James Watson has cashed in his Nobel prize

So can we ignore him now?

Of course, he couldn’t sell the prize, only the medal. But the fact that this deeply mediocre and bigoted mind received so much attention and adulation for so long casts a harsh light upon the scientific cult of genius. Exalted prizes and prestigious chairs often serve a similar purpose to those plaques that we see on buildings around Oxford, marking the place where an important intellectual event once occurred. There might be a frisson to sitting in the room where Robert Boyle discovered the gas law, but you wouldn’t really expect any important scientific insight to come out of it.

Watson participated in one of the great discoveries of all scientific history. The double-helix structure of DNA is something that no one could imagine before 1953, but is completely obvious in retrospect. That is the essence of an intellectual breakthrough. That said, Watson’s own celebrated account makes it clear that mankind has little reason to be grateful to him. His accomplishment was primarily competitive: His own expectation was that someone else would have worked out the same thing within a very short time had he and Crick not done it. But kudos were due him, even if he was at pains to deny credit to others.

Still, why do we persist in the atavistic romanticism of believing that those responsible for important intellectual advances have somehow been touched by God; that they should have something valuable to say about other subjects, or, indeed, about their own subject at a later date? Some people have a long record of producing new and fascinating insights, and one naturally wants to hear what their newest ideas are. Others — and Watson is a charter member of this group — have a long record of accomplishing very little. Nonetheless, had he not persistently spouted racist and sexist claptrap over a very long time, he would certainly have remained to today as the figurehead of prestigious scientific organisations, paid huge sums for empty speeches, adulation heaped upon him. Even with the racism and sexism scientific organisations were loath to part with him

I’m not saying that science is, or should be, exactly like pop music, but we do need to recognise that there are plenty of one-hit wonders.

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