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.

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