Monday, October 12, 2015

On Colin Blakemore and ABSW

On Saturday, Sir Colin Blakemore resigned as honorary president of the Association of British Science Writers over its handling of the controversy around Connie St Louis' reporting of Tim Hunt's remarks about women in the lab in June. Since he mentions my name in his statement, which I take as no small honour, I'd like to offer some thoughts about it here.

Specifically, Blakemore is unsatisfied with the way that ABSW dealt with a number of written complaints about St Louis' journalism. One of those complaints was mine. Like Blakemore, I was puzzled by ABSW's decision to give her its "full support" as she faced criticism that the ABSW described as an "attack" on her person for "the everyday act of reporting a news story".

More importantly, I wanted to know whether it was in keeping with "the highest standards of science writing" for Connie St Louis not to disclose to her readers the fact that she is a member of the executive board of the World Federation of Science Journalists, whose conference Tim Hunt was a guest of when he made his remarks. This, I have argued, gave her a range of options for mitigating the harms that his remarks may have done to women in science, rather than recklessly amplifying those harms by tweeting her outrage. That outrage, of course, was based, at best, on a misunderstanding and, at worst, on a distortion of his actual meaning, which soon became clear to anyone who cared to give the matter a moment's thought.

In accepting Blakemore's resignation, the board of the ABSW, on which St Louis of course sits, has, to my mind, only made the need for that resignation clearer. Once again defending St Louis' journalism, they claim that:

Sir Tim has not disputed the accuracy of St Louis’s reporting and has apologised to the Federation for his comments. Sir Paul Nurse, president of the Royal Society, is on record as saying that Sir Tim’s comments were unacceptable.

This is, to my mind, a highly misleading statement, clearly intended to make it seem as though St Louis' story has stood the test of time, and that her interpretation of Hunt's remarks is not really in doubt. But already a month ago, in my response to ABSW's response to my complaint, I pointed out that Tim Hunt has, in fact, disputed the accuracy of St Louis reporting from the very beginning. She said he seriously suggested sex-segregated labs; he said he was joking. That is, he disputed the meaning that was attributed to his words after they had been taken out of context. The only thing he did not dispute was the literal transcription of 37 words that he spoke, which he granted were "accurately reported".

As I've said before, to characterize this as "not disputing" Connie St Louis' report, is so ignorant that it would be kinder to call it dishonest. What Tim Hunt apologized for, more graciously than it now seems he should have, was the offense that was caused, not by his comments in the room that day, but by a wildly misleading report of those comments. Indeed, while one would have to ask Paul Nurse himself, I'm quite certain, especially given his subsequent remarks on the matter, that what he found "unacceptable" were the remarks as originally reported, and not the act of saying words that, when sufficiently distorted in the fun-house mirror of a journalist's agenda, could be construed as a sign of "ingrained sexism". (As it seems we must always point this out, I will do it again: everything we now know about Tim Hunt suggests that there is not a grain of sexism in the man. No one who knows him has anything bad to say about him on this point.)

One last thing. Citing the Observer article on the resignation, ABSW has found it necessary to clarify that "It has not received the notification needed to start a case under [their complaint] process, which involves a formal complaint in writing." Actually, the process involves a little more than just making a complaint in writing. It requires filing it on paper, signed by the complainant. (All the complaints I'm aware of were, in fact, made in writing, though I guess by email.) When I was corresponding with Martin Ince, I did at one point offer to make such a formal complaint if he thought it would be easier to address my concerns by that means. Ince did not invite me to do so. Blakemore is therefore quite right when he says that ABSW "decided not to invoke its ... complaints procedure". I formed my opinion of the Association and the profession accordingly when I received the board's answer to my questions.

As if to issue a challenge, the ABSW now says that it "will of course act upon any such complaint it may receive". Maybe one or some of us will have to rise to that challenge and see how that procedure, when actually used, does work. But let it not be said that we didn't give the ABSW the opportunity to do the right thing by less formal means.


richard.jowsey said...

Well said, sir. My compliments. :D

Thomas said...

Thanks. :-)

Anonymous said...

I can't see a formal complaint making any difference. The real scandal here is that there is a cabal of ideologically-driven charlatans at the heart of science writing who are happy to lie to protect their own and further their agenda. I don't believe the timing of the NatGeo hit piece - published just in time for the SciWri15 conference - is an accident, for example.

Perhaps there is a student journalist (at, say, City Uni London or MIT) who is already planning to bag her first big scoop by exposing this shameful state of affairs. Certainly, she would have unrivaled access to the principal actors.

chris westwood said...

"No one who knows him has anything bad to say about him on this point"

Not quite true. The following know him very well:

Professor David Colquhoun
Professor Uta Frith
Professor Dorothy Bishop.

These three in particular chose to attack Hunt, for whatever reasons only they can tell.

This is an omission, but they are no loss to any argument over something like this.

Thomas said...

I wasn't aware that they knew him "very well", but I'll check into that.

It's true that Colquhoun, Frith and Bishop jumped on him after St. Louis' tweet came out. What was striking, though, was that they didn't add any more evidence to the case against Hunt. That is, the toast in Seoul and the Labtimes interview remain the only two symptoms of Hunt's alleged sexism.

If Hunt truly was a sexist, you'd expect at least some people who've had close contacts with him to come forward with stories about his behavior. It's in that sense that I mean no one seems to have anything "bad to say", though lots of people took the opportunity to call him names, yes.

chris westwood said...

Thomas, Colquohoun worked in the same department at UCL. He claimed that pouring a bucket of ice cold water over his wife was evidence of Hunt being a mosogynist. Also claimed to know a female scientist who was too scared to speak against Hunt. If she had a case against Hunt there has never been a better time to give testimony. But he still claims to have evidence.

Frith is in a similar group at UCL, claims to be "incandescent" at the mention of Hunt, but no evidence of a reduction in the UCL lighting bill.

Bishop, who is busy maintaining a research group at Oxford with as few male members as possible, would know Hunt well because of medical interests and participation at the Royal Society. So far no mention of the ladies in her team thanking the men for emptying the trash cans, but I'm on the case.

Andrew Gelman said...

Sir Tim, Sir Paul, Sir Colin . . . . it all makes me glad to be an American. We have lots of problems but at least we don't go around calling people Lord and Sir!

Louise Mensch said...

I complained twice.