What’s Intolerance Got to do with Science?

I have a long list of people I’d like to meet someday (Lyle Lovett, Sergey Brin, Vera Rubin. . .), and a much shorter list of folks I hope never to meet. I’m not going to elaborate on the second list, except to say that I added one more name to it today – Jonathan I. Katz.

(I’m not talking about this Jonathan Katz, he’s definitely on my want-to-meet list).

Katz is a professor of physics at Washington University in St. Louis, and was briefly a member of Steven Chu’s team of scientists who met in Houston to offer advice on stemming the oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico. Katz is also an extreme, self-declared homophobe, who happens to have controversial opinions on a laundry list of things ranging from diversity on college campuses to learning disabilities to terrorism.

Apparently, the Obama administration isn’t too fond of him either. They demanded that Katz be cut from Chu’s team because his opinions were serving as a distraction from the mission at hand.

I am shocked and offended. But it’s Katz’s firing that has me in a tizzy, not his repugnant opinions. If the other members of the team were having trouble dealing with Katz (which wouldn’t surprise me – after all , his writings sure make him seem abrasive), I could understand that he would have to go. But I fail to see how protests by outside groups could be distracting Chu, Katz, and the rest of the team from getting their work done.

Yes, I hate many of the things Katz has to say, and disagree with most of the rest of his opinions, but he wasn’t in the Gulf to work on human rights. He was there as a scientist. His personal views are entirely beside the point, so long as they aren’t related to his scientific expertise.

In short, I believe that we should NEVER vet scientists based on anything other than their scientific achievements and knowledge. If we allow politics to get in the way of science then science itself eventually becomes nothing but a reflection of the prevailing political views.

While I have to admit that my convictions were put to the test as I read Katz’s creepy little essays, I’m glad to say that my belief in the the separation of science and politics is intact. I hope I never bump into him at a science conference, but I also hope I never lose my conviction that Katz-the-scientist should be judged solely on his science, regardless of what Katz-the-homophobe has to say when he exercises his first amendment right to spew nonsense and venom.

(In case you’re wondering about the image above, it’s a memorial to Alan Turing. He was one of the most brilliant people of the last century. He was also gay. I doubt we’ll ever see a memorial like that for Katz.)

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