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livredor
After all that angst
Saturday, 31 May 2008 at 01:26 pm
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Thank you all for being my collective conscience! I think it was the right decision to go, and the various arguments gave me lots of food for thought. That said, Watson's talk was even more pointless than I had suspected it would be.

First of all the organizers did something very stupid, namely scheduling the talk for a tiny little lecture theatre which was in no way big enough for such a famous speaker. It was also hard to find, so I was ten minutes late, by which time the place was absolutely crammed like a pre-Hillsborough football stadium and I found myself at the back of the crowd in the doorway. Obviously it was impossible to see or hear from there, and it was also boiling hot, and I was very tempted to give up, but in the end patience paid off and enough other people gave up first that I ended up just inside the doorway.

So I heard the lecture standing jammed between sweaty bodies, which may not have been the ideal circumstance. My expectations were not that high; I assumed Watson would follow the pattern of most grand old men and speculate a bit about where biology is going, with a little bit of gossip about his career. But he didn't talk about biology at all, and realized that he is famous enough that anyone who cares knows everything about his career already. Instead he provided some careers advice, most of which was obvious, and a lot of which was more applicable to 1950s America than modern Europe. So even if I had been younger and more inclined to hero-worship, I don't think I would have got a lot out of it. I think the most interesting he said was that it's very important to collaborate, and you'll never get anywhere if your goal is personal glory; you must ask for help if you're stuck, you must talk to others in your field even if they are your rivals, you must seek out people who are more intelligent than yourself and who are experts in related fields.

There was a little bit of "yay, atheism", and a little bit of dismissing RNA biology as just a fad (I think he's wrong there; DNA is important, sure, but it's part of a system, you can't these days get away with only caring about DNA). But he rather lost the thread of what he was saying, overrunning his allotted time by rather a large margin, and degenerating into a rambling diatribe against Franklin by the end. He's apparently moved on from calling her unnatural and unfeminine, to calling her "autistic", which he probably thinks is less offensive. It really did just come across as completely pathetic; the poor woman has been dead for half a century. He didn't appear to notice the irony of complaining (at excessive length) about how Franklin was arrogant and difficult to work with, where in another part of the talk he commended us to work with scientists who have a reputation for being arrogant and to care more ability than niceness. He was also rude about Linus Pauling, so I suppose he isn't only misogynistic.

He made a bunch of random snide, but not actively offensive, remarks about Jews (the whole of biochemistry in the 40s and 50s was massively dominated by Jewish scientists who had fled Germany and Russia, and indeed most of Watson's major scientific influences were Jewish). He was extremely rude to Georg Klein, who was as usual sitting in the front row; I don't know their history enough to know whether it was just friendly teasing or being deliberately offensive.

I didn't bother staying for questions; it was too hot and crowded and Watson had really lost my interest by that point. Oh, he did make one rather cute remark to finish; he said that if they ever made another film about him he would like to be played by Sacha Baron-Cohen.

I cut him slack for being vague and rambly on the grounds that he's eighty. But I don't cut him slack for his sexism for that reason; he's just not old enough to remember a world where it was reasonable to assume that women are naturally incompetent and all the serious work is done by men. Female scientists were still the minority back in the 50s, but hardly unheard of; he himself mentioned that Franklin was one of a couple of dozen women in the chemistry department at King's College London. Even if has been completely unable to adapt to the changes in society in the past fifty years, there's no excuse to make comments about how you should make sure to spend time in conversation with other scientists and not waste too much energy gossiping about politics with your wife. I don't think he even intended that remark to be offensive, unlike some of his comments about "the feminists" who were so meeeeeeeeeeean to him and made a totem of Franklin just because she was a girl even though she wasn't particularly competent (sic). He just unthinkingly assumed that all scientists are men, and women only talk about trivial things. I think for someone to be too old to understand that women are people, he would have to be at least 150, which is to say, there's no excuse any more.

Anyway, the evening was much improved by an invitation to dinner with EBH, which was as usual delightful and full of interesting, intelligent conversation. Just what a Friday night should be, in fact.


Whereaboooots: KI, Solna, Sweden
Moooood: crankycranky
Tuuuuune: Spin Doctors: Two princes
Discussion: 12 contributions | Contribute something
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From:ex_robhu
Date:May 31st, 2008 12:29 pm (UTC)
25 minutes after journal entry
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Can you elaborate on the yay atheism?
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livredor: likeness
From:livredor
Date:May 31st, 2008 12:39 pm (UTC)
35 minutes after journal entry, 01:39 pm (livredor's time)
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Bear in mind that due to the unfortunate conditions, I wasn't able to take notes, so this is from memory, but:

- At the point I actually got into the room, I caught the tail end of him saying that his mother was Catholic (?) and that when he was ten he realized that all that religious stuff was nonsense and he didn't have to keep trying to force himself to believe in it.

- He repeated a few times during the course of the talk that his life was much happier because he had realized from such a young age that he didn't have to bother with religion.

- He also said a couple of times that you should only form opinions based on empirical evidence and not dogma. I think he was including dogmatic views in general, not just religion though.

- On the topic of getting excited about DNA, he said that having rejected religion, he replaced it with believing in The Gene and devoted his life to understanding that.

So, it wasn't Dawkins type stuff, he (sensibly, IMO) didn't mention creationism at all.
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From:ex_robhu
Date:May 31st, 2008 12:44 pm (UTC)
41 minutes after journal entry
(Link)
What is not sensible about mentioning creationism? (assuming that religious people have to believe in that, or that they all ought to / tend to reject science in general?)
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From:neonchameleon
Date:May 31st, 2008 04:39 pm (UTC)
4 hours after journal entry
(Link)
That in the audience to which he was talking it's a dead issue.

assuming that religious people have to believe in that, or that they all ought to / tend to reject science in general?

Huh? From where do you get this assumption?
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From:ex_robhu
Date:May 31st, 2008 05:09 pm (UTC)
5 hours after journal entry
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I'm not assuming anything - I'm suggesting those might be Dawkins-esque things.
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livredor: ewe
From:livredor
Date:June 1st, 2008 10:31 am (UTC)
22 hours after journal entry, 11:31 am (livredor's time)
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The thing about creationism is that it's a polarizing thing; it makes people tend to align themselves along tribal lines, rather than actually assessing the arguments. Besides which, it's my opinion that biologists wasting their time arguing against creationism just gives legitimacy to a particular strand of American fundamentalist Christianity. It's irrelevant to most religion, and it's utterly, completely irrelevant to scientific discourse.
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dampscribbler: default
From:dampscribbler
Date:May 31st, 2008 03:22 pm (UTC)
3 hours after journal entry, 08:22 am (dampscribbler's time)
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he's just not old enough to remember a world where it was reasonable to assume that women are naturally incompetent and all the serious work is done by men.

Watson is American. Speaking as an American, I not only know guys in their 80's who don't comprehend that women are people, but I know of supposedly educated men half that age who don't get it. So while I'm not excusing his attitude or presentation of it, I guess I want to suggest that you may be overly optimistic about the state of the relations between the sexes. It's worth considering that he was expressing opinions that others younger than him still hold but don't feel they can "get away with." Not that I'm all that familiar with what's going on amongst researchers these days, but out in the wider society women are still untrustworthy hysterical gossipy complainers in the eyes of many (male and female alike.)

I'm glad you went, I had hoped you would. And thanks so much for telling about it.
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livredor: ewe
From:livredor
Date:June 1st, 2008 10:39 am (UTC)
22 hours after journal entry, 11:39 am (livredor's time)
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I take your point, there are younger sexists as well as older ones, and equality is far from universally accepted (in Europe either, sexism is not only an American problem). But the point is that many people argue, well, sexism is over now, but there are still a few old fossils hanging around who haven't quite caught up with the programme yet. They can't help it, they're just old, and they'll soon die off and then everyone will live happily ever after with no more discrimination. I'm rejecting that view by saying that there is nobody left alive who is older than the feminist movement. There's no more excuse for an 80-year-old than a 40-year-old or a 20-year-old.

I do think that certain opinions becoming socially unacceptable is a first step on the way to eliminating the actual opinions, even in private. I am definitely seeing this with homophobia; again, the struggle is far from over, but it's clear that people ten years older than me have to be politically aware to understand that gay people are just people, not perverts, whereas people ten years younger than me have rarely come across anyone they take seriously expressing open homophobia. My generation are more in the situation where they might think negative things, but know they're not really supposed to say them. (Yes, I do realize that this happy situation hasn't spread throughout every sector of society or every part of the world yet.)
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friend_of_tofu: default
From:friend_of_tofu
Date:June 1st, 2008 11:41 am (UTC)
23 hours after journal entry
(Link)
Thanks for this. Sounds like Watson was his usual charming self! Still, best that you judged on the basis of observation rather than assumption, right?

On the religious point above, the idea that religious people must perforce tend towards creationism or rejecting science is just bizarre and, if anything, perfectly expresses your point that giving attention to creationism is a waste of time as it serves only to skew the debate further and to perpetuate the idea that the beliefs of a very small religious minority are the beliefs of all religious people everywhere.
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livredor: ewe
From:livredor
Date:June 2nd, 2008 07:13 am (UTC)
1 days after journal entry, 08:13 am (livredor's time)
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I wasn't too worried about making false judgements about Watson based on a distorted media view. He really has no reason to care what I think about him. Also, I'd already formed a pretty negative impression of him based on reading his own autobiography (the old one, The double helix), so it's totally his own fault if he came across badly. What I was worried about was inadvertently contributing to making the world a more welcoming place for racists and therefore less welcoming from people from ethnic minorities by going to listen to him. But I think there was a clear conclusion from the discussion here, as well as my own thinking, that going to the talk wouldn't have that effect.

To me, science rejecting creationism is not only a false belief, it's an entirely false debate. When I write papers about potential new drugs, I don't devote space to explaining why homeopathy doesn't work. Even having the argument helps the bad guys, which is the main reason I don't approve of Dawkins & co.
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cartesiandaemon: default
From:cartesiandaemon
Date:June 1st, 2008 11:30 pm (UTC)
1 days after journal entry
(Link)
*hugs* I'm glad you went, even if the talk was tedious.
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livredor: p53
From:livredor
Date:June 2nd, 2008 07:19 am (UTC)
1 days after journal entry, 08:19 am (livredor's time)
(Link)
Me too, def. Thanks for helping me think about it. Going to a tedious talk by someone that important to science is definitely worth it; my question was really whether going to a potentially offensive talk was worth it. And I think it was.
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