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Defending James Watson

That book
I would like to take a moment to defend James Watson. This is a dangerous thing to do, because he has shown himself to be a dinosaur in terms of his attitude to many things and to support concepts that, based on the best scientific evidence, can only be considered racist. Now he is being pilloried again because he has sold his Nobel Prize medal for several million dollars, and that clearly makes him a money-grubbing misanthrope.

Let's be clear - what he has said on race and other matters is wrong. He shouldn't have said it. There is a partial defence that he is in his 80s, and in my experience of elderly family members, the majority of people who grew up in the 1930s have a social outlook that dates back before modern views, including attitudes that most people under 70 would consider racist and unacceptable. You simply can't change this, though a more sensitive person would at least conceal it. No one accuses Watson of being a sensitive person.

However I do think the fuss over selling his medal is wrong. It doesn't help that the media misrepresent this as 'selling his Nobel Prize'. Clearly you can't sell the prize per se, which is an honour rather than an object, all you can sell in this case is the medal. And at 86, I can understand why Watson isn't particularly bothered about the trinket, and is more interested in the good that money can do. I think, if anything, what he is doing is actually a noble (pun intended) thing - because spending on charity and scientific investigation (if this is what he spends it on, as reported) is frankly a much better use of £3m than sitting as a lump of gold in a display cabinet.

I also think what we mustn't do is let Watson's unfortunate nature and this latest furore get in the way of the achievements of the remarkable group of people of which he was a part. Nor, for that matter, would I overlook the fact that, despite its undoubted self-serving nature, his book The Double Helix is one of the best popular science books by a working scientist (certainly a better read that A Brief History of Time).

So by all means feel sad that the man is the way he is, rather than a really nice guy (though my suspicion is that not many Nobel Prize winners are really nice people, because being driven or a genius is rarely an attractive trait). But don't follow the modern tendency to lump everything about a person into one soundbite, because Watson, like all of us, is far more complex than that.


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