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Biomedicine in museums

Wrong of Science Museum to cancel Watson's book launch event

By October 18, 2007No Comments

One of my students wrote to me last week and said she was going to London and that she would take the opportunity to attend the event tomorrow evening arranged at the occasion of the publication of Jim Watson’s new book Avoid Boring People: Lessons From a Life in Science at the Dana Centre, and also buy a signed copy in the Wellcome Collection Blackwells bookstore earlier in the day. Having just read the Nature Network Boston blog editor’s report from a similar event with Watson at Harvard Square two weeks ago, and expecting yet another good read from his acerbic pen, I asked her to buy a copy for me too.

We may get our desired signed copies (see below) — but the evening event will come to nothing, because the Science Museum has just decided to cancel it with reference to Watson’s stupid remarks in the interview with The Sunday Times about the alleged inferior intelligence of Africans (see report in The Independent here). Here’s Science Museum’s press release:

We know that eminent scientists can sometimes say things that cause controversy and the Science Museum does not shy away from debating controversial topics. However, the Science Museum feels that Nobel Prize winner James Watson¹s recent comments have gone beyond the point of acceptable debate and we are as a result cancelling his talk at the museum this Friday. If people want to know about the science behind genetics and race, they can book onto other events looking at this at the Museum’s Dana Centre over the next year.

I believe Science Museum have made the right decision for wrong reasons. I certainly don’t subscribe to Watson’s opinions in the interview (he has a long track record for saying prejudiced and provoking things), but it would have been better to contradict him head-on at the event instead of cancelling it.

In other words, public debate would have benefitted from turning an honorary book launch event into a critical scientific and political discussion instead. And if Watson hadn’t agreed to do that, so much worse for him. As it stands, Science Museum’s cancellation turns him into a scientific martyr.

The real reason for the cancellation may be that Science Museum is afraid of violent demonstrations in- and/or outside the Dana Centre, and maybe even the safety of the 79-year-old Dr. Watson — but if this is the real reason (which we will all respect), then please say so.

The book signing event in Blackwells bookstore at lunch time tomorrow has so far not been cancelled. Will be interesting to see how they will handle the situation, though.

(those interested in the range of public responses to the Watson interview can read hundreds of comments on Times Online here).

Added tonight: The history of science list Mersenne (see archive from 18. October) has started a discussion too (very unusual, they use to list meetings and queries only)

Thomas Söderqvist

Author Thomas Söderqvist

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