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Nobel laureates say the darnedest things

As you've probably heard, Jim Watson, co-discoverer of the double-helix structure of DNA (with Francis Crick and really with Rosalind Franklin too), said a not-nice thing:

He says that he is “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?, and I know that this “hot potato? is going to be difficult to address. His hope is that everyone is equal, but he counters that “people who have to deal with black employees find this not true?.

He's canceled or been disinvited from several speaking engagements, and recently resigned from his chancellorship at Cold Spring Harbor, the research megafacility he built. On my bookshelf, his bobblehead is now humbled before a plush Alphonse Mephisto (with Kevin!). Watson has been saying silly things for years - for example, he once speculated, on scanty, barely suggestive evidence, that dark skin color is associated with increased libido:

Is this the explanation for the term "Latin lover," and can it explain why the pale faced British descend on Spain in the summer? Does it explain why people from Scandinavian countries seem to enjoy nudist camps?

It is fair to say that at this point in the lecture most of the audience began to prickle at the tone of the argument.

He's not the first renowned scientist to express stupid opinions. There's an interesting article in tomorrow's NY TImes about this phenomenon:

Kary Mullis, after grabbing a piece of the 1993 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, dove head first off the platform, expounding on the virtues of LSD and astrology and expressing his doubts about global warming, the ozone hole, and H.I.V. as the cause of AIDS. On the latter point he was following the lead of Peter Duesberg, a molecular and cell biologist at the University of California, Berkeley, and member of the National Academy of Sciences, who still insists that AIDS is caused by recreational drug use and even by one of the pharmaceuticals used for treatment.

Now, Mullis is no surprise. Popular opinion (among fellow scientists who haven't won their own Nobel) is he's just a surfer who had one good idea and made it big. He openly credits LSD with helping him think of polymerase chain reaction (PCR) technology, and I wouldn't be surprised if his horoscope tipped him off too. Meanwhile, Duesberg is only really known for his far-out, probably dangerous, views on AIDS - in tandem with his creds as a biologist. But there are other examples the article doesn't mention, like William Shockley, who helped invent the transistor, and went on to do what he felt was much more important: advocate eugenics.

One pessimistic explanation is that the huge (relative) recognition conferred by top scientific awards goes straight to decent people's heads and corrupts them, so they start spouting nonsense because they think everything that comes out of their mouths is gold (and there are always people around to write it down). Another possibility, which might be even more pessimistic or it might not, is that some scientists consistently spit out crazy speculations throughout their lives, and after one of those things turns out to be right, people bother to listen to the rest. Both fit with this sad observation:

“In contrast to composers,? Dr. Rees observed, “there are few scientists whose last works are their greatest.?

Well, one issue is clear. I'm a scientist and I have extreme opinions - where's my prize?