and the timing here is not as random as it seems.

I don't think obsessive utilitarian beancounting is the best way to evaluate one's success at being a person.

"People wanted to resolve things in private"

So what happened with the private discussions? Did it not turn out the way some people wanted, so they're now making a public stink?

Really, I'm just trying to figure this out, but to speak to the larger issue of the man himself, I think we should focus on the good stuff he did.

Without getting into too much detail... bloggers are impatient creatures. There's some other stuff happening, too, and I'll tell more of the story as soon as it's public.

Impatient? So y'all are making a public stink because private discussions didn't go your way. Boy am I glad I'm not at scienceblogs.

>LL: Racism = prejudice + power.

This formula is incorrect. Racism* = prejudice x willingness to evangelize x ability to convince.

As long as one of these terms equals zero, the product does, and Dr. Watson has not shown many signs that he wants to export his bigotry.

In terms of what is best for the company, if demonizing outspoken but low-harm bigots increases the ability or drive of closeted bigots to undermine progress, then you're going backwards.

In the academic setting, every person** I've heard about who has blocked female hires has done so in perfect politically correct language and reasoning that purportedly has nothing to do with the candidate's gender***. While those who are outspoken can sometimes be convinced to either abstain or change their minds.

So even ignoring the arguments based on the advantages of an open and honest society, language-based witchhunting is not the most effective strategy of deracializing a person or organization.

* This is for an individual. For a societal formula, integrate across the population with an appropriate power law appropriate for the society's level of groupthink.

** when identifiable.

*** Language aside, statistics can identify individually deniable correlations.

Racism* = prejudice x willingness to evangelize x ability to convince

I'd buy that if the only possible harm of racism were that one might lure innocent bystanders into bigotry, but that isn't at all the case. It's possible that I'm misunderstanding your use of "evangelize" here - but Watson has clearly indicated that he's willing to e.g. make hiring decisions based on his personal prejudice, so even if his damage is limited to what he can do all by himself I am not sure why you would classify him as "low harm".

I don't claim that ousting the open bigots will solve all or even most of the problem, but it is a low-cost strategy which has the advantage of immediately reducing the harm caused by bigots in power. Your preferred scenario seems to consist of the following:

1. We do nothing to prevent open bigots from gaining or remaining in positions of power. They continue to act on their bigotry and cause all sorts of harm.
2. Seeing this, previously closeted bigots feel freer to out themselves and act more blatantly on their bigotry. They cause all sorts of harm.
3. When they are suitably filled with the joyous, generous spirit of oppression, we ask them nicely to reconsider their views and relinquish their privileges.
4. They realize that bigotry is wrong and everybody sings Kumbaya.

If it weren't for the fact that causing all sorts of harm is an unavoidable part of the first two steps of the plan, I'd be all for it. But if you are going to make a serious consequentialist argument that the long-term benefits of allowing bigots to remain in positions of influence and power (which, didn't we try that already, back in the 50s?) outweigh the harm they will do while we are slowly changing their minds, especially when it is people other than yourself who will be making the sacrifices while we wait for the payoff, you need more than armchair psychoanalysis and anecdote for support.

LL, you are taking a defeatist and short-sighted view. The point is not necessarily to modulate the conduct of one person. It is to enact gradual environmental change in what is acceptable behavior. Like it or not, people are sheep and are greatly influenced by their environments. Developing people are highly malleable.

If I had a nickel for every person who is a self-described non-bigot with a grandmother (for some reason it is always the grandmother)who spews bigotry at the slightest provocation....

Do you think societal trends that frowned upon bigoted attitudes have nothing to do with such an apparent generational difference? These trends happened because public expressions of bigotry were called out, time and again, as unacceptable.

My experience is that the racism issues that I've had to deal with professionally (young men who mangled themselves in machinery who refuse medical treatment for fear of black doctors) are issues for which an alienating, hard-line approach is counterproductive.

And simply firing people without addressing their prejudices is a form of buck passing, and encourages separatism. But I'll pull my dog out of this fight now, because I don't know what your actual situation in your overlorded backchannel blog is.

Oh, the overlord backchannel can be safely ignored for now, if we want to continue duelling in abstractions.

It's interesting that you mention an experience with racism where it's the racist being harmed, and not the, um, racist-ee, though.

Wow...you're talking about this like it's the civil rights struggle against oppression for the 21st century. Can I send up some oxygen cylinders? The atmosphere must be a little rarefied up there!

I tend to see it as bothering a crazy old man who's about to retire, but I admit that isn't as exciting.

In this particular incident, it was only the racist, and not the racee, who was harmed. Ideally, that's how it should always work.

In this particular racist's history, his previous incident left him harmed as well, as it was his head the table got broken over by the blackfellas who objected to being called 'boys'.