We Are Training Too Many Scientists
James Watson is an American molecular biologist best known for his discovery of the structure of DNA with Francis Crick in 1953. He was born in Chicago in 1928 and attended the University of Chicago for his undergraduate degree in zoology. While pursuing his Ph.D at Indiana University, Watson became interested in molecular biology, which led him to the University of Cambridge's Cavendish Laboratory for postdoctoral research. There he met Crick, the two recognized a common interest in discovering the structure of DNA. Watson, Crick, and another researcher Maurice Wilkins would later share the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their work in this field.
In 1956, Watson became a junior member of Harvard University's Biological Laboratories, where he quickly advanced to the position of full professor. Then in 1968 he became director of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) on Long Island, New York, where he shifted his research emphasis to the study of cancer. Between 1988 and 1992, Watson was also associated with the National Institutes of Health, spearheading the Human Genome Project. In 2007 he became the second person, after molecular biologist Craig Venter, to have his entire genome sequenced. Watson remained involved with CSHL, as president and later as chancellor, until 2007, when he retired following a controversy over comments he made claiming blacks are less intelligent than whites.
Watson has written many books, including the seminal textbook "The Molecular Biology of the Gene" (1965), his bestseller "The Double Helix" (1968) about his discovery of the DNA structure, and his memoir "Avoid Boring People" (2007).
Question: Do you spend much time reading scientific journals?
James Watson: Well I think I have to... if I want to... I’d like to say three hours per day, but that you know, probably in a day when I’m on my desk and not in New York City or something. But I think I would read more than most people, even those younger than me who are so busy doing things. So I have the leisure time actually to read. And I think that’s what we’ve lost now in sort of science today is leisure.
Now Crick and I had plenty of leisure because nothing was happening when we were trying to find the DNA structure. There was, you know, there weren’t hundreds of new facts appearing almost every week that we might learn about. And now people lead, defensively, want to be sure that they’re... you know, people will think they are experts, so they’ve become more and more narrow experts and not very broad. And I still can’t get over when I was at a pharmaceutical company, they half-jokingly but I’m sure the reality was true. They had 1000 PhD technicians. As you got your PhD, you were just a technician. No one was... you were hiring you for a very narrow thing and not to show any big thoughts at all. So, with so many facts, what I miss now are thinkers. The [...] were smart.
Now when I was a boy, you know, smart people were respected, now it’s, you know, people do things, who do it. And also you find that there hasn’t been one person doing it; there are 50 names on the paper. And our famous paper for instance, mine, could have included Morris Wilkins’ name on it because he was really part of it. He didn’t make the discovery, but he was you know, part of the stuff just before it. So we asked him to put his name on the paper, and he said, no. That would have been a three-person paper.
But, the... I worry about people really thinking big. I don’t find many people who do so now. When I was a student at the University of Chicago, Robert Hutchens in his speech, said “The function of the College of the University of the Chicago was to prepare you for greatness.” He used those words because our education was largely reading the great books. And you were reading the great books, not to be a teacher, but to let you go beyond the great books and produce another great book. So, that was how he saw it. Of course, he would know that that would happen very often, but it was still there that... And it’s certainly in dreams of people, you know, that they do something big. Most of the time they keep it secret because you know, it’s more realistic and often then you get braggarts who tell you, you know, they’re doing something great and you don’t believe them. But nonetheless, you know, in some sort of quiet way, you should have big dreams.
Question: How can we encourage this in our education system?
James Watson: I think stop having 50 names on a paper. Just you know, accept the fact that the rest really didn’t think at all about it. And you should really, you know, were just technicians, you know, in a real sense—and reserve authorship for people who put together the sentences. I mean, now, you know, put together the answer. Whereas, I feel it very unsatisfactory to be the mother of a scientist now. And after son handed in a paper where there were 20 other people on the paper. And she’d wonder, "Is he going anywhere?"
So, and another problem may be, though it is against everything we now say, we may be training too many scientists. That is, we’re training people who really don’t want to think, they just want to have jobs. And they consume money. And so you’d lose some, you know, if you cut out people who didn’t have real dreams. But if you go into science, I think you better go in with a dream that maybe you too will get a Nobel Prize. It’s not that I went in and I thought I was very bright and I was going to get one, but I’ll confess, you know, I knew what it was. And Crick’s thinking was otherwise, but the moment I saw that structure I thought: “We’re gonna get a Nobel Prize.” I knew it in five minutes, it was so obvious.
Recorded on September 28, 2010
Interviewed by Paul Hoffman
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Facebook's misinformation isn't just a threat to democracy. It's endangering lives.
- Facebook and Instagram users have been inundated with misleading ads about medication that prevents the transmission of HIV (PrEP), such as Truvada.
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LGBT groups are saying that Facebook is endangering lives by advertising misleading medical information pertaining to HIV patients.
The tech giant's laissez-faire ad policy has already been accused of threatening democracy by providing a platform for false political ads, and now policy could be fostering a major public-health concern.
LGBT groups take on Facebook’s ad policy
According to LGBT advocates, for the past six months Facebook and Instagram users have been inundated with misleading ads about medication that prevents the transmission of HIV (PrEP), such as Truvada. The ads, which The Washington Post reports appear to have been purchased by personal-injury lawyers, claim that these medications threaten patients with serious side effects. According to LGBT organizations led by GLAAD, the ads have left some patients who are potentially at risk of contracting HIV scared to take preventative drugs, even though health officials and federal regulators say the drugs are safe.
LGBT groups like GLAAD, which regularly advises Facebook on LGBT issues, reached out to the company to have the ads taken down, saying they are false. Yet, the tech titan has refused to remove the content claiming that the ads fall within the parameters of its policy. Facebook spokeswoman Devon Kearns told The Post that the ads had not been rated false by independent fact-checkers, which include the Associated Press. But others are saying that Facebook's controversial approach to ads is creating a public-health crisis.
In an open letter to Facebook sent on Monday, GLAAD joined over 50 well-known LGBTQ groups including the Human Rights Campaign, the American Academy of HIV Medicine and the National Coalition for LGBT Health to publicly condemn the company for putting "real people's lives in imminent danger" by "convincing at-risk individuals to avoid PrEP, invariably leading to avoidable HIV infections."
What Facebook’s policy risks
Of course, this is not the first time Facebook's policy has faced scrutiny when it comes to false or ambiguous information in its ads. Social media has been both a catalyst and conduit for the rapid-fire spread of misinformation to the world wide web. As lawmakers struggle to enforce order to cyberspace and its creations, Facebook has become a symbol of the threat the internet poses to our institutions and to public safety. For example, the company has refused to take down 2020 election ads, largely funded by the Trump campaign, that spew false information. For this reason, Facebook and other social media platforms present a serious risk to a fundamental necessity of American democracy, public access to truth.
But this latest scandal underlines how the misconstrued information that plagues the web can infect other, more intimate aspects of American lives. Facebook's handling of paid-for claims about the potential health risks of taking Truvada and other HIV medications threatens lives.
"Almost immediately we started hearing reports from front-line PrEP prescribers, clinics and public health officials around the country, saying we're beginning to hear from potential clients that they're scared of trying Truvada because they're seeing all these ads on their Facebook and Instagram feeds," said Peter Staley, a long-time AIDS activist who works with the PrEP4All Collaboration, to The Post.
Unregulated Surveillance Capitalism
To be fair, the distinction between true and false information can be muddy territory. Personal injury lawyers who represent HIV patients claim that the numbers show that the potential risks of medications such as Turvada and others that contain the ingredient antiretroviral tenofovir may exist. This is particularly of note when the medication is used as a treatment for those that already have HIV rather than prevention for those that do not. But the life-saving potential of the HIV medications are unequivocally real. The problem, as some LGBT advocates are claiming, is that the ads lacked vital nuance.
It also should be pointed out that Facebook has taken action against anti-vaccine content and other ads that pose threats to users. Still, the company's dubious policies clearly pose a big problem, and it has shown no signs of adjusting. But perhaps the underlying issue is the failure to regulate what social psychologist Shoshana Zuboff calls "surveillance capitalism" by which people's experiences, personal information, and characteristics become commodities. In this case, paid-for personal-injury legal ads that target users with certain, undisclosed characteristics. It's been said that you should be wary of what you get for free, because it means you've become the product. Facebook, after all, is a business with an end goal to maximize profits.
But why does a company have this kind of power over our lives? Americans and their legislators are ensnared in an existential predicament. Figure out how to regulate Facebook and be accused with endangering free speech, or leave the cyber business alone and risk the public's health going up for sale along with its government.