Friday, October 09, 2015

Is Science Writing Making the World Less Safe for Scientists?

After the debacle in Seoul this summer at the World Conference of Science Journalists, many of us are paying extra attention to news coming out of ScienceWriters2015 in Cambridge this year. We're worried that some other innocent victim is going to get into hot water for something he, or she, might find coming out of their mouth and then being, more or less faithfully, reported on Twitter. Thankfully, there hasn't been any drama yet. But, as if in anticipation, Mark Strauss decided to create a "rogues gallery" of "Nobel Prize winners we'd like to forget"* for National Geographic. Whatever you may think of the exercise in general, the Tim Hunt entry was sure to get my attention, and I imagine that getting people like me worked up was part of Strauss's intent. I'd like to take a moment to explain my reaction.

First of all, I'm of course surprised that a venerable institution like National Geographic would engage in such cheap, click-baiting, character assassination. It is a publication that depends on fostering good relationships with scientists, so you would think that when writing about Nobel laureates, even if critically (as is sometimes of course necessary), that it would do it in a less glib and tabloid-like manner. This doesn't just apply to writing about Sir Tim, and I'm sure that the gallery will divide opinion on some of the other "rogues" as well. But since I happen to know something about that case...

Let me begin by pointing out how strong Strauss's opprobrium against Tim Hunt actually is. Because of what (it is said) he said in Seoul, he argues, Tim Hunt is best forgotten about all together, his contribution to our understanding of cell division notwithstanding. His name deserves to be listed among "racists, frauds, and misogynists" (rather than mentors, friends, and discoverers). While there are many "clueless sexists" in science, says Strauss, "one name stands out for special recognition", namely, Tim Hunt's. He is described as being clueless about a "vast" problem and as harboring an "ingrained attitude" that "makes it harder for women to advance in science". That is, Hunt is characterized as a singularly good example of the problem of sexism in science.

On what evidence does Strauss make this very strong claim? The piece references four sources. Connie St Louis' blog post at Scientific American, the BBC's early reporting of the story and his first apology, a U.S.News & World report about gender disparity in science, and Deborah Blum's storify about the incident. The most recent of these sources is from June 15, i.e., one week after the infamous luncheon was held. That is, four months after the event, Strauss ignores all the subsequent coverage of both the incident and its central figure, to make his portrait of a rogue.

But he doesn't even get his sources right. He cites St Louis for a version of Hunt's remarks that doesn't appear in her article. Tellingly, it appears in a comment to that article that criticizes her distortion of his remarks and their meaning. He insists on the originally scandalous meaning, of course, and leaves out of his quote the mitigating words that have become central to the discussion about whether he was joking, i.e., the "now seriously..." He says that Hunt "issued" the "pseudo-apology" that was in fact, elicited by the BBC, and he attributes his remarks about being "honest" to something he said to a "co-panelist" (presumably Blum) when that was in fact part of his comment to the BBC.

Finally, he cites the USNews report as support for the claim that there is a "vast underrepresentation of women working in STEM fields," though that report is actually focused on evidence that there may be no "leaky pipeline" keeping women who are already in science from staying in. Worse—indeed, astoundingly—that argument is actually very similar to one that Hunt does make, namely, that, yes, there is in fact a disparity, but it is not caused by any sexism he is aware of. To say that a man who describes the inequalities as "staggering" is "clueless" about the under-representation of women in science is just plain, well, clueless about the man's views. Strauss doesn't seem to have done any research at all on this story.

Yesterday on Twitter, inspired by Faye Getz Cook, I announced that science writing is making the world unsafe for academics. It might be argued that that is as good and justified as political journalism making the world "unsafe" for politicians. But this is only true, even for political journalism, if we mean bad ones, i.e., dishonest and fraudulent politicians and scientists. Sure, yes, let's make the world unsafe for them. But being able to distinguish between a good and a bad scientist must surely be part of the competence of a science writer. Strauss, it seems, can't even read his own sources. Pilots who can't tell the difference between yaw and torque would also make the world less safe for passengers. Fortunately pilots are members of a serious profession!

As I said when I first read the piece, National Geographic should be ashamed of itself, and of Mark Strauss. They owe Tim Hunt a full and sincere apology and retraction for this shoddy piece of so-called journalism.

*It looks like the title of the piece has been changed since publication.


A. J. Simonsen said...

It really is amazing that four months after the story came out, and there's been such a thorough re-hashing of the he said, she said, that a magazine of such prominence as National Geographic would even touch on the story, much less get it so wrong.

Anonymous said...

Ah, the good old list article. Good for clickbait and cursory research. It probably seemed like a good idea at the editorial meeting where this one was hatched. But list articles involve a lot of fact checking that a lot of people just don't bother doing and, in trying to hit a good number to make it a list rather than a profile of three or four people, you wind up dragging in names who really don't deserve to be there.

Even if Tim Hunt had meant his comments to be taken seriously and had not apologised several times over (and those are just the ones that have been published), is one toast – admittedly ill advised as it was – really enough to convict the guy of being a full-time misogynist? Shouldn't there be some other evidence before coming to such a conclusion? Apparently, for NatGeo, no.