Jim Watson, Seed Adviser: A Slap In The Face To Those Who Care About Science And Equity

I've written in the recent past about why Jim Watson is bad for science, especially the perception non-scientists get of science as a result of his pseudo-scientific racist natterings. I analyzed the reactions within the scientific community to the recent Watson imbroglio.

It's far past time for me to speak up about how Watson's mess hits closer to home. I am talking about his role on the board of directors of Seed Media Group as a scientific adviser. Seed Media Group, as you may know, is the organization that sponsors Scienceblogs. I have to tell you, it is extremely disgusting to be associated with Jim Watson in this way, no matter how distant that relationship may be. Seed doesn't tell us what we should or can't blog about, but the fact remains that I am blogging for an organization that thinks hanging out with Watson is just dandy - even in the face of the recent blow-up that came after he dissed all of Africa. I have to ask myself seriously if it is a good idea to continue that association.

Here are some questions I'd love to have answered:

  1. Why did the powers-that-be at Seed (and here I'm asking you, Adam Bly), why did they think that associating with a known racist misogynist ass was a good idea in the first place? It's not like there aren't any other prominent scientists who could fill the advisory post.
  2. How does having a racist misogynist ass - who uses pseudo-science to promote and support his prejudice - as an adviser help promote Seed's "Science Is Culture" message and, more importantly, its espoused advocacy for scientific literacy?
  3. In what manner is having Watson on board consistent with supporting blogs/bloggers like Thus Spake Zuska, Sciencewoman and Alice Pawley at On Being A Scientist And A Woman, Karen Ventii at Science to Life, Maria Brumm at Green Gabbro, and Janet Stemwedel at Adventures in Ethics and Science?
  4. Asking Jim Watson to support your efforts makes you a de facto Apologist For The Oppressor. How do you manage to feel comfortable with that role?

Seed's choice of Jim Watson as a scientific adviser is a slap in the face to everyone who cares about scientific integrity and equity in science. Make no mistake Adam Bly, you send a message to the world through this continuing association that is louder than any explicit platitudes you might mouth about your passion for science and your advocacy of scientific literacy, or any expressed concern for underrepresented minorities in science. But hey, if you're comfortable with all that, then just stick with Jim.

In the face of that, I have to seriously ask myself if I should stick with Scienceblogs.

UPDATE: From the Harvard Crimson article about Watson's ties with Seed Media:

Howard C. Berg, the Smith professor of physics and a friend and colleague of Watson for over 40 years, said he had no personal knowledge of Seed Media Group.

But he said that Watson would not associate himself with an organization on a superficial level.

"If he didn't participate directly in the work in a significant way, he wouldn't attach his name to it," Berg said of Watson. "In that regard, he's very ethical."

Having him on board as a figurehead is bad enough; if he is really working closely with Seed, that's even worse.

From the Scientific American article on Watson's "retirement" from CSH:

However Andrew Berry, who wrote a book on DNA in 2003 with Watson, said "It seems to me a no-brainer" for Seed Media to remove Watson as an adviser.

Apparently thinking about continuing association with Watson is more difficult than one would imagine for the folks at Seed. One does wonder why.

(thanks to Janet Stemwedel for reminding me of those links.)

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There is an old expression that you might consider in your deliberations: Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer".

J-Dog: But don't they also say, 'You are judged by the company you keep?' ;)

Dueling aphorisms aside, I also agree that Seed should cut ties with him from a moral perspective. I'm sure there's not a shortage of scientists around who would be happy to advise Seed.

In another way, I feel reminded, looking at the sidebar, of Adam Bly's article about 'Canada's Future.' He advises Canada that they need to step up to the plate if they want to be part of a better future, a future of science and prosperity. They, of course, were talking about having a science adviser to their government at all.

I would think the same applies to Seed on this issue. Stepping up to the plate, and not associating with racist ideas which are, as they should be, well on the way out. Standing up for the goals of science and societal betterment, not racist or sexist 'just-so' stories and plagiarism/stealing. So they can be part of a better future. Have a science adviser that you can be proud of, not one who is dedicated to an ugly era of misusing science to justify sexism and racism.

Step up, Seed. You owe it to yourselves and the writers, bloggers, and readers who have supported you. You urge Canada to lead with their science advisor. You should do no less with yours.


But Zuska, you didn't threaten to puke on his shoes!

Honestly, I would think that having Watson as a scientific adviser is more of a liability these days than an asset. It does make you wonder why they continue the association. Some people are so impressed by a famous name, I guess, and they don't care what that person stands for.

The racist misogynist ass is also delightful on the subject of disability, of course... as if he needed another direction for his hatefulness:

"We already accept that most couples don't want a Down child. You would have to be crazy to say you wanted one, because that child has no future."

Makes me feel all warm and fuzzy for my kids' education, knowing people like this are still taken seriously by anyone.

"In the face of that, I have to seriously ask myself if I should stick with Scienceblogs...
Apparently thinking about continuing association with Watson is more difficult than one would imagine for the folks at Seed. One does wonder why."

Obviously you must put something on the line here, like the your contribution to this blog nexus, if you are serious and want SEED to take notice. If people like you start leaving for other blog hosts, that's when SEED will take notice. Until then, it is like complaining about a restaurant but continuing to eat there all the time -- no motivation to change. Without you guys, no one will come here anymore, and that hurts SEED's bottom line.

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

Having opposing views available and to dispute is one of the many great facets of science. Watson may be a bigot and even inspire a special kind of loathing from people, but his mistakes have led to some important discussions nonetheless. This is because we've seen his view expressed and we can watch people debunk his claims. Seed is an independent business, they can get rid of whomever they like and keep whomever they like. As long as they're not saying they agree with him ... in which case, in light of the evidence, I could understand kicking Seed to the curb.

By Sophie Hirschfeld (not verified) on 12 Feb 2008 #permalink

Oh man... say it ain't so.

Also, this isn't even about political correctness. It's about bad science, period. Watson promotes 'scientific' viewpoints which have no scientific basis and in some cases, are even disproven.

NO NO NO Seed.

From an ethical standpoint, Watson has no place on the board.

From a business standpoint, I understand why he was chosen. First, it looks like he is an advisor, not a "science advisor." Since the discovery of DNA, Watson has been a middle level scientist. He has excelled at two things. First, he is a master of the press. He knows how to get the media to interact with science in prominent ways and has been making headlines for decades (though rarely about his own science). For a company trying to build an audience. Second he is a strong fund-raiser and know the federal political games.

Still from the business standpoint, if his views alienate customs, financial supporters, and employees/contributors, then the positives are less significant.

At least in my mind, ethics is more important and bad ethics usually manages to affect business with enough publicity.

Look guys, he didn't join the board yesterday, and the ruckus was months ago. If you want the moral high ground here, you should have left scienceblogs then.

Beyond all that, though, he's not 100% bad. You probably have friends or family that oppose stem cell research who you haven't excommunicated, don't you? Does one belief, however bad, make that person a rotten, worthless person through and through?

I'll bet he's not the only scientist to have outrageous beliefs, he's just the only one foolish enough to be quoted so. The time to do something was months ago, if then, but what would that really solve, anyways?

I think y'all should lay of the poor old asshole.

Mr. Gunn, I've had this same conversation with others, and I'll tell you what I told them: the "some of my favorite relatives are racist asshats and so we should be kind to dear old Watson" is tiresome bullshit. It's a nice tactic for denying that there's any problem at all (see the denialist's deck of cards for just how that works.) I don't care if Watson is kind to animals, or gives to charity, or whatever supposedly redeeming qualities you think he has. He's bad for science and promotes injustice. People have been wiling, for too long, to "look past" his hateful views, thus allowing him to go blithely along spouting his nonsense from influential positions.

OK, if he's so thoroughly and unmitigatably terrible, would you agree with the statement that the world would be a better place if he had never existed?

The ship for the moral higher ground has long since sailed, my friend. Back here in real life, people are complicated creatures who can't be thought about in absolute, black-white terms. That's not denialism, that's reality. If you're taking the position that absolutely nothing good can ever come from someone who's racist, sexist, or bigoted, you're putting yourself in an entirely untenable position. We all know he's an asshole, but he's been one his whole career, so I disagree that his being an asshole all of the sudden presents a problem. Take a deep breath, relax, wait a couple years. He won't be around for long.

Mr. Gunn,
Try this interpretation. You own a company. One of your most senior managers holds opinions and regularly vocalizes them that characteristics of certain employees (i.e. women, fat women, black people) generally make them inferior to other employees. These opinions make the existing employees uncomfortable. In addition, these opinions attract negative opinions to the company as a whole. Based on the literal job description, the manager is doing is job, but his opinions undermine and alienate other members of the company and their customers.

Would you keep this manager on staff?

Well, to make the analogy more in line with the situation, you should also state that he's a star performer who has accomplished far more good than he has bad in his decades long career with the company. You should also include that some new hires are the ones agitating to fire him shortly before he retires in a year or two.

Yes, I'd keep him on, and I'd send him off with a nice ceremony that focused on his many accomplishments. Then I'd tell the new hires to STFUnGBTW.

Seed magazine gets its own Dr. House, look for ratings to go up.

I agree, if you want to make a REAL statement, the only way to do it is leave Scienceblogs.

Mr. Gunn,
In this case, the company is Seed, not science as a whole.
Watson has barely been at the company longer than some of the people complaining. On what basis do you say Watson has done more good at the company? Frankly, it seems no one know what he does there!
If you want to continue this analogy. A startup company hires a big hotshot whose past work is only tangentially related to the startup company. At this new company, he creates an environment that is unpleasant for the people actually creating the product.

"At this new company, he creates an environment that is unpleasant for a small number of people creating the product." who didn't pay him any attention for quite some time, then all of the sudden decide it's a HUGE problem, when it wasn't before.

Look, in a battle of attention whore vs. attention whore, nobody wins.

If you read Zuska's and others' posts on this topics, it sounds like they contacted the head of the company months ago, soon after Watson's most recent racist statements. Just because they kept it an internal matter doesn't mean it wasn't an issue.
I'm speculating here, but perhaps there wasn't much done before last Fall because most bloggers didn't like him there, but only the recent statements made people realize this was a common concern.

And if you read the comments on the other 3 blogs that are rehashing this issue, you get a pretty clear impression that this is a case of a couple attention-starved bloggers telling the only people who have to listen to them to "RESPECT MAH AUTHORITAH".

I think the main issue here is that you are starting out with an opinion that Watson is some great scientist with decades of important discoveries during his career. As such, he deserves respect and the benefit of the doubt. In reality, after working with Crick his greatest achievements have been in writing, management, and fundraising. I scopus search of his name was even emptier of publications than I expected.
Why do you believe he has earned such respect. Because he beat Linus Pauling and Rosalind Frankin to the discovery of DNAs structure by a year or two?

No one has to listen to any blogger and none of them seem to have wanted to do this, but they have full right to publicly criticize Seed.

this is a case of a couple attention-starved bloggers telling the only people who have to listen to them to "RESPECT MAH AUTHORITAH".

Cool! I didn't know there were people who HAVE to listen to me! Can you tell me who they are? I'm guessing you're one of them, Mr. Gunn, since you can't seem to tear yourself away from this blog you despise so much. Is my mom paying you to read this???? I'll tell her to stop if you want.

Watson's racist remarks, unwarranted as they were, have nothing to do with his skills as a science administrator. I suggest that if you really are outraged, you should stop blogging on Scienceblogs as a protest and blog on a new domain.

By Lactate dehydr… (not verified) on 27 Feb 2008 #permalink