Sunday, June 14, 2015

Hunt-ed: How A Verbal Pratfall And Journalistic Sloth Sacked A Nobelist

Everyone's already heard about Nobel Laureate Tim Hunt's idiotic remarks delivered at a science journalism conference in Korea:
"Let me tell you about my trouble with girls.

"Three things happen when they are in the lab: you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticise them they cry.
This of course spawned a Twitter hashtag, #distractinglysexy, which became the spit upon which Hunt was roasted. Just so, and he probably deserved it; his remarks sound like something from the 1930's. But what I didn't particularly find fitting was to see him chased out of several posts since, including one at University College London with no appeal or even apparent procedure:
“I have been hung out to dry,” he told the Observer in an exclusive interview. “I have been stripped of all the things I was doing in science. I have no further influence.”
...[A]s a result of the furore, Hunt was told by UCL that he would have to resign his honorary post at the college. “At no point did they ask me for an explanation for what I said or to put it in context,” he told the Observer. “They just said I had to go. There has been an enormous rush to judgment in dealing with me.”
His wife, Professor Mary Collins, one of Britain’s most senior immunologists, is similarly indignant. She believes that University College London – where both scientists had posts – has acted in “an utterly unacceptable” way in pressuring both researchers and in failing to support their causes.
This has fertilized a crop of the sorts of pieces one expects from the press in this space of late, for instance, this Guardian article on the "unseen women scientists behind Tim Hunt's Nobel prize", the subtext being that, as with Watson and Crick's Rosalind Franklin, some woman or women lurk who have really done the heavy lifting but gone uncredited. (In fact, this commonly-believed story is fallacious, as both Watson and Crick specifically cited her work, in passing in their initial Nature paper, and as instrumental twenty five years later, in Watson's The Double Helix.)

But in fact this theory is actually highly questionable, as a new essay from Fiona Fox at the Science Media Center points out. For all the dudgeon expended getting Hunt expelled from his academic posts, the man's acts have received shockingly little interest:
The row over Tim Hunt feels similar. Of course what he said was ill-judged, not one bit funny and actually a bit bonkers. But within hours of the story breaking, people were queuing up to make Tim Hunt the poster boy for sexism in science. Within forty eight hours he was effectively sacked from an honorary position at UCL, the board of the European Research Council (ERC) and a Royal Society prize-giving committee.

The SMC issued comments from a long list of scientists condemning Hunt’s remarks, and set up back to back interviews with angry female scientists in despair at the crass and damaging comments. But I had questions, mainly revolving around whether or not Tim Hunt is a chauvinist. Does he actually discriminate against his female colleagues? Does he seriously propose segregated labs and has he ever tried to implement this? Does he refuse to employ young women in his lab because they might cry when he appraises their work? And critically, will removing Tim Hunt from his positions at UCL, the Royal Society and the ERC also remove a barrier to the progress of women in science and advance that cause. I asked around but none of those giving interviews or tweeting seemed be able to answer me. Worryingly for me, the question of whether this scientist deserved this global vilification seemed irrelevant.

I then called scientists who know him and something interesting happened. They said they had not witnessed any gender bias in him. Some specified the exact opposite. That Tim is a fantastic supporter of young scientists, including women. The organiser of a national competition for young scientists told me that he had never been anything but fantastic, especially with the young women, and is really dedicated and generous with his time. Another eminent woman wrote: “among scientists who know him, Tim Hunt is regarded as a good man and an excellent scientist. He is renowned for his willingness to engage, especially with students, and has done a great deal to promote the careers of young people, including women.
She goes on to make the highly salient point that "there is huge difference between slamming his comments as out of date, and calling for his head on a plate." But the larger question of whether Hunt is really a sexist based on even evidence provided by the women scientists working under and with him is one that has gone unexamined:
... I am finding it hard to see any actual journalism being done on this story at all. Many commentators made the point that if they were a female scientist trying to get a job in his lab or being judged for a prize or research grant, they would be concerned about their chances. But that is something that has not been investigated and verified; no-one seems to have asked those basic questions to women in Tim’s labs. Given that the ERC and Royal Society have now acceded to calls for his removal from scientific committees, might it be reasonable to investigate whether he did use his role on those committees to discriminate against women. Nobody has yet secured an interview with Tim’s highly regarded scientist wife, so we are none the wiser as to whether she wants to kill him or defend him.
 Hunt deserves censure and ridicule for his remarks. Firing is entirely too much.

Update: I forgot to link to Brendan O'Neill's terrific essay at Reason about how this response is not only illiberal, but pre-modern:
The irony is too much to handle: Hunt is railed against for expressing an old-fashioned view, yet the railers against him do something infinitely more old-fashioned: they expel from public life someone they judge to have committed heresy. Kick him out. Strip him of his titles. Mock his misfortune. "Savour the moment." How awfully ironic that the Royal Society, which played a key role in propelling Britain from medievalism to modernity, is now being asked to behave in a medieval fashion and send into the academic wilderness a heretic among its number.
It should come as no small irony that those who complain about tenure changes at the University of Wisconsin are also frequently the same sort who would chase Hunt out of his offices.

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