Watson flees to USA

Katie Spenceley 25 October 2007

Pioneering Cambridge scientist and Nobel prize winner James Watson was forced to cancel talks at the Cambridge Union after allegedly claiming that black people are less intelligent than white people.

The scientist, famed for his contribution to the discovery of the structure of DNA, reportedly asserted in the Sunday Times that he was “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”.

Yesterday, Watson apologised “unreservedly” for his comments, claiming that they had been taken out of context and he was “mortified” they had caused offence.

Despite this apology, the backlash over his comments has led to the cancellation of his UK book tour, which included a talk at the Cambridge Union.

Prior to Watson’s cancellation, the Union had planned to continue hosting the event, on the grounds of free speech and academic freedom.

A Union spokesperson said that Watson’s comments were “very surprising” but they defended the Union’s decision to ask Watson to speak, saying that the invitation was given before his most recent comments were made. In a statement, they said: “The Cambridge Union Society exists to give our members an opportunity to meet and challenge global leaders in science, politics and sport. We neither explicitly nor implicitly endorse any of the views presented in our chamber”.

Matthew Jarvis, senior officer at the Union, said that he “passionately believes in free speech” and that the Union’s job is not to pass judgments on speaker’s opinions but to “provide a platform for members to question”.

However, Jarvis also said that the Union was “sensitive to members’ opinions and concerns, and would never invite speakers just for them to air offensive views and create a storm”.

Cambridge University’s Black Students’ Campaign Officer, Junior P Juma, had planned a rally against Watson’s comments. He said the protest aimed not to prevent Watson from speaking, but to get him to retract his comments.

Juma said “the remarks provide an excuse for the plight of African people by shifting blame, rather than looking at the culprits of the problems in Africa. Parties like the BNP will take Watson’s comments on board and use them to fuel even more hatred than there already is”.

However, Juma made clear that he did want Watson to speak at the Union, arguing that freedom of speech is essential in order to tackle racism and racist views, adding “with any kind of freedom comes moral and social responsibility. Students need to use their freedom of speech to show that in the twenty-first century such pseudo-scientific views will not be tolerated”.

Katie Spenceley