It's one thing to read about the delusions of elderly professors, long a source of exasperation and amusement to forteans, but dealing with the consequences of their behavior first-hand is quite another,. Nobel Prize winners, though, seem to be in a class of their own when it comes to waywardness, as I have been finding out in recent weeks. Over the years, Nobel laureates have espoused vitamin C as the cure for all ills(Linus Pauling),admitted having regular conversations with talking raccoons (Kary Mullis) and spent years espousing dubious right-wing causes (William Shockley), and this is a far from comprehensive list of outside-the-box ideas either. Most recently, James Watson, co-discoverer of DNA’s structure , has elevated himself to this dubious pantheon, by opining in a Sunday Times interview 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 went on to say there was a natural desire that all human beings should be equal but "people who have to deal with black employees find this not true" This was subsequently made front-page news by the Independent, who accused Watson of racism. As I was supposed to be running a public interview with him days later and staging an exhibition on his work (already unexpectedly complex due to the Northern Rock banking crisis and chronic vagueness from the exhibition provider) this led to interesting times
When the media storm hit via the front page of the Independent on the Wednesday, we were already taking delivery of the final exhibition items and finalizing organisation of a VIP dinner and pre-interview tea with Watson for invited guests, so this was not good, but ticket sales went through the roof so we gritted teeth and went on, after all, his penchant for less than PC views was well known and indeed was why the Sunday Times itself didn't think Watson's statement was actually news. However later in the day the Science Museum pulled their Watson event, swiftly followed by the Bristol Festival of Ideas as they didn't want to be associated with his views, so by the next morning I figured we had better do so too and went in to the morning crisis meeting convinced he had to go - but our CEO felt otherwise and postponed decision for an hour or so. On considering this I decided we were right to keep him on - as an interview we weren't giving him a platform or implicitly endorsing his views, and we could use the event to call him to account and give the public an opportunity to express their views about what he'd said to him, face to face.
Thinking about how such proven intelligent people could end up expressing such witless opinions, it seemed to me that a major contributing factor was that they spent far too long in the company of people who would just listen to their views uncritically and just quietly roll their eyes at the daft ones and say 'oh dear, yes, but he's such a genius - what can you do?' rather than challenging them. This means they end up with the delusion that everyone will respond like that, when they most definitely won't. I was looking forward to asking him directly why he, of all people seemed to be tying the notoriously slippery concepts of race and intelligence to genetics. I mean, as original leader of the human genome project he ought to be aware that there's less genetic diversity across the whole human race than in an average group of chimps, and that it is completely impossible to trace our concepts of races to specific genetic markers, so there's no such identifiable genetic entity as the 'sub-Saharan African' whose intelligence might be defective. I reckoned he ought to know that there's no reliable measure of intelligence either, with IQ testing just measuring the ability to do IQ tests, a method that has also been shown to have a cultural bias against black people. That's without even considering the fact that the scant 'scientific' evidence presented for such a difference (Charles Murray's risible Bell Curve) can be simply exploded with research showing that oppressed and disadvantaged groups end up with their IQ scores depressed by at least as much as the alleged racial difference. In his apologia published after the initial story he seemed to be portraying the problem as being that he was saying there's a genetic component to intelligence and ultra-PC opponents were saying there wasn't for spurious ideological reasons, which seemed to me disingenuous to say the least. Given that virtually all human attributes have some genetic component, it seems highly unlikely that intelligence doesn't, but we currently don't know how much (or indeed how to measure it) and there's absolutely no justification for making the point by disparaging Africans..
By this time we're getting petitioned by anti-slavery organisations, mail bombed by the SWP and promised pickets, so we put out statements explaining our position, up security and I invite anyone who complains to come and do it directly to Watson on the night, looking forward to a lively evening. By now the Science Museum is taking flak for censorship and we're sold out, when Cold Spring Harbor, the lab where Watson is chancellor summons him back for damage limitation (he subsequently resigns) and so cancels on us leaving us to refund 400 tickets, cancel dinner for15 at a top restaurant, incurring a swingeing penalty fee due to short notice, call off loads of VIPs and deal with a vast quantity of now surplus cream teas. I also have to ice the exhibition at considerable cost, as it is now jarringly inappropriate (it might eventually appear with a panel added on all this lark). Happy I am not, and about £10k out of pocket. With Watson having long been one of my scientific heroes, I don't think I've ever had an illusion so comprehensively crushed - serves me right for having heroes I suppose!