Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Less Than Full Disclosure in the Tim Hunt Scandal

[Update: I've emailed the WFSJ for comment, cc'ing Blum, Oransky, Curtis Brainard (president), and Richard Stone (chair of the program committee). Connie St Louis's email seems to be unavailable at the moment at CUL. I'll of course post any responses here as they come in.]

[See also the update at the end of this post.]

I am still working on a post about the journalistic judgment of Connie St. Louis, Deborah Blum, and Ivan Oransky in breaking the Tim Hunt story. But the always informative Louise Mensch has thrown a wrench into my plans by pointing something out to me that I had not noticed, or even suspected. I find it rather shocking and it sets this whole debacle into an entirely new light for me.

It seems that Ivan Oransky and Deborah Blum were on the program committee for the World Conference of Science Journalists, where the infamous luncheon was held. That means that Tim Hunt was speaking at what was essentially their invitation. Moreover, Connie St. Louis had been a keynote speaker at the same conference**, also presumably at the invitation of the program committee. Blum and Oransky, therefore, attended the luncheon, at least implicitly, in a much more "official"* capacity than I had previously thought, and stood in a much more formal relationship to the luncheon's hosts, namely, the Korean Federation of Women’s Science & Technology Associations. They were, properly speaking, representatives of the conference.

This is the sort of information that I do not expect to have to discover for myself. That's what the words "full disclosure" are for. No one reading either Deborah Blum's piece in the Daily Beast or Connie St. Louis's blog post at Scientific American would suspect, as I also did not suspect, that Blum, Oransky and St. Louis were key figures at the conference where Sir Tim's improvised remarks were made. They presented themselves as entirely accidental witnesses, utterly innocent bystanders.

In what now seems to me to be a very disingenuous use of language, Deborah Blum even talked about how "the conference had paired [her] lecture with [Hunt's]" and how "the organizers regarded these parallel talks as a clever way to balance the contributions of science and journalism." Both "the conference" and "the organizers" were, properly speaking, actually self-references. But no one reading this article would know this.

For a reason I simply can't fathom at this point, not only did they do no proper journalism whatsoever in this case, they chose to scandalize their own event. They orchestrated the public humiliation of a man they had themselves* invited to Seoul, after he had agreed to say (what they knew) were a few improvised remarks immediately after having held a lecture. And they did so with the result of ultimately mortifying their host association (KOFWST). It's something you'd expect of Hunter S. Thompson on a bad trip, not an editor of A Field Guide for Science Writers.

Surely, as leading figures within the conference organization itself, their role was not to fan the flames of offence and scandal here, but to work with their speaker and their host organization to mitigate whatever harm may have been done. Instead of collaborating with St. Louis on her hasty "breaking" of the story, they should have talked her out of it. Blum says that their "idea was just to get it on the record". But, if that was really their aim, they could have worked with Sir Tim and KOFWST to issue a joint statement, in which everyone saved face, and the remarks were nonetheless duly retracted.

The fact that they didn't do this suggests, at least to my mind, that there was nothing to retract in the first place. No offence was taken, no harm was done, and the scandal was entirely manufactured after the fact. An important "What If?" here is the question of whether KOFWST would have demanded an apology if they had not been publicly, internationally scandalized by St. Louis's tweet and UCL's overreaction. Indeed, as I see it, they had at that point been browbeaten into thinking some great offence against "all women scientists in Korea and the world" had taken place. If that had really been the case, as members of the programme committee, Oransky and Blum had, if anything, the responsibility to apologize on Sir Tim's (i.e., their chosen speaker's) behalf, who was presumably tired after his lecture and possibly even jet-lagged. They should have assured their hosts that no offence was meant (since none was) and that the whole thing was an unfortunate misunderstanding. Like I say, the way they actually chose to proceed suggests that the impetus for this did not come from KOFWST.

In short, Oransky and Blum here failed, not primarily in their duty as journalists (about which I still have a post coming up), but in their duty as conference organizers and representatives of the World Federation of Science Journalists. I'm really quite shocked at this. It's truly and almost "officially" a stain on the entire profession of science journalism.

[Update 10/11/2015: An anonymous commenter has linked to Waddell and Higgins' "Saving Tim Hunt", implying (I think) that it somehow challenges the issues raised in this post. It does offer a few new details, but leaves the point of this post completely untouched. In fact, they, too, fail to mention that St Louis, Blum and Oransky held key positions in WFSJ/WCSJ and that some of their witnesses (notably Dominique Forget) and commentators (notably Mohammed Yahia) also sit on the WFSJ board with Connie St Louis and therefore not only share interests with her, but have an objective interest in protecting the reputation of their organization. (Indeed, Blum nominated Yahia for his seat on the board. HT Debbie Kennett.)

I was initially impressed with their level of detail and their diligence in contacting witnesses/actors for comment. But now I'm more struck by the questions they didn't ask and the information they left out. In any case, their piece is a bit like making a big deal out of the "smoking gun" long after it has been determined that the bullet didn't come from its barrel. For those of us who think it very unlikely that Tim Hunt is a sexist, and therefore that he intended to say something sexist, it doesn't really change anything to learn that a few more people (than we already know of) interpreted Hunt to be saying something sexist. Clearly, his words could be misconstrued.

I did learn a few things from their piece though. That Dominique Forget (WFSJ treasurer) was in the room is interesting. That Mohammed Yahia (WFSJ vice-president) was promoting the story and talking about how the WCSJ controversy led to Hunt being disinvited from an AAAS webinar is also interesting. The question, now, is whether they think keeping Hunt from talking to AAAS was a positive outcome or "collateral damage".

Reading Waddell and Higgins, leaves the impression that WFSJ conferences are dangerous places for scientists. It's clear that at least two members of WFSJ board were present and that, while one of them chose to attack him on Twitter, the other chose not to defend her guest. If you like to speak freely and frankly, it seems, it's not advisable to accept an invitation to a WFSJ event. Neither the board nor the program committee will stand by you if you find yourself misspeaking or being taken out of context. In fact, if they don't like your contribution, WFSJ board members may come after you in public, rather than taking you aside in private to share their concerns. Even improvised remarks made to what Waddell and Higgins describe as a half-listening room, and mediated through a poorly functioning translation system, can be trouble. If trouble does arise, expect no support from WFSJ addressing controversy. In fact, expect the vice-president of WFSJ to stoke the controversy publicly, even as it begins to have consequences for your engagements elsewhere in the world. The WFSJ board members and WCSJ 2015 program committee members who knew exactly what had happened in the room that day, i.e., were there to see how informally the toast was made and how disinterested the audience was, didn't do any damage control. On the contrary, they gave it maximum spin, ensuring maximum damage to the speaker's reputation.]

*I'm sure they (or someone defending them) will say that I'm exaggerating the power that a "program advisory committee" actually has to determine the speakers at such an event and the "official capacity" that membership in such a committee implies. But even if it is largely an "honorary" function, it is an honour that implies responsibilities. I can only say that if I had been in any way formally associated with this conference, even as a volunteer, I would not have behaved in this unseemly manner.
**[Update: The conference is organized by the World Federation of Science Journalists. When I wrote this post I was not aware that Connie St Louis sits on its executive board. Thanks to Shub Niggurath for the tip.]


Anonymous said...

Possibly not of interest to you but one hypothesis as to why City University hasn't yet updated Connie St. Louis's CV. If you go to Professor Martin Caraher's web page at CUL, and check under his research students, Connie St. Louis is apparently working on a Phd titled "What is a Science Journalist for? I assume this is a Phd by prior publication since Professor Caraher is a professor of food and health policy.

Anonymous said...

has anybody actually verified that Connie has a degree in Applied Biology..

maybe she has..
but people ALWAYS put the institution where they obtained their degrees on their CV

Maybe she has one, maybe she doesn't, maybe she started it but never completed it.
(I had one junior employee list a uni on his cv/degree -it was a bit ambiguous, and he'd actually dropped out after 18 month.

I would 'like to trust her, but maybe somebody should verify..

Anonymous said...

Connie St Louis also applied to become a member of the WFJW board, apparently there was due to be an election to the Board at the Korea meeting. The following text (and broken links to her CV and two supporting statements) can be found on a google-cached version of this webpage:


If you follow that link now, the text has disappeared. There's a version on the webcache, but I was not able to find the CV.

"I would like to apply for a position as a member of the WFSJ board because since its inception it has become and continues to be the most important organisation and advocacy for science journalism globally. In this time of economic uncertainty I want to see that work continue and so for me the best strategy is to get involved in supporting its aims.

I have been actively involved in WFSJ conferences since 2000 when the conference was held in London. I have proposed panels and chaired them as well as having had the privilege of being invited to close the last Helsinki conference as keynote speaker. An address where I was able to discuss growing concerns about the science journalism. According to latest figures it is been engulfed by the relentless march of the science public relations army fuelled by wealthy science organisations. 2015 US figures, reveal that PRs outnumbers journalists in the US by a ratio of 4.6 to 1and PRs earn 40% more than journalists.

The causalities caused by the advance of this PR army and left dead in its wake are integrity, ethics, transparency and good conduct. The Kavli symposiums discussions are key milestones to try to redress the financial stability of journalism outlets. It is essential this conversation continues and various solutions are explored. The future of paid journalism is a challenge for all journalists no matter where in the global they live. The willingness to build global science journalism capacity has been one of the key challenges I have worked towards whilst I was President of the ABSW and one I continue to address by encouraging the UK to be one of the founding members of European Federation of Science Journalists.

I have a long, distinguished and award winning career as a BBC science journalist and continue to work for them in a freelance capacity and also to write for a number of other outlets. The skills that I could bring centre on my leadership of the ABSW board plus my skills as a journalist and educator of masters science journalism students. I have volunteered to take part in WFSJ’s important initiative in training in the forthcoming Hepatitis C project.
If elected to the board it will be an important priority for me and I will take part in every Skype call that is part of the meeting schedule of the board.

As I will be a keynote speaker in Korea I will be available to be at that board meeting. I welcome the opportunity to be part of an effective, hard working, unified and cordial board."

Sam Schwarzkopf said...

I actually agree this is rather quite odd.

Anonymous said...

Wow. This really was journalistic malpractice. Thank you for the post! More people need to know about this appalling setup.

Anonymous said...

The CV is at https://web.archive.org/web/20150625062840/http://www.wfsj.org/files/Election%202015/Connie%20St%20Louis/CV%20%20CONNIE%20ST%20LOUIS%2023032015.pdf .

A sample (to give a flavour of CSL's prose):
"I was invited to give a lecture to 300 law students at Columbia Law School on Law, Media and Genetics and ran a subsequent workshop with 50 of them (Jan 2010). This was on the representation of genetics in the media the lecture was extremely well received and feedback from the students in the workshop was excellent.
I organised a research symposium on the Impact of Libel Law in Journalism (with particular reference to science journalism) with the Centre for Law, Justice and Journalism in November 2010.It was chaired by Lord Lester QC and involve a target audience of 150 people and the list of invited speaker will range from MP’s, lawyers, campaigners and . A collection of the papers is due to published shortly, in a special edition of the British Journalism Review.

Anonymous said...

And CSL personal statement is archived at https://archive.is/2NZtg .

Unknown said...

And Debhorah Blum chaired a workshop on sexism in science at the conference, and Connie St Louise was one of the speakers at this workshop according to the draft program. I think the workshop was on the 11th. Are there minutes of this workshop, and waht was discussed?
Were the duo "primed" to find sexism, and if they did, was this confirmation bias?

Thomas said...

Yes, I'm inclined to think they had a hammer and saw nails sticking out everywhere.

Unknown said...

I will be treading in dangerous waters her, but Conie St Louis is both a woman and black. all the same she might want to "check her privalage".

Thomas said...

I make that case here. The relevant sense of privileged is "Western" (a set of privileges that is now available to all genders and races), which appears to cause her to condescend (mildly) to "different cultures" like those found in Korea. But I suppose you could add to that her privileged status within the science writing profession.

Anonymous said...

"It seems that Ivan Oransky and Deborah Blum were on the program committee for the World Conference of Science Journalists, where the infamous luncheon was held. "

Not only were IO and DB on the Conference committee, there was prior evidence of TH's character and approach to talking about his scientific career available to them and to UCL.

TH adresses some Danes: How to win a Nobel Prize. ( Available on Youtube since April 2015.)

Nobel Prize winner Sir Tim Hunt - London Research Institute, UK ( Available on Youtube since May 2013.)

A BBC documentary: Beautiful Minds: Tim Hunt ( Available on Youtube since 2012.)

If you were inviting a featured speaker to a conference, mightn't you just have had a look at several hours of video of him, er, speaking to conferences and talking about his attitude to doing science?

Are we really to believe that UCL, and the RS, took decisions on the basis of the tweeting of 37 words?

Anonymous said...

Nope, sorry:


Thomas said...

Thanks, Anonymous. I've responded in an update at the top of the post.

Thomas said...

(I moved the update to the bottom.)