Public scientists, the twitterverse, thought police, feminism, and the fanatical mob


I’m on vacation. But while I was posting a few photos on social media (amazing National Parks and a wooden carving of bigfoot drinking a beer) I stumbled on some extended silliness among fellow scientists that I want to discuss. Luckily, I woke up early, my family is sleeping in, so here goes.

A very-routine event has somehow caused some a great worry: A famous person said something rather hideous. This hideous opinion was put in quotes and got circulated on twitter. A storm-of-righteous-indignation built on twitter, and spilled over onto facebook and other media outlets. Within a few days, this famous person got “in trouble,” insofar as a famous and powerful person can genuinely get in trouble for voicing a contemptuous opinion.

This is a very common story. It’s a little different because of the specifics:

The famous person was Tim Hunt, a Nobel Laureate. The hideous thing he said was a maybe-attempted-joke, which explained that women girls don’t belong in the lab with men, because they are too emotional and the possibility of falling-in-love disrupts the science. He may or may not have intended this as a joke. If it was a joke, it fell flat.

Let’s bypass his ignorance of the fact that a lab chock-full of manly men will also have romantic entanglements.

So, what trouble did Hunt get in? As far as I am aware, he was asked to step down from the Awards Committee of the Royal Society (which has had long-standing gender problem, by the way). He also lost his honorary position from the University College London. Hunt is essentially retired, and the loss of his honorary position is not going to send him to the poorhouse. Yes, it is a censure from the academic community.

Is this form of censure warranted for misspeaking just once in a public talk?

Lots of people in the scientific community are worried about what happened to Hunt. I think this viewpont is summarized well by another Nobel Laureate, Jack Szostak, that it’s “frightening to see how one stupid comment can ignite a global firestorm of criticism.” The extended conversation in this public post on facebook by a colleague of mine shows that this is not a narrowly held view.

It is my opinion that the so-called “witch hunt” that happened to Hunt is entirely unwarranted on the basis of a few select misspoken off-the-cuff words at a public appearance, especially when followed by an apology.

But here is what you need to know about the Hunt affair: The outrage directed at him was fueled not by his initial words, but his defiant response when his words were called into question.

It is widely accepted that what Hunt said was hideous. At that moment, if Tim Hunt wanted, he could have emerged as a feminist champion — or at least halted the outcry. He could have made a public statement that said that he was wrong, he was mistaken, that there is a gender problem in science, and that he wants to be part of fixing it, and so on. But he didn’t do that. He doubled down on his overtly sexist remarks.

He defiantly refused to apologize. He said that he was sorry that people were offended. He said he regretted saying those remarks in front of journalists. He never said he was sorry for his own words. That’s not nitpicking, and that’s not semantics. He straight-up isn’t sorry for what he said.

In a later interview, he said that he was “just trying to be honest.”

Hunt’s so-called-apology was a huge “fuck you” to women. If you read those words, then you’ll understand why he’s in trouble. It’s not for a misstep, but for explicitly saying that his words were not a misstep, and that he meant them.

Let us all be very clear here: Tim Hunt did not get in trouble for saying a very sexist thing in public. He got in trouble for his failure to recant his very sexist statement, and for claiming that he was telling the truth when he said the very sexist thing that he said.

In other words: Hunt did not get in trouble for making a statement against women in science. Hunt got in trouble for being a scientist who publicly affirmed that he was against women in science.

Hunt got into his bed of his own making and by his own choice.

To claim that he’s being persecuted for a few poorly chosen words is a silly falsehood and is a misrepresentation of actual circumstances.

Should our scientific community chase away someone who made a mistake and said horrible things in public? I think we might want to be forgiving of such a situation.

Should our scientific community chase away someone who made a mistake, and said horrible things in public, and then when his words were called out, stood behind his horrible ideas and said he was speaking the truth? Well, I think we want to make sure that we don’t mount high honors on a person who holds views that are contemptuous and actively discriminate against women.

So, Tim Hunt didn’t get in trouble for what he said. He got in trouble for who he was. It is true that other people of his generation might be the same way. But they aren’t making public appearances voicing, and affirming, and reaffirming that opinion.

Hunt had ample opportunity to tell the world that he was not a sexist, but he chose to tell the world that he indeed was a sexist. The only thing I’d find worrisome about our scientific community would be if he didn’t experience negative consequences for being an avowed sexist.

4 thoughts on “Public scientists, the twitterverse, thought police, feminism, and the fanatical mob

  1. Another thing about Hunt’s behavior that gets overlooked is that he made his comments at an international conference for science journalists. Surely he had to know they would immediately be reported. He’s not a stupid man, which makes one wonder what motivated him to do this.

  2. “He’s not a stupid man, which makes one wonder what motivated him to do this”

    Actually, I think in this context he IS stupid, or at least not aware of the consequences of saying things like this. It’s perfectly possible for an individual to be extremely clever in one arena but a dumb ass in another sphere.

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