Not so elementary, Dr Watson


Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Jamie Quinn
Science & Tech Editor

Why do clever people say dumb things? How is it that incredibly well-known, well-respected minds that have forged today’s world through scientific rigor and raw intellectual power, can end up thinking that because you’re black, you’re less intelligent?

Surely a renowned geneticist, a Nobel laureate at that, wouldn’t say something totally unsubstantiated like, “there’s a difference on the average between blacks and whites on IQ tests. I would say the difference is, it’s genetic.” Well, in a step beyond your wee granny saying, “that coloured man”, James Watson, co-discoverer of DNA, has once again taken off his “real, actual scientist” hat and slapped on his “racist old man” one, which just happens to look like a big penis. After apologising for making the above remark back in 2007, the 90 year old recently revealed that his views haven’t actually changed, in a new PBS documentary aired this month.

This comes just a couple of months after Professor Alessandro Strumia stood up at a workshop on gender in high energy physics and presented the view that women were underrepresented in physics because “men prefer working with things and women prefer working with people”. He whined the battle cry of middle-aged sexist men, complaining that women are unfairly given advantages over men stating “Oxford University extends exam times for women’s benefit,” and citing his own experience of being overlooked for a job that was then given to a apparently less qualified woman. She was probably a much nicer person, and certainly not thick enough to stand up at a workshop on gender and insult most of the audience.

Equally shocking is comments by another Nobel laureate, Tim Hunt, that women “fall in love with you and when you criticise them, they cry” and his solution to this problem (that nobody else has) is to create gender-segregated labs. This was part of his speech given at the World Conference of Science Journalists in Seoul. According to sources, he started this bizarrely chauvinist diatribe with the phrase, “Let me tell you about my trouble with girls,” taken directly from the big orange book of ways to insult half the earth by big orange Trump.

As a scientist myself I like to think the community is somehow immune from being wrong, or at that very least we are able to recognise our mistakes when shown some decent evidence (or lack thereof). Turns out those whose entire career is to analyse evidence and conclude truths are still incredibly susceptible to the same cognitive biases that plague every human, leading to tribalism, racism and sexism, amongst countless other -isms. Due to their authority in their field of expertise, and apparent authority beyond that, scientists that hold these uncouth views are more dangerous than most. I’d never want to encourage anti-expretism, but sometimes experts are just wrong.