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If you like James Watson's story, you might also like:
Stephen Jay Gould,
Edward O. Wilson
and Shinya Yamanaka
Teachers can find prepared lesson plans featuring James Watson in the Achievement Curriculum section:
Frontiers of Medicine
James Watson Interview (page: 6 / 9)
Discoverer of the DNA Molecule
What advice would you give young people who want to achieve something in their lives?
James Watson: Be very persistent to get to the place where it's done the best. When you're young, you don't learn much from your peers. I probably succeeded because my teachers were more important than my school friends. That's a hard thing to get across, but peer pressure when you're young can often just lead to very conventional behavior. My parents were very supportive, so that I never really paid any attention to peer pressure. Not that I wasn't popular, but I think this concept of trying to be popular is a very dangerous one. Popular girls in class, all these social things. When you finally see it, it's pretty ugly.
And spending time just hanging around doing nothing?
James Watson: Well, I did nothing. I don't think doing nothing is bad, because the brain has to relax. I spent an enormous amount of time as a child listening to baseball games on the radio. I think the most important thing is to want to know the truth and to accept it, and not to fight reality.
We have a tendency to do that.
James Watson: Yes. In America we have different cultural traditions, but we're not tough enough on ourselves to accept reality. We want to look good. Looking good is more important than doing good. The politicians seem to be dominated by this desire to look like they're doing good. I realized that you can become quite unpopular by trying to do good, as distinct from looking good.
I just read this book about Robert Hutchins, of the University of Chicago. He was the son of a minister, he was raised as a Presbyterian, but by the time he had grown up, he didn't really believe in it anymore. His father probably was a marvelous speaker and the son became a marvelous speaker. Hutchins actually believed that you could arrive at the truth through thinking. He really wanted to believe some things were better than other things. He was a relativist. Logically, you can say there's no one up in the sky to strike you down if you behave badly, but there's an outrage when an injustice is perpetrated. If you don't have that, as a civilization, you finally fail.
You can argue, what's injustice? Probably most of us can agree on many cases of injustice. There was the Dreyfuss affair. You've got to have a society which is concerned with justice. It's quite clear that American society for the past decade has been concerned with greed, not justice. Getting ahead, and not with being rewarded in some way by society if you do things which try and reveal the truth. I'm struck by this whole question of whistle blowing. They're not liked. They're regarded as nasty little whistle blowers.
We had to pass a law to protect them.
James Watson: Sure.
I'm amazed at the sloppy ethical standards among scientists. There are a lot of people who say, "Society isn't perfect and you can't spend your time worrying about the injustice. Just get something done." But why are you trying to get it done then? I think they have accepted so much of the corruption of modern life that they don't realize it. If they don't stand for the truth, who does?
[ Key to Success ] Integrity
What do you mean by sloppy standards?
James Watson: So much in science is priority. Who had the idea first? Claiming you had ideas when you didn't have them. Being more concerned with whether you get credit than seeing that the credit is correctly assigned. Of course if you get credit, you get a job, you can support your children, so it's part of the struggle for life. But, I guess because I've been at the top of my profession, I see most of my friends at the top are chiefly concerned with staying on top, rather than worrying about those who are less fortunate.
More concerned about themselves than how their work might affect others?
James Watson: No. Just not much desire to spread the wealth or share the wealth.
What responsibility does a scientist have towards society?
James Watson: Within limits, to give an impartial view of why things happen. That is, to say whether we are suffering from a greenhouse effect or whether we're not. Whether nuclear energy is good or bad. Whether genetic engineering is good or bad. If there's scientific knowledge which will affect human beings, we really have to work to see that the public understands this knowledge and gets the message. I think the people who were the most responsible were the so-called atomic scientists who, when the bomb came along, really did work very hard for some form of arms control. I think this group, largely of physicists, was a pretty responsible group. I think they lived up to what society hoped people would do. Of course it got involved with whether you should be dominated by worrying that bombs will explode, or whether the Russians will take over, and those sort of arguments. But, at least, I think your responsibility is somehow to be honest in your reporting of the scientific facts, and not bend the facts towards your political convictions.
Has criticism of your work had an impact on it?
James Watson: Sometimes, when I get into trouble from saying something at the wrong time, it makes me be slightly cautious. As a government official now, I am certainly aware that I shouldn't be flippant. You can't be cute, I'm perceived in a different way. I see my work as a very non-partisan affair, so when I go to Washington I try and stay out of overtly political acts or statements, because that's not for me. It wouldn't do any good anyway unless I decide, well, I can't take it any longer, I'll run for president.
Do you see any possibility of world starvation being alleviated?
James Watson: It depends on how many people there are. If we could stabilize the population, I think we can certainly solve the food problems. If you keep pushing the population to the point where food is always inadequate, you're going to have starvation.
What about distribution?
James Watson: A lot of it is distribution, but again imagine four times more people on the earth. Maybe you could just do it, but then you're going to get so many other problems.
The things you're talking about in the biotechnology area have the potential for supplying more food.
James Watson: Sure. I'm sure that there are other people saying these techniques will be expensive, so only the big farmers will farm, but generally, it's good or bad. One of the striking things that I've seen -- it's sort of everywhere -- is that people want to get off the farm. In England they're down to probably one percent farmers. Is this good or bad that there aren't more English farmers? I don't know. Farming is a rather dangerous occupation, you have all sorts of occupational hazards. Would it be bad in India if you didn't have all these people living at subsistence level on their tiny little plots of land? That's a good question. I would think, if the cities could take any more people, they would leave the farms and move to the city. So you've got to ask not some utopian view of what society should be like. A lot of people like to go to the cities.
Do you have any other thoughts about the next frontier?
James Watson: No. I don't want to look stupid ten years from now.
(The Academy of Achievement had the opportunity to interview James Watson again ten years later, after the Human Genome Project had succeeded in mapping the entire human genome. The text of this interview begins on the next page.)
James Watson Interview, Page:
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This page last revised on Nov 29, 2013 14:30 EDT
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