Thursday, July 16, 2015

Decency, Part 1

My friends and colleagues are sometimes puzzled by the energy that I put into thinking about and investigating particular cases of "scientific misconduct" broadly speaking. I must admit, I'm sometimes puzzled myself. There doesn't seem to be any particular method to my madness as far as the selection of cases goes. Why this case, or that one, and why not, especially, this one? The Tim Hunt case, however, has brought so many of my pet notions and theories into play that I'm not at all in doubt about why my "nose" has guided me towards it. I have a lot of people to thank for this, not least of course Louise Mensch who has been tireless in her pursuit of due process, and Debbie Kennett who has organized an impressive dossier for us. Today I'd also like to thank Sam Schwarzkopf, who has been pushing me, both on Twitter and in the comments of this blog, to clarify the special opprobrium I've reserved for University College London in this case. That really does get to the heart of the matter.

As I recently said to Sam, it's not really about saving Tim Hunt for me, but about saving the venerable institution of science from, let's say, a certain convocation of politic worms, namely, the so-called "profession" of science so-called "writing". Science needs Sir Tim more than Sir Tim needs science. And we need science a good deal more than we need science journalism, at least the kind of science journalism that is practiced by Connie St Louis, Deborah Blum and (I'm increasingly sad to say) Ivan Oransky (whose Retraction Watch I have otherwise long admired.) The bulwark that protects science from politics is, of course, traditionally known as the university. And that institution appears to be failing.

I've said a few times now that I waited (on the edge of my seat, impatiently) for University College London's council to come to a decision about the rightness of accepting Tim Hunt's resignation. That's because if they had overturned President and Provost Michael Arthur's decision they would have, in one simple step, corrected almost the entire wrong. They may have needed to go a bit further; they may have had to reprimand Arthur to send a clear signal that this was a bad decision made by someone who is entrusted to get such decisions right. But, as far as the institution of science goes, I would have been satisfied, and I would have probably lost interest in any ongoing campaigns to vilify Sir Tim's accusers. Not that such campaigns might not have been justified, just that I would have lost interest, feeling once again that the university is "safe for intellectual life," as Steve Fuller once so evocatively put it. What an irrational mob wants to spend its time doing on Twitter is not really so important to me.

But that's not what happened. On July 9, 2015 University College London's council ratified Michael Arthur's decision to accept Tim Hunt's resignation, saying that this was done in "good faith". It is important to me to point out that, in explaining his reasoning, Arthur had explicitly ensured that the resignation would dis-honour Sir Tim:

An honorary appointment is meant to bring honour both to the person and to the University. Sir Tim has apologised for his remarks, and in no way do they diminish his reputation as a scientist. However, they do contradict the basic values of UCL – even if meant to be taken lightly – and because of that I believe we were right to accept his resignation. Our commitment to gender equality and our support for women in science was and is the ultimate concern.

It is this reasoning that the council ratified as a "good faith" exercise of executive authority by UCL's provost and president. Just so we're clear.

It is the function, indeed, the near-sacred duty of a university to protect unconventional minds from the pressures of conventional thought. The university provides conditions under which scientists can make what was once called "discoveries" of what was once called the "truth". Our aforementioned convocation of worms prefers to see the university as the site of "negotiations" over the "means of knowledge production" allowing for the "co-construction of meaning", mainly because this allows them to play their role as mediators between scientists and their publics. It is the collusion between members of the failing institution of science (the university, the academy) and the nascent profession of science journalism** (or "science writing" to use this vague term that no doubt occasionally absolves them of responsibility to maintain the familiar standards of an existing profession) that keeps me awake at night, and keeps my anger hot.

In this post, I'm going to look mainly at the institutional issues, which is to say, a set of collective responsibilities. In a later post, I will look at the professinal issues, and therefore the personal responsibilities of the individuals involved. At this point, like I say, you are free to see the Tim Hunt case merely as an illustrative example of a largely "academic" point. We're thinking the implications through, that's all.

I have long tried to figure out a way to talk about my hunch that there is an important connection between formal institutions and ordinary decency, just as there is very probably an important connection between our intuitions and our honesty. Basically, I think decency is to justice what honesty is to truth. I.e., not exactly the same thing, nor wholly co-extensional, but interrelated and codependent in interesting ways. Also, I believe that over the past two or three decades we have seen the emergence of what Peter Drucker, long ago, called "a society of organizations" (Charles Perrow has offered a similar analysis), which, in my view, is best understood as a challenge to institutional order. Neither is chaos, but there is a difference between being "orderly" and being "organized".

Okay, so what is "institutional order"? What makes it different from "mere organization", if you will? The difference, I want to argue, is that institutions establish standards of decency. (Indeed, the Danish word "ordentlig", literally, "orderly", basically means "decent" in ordinary speech.) And decency is just the immediate rightness of conduct. It is because it violates an immediate, i.e., unmediated sense of right and wrong, that an "indecent" act offends us. That is what being "offended" is all about. You don't reason your way to taking offence. You just are, immediately, offended.

This is one sense in which decency and justice are two very different things. Sometimes justice requires us to be indecent, i.e., to offend the sensibilities that are instituted in our culture. Lenny Bruce's famously "indecent" performances come immediately to mind, as do a great many variously brazen acts of feminist defiance of convention over the past 100 hundred years. Norman Mailer, speaking about something else I think, once said, roughly, "When a man swears in public he is saying, 'You're bored, and I'm bored, and we have to smash this thing.'" Germaine Greer, who had his "full and specific sympathy"*, let's say, did not become the woman she is by being decent.

The strong case I want to make in the Tim Hunt situation is that he was the victim of both personal indecency and institutional cowardice. "Institutional" cowardice is the sort of thing that happens when a council of twenty people fails to reprimand their duly constituted provost for an act of personal indecency committed in their name. Personal indecency is the sort of thing that happens when your provost gets someone to call up your wife and asks her to strongly suggest to you that you resign.

I know that last remark is contentious for some, and Sam is there to keep me honest about it. I thank him. So let me make clear that I'm not taking a position on what actually happened here. Not at that granular level of detail. I'm just generating illustrative examples. In fact, the mere act of accepting the resignation was, to my mind, "indecent", albeit in such a subtle and "negative" way that it makes for a less clear example. Under the circumstances, let's say, even "merely" accepting the resignation would have been as indecent as accepting the resignation of man you know to be grieving the loss of dear friend in the line of duty, a friend for whom you know the resigner feels disproportionally responsible. The role of the leader, here, is to talk the distressed person down. To assure him that it's not so bad, and then to look into it and reach a more dispassionate conclusion. That may still lead to a resignation, of course, or even a firing. But it will be done on a proper basis, following an orderly procedure.

It is the institutional function of a university, then, to slow the accelerating debauch of reason, to cool an overheating situation down enough to be carefully handled, so that reasonable people can be given time to figure out what happened and respond accordingly. UCL, first in the person of its provost and then in the collective of the council, failed miserably in this function. I will say again, they failed in their near-sacred duty to protect an unconventional mind from conventional thought. They dishonoured Sir Tim. They had no decency.

(I thought I would get to the role of World Federation of Science Journalists already in this posts. But I will leave that for another one.)

*Let me take this opportunity to encourage everyone to watch Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennybaker's excellent Town Bloody Hall, which hails from a time just after I was born. In my opinion the promise of an interesting conversation about gender that this panel embodied has not yet been fulfilled. I'm still hopeful that will change.

**[Update: When I wrote this I had not yet seen Paul Seaman's excellent post about how academic institutions are failing to maintain their integrity in the face of PR pressures.]

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