Friday, July 10, 2015

Some Thoughts on Sir Tim Hunt's Predicament, and Ours

I was on the edge of my seat all day yesterday, waiting for the decision of University College London's council in the Tim Hunt case. In the excitement I fired off a series of tweets, which, given the nature of such cases, one always does with the profound fear that one is going to get more attention than one bargained for. But the result has been good so far. My favourite bon mot is probably this one:

There are lots more where that came from, some probably less well-considered than others. (One I even decided to delete. Very rare for me.) Indeed, I was grateful to get a little push back from a blogger that goes by the name Wonklife Balance (which is a great name for a policy analyst interested in gender issues, by the way). Reading this post about the affair, I tweeted that I found it strange to see [what I take to be] the intended meaning of Sir Tim's remarks, which had been distorted throughout the incident, described as his saving grace. Not "his" saving grace, Wonklife Balance promptly corrected me, but "a saving grace of the incident", which I took to be inconsequential until I realized that Wonklife was keen not to give Sir Tim any credit whatsoever. I think that is really harsh, but there seems to be a mass of underlying anger out there, which underwrites such harshness. So instead of relying on Twitter, I penned a more detailed response, which I posted as a comment to Wonklife's blog.

Like I said on Twitter, I think you’re not giving Tim Hunt credit for actually stating the “open secret”. He was trying to do exactly the thing you are glad happened.

That is, it’s uncharitable of you to describe his intended meaning as “a saving grace of the incident”, when at this point it’s pretty clear that that meaning was distorted by his clumsy attempt at being humorous and the media’s complete lack of curiosity about what he might actually have meant. For example, you summarize his remarks as seriously arguing for sex-segregated labs, though this was obviously a “modest proposal” on his part.

You are construing the intended primary effect of (this small part of) his remarks, i.e., to be open about a particular difficulty that remains in the relations between men and women in the lab, as an unintended side-effect of what he said, mediated, I guess, by the noble work of the journalists who distorted his meaning (as “Victorian” and “misogynist”), and the administrators who turned it into an international incident by asking (his wife to ask) him to resign.

If you’re really interested in the difficulty of “combining work and family life”, I think you should approach Sir Tim’s remarks with greater interpretative charity, and in the spirit of reaching an understanding–in this case, across generations. After all, it seems plausible to think that when he was talking about “girls [in] the lab”, he was talking about how he in fact met his wife.

I’m all for engaging with his remarks, even to criticize him for what appears to be [a] somewhat sentimental attitude about women (not uncommon to men his age, and worthy of criticism when they express it). But to celebrate his ouster because his apology didn’t “cut it”, is simply not going to help us make progress on this issue.

It was also a tweet by Wonklife Balance that brought Janet Stemwedel's "counterfactual" analysis at Forbes to my attention. Obviously, it's true that Sir Tim could have done many things differently. But much of it would have been for his own good, not for the good of science, nor for the good of women in science. (Like Wonklife says, something very good came out of exactly what he did.) Strangely, however, with a few notable exceptions, Stemwedel traces all the agency (the what-someone-could-have-done-differently) in the situation back to Sir Tim.

It's tempting to point out that this gives the bulk of the agency in the situation to the man, but that would just be a playful jab from a mischievous fellow traveler to a rather earnest-sounding feminist. The real problem with this way of constructing the counterfactual is that, for the most part, as Stemwedel makes clear, what Sir Tim could have done differently at each stage is to have kept his mouth shut. Rather than asking his audience of women to consider a difficulty about (inexorably) mixed-gender labs that actually concerns him, he could have been less ambitious about his message, confining himself to saying something polite and possibly inspiring (because attempts by men to inspire women always go over pretty well, right?). He could have had "no comment" for the BBC. He could have declined to be interviewed sympathetically about his own distress by the Observer.

I was happy to see that Stemwedel put some of the blame at the doorstep of UCL, who, in my view, could certainly have not asked for his resignation (i.e., not "dis-honoured" a man they couldn't fire because they weren't paying him), and worked with him to give him an opportunity to moderate his remarks, while staunchly defending his right to make an ass of himself in public if he so desired. He doesn't seem to have any such desire, which is also apparently not noticed by his critics. But surely he has the right, right?

The idea that the journalists involved, however, could have worked a bit harder to ensure that this story had less personal ramifications for Sir Tim and deeper cultural implications for science doesn't really occur to Stemwedel. To my mind, this is a question of reporting. Connie St. Louis, who broke the story, in collaboration with Ivan Oransky and Deborah Blum, could have sought out Sir Tim for comment immediately, making it very clear how they were spinning to story.* They could have sought to corroborate their suspicion that he's a Victorian-style misogynist, contacting his past students and colleagues. If they had done so, they would have discovered (it now seems clear) that he's a nice and gentle man who does his best to make sure that women, no matter how endearing he sometimes finds them, are comfortable in his presence and gain access to the career paths they deserve. St. Louis could then have written up a nuanced piece and published it in a more stable medium.

The story would have been much more complicated, much more nuanced, and much more interesting. It could have been about the slow and necessary process by which well-meaning people change their often deeply ingrained attitudes about each other. Sir Tim's attitudes about women are probably grounded in his experiences of working in male dominated labs in 1970s (when he was in his thirties). Mine are grounded in working in a much more mixed-gender environment in the social sciences around the turn of the millennium, albeit one where 50ish males certainly dominated. My son, who is 11, will develop his mature attitudes about women in about twenty years, under very different conditions. I'm sure his views will be more progressive than mine, as mine are no doubt more progressive than Sir Tim's. [Our views are also constantly evolving, course. I'm not stuck in the year 2000, nor is Sir Tim stuck in 1975.] All three of us, however, have, and will always have, "trouble with girls". What was it Leonard Cohen said? "The doctors are working day and night, but they'll never ever find a cure for love."

I wish Sir Tim and his quinces all the best in his retirement. I think it is a travesty what they have done to him. And I don't think science will be any better because of it. But I do believe women will have an increasingly better experience in science anyway, and, like Sir Tim, I wish them all the best. We need our best minds working on the problems of science. About half of the best minds are those of women.
[*Update: Apparently Deborah Blum did talk to him afterwards, but only to assure herself that he meant what he said. A brief interview at that time would have been an excellent way to make this story less scandalous and more effective. It appears that the BBC thing blindsided him a bit, so I doubt Blum was very direct about how outrageous she thought his comments were. If she had, and done so as a journalist, I imagine he would have begun to walk the joke back already at that point.]


Sam Schwarzkopf said...

Last weekend I promised you a response on the blog as I am incapable of communicating properly on Twitter (and yet keep doing it - I must be a glutton for punishment...). Okay, so maybe I didn't "promise" but I said that I might. I could just go without but I wanted to honour my not-a-promise. Unfortunately, I have grown even more weary of this whole mess than I already was on Saturday so I will just say this:

While we obviously seem to disagree on key points, I do actually think your post is pretty sensible and balanced. I entirely agree with you that Stemwedel's What If article is a bit one-sided. I think one of the very few undeniable facts about this whole story is that clearly mistakes were made by a whole list of people. It started with Tim Hunt but it certainly didn't end there.

Blum, Oranski, and St Louis could have done a lot of things differently too. A lot of things could have been different. UCL probably made some mistakes (as they have in fact acknowledged) however one thing that has been annoying me is how everyone takes the "how Hunt was treated" account at face value. There has been so much media distortion in this case but somehow this infamous interview is accepted as gospel. The truth is we don't know how he was treated.

I disagree with Stemwedel's view of What If scenarios. They can make great fiction (What if the Roman Empire had never falled? What if Aliens had landed on Earth during WW2? What if all of our lives are an illusion?) but they don't really help us all that much. I prefer to think about What Now I hope that eventually all of this energy will be channelled into actually dealing with actual sexist barriers in science. Nothing is stopping Tim Hunt from contributing to this.

Thomas said...

Thanks for stopping by, Sam. I appreciate your kind reading of my remarks on this and I understand your weariness. I guess I'm sort of a fresh horse, so for me it's still more exciting than wearying. But, yes, it does seem to take some energy to keep one's thoughts straight in this mess.

I'm working on a post right now about what I think Blum, Oranski and St Louis should have done, their "What If?" if you will. But it's also a "What Now?" After all, I believe that Oranski should facilitate a formal retraction of St. Louis's ill-conceived tweet. To me, it was worse than Hunt's perhaps ill-considered remarks. And the important difference was that his remarks were improvised on his own at short notice (as was his statement to the BBC, as was his interview answer in 2014) and the tweet was the result of deliberation among three people who coordinated strategy and considered their options. Also, they were really not under any pressure to act. It was strange to me that they felt compelled to do something so quickly. As journalism (Blum called it "reporting") it left much to be desired.

I don't think I agree with you that we don't know how Hunt was treated. Although there are probably details that are hidden, and may remain hidden, it seems implausible that his decision to resign was his own idea, one that just popped into his head after giving the BBC interview. I believe him and his wife when they say the suggestion came from above, and if I were him I would have felt deeply betrayed at that point. Mistreated.

Also, I don't think "nothing is stopping Tim Hunt from contributing" to the fight against sexist barriers. Certainly, whatever opportunities he still has to help address these concerns are the result of the tireless efforts of his defenders, i.e., people like Louise Mensch, who have made sure that all the facts are coming to light. If his "sacking" had caused no controversy, then Sir Tim would effectively have been shown the door, and all men who might previously have considered speaking frankly about gender discrimination would be on notice.

Think about it: if you were Tim Hunt and were asked to speak at an event for "the advancement of women in science" in the future, or if you asked by a "science journalist" about gender issues, would you speak frankly and freely now? I wouldn't. He's been badly burned, both by gender activists and science journalists here. And he really does owe us any more of his life. He said as much at the end of the interview. Quinces will forever be my symbol for this sad tale.

Anyway, thanks for taking to the longer, kinder form. Like I say, that's where this discussion belongs. Not in incendiary tweets and polemical rants.

Sam Schwarzkopf said...

See this is the part that I just don't think we can know. There are so many little human factors that could lead to this point that did not involve deliberate mistreatment. When they tried to get hold of him, he was in the air somewhere between Incheon and Heathrow. Is it not imaginable, in fact, more plausible that Mary Collins might have got the wrong end of the stick there? Perhaps, just perhaps, she wasn't told "He must resign or be sacked" but "If these allegations are true it would be better if he resigned as it will end up with him being sacked". Subtle but nonetheless substantial difference.

Whatever was said in that phone conversation, both UCL *and* Prof Collins confirmed that he "duly emailed his resignation" as soon as he got back before anyone could actually talk to him in person. As far as I am concerned we don't, and can't with the public information, know that the knee jerk reaction of his resignation wasn't his own. If you ask me, this is more plausible than any of the conspiracy theories about these evil institutions.

It is also possible that perhaps some stern words *were* said, but he nonetheless wasn't forced to resign. He *could* have contacted them trying to clarify but instead chose not to. Or perhaps he *did* but he only continued to dig an even deeper hole for himself than he already did in his meetings with Blum and the BBC interview. Perhaps these communications were sufficient for the UCL Council to unanimously decide that the UCL Excutive acted correctly.

I am not saying that this is what happened. I don't know. The point is, neither does anyone else who has been talking about this.

Anyway, I agree with you that most of the journalism about this was a disgrace. I will read your What If What Now when it's done.

Thomas said...

I think if Hunt really had resigned on his own entirely free will he would have said so. And if UCL really didn't want him to resign they would have declined to accept the resignation, at least in the first round. Plausibility is always tricky. It all about our presumptions about what kind of world we live in and what people are like. It's not surprising we would differ.

Thanks for the encouragement. The post is coming along nicely, but I'm going to sleep on it and finish it up in the morning.

Sam Schwarzkopf said...

Oh but that's not what I'm saying. I didn't mean that it was all out of his own free decision (even though this is what Paul Nurse now has us believe happened with the Royal Society while at the same time not giving the benefit of the doubt to UCL - as if these two things were unrelated). I'm just saying that he probably knee-jerked into his resignation instead of taking a step back and trying to calmly discuss the situation with UCL after his return.

Debbie Kennett said...

I agree with Sam that we can't speculate on what went on between Hunt, Collins, the Dean and the Provost. The e-mail exchanges have not been published, and we are not privy to the content of the telephone conversations. UCL did partly dispute the claims made by Collins. The UCL Council did review all the correspondence and reached a unanimous decision.

I fully agree with you about the actions of Blum, St Louis and Oransky. It is significant that they were all sitting together. Blum and St Louis both have a special interest in sexism in science, so it's easy to imagine that they seized on perceived sexist comments, and were so excited by their "catch" that they didn't listen properly to the succeeding words. It's a classic case of confirmation bias.

I do not understand the logic of outing sexist comments in public on Twitter. The comments were made to a room full of journalists and not practising scientists. Surely it would be better not to expose female scientists to such sexist comments if they are judged to be so harmful?

It's noticeable that Hunt is so far the only person who has made any sort of apology in this affair. If offence is caused it is only courteous for everyone involved to apologise, and especially so in a case like this where there have been so many misunderstandings. I am sure that Blum, St Louis and Oransky were acting in good faith and with the best of intentions but I think it would help if they could at least make some sort of public acknowledgement that there are alternative interpretations of what Hunt said and that perhaps they acted with undue haste, especially in view of the fact that on some points they all contradict each other. I believe St Louis in particular owes Hunt an apology for attributing comments to him about the women making the lunch. We now know that this claim is wrong, and in any case Hunt contradicts her on the Today programme. We don't know what was said the next day between Blum and Hunt, and it's easy to imagine that Hunt misunderstood what he was being asked. As journalists I do think Blum, St Louis and Oransky had an ethical responsibility to get their facts right before going public. Blum's interview with Hunt should have been on the record and she should have made a recording. Their failure to apologise has only served to fuel the feelings of injustice.

Ultimately mistakes were made all round, but the situation was compounded by the shoddy journalism, and the failure to check facts or get the views of other eye witnesses.

Sam Schwarzkopf said...

I don't think words are toxic on their own. I believe Hunt's comments are harmful if left unchallenged, even the apparent full-length joke version (which is something a lot of his vocal defenders don't seem to get - just look at the list of comments underneath Stemwedel's article that all quote the so-called transcript).

Just the other day the BBC reported on a scientific study and quoted the female scientist involved in the research by just her name while calling her two male collaborators Dr. This may seem like a little thing in isolation but it is symptomatic of continued biases that we must deal with.

Hunt's comments, however jovial and self-deprecating one may think they were, fit right into that attitude. Calling woman scientists with PhD girls is disrespectful and implying they can't take criticism and cause emotional entanglement (which he is on record of repeating) is beyond the pale in my opinion. None only is it untrue (just yesterday someone told me their experience of criticising men vs women is actually the opposite - personally, I just hate to generalise!) but it is also pretty unprofessional to make the statement that having to work with women equates having lots of emotional entanglements.

This was really my main point of the comments I made to you on twitter. Emotional entanglements are part of human nature and we have to deal with them in all walks of life. They are not specific to working in science labs. Most people are actually professional enough to cope with that. To imply that doing science with "girls" is hard because you can't keep it in your pants, they swoon in your presence, and you can't talk to them like you would with a man just doesn't reek of great professionalism to me and I had hoped that we had left this sort of thinking behind decades ago (I should again point out that Star Trek episode we were watching the other night whose premise it was that women can't be in command because they are too emotional... That was only from the late 60s!).

I respect UCL's decision that his comments were not befitting of the role he was supposed to play. I, too, am saddened how this all played out though. As I described above, I think the "way he was treated" was probably largely his own fault because he and Prof Collins either misunderstood what was said to her on the phone or perhaps it was as explicit as they claim but they too meekly surrendered to that judgement instead of talking about it personally. If this is true (and I obviously don't know that - I just think it's more plausible than the alternatives) I don't blame them for this reaction. You can be pretty shocked in this situation. On the whole I think if everyone had reacted more calmly then this could have been much more amicable - perhaps he would have never resigned and just simply apologised properly (as he in fact did in the letter to that Korean society). Or perhaps he would have been under more amicable circumstances. We don't know - it's a What If scenario and as I said that's pretty irrelevant now.

I agree with Debbie that some sort of apology from Oransky, St Louis, and Blum wouldn't hurt matters. The way the story broke wasn't great by any standard. I think they have all (at least Blum and St Louis) come out to say that they regret the distress it caused him and that they never called for his resignation. But that isn't really enough to heal any wounds. If they made some acknowledgement that they perhaps made some mistakes and could have handled this whole mess with more tact that could go a long way (although I doubt it would satisfy the rabid trolls that have now been enlisted in the army of the pro-Hunt cause :/). In the end, making an apology rarely ever hurts - even if you think to be in the right.

Anyway thanks for this discussion and sorry for being so verbose... :P

Thomas said...

Thanks for your comments, Debbie and Sam. I'm definitely gunning for a post at Retraction Watch where St Louis's tweet is formally retracted as poorly researched. If that happened, I can't see how an apology from UCL wouldn't also be forthcoming, as well as an offer of reinstatement, which he would be free to decline. But we probably differ a bit on the details there. Once again, thanks to you both.

Debbie Kennett said...

Sam, My understanding was that he was talking about his personal experiences and not talking about women in general. I personally think it's helpful when people are honest about the problems that they've had because that helps us to understand the problems and address them. The usual complaint is that men don't speak about their emotions but look what happens when they do! However, I also agree that what he said was inappropriate and we know that many in the room were offended. Hunt's only mistake was making his apology via the BBC. He should have taken time to come out with a properly worded statement. I think we also need to distinguish between sexist statements and sexist behaviour. The two don't always go hand in hand. Someone can still follow all the rules but behave appallingly in private.

Age is an issue that has been overlooked in this affair. I find it odd that we now have such little tolerance for sexist comments but people are making disrespectful generalisations about old people (old dinosaur, etc) without any reprimand whatsoever. If you're 72 you're going to think of any young female as a girl and you might use the word without intending to cause any offence. As well as dealing with gender biases we also need to deal with age biases. Younger people need to respect the fact that the older generation were brought up with different values and see the world in a different way. There are lessons to be learned on both sides. As people get older they also become more set in their ways.

I agree that there are many biases that need to be addressed but I haven't yet seen much in the way of a constructive debate about how to do this. It's very easy to make a casual comment that causes offence but how do we deal with such situations and ensure that someone doesn't make the same mistake again? The response in this case was disproportionate to the offence.

We seem to have a very unforgiving society. Everyone makes mistakes but you learn from your mistakes, and we need to learn to forgive people for their mistakes. The public censuring has not helped. Should we not at least give everyone a second chance?

Public speaking is difficult at the best of times. It's something I had to learn to do. I was always afraid of public speaking and thought it was something I would never be able to do. No one gives you any training or tells you what the rules are about what you can and can't say. It would certainly help if universities could give all students training and advice on making presentations. Media training would be very helpful for anyone who has to give interviews or deal with the press.

I would really like to move the debate forwards so that we can discuss practical methods of helping people get along with each other.

Thomas, Thank you for all your efforts. I would very much much like to see a post at Retraction Watch retracting the lunch statement, the "I favour single sex labs" quote, and the deathly silence.

Thomas said...

"The usual complaint is that men don't speak about their emotions but look what happens when they do!"

Very well said! Thanks for your support, Debbie. I wouldn't do this if I wasn't hopeful.

Sam Schwarzkopf said...

Debbie, I still think that it is inappropriate and offensive, even if talking from his own experience (which I entirely agree seems to have been his intention). I agree with you that the derogatory language and stereotyping about white old men isn't helping. But I think we should also keep in mind that there are countless white old men scientists who wouldn't think in their craziest dreams to make comments like Hunt's.

It's true he shouldn't have apologised on the phone with the BBC. I think he should've just stayed quiet until he got home and then have a rational, in-person chat with the Provost (and his wife!) before saying anything in public. But that's not what happened. I feel for him but in my mind it is at least partly his own fault.

His letter of apology to that Korean organisation is pretty spot on for what he should have said and I think it deserves getting more attention. There are still people claiming "he didn't apologise".

There is now a new twist I heard about today as there are now claims that he actually spoke to people before his lunch speech and they advised him not to talk about the trouble with girls yet he did it anyway. If this is true that doesn't make him look wiser by any stretch. Then again, I find it odd that this is only coming out now.

Regarding Oransky/Blum/St Louis retracting any statements: I don't think it's as simple as that. As I tried to lay out in my blog posts about all this I think this isn't about lies and inaccuracies. I think they may very well have felt that there was an awkward silence. They may even honestly believe he advocated single-sex labs (which I personally find highly implausible). I believe these things are very much in the eyes of the beholder and filtered through memory. If you ask me, they should acknowledge that (as should the vocal pro-Hunt folks).

Rather than 'retracting' it would help reach some compromise which actually would help people get along with each other, as you say.

Thomas said...

"I find it odd that this is only coming out now," says Sam. This is a general problem with St Louis et al.'s chosen manner of "breaking" the story. It also goes for KOFWST's demand for an apology. Details like this should have been part of the original reporting, along with Hunt's acknowledgement of the accuracy of the quote, his assurances about not meaning anything offensive, etc. The reaction of the hosts, and pre-talk deliberations by Hunt about what to say all contribute to our understanding. As I also like to point out, there was no rush to get this incident out to the larger public. It's not like some great injustice was continuing to be perpetrated. They had plenty of time to get the story right, and to get comments for the relevant people, before causing a great scandal and arguably ruining the last few years of a perfectly good scientist's very productive career.

Debbie Kennett said...


With regards to the joke, all we can say is that opinions differ. Some people have found it offensive and others haven't. I'd be interested to know why this is the case. I rather wonder if there is an age divide. I suspect that the younger generation have been taught at school about sexism, whereas earlier generations haven't. Also, the public sector seems to be much more concerned with diversity issues than the private sector. I was certainly not previously aware of the strength of feeling about what are perceived as sexist jokes. As an ambassador for science Hunt does have a position of responsibility and should have known better but perhaps he's just a product of his age and upbringing and we should make allowances for that. I wonder if he's ever had any diversity training. I've certainly not received any. If you don't know the rules then you can't obey them.

I'd also heard about the claims that Hunt spoke to people before the lunch. However, again, we only have Blum's side of the story and, given all the misunderstandings, I'm not sure how much credence we can give to this. Perhaps Hunt didn't understand Blum's response or thought she was being ironic. I agree it's odd that this wasn't mentioned before. I also agree with Thomas that Blum should have declared her involvement as a member of the organising committee when writing her article.

I think it's wrong to accuse people of being liars. It's quite possible for people to remember events in different ways. Also memories can become exaggerated over time. What is worrying, however, is that the accounts of Blum, St Louis and Oransky do not agree with each other. For example, St Louis claims there was a deathly silence whereas Oransky acknowledged in his interview that there was polite laughter and applause. St Louis says they all kept written notes, whereas Oransky says there was nothing written down. Given that Blum and St Louis hold professional positions of responsibility and are teaching journalism students I would expect them to set an example with their own high standards of journalism and reporting. You would have thought that they could at least have verified their accounts with each other. I do think this raises quite serious ethical issues. Making accusations about living people is always very sensitive. Hunt would probably have a very good defamation case against them because of the unproven allegations about chauvinism/sexism.

I would like a compromise. I don't think it helps demanding people's heads. Everyone should be given a first chance and allowed to learn from their mistakes. However, in order to move forwards we need the other players to take responsibility for the role they've played and to offer some sort of apology even if it's not a complete retraction. The sense of injustice won't go away until this has been done.

Thomas said...

Hi Debbie,

I think it's important to note that opinions differ about both the jokes offensiveness and its interpretation. That is, people, like me, who find it un-offensive retell it differently from people who find it offensive. Both versions contain more or less (and sometimes exactly) the same words. But "the joke" and, especially, who the joke is on, is the point of contention. So it's not just a matter of the listener's sensibilities, it's a question of how the joke was understood. Given the looseness of the performance (everyone agrees that these were very informal, unscripted and unrehearsed remarks, whatever "thoughts", and even input, he may have had before getting up to speak) I'm sure there's was range of interpretations, opinions and resulting degrees of outrage already in the room that day. Interestingly, I think those differences were much more nuanced, much less polarized, than the positions that we've been forced to form on the basis of St Louis et al.'s highly tendencious "reporting".

Sam Schwarzkopf said...

Okay one last time because Debbie directly addressed me. After that I don't think I have any more that I can say that I didn't already say.

I personally do not think these points matter. It's not about whether the joke was offensive or not (and it seems pretty obvious to me that it was a joke). Clearly opinions differ on that. That will always be the case when somebody is telling a joke. But whether or not it is appropriate to tell a joke can differ wildly based on the context and the audience. I think there would have been situations in which Hunt's comments were tolerable but in my mind that event wasn't one of them. At a conference I regularly attend there is this contest show which is always hosted by one of two elderly gentlemen who regularly tell offensive jokes. People often get offended too but the context is definitely different. There is a right time and place for this.

Again, as opposed to what Thomas is saying, I actually interpreted his joke in much the same way you both seem to (although I accept that it sounds like a lot of people didn't). He meant to be self-deprecating and probably wanted to use this as a comic relief before making a more serious point. I also don't for a second believe he seriously advocated gender segregation. It's just not plausible in my book. However, none of this changes the fact that his comments were still offensive to many people. If I tell a racist joke, it will still be offensive, especially if I do it in front of an audience that is offended by it. It isn't really relevant whether or not I am actually a racist.

You can't just downplay it all as a joke as not being offensive because you don't find it so. If a significant proportion of people find it offensive, then that is bad enough.

I am totally with you on that we can make some allowance for people of previous generations. But then again, as I already pointed out there are plenty of people from this generation who don't get into this sort of trouble. I am not sure if diversity training helps. My personal hunch is that it is a massive waste of time but not sure. Somewhat ironically perhaps I recall David Colquouhn mentioning recently some research showing that diversity training doesn't really change people's behaviour. I can entirely tolerate a misstep. All that would've been required after Tim Hunt made those comments would have been for him to apologise sensibly and make amends in some meaningful way. I believe that would've eased a lot of tempers.

-to be continued-

Sam Schwarzkopf said...

But that is not what he did. Instead he continued to dig deeper holes. I still think he probably panicked a bit and decided quickly resign instead of trying to rectify the situation. Then that infernal Observer piece continued to make it all about him and his hurt feelings. I don't think all of this was his fault. The fact he remained so quiet since then makes me think that he was not very happy about this article and how this situation continued to spiral out of control.

Finally, I do agree that St Louis, Blum and Oransky played a part in this and that wasn't all very professional. The original tweet by St Louis wasn't journalism - at best it was tabloid journalism. I entirely agree they could have been more tactful and more compassionate and they could have defused this situation a lot more. Certainly they could have been more transparent and professional by recording the breakfast conversation etc. And I agree that Blum and Oransky being on the committee of that conference seems like information that they should have shared (it doesn't mean they had anything to do with the scheduling etc but I agree they should've mentioned it regardless). So I actually agree there is plenty of blame to go around here.

However, this still doesn't make them evil liars hell-bent to ruin a good man's reputation. I honestly find those discrepancies in their accounts to be as damning as you seem to. I already discussed that in great depth on my blog. It's in the eyes (and memory) of the beholder. It is entirely possible St Louis remembers this as a deathly silence while others accept that there may have been awkward, polite applause. Those two things are not mutually exclusive. In the same vein, someone else, who might have felt that the joke was funny, might remember it as warm applause. There is no such thing as an official record of people's emotional response to the speech.

The same applies to the claim that they all took notes (Who the hell takes notes at an informal lunch by the way? Maybe it's a journalism thing and I rarely take notes even at official talks so what do I know...). So what if St Louis thought they all took notes? I've heard of much greater discrepancies in people's accounts than this. That doesn't make those people liars. It just means that her confidence in her recollection of the situation is misplaced.

In summary, I think this whole affair is one giant mess. I am really weary of people arguing about who said what to whom. I have tried my best to argue that this is hardly relevant at this stage. What this really all shows is the fallibility of human perception and memory. Moreover it illustrates perfectly the discrepancy between the strength and purity of people's convictions and the actual truth of a situation. In my honest opinion, I think there were lots of knee-jerk reactions that happened for all sorts of factors, including but not limited to the unprofessional initial reporting, and after that people became polarised into two camps that now just don't even want to try to see things from the other perspective. I think some people don't want to admit to themselves that they might have overreacted somewhat about his comments. On the other hand, there are legions smelling some conspiracy by evil PC terrorists when in truth this was all mainly a series of unfortunate circumstances and some of the blame does in fact fall on Hunt himself.

Either way, it's not getting us anywhere. Calling for resignations or retractions or even apologies is not going to help anyone at this stage of the game. I'm done now. I hope there still is a joint statement in the vain hope that it might actually clear up things a bit - but I doubt that it would.

Thomas said...

Thanks for your thoughts, Sam. With all the things you agree with Debbie and I about, I'm surprised that you don't draw the conclusion that St Louis should retract (with support from Blum and Oransky).

On your view of things, Tim Hunt did not cause this mess, even if you're right that he probably shouldn't have said what he did. (I remain unconvinced about that. But I also believe that St Louis and Blum have been disingenuous about their motives and actions--their agenda and their power, if you will--though I recognise that more evidence is needed to make that claim stick properly. Anyway ...) If Tim Hunt did not cause the mess, but merely provided an occasion for others to make a mess of, then he's not to blame for it, and he should be re-honoured. The right way to do this, I think, is to offer him his honorary position back and let him reject it if he chooses. (He can decide how polite he wants to be about that, in my opinion.)

As to whether it's time to drop it and move on, for me the problem has become "academic", if you will. It's given me so many ideas and so many ways of discussing ideas I've had for a long time but not known how to express that you can expect a few more posts in the days to come. It's not really about saving Tim Hunt for me, but about saving science. Science needs him more than he needs science.

Debbie Kennett said...

Sam, I mostly agree with you. My main beef with this whole affair is the way that it's all been played out in public. Yes Hunt's joke was inappropriate for the audience but the reaction to that joke, ie tweeting the comments on Twitter, was also inappropriate. Hunt should have been reprimanded quietly by the organisers. If they felt it was a serious matter they should have contacted UCL, the Royal Society and the ERC in private. Whatever one's crime or misdemeanour it is unfair to be subjected to trial by social media. There are reporting restrictions in criminal cases for good reasons. Blum, St Louis and Oransky could not have known the effect that their actions would have, but when it comes to reporting sensitive stories about living people they do have a duty to get their facts right, and especially so because of their positions of responsibility.

I agree that calling people liars and claiming that there have been conspiracy theories is unhelpful.

Journalistic standards are the bigger issue to me in this whole affair. I've spent a lot of time in the last couple of years trying to debunk pseudoscientific stories that have appeared in the press. I've seen it happen so many times where newspapers uncritically report a story based on a press release they've received without making any attempt to check the facts or even get comments from other experts in the field to check the credibility of the "research". I see many parallels with the Hunt affair with journalists accepting what they are told at face value. It is somewhat ironic that events at a conference of science journalists have been responsible for such shoddy journalism.

Sam Schwarzkopf said...

Okay, definitely my last reply in this thread. I just want to say I completely agree with you that it was wrong how this all played out (and continues to play out) over social media. This is really disturbing me not just in the context of this case but in general. (You may have seen I have often tried to be contrarian in such situations, for example, in the backlash against Jason Mitchell's - admittedly misguided - article on replication studies).

Social media can be fantastic resource - but the mentality and dynamics with which they work whenever there is a scandal of any sort is deeply frightening and positively medieval. I hope that as a society we will find a way to actually address this problem because I think it is quite serious.

Thomas said...

I agree with Sam. In addition to perhaps better educating the denizens of the Internet toward more civilized behavior, I think the universities could address the problem by reasserting themselves as sanctuaries ("walled gardens", i.e., academies) for free thought and disciplined discourse.

Debbie Kennett said...

While we need to respect freedom of academic debate we also need to encourage people to debate in a civil manner. I have been appalled at the abuse that has been thrown around. It is quite possible to attack an idea without attacking the person. I'm not generally in favour of censorship or moderation but I think there probably should be better controls on Twitter so that it is easier to report abusive behaviour. There is also a need for measures to control the bot and duplicate accounts. We also need to understand why people behave in this way.

Thomas said...

Again, if we're talking about this specific debacle, I think the blame can be placed squarely on the journalists who "broke" the story in a forum (Twitter) and in manner (a highly tendentious tweet) that predictably provoked the extremists on either side. They also failed to make sure that the details would hold up under scrutiny, which meant that the whole thing was able to freely degenerate into speculations of what was really said and meant. They failed to prepare their target properly so that he could muster a composed and orderly response, affording a calm and rational discussion. (Leave aside their incomprehensible conflict of interest as his hosts.) The problem, in this case, was not with the mechanics or policies of Twitter but with the choice and use of Twitter to launch the story. It was irresponsible journalism or stupid activism. I'm not yet sure which.

John Cartmell said...

Perhaps you might accept a more extreme view than any of you have so far preferred. Looking at what now appears to have been the case I see nothing that Tim Hunt said that might reasonably be criticised. In an off-the-cuff speech he referred 'honestly' to his own experience, put himself forward as an example of the out of date model (though one that had clearly managed to shake off the out of date attitudes), and put in what can best be described as a prayer for the success of women in science. It would surely be impossible to better that statement.

Of course we have the problem that people were 'offended'. It seems though that the act of being offended was facilitated by a prejudiced attitude, a failure to listen, bad professionalism, and a willingness to lie and embroider in order to 'gain a scalp' without consideration of the individual involved.

It is not the responsibility of any of us to ensure that no offence is given under such circumstances. We should reasonably be prepared to avoid offence and to apologise where offence is inadvertently given. Expecting more is in itself offensive.

There is a simple test: does the person both speak and act in the same offensive manner? If not then the assumption has to be that there is a breakdown in communication - and the responsibility lies with the offended to show that they are hurt and accept an apology. It's clear that Tim Hunt was not being offensive and that he would (did) offer a full apology where offence was claimed even without that intent. There was NO story.

On the other hand it is the responsibility of a journalist to get a story straight even where the language is unclear. It is their professional responsibility to clarify ambiguities or improbabilities - in this case the improbability of a sexist male scientist being invited to a conference promoting women scientists. That professional responsibility is magnified by those same individuals being the effective hosts of the conference (and Tim Hunt) and having responsibilities to do exactly the opposite of what they did. They were responsible for the care of their speaker and the reputation of the conference itself. Some have suggested that the whole thing was a pre-planned trap. I see no evidence for this and prefer Debbie's suggestion that minds prepared for sexist remarks simply filled in the blanks formed by their own inattention. But when I see no evidence for conspiracy that 'no evidence' is no stronger than the 'no evidence' that I see for any criticism of Tim Hunt.

Apologies are sorely lacking.

Thomas said...

Your point is well taken. I also now think the "extreme" view you're taking, namely, that there was nothing wrong with Tim Hunt's remarks that miscommunication couldn't account for is the only reasonable one. Certainly the original account that construed them as offensive was wrong in so many ways as to lack all credibility at this point. When I was writing this post I knew a lot less about what TIm Hunt had said than how it was covered and what it led to.

Since writing this post I've reflected in greater detail on this question by comparing what we might call Tim Hun'ts alleged carelessness with his words with Connie St Louis's demonstrable carelessness with his words.