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Ivan Oransky

Not so elementary, Dr. Watson

NOBEL PRIZE laureate James Watson doesn't think much of the intelligence of blacks.

In an Oct. 14 story in the Sunday Times of London, he said that he was "inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa" because "all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours - whereas all the testing says not really." He also said that although we would like to believe that all people have equal intellectual potential, "people who have to deal with black employees find this not true." He later apologized for the remarks, but did not retract them.

In response, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, where Watson has been chancellor since 2004, suspended him Oct. 18, pending an investigation. On Thursday, Watson announced his retirement.

Still, why did it take so long for Cold Spring Harbor, where Watson became director in 1968, to act? This was hardly Watson's first venture into bizarre pronouncements not backed by data. He has been spewing misogynist venom for decades, since the publication in 1968 of "The Double Helix," in which he savages Rosalind Franklin - from whom many say Watson stole ideas that led to the Nobel he shared with Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins for figuring out the structure of DNA.

Watson, who was just 34 when he was awarded the Nobel in 1962, seems to have chosen the microphone as an instrument of abuse. He said that we should use genetic engineering to "make all girls pretty," and that more melanin - dark skin - gives people greater sexual libido.

Just last year, he told Ishani Ganguli, a former reporter at The Scientist who now contributes the Globe's "Short White Coat" blog, that Franklin probably had Asperger's syndrome, an autistic spectrum disorder that he insisted was common among women who are talented at science. "She found it very hard to make new acquaintances," said Watson, despite the fact that he acknowledged not knowing her well. "Rosalind was very bad at absorbing social cues."

Even before some of these more egregious comments, Watson's behavior led Science magazine, in 1990, to write: "To many in the scientific community, Watson has long been something of a wild man, and his colleagues tend to hold their collective breath whenever he veers from the script."

None of that really stopped scientists from effectively canonizing him. He was still leader of Cold Spring Harbor, one of the world's leading biology research institutions. The relic of the religion of science - I can hear Richard Dawkins screaming at me now - is the genome, made possible by Watson and Crick's discovery, and scientists announced earlier this year that they had sequenced Watson's.

So now that he's libeled the population of an entire continent, and their descendants, scientists are finally accepting the truth about him. Science likes to be thought of as seeking truth, but in fact it's like any other profession. It often circles the wagons around people who are doing questionable things just because they've done good science - nee, great science - at one point. Scientists like to refer to such researchers as victims of witch hunts and political battles, when that could not be further from the truth.

While some groups, such as the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, have publicly criticized Watson's most recent remarks, some science partisans are lining up to defend Watson - not what he said, of course, but his right to say it. 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)."

Really. I'm for freedom of speech as much as the next journalist, but that doesn't mean Watson should have been allowed to hold his position. He is, to use his own words, among those who "have to deal with black employees." Unfortunately, there may not be many at Cold Spring Harbor, if its hiring patterns follow those of the rest of the country. Black scientists make up about 1 percent of all faculty nationwide, and that number has decreased in the past decade.

Drug researcher Frank Douglas resigned from MIT earlier this year in disgust over its failure to promote black scientists. How will minorities ever succeed if the leading lights of science think they aren't good enough? Cold Spring Harbor did the right thing. It just did it decades too late.

Dr. Ivan Oransky is deputy editor of The Scientist.

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