Still an ‘unperson’? Why James Watson sold his Nobel medal
The pioneering scientist, who won his award for discovering the double-helix shape of DNA with Francis Crick, hopes the $4.1m he earned at Christie’s this week will help restore his standing after his controversial ‘black IQ’ remarks
Shunned: James Watson. Photograph: Suzanne DeChillo/New York Times
Lucrative: James Watson’s Nobel medal. Photograph: Christie’s
Watson told the Financial Times last weekend that he hoped getting rid of the medal might help him escape at least some of the opprobrium heaped on him since he made a comment about race and intelligence, several years ago.
The remark, which implied that black Africans had lower IQs than white people, caught the senior scientist in a pincer between the rightful dismissal of such an outrageous claim and its subsequent amplification through the political correctness that pervades US society when it comes to race relations.
If he was just a cross old fellow pontificating in a corner, his comment would have been ignored as nonsense. But the curmudgeon in this case was one of the world’s best-known scientists and a man who had accomplished remarkable things.
The response was quick and merciless and has been long-lasting. He made his comments in a Sunday Times interview in 2007 when he said he felt “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa” because “all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours – whereas all the testing says not really”.
He compounded his difficulties by persisting with his scientifically meaningless views, declaring that people who had black employees had found the notion of equal intelligence to be untrue.
His peers also shunned him. “He has failed us in the worst possible way. It is a sad and revolting way to end a remarkable career,” said Henry Kelly, a former president of the Federation of American Scientists.
Being marginalised from public life was hurtful, but also caused economic pain. Lectures, membership of boards and consultancy were lost sources of income.
The episode exposes the complexities of race relations in the US. People there will tell you that race is no longer an issue, that American society has finally escaped from its awkward history.
Yet it looks like little has changed after the recent killings of unarmed blacks by white policemen. Last month’s shooting in Cleveland of 12-year-old Tamir Rice was one such case. No prosecutions will follow.
Coincidentally, this shooting took place just two days before a Missouri court decision not to indict a white policeman in the August shooting of the teenager Michael Brown, who also was unarmed.
Make wavesFinancial Timesracist
It is as though he just doesn’t see the logical flaws in what he says, remarkable in a leading scientist who spent a lifetime basing conclusions on facts, data and hard information, not on supposition.
So the medal was put up on the block at Christie’s, which expected to sell it for a minimum of $2.5 million (€2 million). In the event it was bought, by an unnamed telephone bidder, for $4.1 million (€3.3 million) – a record for a Nobel medal sold at auction, according to Christie’s.
Watson, who says he will donate part of the money to the academic institutions where he has studied and worked, also says that he hopes the auction will allow him to “re-enter public life”.