When he announced the auction of his Nobel Prize medal, James D. Watson indicated that he hoped the event would give him a chance to re-enter public life. Perhaps he should have asked a public relations specialist to help him target his messaging, which was, well, scattershot. He said that he regretted the sexist and racist comments that caused the scientific establishment to shun him, but he offered no heartfelt mea culpa. He said that he was selling his medal because he needed the money—his income, he noted, had suffered along with his reputation—but he also promised that he would give most of the auction’s proceeds to academic and research institutions. Oh, and he quipped that he would like to buy a painting. All this was broadcast by the media, along with a “greatest hits” selection of Watson’s impolitic statements. If Watson wanted a chance to shift perceptions and restore his legacy, he may have blown it by being glib—which is what hurt him in the first place. So, what will Watson’s legacy be?

Poll Question:
How will James D. Watson be remembered?

In time, politically correctness will fade, and people will wonder why it was necessary to “unperson” a gifted scientist and visionary administrator simply because he spoke foolishly on topics beyond his expertise.

The controversies surrounding Watson will never be resolved because our desire for scientific heroes will always conflict with the reality that scientists are people, too.

Watson’s scientific accomplishments will be overshadowed by his abject failure as an ambassador for science. If even great scientists can be bigots, how can we say that science is an ennobling pursuit?

Few people will remember much about Watson’s personal qualities, so no caricature of him will last. He won’t be martyr to political correctness, an irrepressible sage of science, or even a jackass. Despite the teaching moment, no lasting lessons will be learned.

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