Saturday, October 27, 2007

When Spouting Pseudo-Scientific Bigotry Is Given A Pass Posted by olvlzl.

Apparently it’s like a day without sunshine for James Watson unless he publicly spouts some sexist, racist, homophobic or other pseudo-scientific bigotry. When writing about his sexism here two weeks ago I didn’t expect that there would be any fall out, Watson’s fans are pretty much willing to let him say things they would excoriate, quite rightly, a figure in politics or religion for saying. For some of them, since he’s a famous scientist, that apparently makes it all right. That his position as an eminent scientist gives his bigotry a potency that it would lack if said by just about anyone else, counts for nothing with his adoring fans.

As this op-ed by Ivan Oransky, an editor at The Scientist says, he’s been at it for decades. I mentioned the things he said about Rosalind Franklin and women in general, I have to admit that I’d been largely unaware of the racism and gay bashing until recently. While it’s nice that Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory has, at long last, suspended him as director, you wonder how they could have kept him on for thirty-nine years while he was continually demonstrating that he might be less than reliable when it came to impartial career decisions for those groups he clearly disdains.

The op-ed quotes PZ Myers lamenting the suspension.

Influential blogger PZ Myers wrote that the suspension does Cold Spring Harbor "no good: it's a declaration that their director must be an inoffensive, mealy-mouthed mumbler who never challenges (even stupidly)."

There is a difference between someone who challenges an established order and someone who continually takes lip shots at members of groups excluded by the established order, the subjects of discrimination. Watson is in trouble for his pseudo-scientific racism and bigotry targeting groups who have been the object of active discrimination in hiring and other activities. I’m not entirely clear, even after looking, how much power to hire Watson has had at Cold Spring Harbor but I’m hoping someone will look at employment records there now to see what those might show. The facts are that women and people of African ancestry have been and are very much under-represented in science. How much of this is due to the culture of science and to the general perception of the chances members of these groups have to get into the club has been and will continue to be discussed.

Myers has in the past, again rightly, questioned the hiring of biology teachers who show basic ignorance of their subject. I’ve got no problem with only hiring competent people to teach in public schools. But displaying ignorance of biology was exactly what Watson was doing when he made his bigoted statements disguised as scientific knowledge. And he was doing it from a position in which he could do a lot more damage than one ignorant, bigot in a highschool could do. Claiming that “all the evidence” shows that people of African ancestry are less intelligent than other people is as bad as claiming that the evidence is that the earth is 10,000 years old. Actually, since it has the power to blight peoples’ lives, it is far worse. I don’t know of anyone as eminent as Watson who makes the claims of the worst of creationism’s follies, but there are other Nobel laureates in the sciences who have supported racism, the late William Shockley, for example. For someone like Watson to so basically misrepresent the science in ways that blight the lives and careers of the majority of people, women, those of African ancestry and others, is certainly more serious than Forrest Mims non-job related, scientific sins that got him fired from a far less prestigious job at Scientific American.

I would like to know what Myers views of Mims' firing were. As long as his personal opinions -which I disagree with vehemently - didn’t effect it, I’d have no trouble with Mims holding that relatively modest position, as long as he didn’t use it to provide lines for bigots to cite. It would have been up to his editors to keep any pseudo-science out of the magazine, I assume they would have done so if Mims had foolishly included any. Which he apparently didn’t.