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9 December 2014

Russia’s richest man indulges James Watson’s Nobel Prize sale tantrum, buys to give it back

Alisher Usmanov spent just shy of $5m to purchase Watson's 1962 Nobel medal at auction, but says he plans to return it. Can we please go back to ignoring this bigoted man now?

By Ian Steadman

The discoverer of the DNA double helix, James Watson, has succeeded in selling the Nobel Prize medal he earned for the achievement for the sum of $4.1m at an auction at Christie’s in New York. (With taxes, the total price is $4.76m.) The winning bidder was Russia’s richest man, Alisher Usmanov – who plans to give Watson his medal back, reports Bloomberg.

The cost will barely make a dent in Usmanov’s estimated $18bn fortune, but the symbolic value is clearly much higher for the mining magnate, who said that he felt it was “unacceptable” that Watson, 86, had been forced to become the first living recipient to sell their medal.

Why did Watson feel forced into selling? Because, as was widely reported last week, he felt he had become an “unperson” within the scientific community after making a series of bigoted remarks about Africans in a 2007 interview with the Sunday Times. Specifically: that they’re not as intelligent as Europeans, that “all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours – whereas all the testing says not really”. That acting as if everyone is equally intelligent is a mistake, as “people who have to deal with black employees find this not true”.

As abhorrent and ignorant as Watson’s comments were, they were merely the latest in a decades-long career of being a “jerk”, as Laura Helmuth comprehensively laid out for Slate. He’s made sexist and racist comments for years, and been infamous for “mouthing off about things he doesn’t really understand”. That includes genetics – Watson advocates a simplistic (and incorrect) kind of genetic determinism, where every sociocultural or demographic difference between two groups of people can be explained by their genetic differences. (Notably, he was one of the few prominent fans of Nicholas Wade’s book on the topic from earlier this year, A Troublesome Inheritance.) His long career in the research of cancer biology came to an end after that 2007 interview when he resigned as chancellor of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL), one of the world’s premier institutions dedicated to the field.

With Usmanov’s generosity, Watson has said that he intends to donate money to CSHL, the University of Chicago, Clare College Cambridge and other charities he supports. He also said he might use the cash to buy a Hockney painting. It’s unlikely he’ll be able to buy a new reputation.

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Sometimes, it’s important to remember that scientists aren’t omniscient. Intelligence is not expertise, and expertise in one field doesn’t necessarily translate to another. Watson may be known as the guy who “discovered DNA”, but that doesn’t mean his comments on genes and race ever deserved any attention – it’s not his field, it’s not his expertise.

Isn’t it strange, the way we do that with the famous scientists? If someone like Watson is famous for a blockbuster one-off of a discovery (as he partly is), then their places in our culture becomes somewhat sage-like. And sure, Watson’s clearly talking from a position of ignorance, but there are plenty of examples of scientists being given platforms to spread misinformation by a media (and I include myself here) which can give into the glamour around the big names, regardless of how informed they are or not.

Stephen Hawking’s remarks that AI “could spell the end of the human race” last week were widely reported as serious, for example – but Hawking has no experience as an artificial intelligence researcher. Susan Greenfield has built up an extensive body of work as a neuroscientist, but is also regularly critiqued for scaremongering about the effects of digital technology on the brain. Not to compare those acts to what Watson’s done, of course, but simply to point out that scientists can be ridiculous, or wrong, or simply talking off the top of their heads. It’d be nice if every household name scientist was like Einstein – iconic look, prodigious coiner of proverbs – but alas, they aren’t, Nobel or not. A little scepticism for those going off the beaten path wouldn’t hurt.

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