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Can the science be separated from the scientist?

As a first-year biology major, I have learned about many different scientists who made groundbreaking discoveries in my introductory bio classes. Moreover, to my surprise, I also recently learned about a scientist in my art history class. That scientist was Louis Agassiz, a 19th-century biologist and geologist who was born in Switzerland but worked in the United States.

The scientists that I have learned about, including Agassiz, lived and made their discoveries in the past, often many decades ago. Basically, they made them in a much different environment than the one we live in today.

Approximately two weeks ago in my art history class, we were studying the early forms of photography. For homework, we were assigned to look at the earliest known photos of slaves. There are multiple layers involved in those pictures and current events, but I will not get into that (although I encourage anyone reading this to look into the ongoing lawsuit about these photos). 

These “daguerreotypes,” as they are called, were commissioned by Louis Agassiz to aid his advocating for polygenism – the belief that different races have different ancestral origins – and “prove” biologically that whites were “superior” to people of color. Aside from being shocked by the purpose behind these photos, I was reminded of another famous scientist who has come under fire because of his hateful views.

James Watson and his partner Francis Crick were the first to accurately construct and explain the structure and function of DNA. Needless to say, this is one of the most important discoveries in the history of science, due to its implications for the advancement of medicine and many other life-saving scientific departments. 

However, Watson has a long history of controversy, most famously through stealing the discoveries of Rosalind Franklin. Her work was critical in completing the puzzle that is DNA structure, but she got almost no credit from Watson whatsoever in their official publication. This, along with the multitude of other ignorant comments that I have linked above, have all but destroyed Watson’s legacy.

But, nonetheless, he was a crucial piece of one of the greatest scientific discoveries of all time; similarly, Louis Agassiz discovered that the earth had an Ice Age and was one of the fathers of natural science. Their work cannot be discredited, so how do we approach these discoveries with the knowledge that the people behind them were so hateful?

As I was considering all of this (while I should have been doing my art history assignment), I was reminded of the popular debate, “Can we separate the art from the artist?” This debate questions whether it is morally correct to consume an artist's work if they have been accused or found guilty of a hateful or otherwise wrong act.

I am taking it in a different direction: can the science be separated from the scientist?

One of the arguments I have heard in the “art vs. artist” debate, claiming that it cannot be separated, is as such: because art is an extension of oneself, an artist’s work is inherently based on and representative of their own personal character. Therefore, it would be impossible to separate the art from the artist and it is immoral to support artists who have done or said hateful things.

This view makes sense to me; however, I do not think that it can be applied to the question of science vs. scientist. This is because science, unlike art, is not an extension of the scientist.

The science we discover has always been there; it is just the way that the world works. Although Watson and Agassiz made the discoveries first, they still would have been made eventually. It would only have been a matter of time because what they discovered was not created by them – it already existed. 

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Knowing the structure of DNA or what Earth looked like 10,000 years ago is amazing, and I believe that it is entirely possible to celebrate these discoveries and erase the scientists behind them. In fact, per Vox News, “[Watson’s] remarks prompted the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York, where Watson was a director from 1968 to 1994, to sever its ties with the Nobel Prize winner on January 11 [2019].”

Scientists like Watson should be criticized – their person should not be celebrated – but it is still feasible to embrace the discoveries. It is important that we do not forget the true character of people, even those who have been previously held in such high esteem, but in the end, science is science.