Note to Scientists: Sounding Like James Watt Isn’t a Good Communications Strategy

For those youngsters who don’t know who James Watt is, he was Reagan’s Secretary of the Interior. One minor Watt scandal (there were worse ones*) was when he defended the diversity of his Department by claiming he had “a black, a woman, two Jews and a cripple. And we have talent.” So it’s a little jarring to read this interview with paleontologist David Martill who was defending his flouting of Brazil’s fossil laws (boldface mine):

When you came into contact with the fossil, did you consider partnering with a Brazilian scientist or institution for the research effort? Why or why not?

At the time I began working on the fossil I was not aware of a Brazilian snake worker, although I am now aware that there is a guy called Zahler (Hussam Zaher, a paleoherpetologist at the University of Sao Paulo Museum of Zoology). But what difference would it make? I mean, do you want me also to have a black person on the team for ethnicity reasons, and a cripple and a woman, and maybe a homosexual too just for a bit of all round balance? I chose to work with Nick Longrich because I know him to be the best phylogeneticist in the business. Hi is an American (USA) citizen. For me nationality (or sexuality) is not an issue. If you invite people because they are Brazilian then people will think that every Brazilian author on a scientific paper is there because he is Brazilian and not because he is a clever scientist. The token Brazilian.

Mimicking James Watt probably isn’t the best science communications strategy, or if you prefer a more succinct version, don’t be an asshole. That’s not helping.

*The short list of Watt scandals–he makes Huckabee look sane:
1) He supposedly said “After the last tree is felled, Christ will come back.” By the guy who is supposed to manage our forests.
2) He believed that concerts by the Beach Boys attracted “the wrong element”, and the last Fourth of July concert on the Mall featured…Wayne Newton.
3) By the guy who is supposed to manage Indian reservations: “If you want an example of the failure of socialism, don’t go to Russia, come to America and go to the Indian reservations.”
4) He was convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice while lobbying the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
5) He is a Dispensationalist Christian who testified before Congress, “I do not know how many future generations we can count on before the Lord returns, whatever it is we have to manage with a skill to leave the resources needed for future generations.” Though, in today’s Republican Party, this might make him a moderate.
6) His ‘conservation’ philosophy was self-described as “We will mine more, drill more, cut more timber.”

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