Watson isn’t such a bad guy …
Throughout our discussion of The Double Helix I have realized that many people seem to have a problem with Watson. It seems to me that everyone views Watson as a thieving, sexist, morally skewed pig. However, I didn’t get that impression of him during my reading, and I didn’t actually find the time to start reading until break – well after everyone had throughly hounded Watson for these issues. If I remember correctly, some people also got the impression that Watson seemed to be a bit arrogant and full of himself. Although he did come off as a bit arrogant when he described the repeated renewal of his stipends and access to prestigious research labs as unsurprising, he had no issue representing himself in a negative light when it came to his blunders with various aspects of the project.
Moreover, many people seemed to jump at Watson and Crick for not informing Linus Pauling of his intellectual blunder in order to gain a bit of an advantage over him. Although it might not have been the most admirable thing to do, I would hardly consider it unethical. Certainly Watson and Crick had a lot of self-interest in being the ones to discover the structure of DNA. However, it is important to realize that the importance of discovering DNA was not only the fame that would be generated by the discovery, but also the access to other grants to invest in other projects. In other words, both Watson and Crick desperately needed to gain recognition in order to have access to future funds to delve into other areas of research. Contrary to finding such an approach to research “immoral,” I think it is rather necessary because it gives researchers definite incentives to rigorously pursue an idea. For this exact same reason, I find the American idea of cutthroat competition to be much more advantageous to science than British ideal of being a gentleman.
I have had slight encounters with this idea of scientific competitiveness while conducting research in MRBIV. This semester I began a project on the total organic synthesis of a natural product that was discovered last year. After my supervisor told me about the gist of the research he said that since the compound was attracting a lot of attention I should work quickly in order to be the first to publish a paper on the synthesis. Being under some pressure while doing research has the advantage that it will force people to think of new, more efficient ways to arrive at an answer. Certainly many ideas will fail, however, some may deliver interesting and unexpected results, and even fewer will allow for shortcuts. Nevertheless, all of the data that is collected can be very useful. During a different research project over the summer, I was on a schedule to synthesize a whole pile of compounds for a paper and patent, yet only about 4 of the 30 or so compounds I made actually did what we wanted them to. Nevertheless, the data on the list of compounds that failed to yield good results was, perhaps not equally important, but very significant nonetheless. Had it not been for the competitive nature of research, it is unlikely that novel ideas would develop at the rate they do today.
Although others may disagree with me, I found Watson to be a rather intriguing and amiable character. Not necessarily because he was a bit sexist, but because he seemed so brutally honest about most of the things he represented in The Double Helix. He didn’t really sugar-coat anything, he told you how he remembered the events, regardless of how it might make him look. With regards to the sexism, I didn’t so much get the impression that he actually attributed Rosy’s lack of insight, or lack of her ability to understand her X-rays to her gender, but rather to her capabilities as a scientist. It seemed like he used the gender issue to simply drive the point home, much as one might attribute someone’s ability at math to the stereotype of Asians being good at math. In other words, he simply used the female stereotype in order to sardonically belittle Rosy for her lack of understanding of her own work, without truly believing that her inability stemmed from her gender.
Wasn’t anyone else excited when Watson and Crick discovered that Pauling had made a mistake?