Moral dilemma - Livre d'Or








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livredor
Moral dilemma
Thursday, 29 May 2008 at 01:24 pm
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So Jim Watson is coming to speak at the institute tomorrow, on the topic of Avoid boring people [sic]. The question is, should I attend?

It's a pretty unique opportunity to meet a childhood hero in the flesh. He's the last surviving member of the double helix quartet, and my eight-year-old self would never forgive me if she knew I'd passed up the opportunity to hear him speak. He's also a racist scum, and I think the kindest thing I can say about him is that he's probably more than a little senile by now.

I don't think he'll say anything terribly new and exciting; he's eighty years old, he's only nominally still active in science. Also, he's well known to be arrogant and self-aggrandizing, though reportedly a lively speaker. Attending the lecture would simply be a case of being able to say I'd been in a room with someone that important to modern biology. It's also a little practically inconvenient, but on a level that would be surmountable if it were anyone else equivalently famous.

I don't think that attending the lecture is really an expression of support for his racist views. I suppose if every scientist in the whole world refused to hear him speak, he would suffer, but I can hardly expect him to care whether I'm there or not. I'm perfectly happy not to buy his books, that's not the issue here. I don't feel comfortable with academic boycotts; science is science, no matter what his politics are. If a younger man came out with racist comments like that, I'd probably still want to attend his lecture because I would actively want to know about his research. I'm fairly certain Watson will be speaking more as a celebrity than a scientist, though; he's going to speculate idly about the future of biological technology and tell us how great he is.

I'm leaning towards going, but I'm conflicted. What do you guys think?


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lisekit: default
From:lisekit
Date:May 29th, 2008 01:39 pm (UTC)
1 hours after journal entry
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I don't know this guy at all, but reading your own text it actually sounds to me like you don't think you'll get a great deal out of it?
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livredor: p53
From:livredor
Date:May 29th, 2008 01:47 pm (UTC)
2 hours after journal entry, 02:47 pm (livredor's time)
(Link)
Wait, I know about the arts / science divide and all, but seriously, you've never heard of the guy who discovered the structure of DNA?

You're right in general though; the only point of going to his talk is to be able to meet the father of my field before he pops his clogs. I don't think I'm going to learn anything worldshaking.
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From:ext_72852
Date:May 29th, 2008 01:58 pm (UTC)
2 hours after journal entry

what you will wish you had done, when you're eighty...

(Link)

Hey, I'm a scientist, and I was thinking I'd never heard of him either, but the phrase 'WatsonNCrick' is attached to some memory association with DNA - is he one of those? (*follows link*, looks like it. You know, I assumed they were, like, history. Not real people.)

I agree you don't sound that excited by him. When you're old, do you think you'll be pleased to have gone? I think I'd go, take a picture.
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lisekit: default
From:lisekit
Date:May 29th, 2008 02:23 pm (UTC)
2 hours after journal entry
(Link)
Forgive me, I am but 'umble! In truth, if you'd said "Watson and Crick" the penny might have dropped. (Wasn't it in fact all somebody else's work, though, or am I just repeating a conspiracy theory?)
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livredor: teeeeeeeeea
From:livredor
Date:May 30th, 2008 05:52 am (UTC)
18 hours after journal entry, 06:52 am (livredor's time)
(Link)
It's pretty ironic that such an egotistical guy is only memorable in conjunction with his more self-effacing partner. And you're more aware that he stole that chick's data than of his most famous achievement, which just serves him right for trying to write her out of history.

(It's not entirely true that it was all somebody else's work; Franklin, who was working Wilkins, did the crystallography which made it possible to solve the structure of DNA. Watson, who was supposed to be collaborating with her, filched her crystallographic data, something he cheerfully boasted about later to show how he was so dashing and heroic. But then it was Watson and Crick who interpreted her work correctly to devise the double helix structure. It's possible, even likely, that Franklin would have come to the correct interpretation eventually if Watson hadn't played fast and loose with their agreement, but Watson and Crick's interpretation was actually scientifically important. The conspiracy theory is that she was cheated of the Nobel prize because of misogyny; in fact she was cheated of the Nobel prize because she died of cancer too young to receive it, and it isn't normally awarded posthumously.)
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cartesiandaemon: default
From:cartesiandaemon
Date:May 29th, 2008 05:15 pm (UTC)
5 hours after journal entry
(Link)
*blushes* Actually, when you told me, I hadn't either. I'd heard of Watson, but didn't know what he was doing now, and didn't remember his first name (now, some prodding at my mind discovers the phrase "James Watson and Francis Crick" was in there somewhere, so maybe I did, but not readily accessible). I had to check on wikipedia to be sure.
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From:ext_72852
Date:May 29th, 2008 05:39 pm (UTC)
5 hours after journal entry
(Link)
mm. I skimmed the post, the name didn't trigger any associations, I thought "double helix quartet" might be some jazz group, hey this is first thing in the morning I didn't really wake up at the words "science", then read livredor's comment "... structure of DNA", and my brain went "DNA → WatsonNCrick" and that triggered a kind of "mm, yes, it was 'Watson' she mentioned", and a penny dropped into place, and *then* I went and clicked the "Jim Watson" link ...

*makes tea*
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From:llennhoff
Date:May 29th, 2008 02:30 pm (UTC)
2 hours after journal entry
(Link)
I think you should go, although the lecture topic doesn't sound interesting to me. You're not really vulnerable to memetic infection, and I don't think your presence (either individually or collectively) makes much different to how he thinks. I'm also very skeptical of journalism - EVERY newspaper article I've ever read concerning events in which I was involved had significant errors. So if he says something the media blows into a controversy I'd love to have a live report as to what he actually said and meant.
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lethargic_man: reflect
From:lethargic_man
Date:May 29th, 2008 02:43 pm (UTC)
2 hours after journal entry, 03:43 pm (lethargic_man's time)
(Link)
As you know, I managed to fail to hear Watson and Crick speak within a fortnight of each other fourteen years ago. It was annoying at the time; however I got over it: I don't rate it as one of my life's big disappointments.
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darcydodo: default
From:darcydodo
Date:May 29th, 2008 02:52 pm (UTC)
3 hours after journal entry, 09:52 am (darcydodo's time)
(Link)
I'd say that you should probably go. If you don't go, he's certainly not going to know that you weren't there, and as you say, 8-year-old you will never forgive you. Whereas the worst that will happen if you do go is that whatever he says might annoy you. It seems highly unlikely that you could possibly regret going.

However, you can always do the toss a coin, and if the result makes you unhappy, then do the other.

Unlike most other people who have commented, I do not think it sounds like you don't really want to go.
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smhwpf: Giles party weasel
From:smhwpf
Date:May 29th, 2008 03:46 pm (UTC)
4 hours after journal entry
(Link)
Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, I'd say go.

I've become somewhat ambivalent these days about academic boycotts - well, only one general academic boycott under consideration at the moment - but that's about institutions rather than individuals.

Someone like Watson is a rather different case - an undoubtedly brilliant scientist with obnoxious views. Thing is, he's not there specifically to talk about the topics on which he has obnoxious views, and he's not representing any organisation promoting such views. (I presume.) If either of these were the case, then for me the question would be not "Should I go or not" but "What's the most effective way to protest against this" (if I had time). Which might be getting a group to go and listen and challenge, or protest outside, or call for a boycott, or whatever, depends on the situation.

But as that's not the case, as it's just an individual with some obnoxious views, I don't see the gain in a boycott. (There might be certain cases when one would boycott an individual for such reasons, for example if they'd actually called for genocide or something. Not sure where I would put the boundary there, and not sure I could provide a convincing justification for it if I did...)

Of course, if he does start harping on about his racist views, then it would be most apposite to challenge him on that, and to have the necessary facts on hand to do so effectively. He may be the horse's mouth when it comes to genetics, but that does not make him an expert on 'race', and it's important to be able to demonstrate that!
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cartesiandaemon: default
From:cartesiandaemon
Date:May 29th, 2008 05:07 pm (UTC)
5 hours after journal entry
(Link)
I think we covered this in chat, but I've gone on thinking about it. Possibly to separate "whether his racist views will annoy you" and "whether you should boycott".

If it's just you, I think you should go, and leave if you don't like it. It is a once in a lifetime opportunity to see someone who did something amazing, and even though it probably won't be that interesting, you should take the chance for your own satisfaction, I think you'd like to. Contrariwise, if it's not, giving up 1/4 of the way through is plainly better than gritting your way through it if you don't want to.

That's an awkward compromise, but it's still the way I'm leaning. (Is it logistically feasible, how inconvenient is it to get to the talk?)

Whether it's worth boycotting on principle I don't know. My gut reaction was no, but then that reaction would lead to _never_ boycotting people. And I think I am cutting him more slack because he's old and famous. But although it's very tricky, I think that he almost certainly is unable to do much harm, so boycotting him does not actually achieve anything. And I might feel different if he was young and upcoming. And I might advocate not going to his talks _repeatedly_, but I think once is ok.
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kaberett: default
From:kaberett
Date:May 29th, 2008 05:19 pm (UTC)
5 hours after journal entry, 06:19 pm (kaberett's time)
(Link)
FWIW I've read a favourable, ish, review of the book with the same title. No, it didn't sound like it was "Proper Science", but... as you say. Eight year olds.
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hatam_soferet: default
From:hatam_soferet
Date:May 29th, 2008 06:06 pm (UTC)
6 hours after journal entry
(Link)
I say go and sit near the door, then if it makes you squicky and you start thinking it was a waste of time, you can leave.
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From:wychwood
Date:May 29th, 2008 08:17 pm (UTC)
8 hours after journal entry
(Link)
I went to hear Watson speak when he came to the Union in my Freshers' Week (and thus I could get the free entry *g*). But I have to say, I was very disappointed; he seemed kind of bitter, and most of the talk was very much about how people had been horrible! and discriminated against him! and tried to keep him down! From that perspective, I came away really rather wishing I hadn't bothered.

If your inner eight-year-old is really keen on seeing him, I'd say "do it". Just really don't expect anything much. I had more illusions than you do, so you might be ok. But, well, if I were you, I don't think I'd bother.
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From:rav_hadassah
Date:May 29th, 2008 10:47 pm (UTC)
11 hours after journal entry
(Link)
Go, by all means! You're endorsing his science, not his racism.

Being ethical is a fine virtue, but he is OLD and your childhood hero. You might come to regret it. Go and enjoy yourself and never mind the bollocks* so to say ;-)

*Bollocks being his racist diatribe.
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From:redaloud
Date:May 30th, 2008 01:00 am (UTC)
13 hours after journal entry
(Link)

1. How many more opportunities are you going to get to meet one of the founders of molecular biology? And hear what he has to say about how that discipline got started.

2. While it's (admittedly) really difficult to seperate what you know about a person from their work, the work should be more important than the person, provided that the work isn't directly about the person (in which case it becomes tricky). I don't think we should buy music because the singer is always on the front page of the Sun looking stoned; watch films because the lead actor courts scandal and is in the news a lot; or boycott an elderly scientist just because he's a gobshite. Things ought to be allowed to stand on their own merit, and whatever you may think about James Watson, he's co-authored plenty of papers that stand up on their own merit (or so I'm going to assume, not being a molecular biologist).

3. This world is full of racism, and isms of every kind, all inuring yourself from situations where you might hear those things does is mean that you don't hear those things. Which is a bit ostrich like. If he does say something dreadful tomorrow at least you heard it first hand and can act as witness.

Last but not least, while there is absolutely no excuse for some of the things he's purported to have said over the years, he's eighty years old and a relic from an age when some of those views were publicaly acceptable. He's also had his knuckles well and truly smacked. And he's vaugely retracted the statement in question. Not going to see him talk tomorrow (when you obviously want to) isn't going to add insult to injury, not even if the whole room were empty. He's either got the message that he's said unacceptable things or he hasn't. And if he hasn't and he's too old to learn and change, well that's sad, but you probably ought to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Sorry this is muddly, it's because I personally wouldn't go near that lecture with a barge pole, but then I'm not a molecular biologist and he wasn't one of my childhood heroes, so most of the stuff I know about him are the deeply offensive remarks that have ended up being attributed to him . If I went to the lecture I'd be going to see the "person" and not 'cos I knew anything about his work. Since you are a molecular biologist and he was one of your childhood heroes, arguements 1 and 2 apply and it should mostly be about the song and not the singer.

Go to the lecture and then tell everyone how it went
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adrian_turtle: books
From:adrian_turtle
Date:May 30th, 2008 01:22 am (UTC)
13 hours after journal entry
(Link)
I suggest you go. If he says something offensive, stand up and walk out (or stand up and turn your back on him.) Bring like-minded friends. I'm sure some of your colleagues were once 8.
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addedentry: stoplooklisten
From:addedentry
Date:May 30th, 2008 07:22 am (UTC)
19 hours after journal entry, 08:22 am (addedentry's time)
(Link)
Something which hasn't been covered in comments above: I don't think your attendance will reflect badly on you. There are situations where other people would regard you as endorsing a speaker's views just by going to hear them speak; from what you write in this journal, you seem to be not only thoughtful about prejudice but visibly attempting to combat it in your life.
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