Posted tagged ‘Double Helix’

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

January 29, 2008

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.