Nobel, Not Nobility

Nobel_medalWith the current rise of chemophobia, anti-vaccine sentiments, and attempted government bans on genetically modified organisms (GMOs), we are in an interesting dichotomy of science and society. Our technology and scientific knowledge pushes new boundaries every day and is often celebrated on popular websites such as Buzzfeed and I F—ing Love Science, yet there is still a great deal of resistance on many topics including, but not limited to, examples mentioned above. Those of us who have are more scientifically inclined believe that science is logical, reasonable, and nothing can be deemed certain without irrefutable proof. We are taught to respect science, to listen to the brilliant minds that have paved significant roads in our pathways of knowledge, and the ultimate commander of respect is the Nobel Prize. This international honor is awarded annually for advances in Physics, Chemistry, Physiology or Medicine, Literature, Peace, and Economic Sciences. It bestows an aura of glamour and invincibility on the laureates, bringing awareness of the work to the masses and occasionally bigger egos to the prize holders. These awards recognize greatness, but also have the unfortunate side effect of raising the pedestal to untouchable heights, making it possible for the winners to take their influence too far.

After receiving the 1993 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, Kary Mullis has been outspoken on his doubts of climate change and global warming, and most prominently is one the most famous AIDs denialists today. William Shockley, 1956 Nobel Prize in Physics laureate, made headlines as he attempted to draw connections between race and intelligence in the support of eugenics.   Brian Josephson received the 1973 Nobel Prize in Physics then later delved into parapsychology, water memory, and cold fusion—all topics that have been soundly rejected by reputable scientists. And most recently James Watson, father of the DNA double helix and receiver of the 1962 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, made headlines in 2007 after declaring in regards to Africa, “all of our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours—whereas all the testing says not really.”

Upon making this statement, Watson was forced to retire from Cold Springs Harbor Laboratory, fired from company boards, had all lectures and public appearances cancelled, and was generally shunned; however the most surprising fact is that said shunning took so long to happen. This was not the first incident in which he spoke out inappropriately, as he previously asserted that overweight people are unambitious and do not tend to be hired for jobs, and that sunlight (and the resulting darker skin) affects libido and “that’s why you have Latin lovers.” His greatest offense dates back to his early DNA days, where he excluded x-ray crystallographer Rosalind Franklin from receiving credit. This is apparent in his 1968 autobiography The Double Helix, in which he constantly disparages Franklin in a poor attempt to downplay the extent of her contribution to the discovery of the structure of DNA. But unfortunately it wasn’t until he finally uttered something so atrocious and hateful, not to mention wholly unfounded, that the scientific community had to kick him out.

When we allow scientists to get bigger than the science itself we open a Pandora’s box; yet it is hard to avert our eyes from the gleam of the Nobel gold medal. While Watson has not lectured since his 2007 comments and experienced severe fallout, Kary Mullis continues to speak publically and Brian Josephson remained a full professor at the University of Cambridge until retiring in 2007. Despite the offensive quackery we continue to give these types of scientists the attention they crave, and even more dangerously, they lend credibility to the less visible racists and science deniers of the world.

And this week, James Watson again appeared in the spotlight, becoming the first person to sell his/her own Nobel Prize, earned for “discoveries concerning the molecular structure of nucleic acids and its significance for information transfer in living material.” With a starting estimate of $2.5 million, the gold medal sold for $4.1 million on Dec. 4 2014, along with notes and a lecture manuscript that were auctioned off for $365,000 and $245,000, respectively. While I can empathize with the desire to own such a prominent piece of scientific history, it appears Watson continues to benefit from the hero worship that accompanies a Nobel, this time in the form of nearly $5 million.