PZ, You've Seriously Disappointed Me

PZ Myers is a really nice person and I love Pharyngula - I just spent a nice half hour reading it, and among other good stuff I encountered there was a link in this post to Robert Hooke's notebooks online. Very cool indeed, and totally geekalicious.

But I'm also aware of this recent distasteful post wherein PZ offers up an apologia for Jim Watson. You know, he just has these repellent personal opinions; he's an asshole; but we all have to learn to tolerate this because he's such a fucking hero.

A healthy dose of puke for your shoes, PZ. If Watson suddenly announces that design theory is his new favorite thing and evolution is evil, will you say aw, gosh, that's just his personal opinion and it's repellent but he's a hero! Let the poor lad keep his job! He can be an excellent spokesperson for CSHL!

Yeah. I didn't think so. ID proponents are too distasteful and offensive to tolerate, but promoting pseudo-scientific racism and sexism - hey, that just makes you an asshole, and we all have to overlook these little foibles.

Last November
, Dr. Free-Ride posited a ship whose sailors must make repairs on the open sea as a metaphor for the scientific enterprise. She concluded:

It's a frustrating situation. Those who are in the community have a lot to lose by challenging the status quo. Those who are no longer in the community can speak out without the same risk of losing their standing -- but, having no standing, they are also in a position where the community can safely ignore them. The status quo lumbers on, but that doesn't mean the ship isn't taking on water. Putting off real repairs for too long endangers the whole community.

And maybe that means that members of the community who are not accustomed to stepping up to identify these problems or make the repairs need to take a turn facing the sharks.

Finally, for once, members of the community with real power - decision-makers at CSHL - stepped up to make some badly needed repairs. And PZ, who is generally a very vocal supporter of underrepresented groups in science, finds fault.

The contribution we need from leaders in the community like PZ at this point is to support the CSHL action as the very necessary step it is, not whine about poor mistreated Watson. Calling him a hero is just ludicrous. It takes more than being involved in a very, very important scientific discovery to be a hero. You can do good science, and still be a piece of shit person. It happens every day in labs all over the place. And I would submit that even if Watson were merely an asshole, that alone would disqualify him. Heroes may be a lot of things, but assholes they ain't.

UPDATE: PZ has replied in the comments section and I encourage you to read what he said (comment #1).

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Except that isn't what I said! I wasn't defending Watson at all -- I was arguing that this kind of stuff is the price we have to pay for academic freedom, that we can't just defend the people who say things we agree with, we have to tolerate the ones who say stuff we detest.

And I definitely did not call him a hero. My closing line was "You have to be able to tolerate the tenure of assholes in order to have the possibility of heroes." Watson is not the hero in that equation -- he's the asshole.

heresy! burn him! burn him!

But administrators don't have tenure, PZ. Administrators occupy a different place in the academic universe than faculty do. Michael Behe is free to sit on the faculty at Lehigh and spout his ID nonsense all the livelong day, and academic freedom absolutely protects his right to do so. Michael Behe as chancellor of CSHL, however, would not be so free to champion the ID contingent and disparage evolution. Administrators, when they speak, are perceived as speaking for the institution, and the higher up the administrative food chain you go, the less you are able to uncouple yourself from the institution. Presidents and chancellors, for all intents and purposes, ARE the institution.

I absolutely agree with you on the importance of academic freedom, but the Jim Watson situation is NOT a case of academic freedom. It is really frustrating to have people hoisting the academic freedom flag in his defense.

And if you didn't mean to call Watson a hero, then I apologize, but the construction of your sentence at the end implied, to me anyway, that we just have to tolerate assholery in our genius-heroes. I'm glad to hear you do not feel that way.

FWIW, I think calling Watson an asshole is insufficient and in some ways trivializes the situation. It's a word that gets used all the time when people make complaints about sexism or racism - "oh, he's just an asshole, you should just ignore him," as if the problem is with the offended person taking notice of the sexism/racism, and if they could only learn to tune it out, all would be okay with the world.

I know PZ's already left his defense, but I have to say, you did a pretty poor reading of his post. If you believed that PZ's position was that Watson was a hero, you probably missed these posts:Payback!I would love to see a debate between Jim Watson and Greg LadenEminent scientist behaving badlyBut even if you didn't read those, it doesn't even take middle school reading level to realize that PZ wasn't calling Watson anything close to a hero. He was arguing for academic freedom, which though it means the toleration of assholes like Watson, also allows for bold statements to be made in a favorable direction.You may disagree with PZ's argument but don't viciously rant at an obvious strawman. "A healty dose of puke for your shoes, PZ"? I would say that given the exceptionally poor representation of what PZ said, you just puked all over all your readers' shoes instead.

The real thing I've been trying to figure out in this whole thing is why Watson is still considered a great scientist. He had one great discovery in his career and it was done with Crick who continued on an amazing and revolutionary scientific career and involved stealing data from others. What has Watson done since the 50's? The only truely significant thing he did was as a cheerleader and administrator in getting the human genome project off the ground (although he simultaneously used that pulpit to promote genetic engineering for human enhancements a.k.a. eugenics)

I'm also curious why the big rebuke is coming now. This is nothing new for him. See:
Perhaps the world has really changed over the past 5 years.

If Watson didn't make racist remarks but instead made remarks about 9/11 being a conspiracy would he still be accepted and allowed to keep his position? Of course not! Because there is no scientific standing or evidence for conspiracy theories. Just like there is not scientific evidence to support racism.

If you hold a scientific position and make remarks based on no scientific evidence that shows your belief in something backed by no scientific evidence, prepare to be more than just challenged. I for one support Watson's firing.

Meng, I have indeed seen and read all of those posts, which is why the one I discussed in my post above surprised and disappointed me so much. Ratchet up your own middle school reading level and attend to the difference in the situation between faculty and administrators: academic freedom absolutely applies to faculty, but Jim Watson is not/was not in a faculty position, he was an administrator. It's not an academic freedom question, and however much you love PZ, he totally missed the boat on this. Now go wipe the puke off your chin.

Watson just decided to retire, since they were forcing him out.

Decades of maligning everyone, but better late than never to see some consquences for presenting his bigotry as scientific fact. Which is part of the problem here, because if an engineer promotes a bridge design known to be wrong, is that malpractice or "freedom of speech"?

Who's your Daddy now Watson! Or should I say, your Mommy.

Ah, you don't need to insult me for positions I never took. Look, your post never mentioned the actual issue at hand and instead was devoted to a ridiculous straw man that should not have made sense to you, given that you knew PZ's several times published opinion on what Watson said.Now, on the actual topic that was addressed in the comment you posted while I was writing my original comment, you were much more reasonable, addressed the actual issue, and I agree with you there, but surely that's what you should have done in the original post rather than accuse PZ of calling Watson a heroI just hope you do a more careful response next time. Otherwise, I might as well only read the comments on your blog.

"but promoting [positions I disagree with] - hey, that just makes you an asshole"

I wasn't aware taking empirical positions that argue from evidence makes one "an asshole". Less aggressiveness might benefit everyone involved. Cheers.

Taking empirical positions that argue from evidence doesn't make one an asshole. But of course, that's not what Watson was doing. He was pitching his racist views in pseudo-scientific language, and to try to conflate that with an empirical argument from evidence is ludicrous at best, supportive of racism yourself at worst, Mthson.