Why the Public Disses Science: It’s all Jim Watson’s fault

I’m late getting my thoughts in order on the recent excellent Science Blogging Conference in North Carolina, (and as you can see below, I got distracted by the latest public health outrage from the administration) but here is one reaction to a persistent theme of meeting, the question why science ranks so low to American society at large.At times, in fact, the conversations in the halls and during the presentations pulled a kind of inverse Sally Field: “They hate us. Right now they hate us.” (Click the link to see why the paraphrase does not match your memory).

The chat came to head in the reactions to the presentation by Jennifer Jacquet of Shifting Baselines. She argued that: science cannot compete with what really interests mass media owners and audience: celebrity “news.”

Her example: Britney Spears high-stepping in spiked boots and not much else drowns out every worthy National Academy report ever released – not to mention with any public health story that doesn’t involve induced priapism, painlessly shed pounds, or eternal youth.

This post by Abel Pharmboy on Terra Sigillata summarizes the state of play of responses to Jacquet’s talk. See also Jennifer Ouelllette’s optimistic take on the issue, while James Hrynshyn takes a more dour view.

But what’s been missed so far in the conversation (IMHO, of course) is a look at how science lost the hold on both attention and trust it is perceived to have once had.

There is a rich historical vein to be mined here – at the conference we talked about things like the approach-avoidance fear and need for science evoked by the fact of atomic weapons. The Vietnam War had the same effect on a lot of people’s view of science that World War I had on Albert Einstein. He wrote to friend that “Our whole, highly praised technological progress and civilization in general, can be likened to an ax in the hand of a pathological criminal.”

But I think that you can identify one moment, one event, when the public’s view of what science was really like shifted to a much less reverent place. That moment came — in the English speaking world, at least – in 1968, when James “Lucky Jim” Watson published The Double Helix.

Forty years on, it’s almost impossible to imagine what a radical, profoundly disruptive picture of science and the scientist that book painted for its best-seller’s audience. Don’t take my word for it. Listen to Peter Medawar:

“Considered as literature, The Double Helix will be classified under Memoirs, Scientific. No other book known to me can be so described. [Emphasis added]…Many of the things Watson says about the people in his story will offend them, but hs own artless candour excuses him, for he betrays in himself faults graver than those he professed to discern in others…Watson’s childlike vision makes them seem like the creatures of a Wonderland, all ata strange contentious noisy tea –party which made room for him because for people like him, at this particular kind of party, t here is always room.” (from Medawar’s review of The Double Helix, New York Review of Books, March, 1968).

Less kind observers took a more aggrieved view of Watson’s accomplishment. Quoted in a Harvard Magazine article, molecular biologist Robert Sinsheimer said the book described a life in science as a “clawing climb up a slippery slope, impeded by the authority of fools, to be made with cadged data…,with malice toward most and charity toward none.”

Watson has, of course, gone on to exceed himself, becoming an object lesson that a Nobel prize is not election to any scientific papacy: a great discovery in one field does not confer infallibility in all utterance.

But whatever he may have said since, what Watson wrote four decades ago changed the rules of the game for the public perception of scientists.

To be fair: The Double Helix has inspired a lot of people to go into science. Watson made it sound exciting, dramatic, fun — and as Medawar said when he described Jim as Lucky, “in addition to being extremely clever, he had something important to be clever about.” Watson brought that news to a broad public in an engrossing and accessible form.

But think of the book from this angle: imagine an alternate version of The Double Helix written by Tom Wolfe. That’s what Watson managed to do to his own profession. He laid open for bemused scrutiny the character of the scientist, just as Wolfe exposed — from his particular, wicked point of view, the foibles of hippies, architects, or the rich.

You can read, laugh, and condescend – judge – all at the same time. That’s Watson’s approach to his fellow scientists and himself: and you aren’t going to look quite the same way at a group of people who have just endured such a joyfully delivered literary wedgy.

It can’t all be Watson’s fault, of course. It isn’t really his fault at all. He just wrote a funny, gripping, somewhat mean, very young man’s book. The blame for the forty years since lies proximately with those who set out to deceive, all those dishonest, self-interested, manipulative knaves and fools who have exploited every uncertainty, every unanswered question to muddy the waters on everything from global warming, to the possibility of missile defense, to evolution, and so on, and on, and on.

But if nothing else, The Double Helix marked the moment in our culture’s history when the character of the scientist truly became fair game. And once that’s up for grabs, all kinds of mischief become easier to accomplish.

Update:  Just to bring up something from the comments.  I realize that there is better comparison than Tom Wolfe for what Watson’s book meant to the public view of science.  The Double Helix, I think, has something of the same significance to public attittudes about science as Jim Bouton’s Ball Four had for baseball. That was huge at the time — and it has proved impossible ever to go all the way back to the pre-Bouton fantasy of the game.  Same with Watson.

Images: Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, “Jane Avril,” 1893 and “Queen of Joy,” 1892. Source: Wikipedia Commons.

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7 Comments on “Why the Public Disses Science: It’s all Jim Watson’s fault”

  1. kevin z Says:

    First, It was great to meet you at the conference. I’ve had a look around your blog and am loving it!

    The question remains, why is Watson the representative for xwhat a scientist is? Are you arguing that because he wrote a book that was read by an interested public that his words are the voice of all scientists? What about the effect that writers like Carl Sagan and Steve Gould have had on the public perception of scientists. Or do people separate the writers from the scientist?

    Perhaps it may be a generational ghost of the past too. In light of Watson’s idiotic prejudiced comments over the last few years (the time I’ve been paying attention anyways), I feel he is rather irrelevant to younger generation biologists. The public is getting its information from the internet and television now. The scientists that make an impression seem to be those that reach out the most and get their presence marketed over the media. Which is not a bad thing. I’ve had my day in the spotlight and relish communicating what it is to be a scientist and do science to non-scientists. I operate under the premise that the public will always be interested in science and technology, especially when made relevant to their lives. The personalities of those scientists active in the media (in the broad sense) are likely to give a positive impression of scientists. Whether false or not is up to an individual. I’m an optimist despite being beaten down by my doctoral committee…

  2. Tom Says:

    Great to meet you too, and thanks for the comment.

    My point isn’t that Watson is representative of scientists now, though to some of the public I’m sure he is. It is that his book in 1968 came as a big shock to lots of people. The idea that scientists had private motives, might cut corners and so on had begun to seep into public consciousness (the Vietnam War and its context had a good deal to do with that, I think). But Watson’s book, I think, has something of the same significance to public attittudes about science as Jim Bouton’s Ball Four had for baseball. Huge at the time — and it was impossible ever to go all the way back to the pre-Bouton fantasy of the game.

  3. Dr. Smith on “Lost in Space” had something to do with it, too. Like many other evil geniuses (well…), he’s the perfect foil for the always popular American nativism and anti-intellectualism.

  4. bikemonkey Says:

    Jim’s an asshat. And I’m still waiting for someone knowledgeable to actually do a rundown on his scientific contributions. (beyond, “he made the genome happen)

    still. The Double Helix is a great book. Consider it as fiction if you will. But it is indeed inspirational. And in a good way. The post seems to lament in some ways the democratization of science that comes across in that book. Maybe it was just my read but the “story” is almost the direct opposite of Watson’s arrogant stances. It makes it seem like “gee, you too could make a great scientific discovery”. And that is the inspirational part.

    like I said, maybe it was just my reading of the book

  5. MJ "revoltingpawn" Says:

    We covered Dr. Watson awhile back at Shadow Democracy…


    I am having a hard time believing Dr. Watson has really anything to do with the public dissing science since doubt most even know who he is now. The problem is our public educational system which does not promote the sciences and does not get better at the university level where we keep pumping out more and more lawyers. Our culture is to blame where people are more interested in UFOs, paranormal events, and also don’t discount the rise in fundamental Christianity. I also very well may have missed the point of your post.

  6. tgibbs Says:

    Back in the early ’70′s, I recall Watson saying that if they ever made a movie out of The Double Helix, he would like to be played by Woody Allen.

    I think it would have worked…

  7. [...] Why the Public Disses Science 2: “Duck and Cover” Nuclear terror dept. Two weeks ago, a conversation begun at the North Carolina Science Blogging conference, (summarized in this post at Terra Sigillata) asked why much of the public regards science as a matter of opinion, to be disregarded as needed. My contribution to that conversation can be read here. [...]

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