In both cases, it's hard to believe that the retraction was sincere - and even harder to understand how these brilliant men failed to predict that their remarks would stir up hornets' nests.
Even compared to the strange Summers affair, though, the Watson affair is simply baffling. Why? Because Watson dissected the Summers controversy in detail before he got into trouble himself! In Avoid Boring People, Watson observes that "Summers's inability to get outside his own head landed him in fatally hot water," and adds:
The women-in-science firestorm by itself did not lead to Summers's dismissal late last February as Harvard's president. It was merely the culmination of hundreds of more private displays on his part of disregard for the social niceties that ordinarily permit human beings to work together for the common good. While academia almost expects its younger members to be brash and full of themselves, these qualities are most unbecoming in more seasoned members of the society, and generally fatal in leaders.
But here's the line that makes my jaw drop:
To my regret, Summers, instead of standing firm, within a week apologized publicly three times for being candid about what might well be a fact of evolution that academia will have to live with.
Hopefully if (when?) the bell of public outrage tolls for me, I'll be made of sterner stuff.