Monday, July 20, 2015

Agency, Part 1

I think most observers would agree that the Tim Hunt affair is a bit of a train wreck now. Whether he hoped to praise or bury women (it's hard to believe that public opinion is still divided on this question, but anyway...) Tim Hunt did not immediately achieve his goal. Whether they hoped to support the struggles of women or attack the privileges of men, Connie St Louis, Deborah Blum and Ivan Oransky also did not straightforwardly achieve their goal. Mistakes, as Ronald Reagan might once have said, were made.

The question is, Who made those mistakes? In a news story, like any other narrative, it's important to specify the agency that conditioned the contingencies in the situation, the choices on which the events turned. Who had the power to do what differently? And what might then have happened? Could Tim Hunt's remarks have led to a constructive conversation about gender in science? Whose responsibility was it to make that happen?

This was the question that Janet Stemwedel rightly raised in Forbes, and which I took as an entry point for my own engagement with the case. Also writing at Forbes, David Kroll riffed on Stemwedel's piece a few days later, making the important point that Hunt's remarks came to overshadow precisely the women that the luncheon was intended to honor. While I very much like the sort of "counter-factual history" that Stemwedel and Kroll engage in (I think "What if?" questions are absolutely essential when thinking about causality and responsibility), I think both pieces make the unfortunate assumption that Tim Hunt was the central actor in this case. It's also what has caused many observers to balk at feeling any sympathy for him. He is construed as the author of his own misfortune. This post is the beginning of an attempt to broaden our conception of the contingency and, especially, the agency that was present in the room at the time of Hunt's remarks.

Consider Kroll's point that Hunt "overshadowed" the subject of his profile, namely, the "Art Historian-Turned-Civil Engineer" Debra Laefer, who
was one of two recipients of European Research Council (ERC) Advanced Project grants who were featured to WCSJ journalist attendees in a session chaired by Sir Tim Hunt, a now-former member of the ERC Scientific Council and 2001 Nobel laureate ...
While Hunt was present at the conference precisely to draw attention to people like Laefer, the attention ended up befalling Sir Tim himself. His critics suggest (and Stemwedel's analysis largely follows suit) that Tim Hunt drew the attention to himself and then, in the fallout, endeavored to keep attention focused on him. The story now became about him and his suffering, rather than about the women that suffered under his alleged "misogyny". More importantly (and here I agree with Kroll) the story became about Tim Hunt rather than the impressive women who succeed despite the challenges they face in science as women.

But is the underlying assumption true? Was it mainly Tim Hunt who had the power to "do things differently," as Stemwedel puts it? Well, what did he do? He told what he hoped would be understood as a joke. He could have chosen not to try to be funny or he could have constructed a better joke. I'm not as certain as other observers (who also appear to have convinced Hunt himself) that his joke was very awful or very badly delivered. The recently surfaced recording of the event also seems to suggest that the room was more receptive than we had originally been told. But even if we assume that it was a poor jest, surely we've all botched an attempt to be funny and managed to say or imply something that we neither meant to say nor actually believe? Usually, what happens is that the joke falls flatly to the ground. We're embarrassed, there may be some booing or hissing, and everyone moves on.

In this case, we would move on to his high praise of women in science, which, if we were to cover it as journalists, we might exemplify by profiling--you guessed it--Debra Laefer. That is not, however, what happened. Instead, a journalist, Connie St Louis, after discussing the matter with two other journalists, Deborah Blum and Ivan Oransky, decided that this was the story. This was "what happened" at the luncheon. That was a choice they made and they had the power, the agency, to make that contingency into an actuality. They even made a careful and deliberate plan for how to break the story about this unreconstructed "sexist scientist".

Some argue that the remarks were so shocking that they were bound as journalist to do something. The story happened right before their eyes. To remain silent would have been tantamount to suppressing it. I think that is a bit over-the-top, but if we grant that point for the sake of argument, we can ask an important question. What might St Louis, Blum and Oransky have done differently to avoid the unconstructive train wreck that the Tim Hunt scandal became?

Again, let's begin with what they did do.  (The go-to source of straight facts about the events in this case, in my opinion, is Debbie Kennett's dossier-like post at her blog Cruwy's News.) Within hours (I think 3 hours is the commonly accepted number), St Louis had posted what was obviously a hastily written tweet that characterized his remarks in a highly uncharitable manner. I use the concept of "charity" here in the technical hermeneutical sense, i.e., to evoke the interpretative principle of attributing maximum truth and rationality to an utterance* in trying to decide what it means. When making sense of what someone says, it's good to assume that the remarks are as intelligent as they can possibly be. Basically, in this case, it's the difference between assuming the speaker is a blithering idiot and assuming he's an intelligent scientists. In fact, in later interviews, St Louis did openly marvel at how stupid she thought the remarks were.

Now, maybe they were as stupid as all that. To believe it we have to imagine that Tim Hunt, given everything we now know about his career, would seriously plead for what St Louis rightly described as the "Victorian" idea of sex-segregated labs in 2015. It would suggest that Sir Tim had lost his marbles. Note that this interpretation, if it had been taken seriously, should have occasioned an entirely different news story, namely, a sympathetic account of a great mind coming undone. (In the Nobel category, think of the story of John Nash's "beautiful mind".)

Having heard something so utterly outrageous, St Louis and her two collaborators should have wondered whether they had misunderstood his meaning. The only thing they felt they needed to do, however, was to ensure that they all heard him say the same 37 words and then immediately fly it up the Twitter flagpole to see how the Internet would react. As it turned out, it reacted with great convulsions and caused Sir Tim to be literally dis-honoured by UCL. Now that is agency! That is the power to effect change in the world. Though not satisfied with the reaction from, for example, the Royal Society, St Louis was no doubt proud of herself. She had, it seems, accomplished something.

But it turned out her reporting was very weakly sourced. It was not, in the long run, possible to maintain that everyone in the room was offended, that there was a deathly silence, that Sir Tim had thanked the ladies for making lunch, that he seriously meant to bar women from labs. In that sense, the story simply fell apart, and anyone who believed that Sir Tim is a misogynist, even for a few hours, might rightly feel deceived.

How could this be avoided? How could the story have been broken so as not to leave everyone feeling angry and confused, misled and misinformed, and instead occasion a much-needed conversation about gender in science? There are actually two answers to this question. One of them indicates a serious lack of craftsmanship in St Louis, Blum and Oransky's journalism. The other indicates a serious lack of tact, manners, grace and, yes, ethics. I'll end this post with the first of these concerns, and then unpack the second in a follow up.

A serious journalist, tipped off about some possibly outrageous sentiments in the mind of Tim Hunt, would have tried to commit him, in a post-luncheon interview, to a statement of his views about "girls in the lab" that he would be willing to defend in public. A serious journalist would also have gone to his hosts, i.e., the Korean Federation of Women’s Science and Technology Associations[WCSJ]**, and asked for a statement. Were they offended at his remarks? Would they stand by their decision to invite him to the luncheon? Was it a good idea to ask him to speak to that group of women? Had his remarks been cleared in advance? Did he represent the views of the Federation? Etc. In other words, a good journalist would have gotten the event itself properly established as a fact that could be sustainably referenced in subsequent commentary and conversation.

A good journalist would also have tried to get some on-the-record reactions from people in the room. Did they find his remarks funny? Did they find them offensive? Were they planning to register a complaint with the conference organizers? Was this going to affect their attitudes about science? That sort of thing. Finally, a good journalist might also make some preliminary efforts to confirm her suspicion that Sir Tim Hunt is a "sexist", perhaps even misogynist. Perhaps he's even a sexual predator in the lab. After all, he admitted he was a "chauvinist monster"! What a good journalist would have found is what a good journalist like Louise Mensch did find: no, in fact, there is no evidence to suggest that Hunt is really a sexist nor that he has done anything to harm the careers of women in science. He must have been joking, it seems.

I'll leave it there for now. My next post will proceed from the (to my mind, at least) shocking fact that St Louis, Blum and Oransky were not merely the accidental observers of some unfortunate remarks. They were, in a very real sense, ultimately both Tim Hunt's and the Korean Federation of Women’s Science and Technology Associations' hosts at the time. They were key figures in the organization of the conference. This suggests a power to manage this story for less disastrous ends on a completely different scale. It suggests an entirely different kind of agency. It makes their responsibility, in my mind, both for the opportunity that was lost* and for the harm that was done, almost total.

[Part 2 here.]

*Phrasing changed since publication.
**[Update: It's unclear to me at this point who hosted the luncheon, but KOFWST seems only to have sponsored it. It appears to have been put on by the conference organisers themselves.]

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Writing up science for a general audience in a way that is lucid, accurate, and interesting is difficult. Requires both a good grasp of the science and excellent literacy skills. Much easier to raise a twitter storm on the strength of fashionable shibboleths. Evidence is accumulating that CSL has very poor literacy skills, only a glancing grasp of science, and a profoundly cynical view of science journalism (i.e., it must be kept ultra-simple and used in an activist way to put the fear of god in politicians etc). It's understandable that she took the twitter storm path. The reaction of high-level scientists like David Colquhoun and Dorothy Bishop is particularly disappointing. Their own experience of the elite world of hard science should have made them less inclined to believe that their Nobel-winning colleague was the utter fool he was portrayed as being, and more inclined to scrutinise the evidence more carefully, as they would the outcome data of an uncontrolled and garbled experiment.