A Nobel Goof

People have a tendency to ascribe to the notably intelligent acuity of perception even in areas of knowledge outside their specific areas of exceptional expertise.

Achievements in some specialised areas of knowledge are assumed to reflect overall ability to see things differently and in a manner well above the ken of ordinary mortals. Sometimes the narrowly intelligent make shocking statements that jolt the public into revaluating what it means to be intelligent.

Consider the case of Nobel laureate James Watson, whose co-discovery of DNA paved way for revolutionary growth in generics, the branch of science that is at the centre of much of today’s scientific advancement, especially in biotechnology, cloning of mammals and a host of applications that have been of immense value to humans.

A few years back, Watson startled an audience at the University of California at Berkeley by suggesting that there was a biochemical link between exposure to sunlight and sexual urges. “That is why you have Latin lovers [but] you’ve never heard of an English lover. Only an English patient.”

Watson further subjected his audience of students and faculty to a slide demonstration purportedly proving that thin people are unhappy and therefore ambitious whereas fat people are happy and therefore less go-getting.

Apparently Watson was not engaging in some crude prank to stimulate his audience. He was deadly earnest. The trouble was he wanted to be taken seriously on the basis of his saying so and without any rigorously analysed data.

He made all kinds of assertions about purported links between body weight and happiness, thinness and ambition, and melanin and arousal. Most in his audience were aghast and quite a number walked out on him.

The problem was Watson has a record of stupendous scientific achievement and therefore his comments were likely to be taken seriously, especially as they speculated on how genes might influence behaviour.

Watson, who shared the Nobel Prize for his role in figuring out the DNA structure in 1993, his second following an earlier Nobel in Medicine in 1962, launched the Human Genome Project in 1990. The Chicago-born scientist was a prodigy from the word go. He received his PhD in 1950 at the prime age of 22.

Watson had said outrageous things prior to his notorious lecture. For instance, he suggested that Japan should be bombed for its initial reluctance to support the Human Genome Project.

At the controversial Berkeley lecture, Watson dwelt on an alleged experiment by scientists at the University of Arizona, who injected male patients with an extract of melanin, the chemical in human bodies that darkens the skin and of which blacks have in abundance.

The experiment was supposedly intended to test whether it was possible to darken men’s skin as a protection against cancer. Watson alleged that the experimenters observed an unusual side effect — the men developed sustained and unprovoked arousal. That, Watson stated, proved that melanin injection is even better than Viagra.

The audience quickly sensed where the Nobel laureate was headed and some walked out rather than listen to the nonsense by the famed scientist, who is currently president of a research laboratory on Long Island.

In that lecture at least, Watson was an equal opportunity maligner of peoples, races and genders. After he was done with the effect of melanin in white males, he launched into a discussion about the sun and the libido.

He showed slides of women in bikinis side by side with slides of veiled Muslim women suggesting that controlling exposure to the sun may suppress the libido and vice versa.

Scientists working in the fields in which Watson was waxing were aghast that a man of such stature could speculate on such touchy subjects without any data to support his hypothesis. The super-scientist had gone way beyond the scientific pale.

Watson is not the only well above intelligent person to make a fool of himself. Several laureates have been tarnished by activities or utterances outside their areas of expertise. For instance, the late Stanford University professor William Shockley, who shared a Nobel prize for inventing the transistor, was shunned for calling some races genetically inferior, and for suggesting that people with IQs under 100 be paid bonuses if they agreed not to reproduce.

Another recent example of a laureate who has fallen from scientific grace is a former biotech scientist, Kary Mullis, who won a Nobel Prize for DNA related research. He has been virtually ostracised by the scientific community for stridently suggesting that HIV is not the cause of Aids.

As recently as a year or so ago, I heard Mullis on radio espousing his doubts about the link between the two.

To date, Watson has not repudiated his wacky ideas. The not so surprising thing is he may have defenders even within the scientific community, not based on his science but because whatever he said jibes with their prejudices.

After all, intelligent or not, scientists are simply human. They do make mistakes and sometimes they just mouth off.

Courtesy RePorterNoteBook