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.]