Monday, August 24, 2015

Academic Knowing

Academic writing expresses academic knowledge. In order to write something academically, then, you need to know it first, and to know it in an "academic" way. That may seem trivially true of all knowing and all writing. ("Write what you know," as the old saw goes.) Before you can write about tables you have to know about tables. It seems obvious. But there's an important reciprocity in the case of academic writing and knowing that we do well to remember. In order to write a book about how to build tables, you need to know how to build tables, but there's no obvious sense in which the opposite also holds. We can perfectly well imagine a carpenter who can build a table but who is unable to write a good book; indeed, we can imagine an entirely illiterate and yet entirely masterful carpenter. An illiterate scholar, by contrast, is a contradiction in terms.

Academic knowledge, we might say, is expressed in writing. There are other modes of expression—speech and debate, for example—that, we might say, suggest academic knowledge, but it is only in writing that this knowledge is truly demonstrated. Some people can present themselves convincingly as scholars in conversation, but their claims to know what they are talking about are undermined if we discover that they haven't written and can't write about their subject. This is why I make the ability to compose a coherent prose paragraph about something an essential part of my definition of knowledge "for academic purposes." As a scholar, it is sometimes tempting but ultimately not at all helpful to kid yourself that you know something if you are unable to write it down. If you a struggling to write it down, you should treat this as part of the struggle to know it.

I should admit that this theory of knowledge stands in a certain kind of tension with my more practical writing advice. In some circles, I'm famous for suggesting that you should separate your writing process entirely from your research process. But I really just mean that you should spend some of your time writing down things you're no longer struggling to know. You should not think you can solve your knowledge problem through writing. But what I said in the previous paragraph still holds: part of your knowledge problem just is a writing problem, so you have to work on that too sometimes.

The solution to the problem of how to write something lies in an understanding of who you're writing for. (I normally cite Virginia Woolf for this point, but "know your reader" is really as old a piece of advice as "write what you know".) And therein lies the clue to understanding also why writing is an essential part of academic knowing. Academic knowledge is always held by communities, often very specific ones consisting of tens or hundreds of people. Whether or not you know something academically depends on whether or not your views are plausible to these specific people. You learn about them by reading them and they learn about you by reading you.

Monday, August 03, 2015

The Social Construction of a Science Factoid

When I consider how cheaply the alleged fact of Tim Hunt's sexism was constructed, and then how costly it became for him and for science, I must confess I am sometimes brought to the verge of despair. That there is power enough in the world to make so much history of so little knowledge both boggles the mind and breaks the heart. After all, the same people who told us that Tim Hunt is a sexist tell us also that sexism is a major problem in the sciences. I think it is fair to imagine that their basis for asserting the more general fact is as considered as their basis for making the specific allegation.

And what, then, was their basis for asserting that Tim Hunt is a sexist?

They had listened to him speak extemporaneously for about five minutes**. They had "compared notes" afterwards and reached an agreement about what he had said. Three hours later, they announced to the world that a leading figure in cancer research harbours "Victorian" sentiments about women, attributing to him the absurd notion that labs should be sex-segregated. In those three hours, they did not ask him what he meant. The following day, they did not hear what he had to say when introducing "top young talent" for the European Research Council. They did not look into his record on the promotion of gender equality. They listened to him speak for five minutes** and made up their minds on that basis.

It was Norman Mailer who coined the word "factoid" to denote "facts which have no existence before appearing in a magazine or newspaper."* That Tim Hunt should be a sexist is precisely such a factoid. The mere act of tweeting it, perhaps, did not create the fact. But it was quickly picked up by, as Deborah Blum put it, "countless media platforms". It became what is now called a "thing". Tim Hunt had become a sexist, even a misogynist. He had been given a set of character traits that no one who knew him could recognise.

The effects of such shoddy constructions of fact are serious. When I suggested that I wasn't so sure any longer that sexism is a serious problem in science, the sarcastic retort was that all the women who have been mistreated by men in science will be happy to hear that. But it is precisely the stories of those women that are becoming increasingly hard to take seriously, not because they are untrue, which many of them probably are not, but because their basis in fact is simply never secured by the people who report them. The case of Tim Hunt shows how cheaply these so-called facts are made. The actual, underlying truth about sexism in science, which is no doubt both real and troubling for those who are affected, is done no favours by allowing anything at all to be said about it as long as it is done in a properly outraged tone of voice.

And there are even wider effects of such a careless fabrication of facts. The whole range of science factoids, the stock in trade of science writers, is drawn into doubt. Let us keep in mind that the same people who assured us that Tim Hunt's remarks were "no joke", tell us also that vaccines are safe and global warming is caused by human activity. One minute they're telling us that "climate change denial is a threat to national security", the next that the Tim Hunt gaffe has "shone a spotlight on the rampant sexism in society in general and in the sciences specifically". These judgments are, we must presume, made on the same sort of basis, with the same degree of care.

I, for one, have now entirely stopped believing what science writers say. Indeed, I will not even bother to consider their words as serious attempts to do anything other than channel the ideological dogmas of the moment*. If the profession wants my trust, it will, minimally, have to do some public soul-searching about what it did to Tim Hunt. A profession with a serious interest in science and fact would not take important things so lightly.

________
*[Update: It's worth considering the longer version of Mailer's definition: "Factoids ... that is, facts which have no existence before appearing in a magazine or newspaper, creations which are not so much lies as a product to manipulate emotion in the Silent Majority." That's exactly what has happened here.]
**[Update: There's been some discussion on Twitter about the exact length of his toast. Photo time stamps apparently contradict the 5-7 minute estimate in the original factoid, suggesting no more than 3 minutes instead. It's significant because the factoid has him "going on and on" indifferent to the stunned reaction of his audience. As we now know, the audience was not stunned, and he did not go on and on.]

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The Two Tim Hunt Narratives

Sue Nelson recently wondered aloud why people were still talking about Tim Hunt. After all, the "man concerned [had] admitted and apologised for his words." As someone who is still thinking very hard about what happened, this puzzlement, and sometimes bemusement, about my interest in the case, especially on the part of people who actively participated, as I did not, in the first round of the outrage cycle, is a bit puzzling and not very amusing to me. I think I've hit on a way of explaining why I feel that way. At bottom, it has to do with two different ways of reconstructing (in hindsight) "what happened", one of which treats it as a minor incident in the stream of current events, the other which treats it as a significant event in the history of modern science.

One way of seeing the difference is by the very different role they assign to the title character in the drama. His critics have always thought of this as something Tim Hunt did. His defenders have thought of it as something that happened to Tim Hunt. (This, I have been suggesting, is a question about where the agency in the narrative is best understood to have been.) Since the man who did something apologized for it, his critics don't see why this is still a big deal. Since the man that something happened to is still suffering its ill effects, his defenders don't see how it isn't a big deal.

Let me emphasise that these two interpretations compete for control of the rear-view mirror. When the action was hot, the roles were more or less reversed. Hunt's critics were sure this was a very big deal that should occasion systemic changes in the organization of science, while his defenders said it was a tempest in a teacup occasioned by a joke.

The difference in these two perspectives on "what happened" can be made even clearer if we try to summarize the narratives. Here's how Tim Hunt's critics might summarize the story:

On June 8, Tim Hunt said something at a luncheon in Seoul that offended women scientists all over the world. While we may never know what he really meant, he admitted that he said the offending words and apologized for the offense. Incidentally, he also resigned from an honorary position at University College London.

And here's how his defenders tell the same story:

On June 10, Tim Hunt resigned from an honorary position at University College London. UCL president Michael Arthur explained the resignation, saying that, in light of his reported remarks in Seoul, he no longer brought the requisite honour to the position. Eventually, the reports of his remarks were shown to be flawed in important respects.

At that level of abstraction, the two stories aren't really in conflict, but they do suggest very different interests in the case. And I think it is natural that those who are pursuing the second story would still be working on it, while those who were pursuing the first might think this is already history.

Interestingly, at about the same time that Sue Nelson wondered why we're still talking about it, Hilda Bastian posted a detailed overview of events and sources at her blog, which was quickly endorsed by Deborah Blum, who was involved in the original reporting of Hunt's remarks. Bastian clearly holds to the "what Tim Hunt did" narrative. An equally detailed summary by Debbie Kennett has long been available, but she is guided by the "what happened to Tim Hunt" narrative. Both collections of facts are "comprehensive" and do of course largely overlap, but one is organised around the offence Tim Hunt "caused", and the other is organised around the dishonour he was subjected to.

In a sense, I agree with Sue Nelson that the "What did Tim Hunt do?" story is dead. But it didn't die when Tim Hunt apologised. It died when it turned out that the original reports had gotten his remarks egregiously wrong. The story that continues, therefore, is the "What was done to Tim Hunt?" story.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Overdiagnosis

Starting in the mid-1980s something terrible happened to about a million men. They were diagnosed with prostate cancer, which is pretty terrible, but what's worse is that they were treated for it. It's worse because these men did not need either the diagnosis or the treatment they got. While it is true that they had cancer, it was of a kind that would not develop into a medical condition before they died of some other cause. If they had left it untreated, it would never have bothered them. The treatment, meanwhile—either surgery or radiation—bothered many of them a great deal, leading to both incontinence and impotence. Indeed, about one third of them had complications as a result of treatment. Even just by getting the diagnosis, of course, they were subjected needless worry.

I first came across this very instructive episode in the history (1986-2005) of modern medicine through the work of Gilbert Welch. (His research is featured in this article at WebMD.) The concept of "overdiagnosis" has stuck with me ever since, and has applications, I think, also into the diagnosis of social ills. Indeed, perhaps those who have been reading along these last few days already know where I'm going with this. I think of Tim Hunt as a victim of the overdiagnosis of sexism in science today. In fact, the 2014 interview that has been cited to support a deeper charge of "ingrained" sexism (of which his "joke", then, was just an expression) seems to make the same point.

Before I make the connection, let me just point out a few more features of the PSA overdiagnosis problem. Treating a million men for a cancer that would never have caused them any health problems is, not just inconvenient to them, but very expensive for society. The treatment itself is costly and they work less efficiently while they are undergoing it. Also, we have to ask whether the effect of treating them does anything to bring down the overall level of mortality from cancers. Welch found that, using a conservative estimate, you have to treat around twenty people unnecessarily in order to save one additional person from death by prostate cancer. The reason for this is that mentioned before, namely, that not all cancers develop into what we can properly call a "disease", i.e., a health issue. He quotes (in this video) from George Crile's "Plea Against Blind Fear of Cancer" , who explains that "to say that a patient has a cancer gives as little information about the course of the disease as to say that he has an infection". That is, it may lead to his death if untreated, it may be treated and cured, or it may go away without any treatment whatsoever. Time, sometimes, is a healer.

Cancer is becoming increasingly less dangerous to men, prostate cancer included. This is the result of increased knowledge, of course, including better means of detection and, importantly, better means of treatment. But PSA screening, at least until its ill effects were discovered, proved to be a well-intentioned but ultimately harmful approach. It caused more harm and than it prevented.

Consider also, the false positives. These are people whose PSA screenings come back positive, but who are later found not to have cancer. Their lives are turned upside down between the first and the second test. "These men have already taken a hit," as Welch puts it, "They've been told they have a diagnosis of prostate cancer. By the time you are told you have prostate cancer, you are all nervous, you have already lost some sense of well-being. The real issue is, do you want to play this game?" That is, the question is whether you want to get screened. Welch, and the American Cancer Society, no longer recommend it.

In my opinion, Tim Hunt was a false positive "sexist", caught in a regime of overdiagnosis of a very real, but smaller, problem, namely, gender inequality in science. When I say "false positive" I mean that Tim Hunt, in that fateful toast, failed a very sensitive test for sexism, namely, the habit of calling women "girls", that upon further testing would have revealed no actual, practical sexism underneath. He doesn't actually treat women different from men qua scientists and is mindful of their particular problems qua women, such as the possible need for a creche near a lab. Even if you don't quite buy that, then you might grant that his sexism was like a microcancer that would never grow into a full-blown malignancy, a microsexism (to use a suggestive term these days) that would never become the full-blown misogyny he was immediately accused of. Indeed, in all likelihood, Tim Hunt's views about women, like most men his age, had probably mellowed over the last thirty years, owing to increasing contact with intelligent (if sometimes "distractingly sexy") women in the lab. He was harmless and only getting better.

Welch points out that when we introduce new methods of early diagnosis we always discover that a lot more people had the disease than we thought. It's because we're looking much more closely. In what at first seems a paradox, however, a lot fewer people are at the same time dying of them. We certainly have that in the case of women in science. While it would seem that sexism is rampant and on the rise and proliferating in new forms, the amount women in science is increasing, and they are making increasingly successful careers there too. I don't know, but maybe this was also what was on Sir Tim's mind when he answered that interview question for Lab Times in 2014, for which he was accused of claiming that sexism isn't a problem in science. He was simply saying that it's a problem that is naturally going away, and that we may cause more harm than good by trying to "treat" the remaining microsexists that are, on the whole, unlikely to cause any trouble. If we look closely enough, there is a little sexism in everyone, but not only are there are better ways to spend our time and resources, there is no need to treat a condition that will not otherwise cause anyone any harm.

To steal some sentences from Gilbert Welch, these men really take a hit. They've been outed as unreconstructed sexists. By the time everyone thinks you're a sexist monster, you are all nervous, you have already lost some sense of well-being. That's when the BBC comes looking for you. The real issue is, do you want to play this game? Do we?

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Agency, Part 3


"The real point is that telling a roomful of female scientists that they aren’t really welcome in a male-run laboratory is the sound of a slamming door." (Deborah Blum)

"Are women scientists really so fragile that they’ll be discouraged by a flippant comment made on the other side of the world?" (Joanna Williams)

I hope I have established that, in their treatment of Tim Hunt's toast at a WCSJ luncheon in Seoul last month, Connie St Louis, Deborah Blum and Ivan Oransky were horrible science writers (i.e., "journalists") and terrible conference organizers (i.e., "professionals"). In this post I want to go all in and argue that they're also not very good feminists. And then I want to put a button on it by questioning their "cultural sensitivity". I think Norman Mailer's slogan, which he got from Andre Gide, is worth invoking here. "Please don't understand me too quickly."

And one other caveat before we begin. I think it's clear at this point that Tim Hunt did not make any sexist remarks in Seoul last month. He made a joke at his own expense (at first figuratively and, sadly, ultimately literally) and his remarks were then grossly distorted to express sexist, even "misogynist" sentiments. But in this post I'm going to proceed, for the sake of argument, as though what he said could reasonably have been construed as in some sense sexist, at least at first pass. Even on that assumption, which I don't actually hold, I think Hunt was treated unfairly and science suffered. Also, it did no service to feminism, or any other kind of progressive politics, to shame Hunt in public. That's what this post is about.

Like my previous two posts on agency, this one is inspired By Janet Stemwedel's counter-factual analysis at Forbes, in which she asked us to imagine how this train wreck of public discourse could have been avoided. Not everyone, mind you, is equally worried about the quality of public discourse. While expressing "sympathy for anyone caught in the leading edge of a media storm," Deborah Blum, for example, argued that the important thing is ultimately to "stand up for what’s right [and] have an open conversation about gender balance in science—even if that conversation is conducted as a virtual shouting match" (my emphasis.) My view is that Sir Tim's remarks, no matter how they could reasonably have been construed at the time, should have been met with curiosity, charity and, if necessary, criticism, not with denunciation. He should have occasioned something more like an open conversation and something less like a shouting match.

Hunt's critics, I think, have an exaggerated sense of the power of words. They think it is very important not to express sexist sentiments and, correspondingly, very important to denounce such sentiments when expressed. Tim Hunt should not have said what he said, they argue, but, since he did, we're going to have to step up and "un-say" them, if you will. It is as if they think that once words are spoken they go straight into the minds of their listeners and become beliefs about the world. (In fact, a few years ago I made more or less this criticism of the presumptions of science writers about their readers. In some sense, then, this shouldn't surprise us.) So, if Tim Hunt says something sexist, his female listeners will believe that there is no place for them in science. His words, as Blum says, are "the sound of a slamming door."

In my first post on the Tim Hunt affair, I ribbed Stemwedel a bit about her apparent sense that the only one who could have done anything very different was Tim Hunt, i.e., the man at the centre of attention. Everyone else, mainly women, merely had to re-act. It was strange for a feminist, I thought, to have eyes only for male agency. I had the opportunity to point out the same thing to Deborah Blum directly on Twitter a couple of days later. I had said that Hunt's remarks would have been harmless if they had been ignored, but might have been beneficial if they had been discussed rather than simply denounced. "You think it's harmless," she replied, "to say to a roomful of women scientists (17 percent of Korean research population) that they are a problem for male scientists?" To which I countered that, seriously, none of the women in the room that day were harmed, nor were any who read Connie St. Louis's tweet. "As we know," she responded, "repeated messages of this kind can do harm, be discouraging to minority groups." (Note that we're supposed to imagine that getting "the message" from Sir Tim in a small room is harmful, but when Blum blazes it across "countless media platforms" with her personal assurance that he's wrong it's perfectly safe.) I pointed out that she seemed to think that Sir Tim and Deborah Blum (et al.) were the only people with agency in the room that day, the only people who were capable of doing and undoing harm, the only people who could form an opinion about women in science on their own.

Tim Hunt was speaking to roomful of scientists as equals. The subject happened to be women in science, and it happens to be one he is passionate about. (He has done a lot, we now know, to further the cause of women in science throughout his career, and nothing notably to hinder that cause.) He thinks, rightly or wrongly, that one of the consequences of getting more women into science is that things get a bit "emotional", not because women are emotional mind you, but because men and women fall in love. But even if his experience were that women are bit more emotional than men and express their hurt at being criticised differently than men, would a woman really be "harmed" by hearing this view expressed publicly? Is that really how the female mind works? Of course not.

All the women in that room—all of them possessed of the kind of intelligence you need to be a professional scientist or a professional journalist—must, out of simple respect for their humanity, not their femininity, be presumed to have been able to make up their own minds about what Sir Tim meant—whether it was funny, whether it was directed at himself or at them, and, of course, whether the premise of his joke was in any way anchored in reality. Tim Hunt at one point ventured that he had "stood up and gone mad". Maybe that's exactly what happened. If so, the women in the room no doubt had both the insight and the empathy to discount his statements as daft and be utterly unharmed by them.

For some reason St. Louis, Blum and Oransky were unable to ascribe this modicum of intellectual agency to the women in the room that day. That is why they were forced to intervene. As St Louis put it to the BBC, he was not to think he could "get away with it". In stating this view, I believe her ideological project sort of took over and momentarily possessed her. On the radio she said she "just couldn't believe, in this day and age, that somebody would be prepared to stand up and be so crass, so rude in a different culture, and actually to be so openly sexist as well." On television she said that "it was just really shocking. It was culturally insensitive and it was very sexist. And I just thought 'Where in the world do you think you are ...?'" St Louis, we are here reminded, is not just a somewhat touchy feminist, she is also "culturally sensitive".

This is a telling admission. Tim Hunt, whose daily work takes him all over the world, including Japan (where, let's remember, he helped to set up day care facilities for a lab,) and having been told he was speaking to room full of women scientists, was not, according to St Louis, sufficiently "sensitive" to the fact that he was also speaking to a room full of ... Asians. This idea, that he was not just representing his gender (something he was obviously acutely self-consious about, as his remarks show) and not just representing his vocation (with a Nobel Prize to his name), but also his "Western" privilege, is, I think, an important part of "what went wrong" in the, let's say, Seoul Incident.

From the perspective of most people in that room, I suspect, Tim Hunt was not from a "different culture" at all. He was, rather, a fellow scientist, or a fellow academic at least—perhaps just a fellow worker in the spirit, an intellectual. But Connie St Louis, because of her "cultural sensitivity", was inexorably in a room full of Koreans. And isn't it true that they are very respectful of authority? And isn't it true that they just politely believe everything you say? "Here's my trouble with Asians," Hunt should have said, "you respect them, and they respect you, and when you criticise them, they immediately grant your point." I really don't know enough about Koreans to be sure whether that joke is even funny. But then again, like Tim Hunt, I would have spoken to them as a man and a scientist, not as a Westerner condescending to "Orientals".

Perhaps I'm being unfair. Perhaps Connie St Louis just has no sense of humour at all and would have been equally offended if Sir Tim had made the same remarks in London. But I'm inclined to think that what went wrong here was a denial of agency that stems from a particular kind of bias, an unconscious "exoticism", if you will, that blinded a few journalists to the moral and intellectual capacity of a roomful of people who, if they'd given it a moment's thought (or more than three hours, let's say, of frantic reaction), they would of course have ascribed the ordinary sort of intelligence that is required to get a self-deprecating joke. If they had not been so intoxicated with their own sense of Western privilege, perhaps their guilt over being associated with this "monster" who was speaking, they might have let the alleged victims themselves, the hosts to which Tim Hunt had been "culturally insensitive", formulate what they themselves took to be a culturally appropriate response. Like I say, I think they would have simply let it slide, like most intelligent people. But we don't know, because Connie St Louis couldn't wait to save them. It was not women scientists that were robbed of agency in Oransky, Blum and St Louis's "reportage", it was Korean women scientists. Poor things.

I'm of course aware of the outrage that such a hypothesis can provoke. Did I just call Connie St Louis a racist in retaliation for calling Sir Tim a sexist? Well, sure, maybe. Maybe I said he's as much a sexist as St Louis is a bit of a racist. A mild, unavoidable, well-intentioned, somewhat ignorant, we'll-get-past-that-too-in-a-generation-or-so sort of racism. A lingering bit of bias that is so ingrained in our habits of mind that it's worth making a joke about every now and then but not worth making a big stink about, and certainly not worth forcing people to resign over—especially in science, where reason really is ascendent, and, as Tim Hunt suspects, gender discrimination probably rules hiring and promotion decisions less than anywhere else in social life and, to the extent that it does, decreasingly with every graduating class.

Real meritocracies, which we can hope science largely is, can handle a bit of retrograde sentiment because the "ultimate concern", to take another jab at UCL's Michael Arthur, isn't gender equality or "cultural sensitivity" but truth. That means you're going to have a few inconsequential bigots among you. If you go after them too aggressively, as Blum et al. did with Hunt, you're going to end up getting some (as we say in science) "false positives", as Blum et al. got with Hunt. And you're going to get them because you took your eye off the real action, the actual work of science in the lab where truth is pursued, and went for the easy scandal. Hounding highly intelligent and otherwise harmless people out of science for expressing themselves in slightly unconventional ways is a very impractical way to make science safe for women. It's not culturally sensitive, it's just sentimental.

Like I say, try not to understand me too quickly. I'm making a real effort to get this point right.

Norman Mailer once said that "It is the actions of men, not their sentiments, that make history." He also said that "Sentimentality is the emotional promiscuity of those who have no sentiment." I think Deborah Blum is what can be called a sentimental feminist. She feels something about gender equality but she does not think very seriously about it. So she would rather be offended at a few words spoken by a very successful man than to look carefully at the record of his actions, both as a scientist and, yes, as a feminist, and then render judgment about whether he is on the right or the wrong side of history. I worry that she is right, of course. I worry that the "actions of men" are no longer considered important in making or understanding history, only their sentiments. I worry that we now only have a "conscience" that "makes cowards of us," as Hamlet put it, that we have "lost the name of action". I truly hope he was wrong about the name of frailty.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

TL;DR #TimHunt

Louise Mensch has now written a very detailed set of closing arguments for the defence of Sir Tim Hunt, or the prosecution of his attackers, as you will. I agree with almost everything she says, except, I guess, that there is no more work to be done. We still have to find out how this happened. But that's not what this post is for. I want to attempt to make a simple statement about just exactly what happened to centre any further investigations of how.

[Update: I had intentionally left the controversy around what Tim Hunt actually said out of this summary. David Kroll has now offered what I think is the most concise and accurate statement I've yet seen. Like him, I am "reasonably certain that his words on women in science were self-deprecating ... and that his overall message was to congratulate the Korean women scientists in attendance for their ability to perform at a level that becomes all the more impressive in the face of outdated attitudes about women in science as exemplified by his self-parody." Indeed, I think that that is all anyone who wasn't in the room that day, and who carefully considers the evidence, can be, i.e., reasonably certain that that's what Tim Hunt was trying to say.]

At this point it seems clear that two members of the program committee of this year's World Conference of Science Journalists, namely, Ivan Oransky and Deborah Blum, along with Connie St Louis, a newly elected member of the executive board of the conference organiser, namely, the World Federation of Science Journalists, deliberately set out to humiliate one of their own conference speakers, and, in order to do so, found themselves having to egregiously misrepresent both what he said and how it was received. When they went public with their accusations, they made no mention of their close connection to the conference at which Sir Tim had been invited to speak, nor their close ties to the federation that organised it. As far as I know, to this day, neither they nor the WFSJ has acknowledged this relationship, and their defenders continue to believe that they were merely intrepid journalists reporting a story.

Though the accusation of Tim Hunt's sexism was contained in a single poorly-worded tweet, the BBC uncritically adopted the framing suggested by St Louis, Blum and Oransky, as did University College London, where Tim Hunt was very quickly forced to resign his honorary position based on his hastily formulated apology (immediately misconstrued as confession) to the BBC. In accepting his resignation, UCL's president and provost, Michael Arthur, made a specific point of saying that Sir Tim Hunt no longer brought "honour" to the position. The UCL council subsequently supported Arthur, saying that the resignation had been accepted in "good faith" and Hunt would not be reinstated. The tail, that is, had wagged the dog.

Agency, Part 2

In my last post I tried to imagine what would have happened if, instead of Connie St Louis, a careful, conscientious journalist had nosed a story in Tim Hunt's joke in Seoul. In addition to getting Hunt's actual position on women in science properly on the record, I thought it might have been helpful to get Hunt's hosts to explain their decision to invite such a "monster" to their luncheon. At a higher level, she might have solicited the organisers of the conference itself, the World Conference of Science Journalists, for an opinion on the behaviour of one of their featured speakers. This, in fact, identifies another alternative focus of agency in the narrative about Tim Hunt's joke, another set of "decision point[s] from which the universe might have gone forward in different directions," to use Janet Stemwedel's language. What could the conference organisers have done differently? How could Hunt's hosts have responded? And here is where the story of the coverage of Tim Hunt's toast goes completely off the rails for me.

I wonder if this is a wise thing to bring up, but does anyone remember, back about five years ago, when Sarah Silverman did a TED talk? (You can get the story at TechCrunch or you can watch Silverman explain the whole debacle to Bill Maher.) The short version is that she was invited by Chris Anderson to do the talk but in the event, it seems, offended his finer sensibilities. So he apologised on Twitter for the behaviour of his guest and went so far as to call her talk "god-awful". She came back at him, also on Twitter, with a, for our purposes, well-stuck jab, thanking him for making TED an "unsafe haven for all", followed by a nice little bit of invective that I'll let you click through to read or hear yourself.

Why do I bring this up? Because it nicely illustrates the social difficulty that is faced by hosts when their guests end up saying something that is "inappropriate"--appropriateness being, as we all know, highly relative to context. What has happened is the host has come to regret the decision to invite the speaker. Now, Silverman (and most observers, I would think) was surprised that Anderson was surprised at her act. Anderson, it appeared, had not done his homework. The faux pas that Anderson committed was to disown his guest, rather than to own the decision to invite her, which he had now decided was a bad one. He may have reasoned that, on balance, that was the best thing for him to do, but Silverman was right to say it made the event "unsafe for all". As Jack McKenna at TechCrunch put it: "TED speakers beware – make sure your talks are within acceptable parameters or face the wrath of TED. And their friends."

If a good journalist had thought there was a story in Hunt's remarks, I imagine she'd be on the lookout for a reaction from the hosts. Perhaps she would go and solicit it. The conference was organised by the World Federation of Science Journalists and the luncheon was hosted[sponsored]*** by the Korean Federation of Women's Science and Technology Associations*. Obviously these two federations stand in a formal relationship to each other, and there were no doubt representatives from both in attendance at the luncheon. And here's where it gets weird.

In fact, we don't have to speculate about whether there were "officials" in the room. We can read at the conference website that Ivan Oransky, who helped to break the story, was the vice-chair of the program committee for the conference and that Deborah Blum, another of St Louis's collaborators, also served on it. Meanwhile, Connie St Louis herself was running for, and would ultimately win, a seat on[had been elected to] the executive board of the WFSJ. This means that if Connie St Louis had been a serious journalist, and had thought that someone higher up had something to own here, she could have gone, in the first place, to Oransky and Blum and, if she had waited until after the conference[June 10] to publish her story, she could have asked herself for comment about why the WFSJ would invite such a "monster" to speak at their conference.

Instead, the very people who should have owned their invitation of Tim Hunt to speak at their conference ganged up on him to humiliate him for expressing himself with candour. (As in the Silverman case, after watching a few videos of Sir Tim, I can't imagine how anyone could be surprised that he might try to be a bit "funny", no matter what he was speaking about.) They didn't even have the courage to publicly disown him. Instead, when writing about it, they simply neglected to mention their own agency in the event, their own responsibility. Blum, for example talked vaguely about "the conference" and "the organisers", about what "they" had hoped would happen by having Sir Tim speak.

Then something completely baffling happened. Recall that, because the story was so poorly sourced, St Louis's account was quickly drawn into question. Some said he was clearly joking. Details about his actual remarks, and, in particular, the reaction in the room, were made public and it became unclear whether anyone other than St Louis, Blum, Oransky and their followers on Twitter (who of course had not been there) had actually found the remarks offensive.

Enter Hee Young Paik, president of KOFWST, Tim Hunt's host at[which had sponsored]*** the luncheon. Now, it is actually not clear to me whether she was present in the room, nor who emceed the proceedings, nor who asked him to speak. But it doesn't really matter because presidents are made, precisely, to resolve such ambiguities by stepping in and taking responsibility. In a manner of speaking, she did. What she and KOFWST had apparently decided to do, after Tim Hunt had apologised publicly for his remarks and resigned from two committees as well as an honorary professorship at University College London, was to demand a further formal apology. It was ridiculous in scope, claiming to speak "on behalf of all women scientists in Korea and the world" and baroquely implied that he'd never again have "future fruitful collaboration[s] with Korean scientists" if his "sincere and prompt apology" was not forthcoming within 24 hours.

The Korean Federation of Women's Science and Technology Associations, that is, entered the conflict more than a week after the scandal had broken, and then proceeded to act us though Tim Hunt was something that had happened to them, rather than someone they were responsible for (in the double sense of having responsibilities both to him and to his audience. They were responsible both for his actions and his well-being.)

Sir Tim did not, as Silverman with some justification did, lash out at the bad manners of his hosts.*** Instead, he appears to have met the deadline and penned an apology with extreme graciousness and contrition. (Both the baroquely worded demand and his apology bear the same date, namely, June 16, which is also when the press release, albeit somewhat oddly dated June 17**, was published by Connie St Louis on her blog.) Unlike Silverman, who we can perhaps call a professional controversialist, Sir Tim had already decided to avoid further confrontation and withdraw to his garden and tend to his quinces. I don't blame him in the least. (Perhaps he calls his garden "Outside the Asylum"?)

Sir Tim's hosts--both WFSJ and KOFWST--acted entirely out of keeping with all conventions of hospitality that I'm aware of. They knew no tact, no manners, no graciousness. They took no responsibility. And by concealing the power that they had at the time to mitigate the harms of any unfortunate remarks their speaker may have made (when they instead amplified those supposed harms by "reporting" them) St Louis, Blum and Oransky perpetrated a serious breach of professional ethics. Like University College London, they hung Sir Tim "out to dry"; they had no decency. Sure, yes, that's my personal opinion. But I would suggest to all future speakers at WCSJ what John McKenna at TechCrunch said to all future TED speakers: beware. Do not think you'll "get away with" speaking your mind.

I use that phrase advisedly. It's how Connie St Louis put it on BBC, talking about the case. Remember that she was now, and is today, on the executive board of the federation behind the conference that brought Sir Tim so much embarrassment. That interview will be my jumping off point for the third part in this series on the agency of the Tim Hunt scandal. We have talked about the agency of journalists and the agency of professional societies. Next, we will talk about something closer to the heart of the matter: the political agency of feminists and the personal agency of women.

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*While KOFWST does seem to have website, it has a funny effect on my browser, so I'm hesitant to provide a link. The address I've found is kofwst.org. If anyone has any ideas, let me know.

**[Update 14:13: It's possible that this has something to do with the 8 hour time difference. Hunt could have sent his reply from London on the 16th to Seoul on the 17th, after which St Louis might have immediately gotten a copy from KOFWST, which she then published on her blog in London, where it was still June 16.]

***[Update 16:18: It has been brought to my attention that KOFWST never claimed to have "hosted" the luncheon but only that they had "sponsored" it. This would mean that they paid for it, but that the conference itself presumably had organized the event and invited the participants. This also means that they probably had little to do with the decision to get Tim Hunt to speak. My characterization of their role as "hosts" probably came from Connie St Louis's report, which mentioned "the female Korean scientists who were hosting the luncheon". I should of course not have taken her report at face value, and I apologize to KOFWST for the error.]