Monday, August 03, 2015

The Social Construction of a Science Factoid

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.]


Bishop Hill said...

I would say that the climate/national security link is barely more sound than the alleged sexism of Tim Hunt. Indeed, I was interested to see some of the same people supporting both conjectures.

TLITB said...

Interesting, I never knew that origin and description of "factoid".

I think most of us know that the best parts of the practice of science i.e. the rigours of the scientific method and a reputation for self-correction - may not always rub off onto science journalism itself, but what I think is really startling to learn from the Tim Hunt case, is how actually functionally mediocre a large part of the science journalism community is. They really don't seem to have the ability to spot a story or how to gather their own real original information in the way any lowly hungry tabloid journalist, eager to make a name, would be able to do.

I think this demonstrates a real moribund nature of the crowd. I suspect being able to regurgitate a press release while barely understanding it, and at the same time puffing yourself as a "science" journalist based on a half forgotten poly degree is quite an attractive proposition that leads many to become quite lazy and detached from reality ;)

Anonymous said...

Now I listen to the Today programme with a keen ear.
The strange non sequitur, repeated phrases, "experts" in the studio, people answering questions that we don't hear ...

I don't trust them any more.

Bring back Media Studies.

Thomas said...

@Bishop Hill: Yes, not only is the "national security" angle ridiculous, it's demagoguery at its worst. Not believing something now makes you a military problem? I guess Plait is looking for a "weaponized" kind of science writing. I'm sure that's where the big money is!

@TLITB: Yes, the incompetence here is perhaps more worrying than the malevolence.

@Anonymous: Careful now. Not trust the BBC? That way madness lies. Love this: "The strange non sequitur, repeated phrases, 'experts' in the studio, people answering questions that we don't hear .." That's exactly it.

TLITB said...

I have to say this - after just now looking on Connie St Louis site - I found a piece she wrote a few years ago that I totally concur with as it eerily exactly covers the thoughts I was trying to express above about regarding "science PR and communications masquerading as journalism" and how being comfortably in a speciality journalistic niche makes for weaknesses she gives good examples IMO:

"The [UK MPs scandal] story was not exposed by the political ‘lobby’ journalists as it should have been, because they allowed their cosy relationships with the MPs to cloud their judgement and fail to expose the biggest political story in most recent years.

The recent ‘Climate Gate’ leaked emails story and the recent errors by the UN Climate Change Panel are in part examples of the failure of science journalism to thoroughly investigate these stories. Is it too busy trying to promote the science of climate change rather that scrutinise and rigorously question it?"

Thomas said...

I agree with this. In an earlier post on this subject, I said that three people who originated this story behaved more like Hunter S. Thompson on the campaign trail than professional journalists. In his introduction to Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, he cited precisely the cosy relationship (I think he calls a "clubby" one) between journalists and politicians, when explaining his policy of "no such thing as off the record". He didn't want to know more than he could print. He didn't hold anything back in order to maintain a source of information.

It's an approach that I'm of course ambivalent about. Like lots of people, I enjoy the hell out of reading Thompson, and sometimes I think we need a little "gonzo" in science journalism. But Thompson did also make up a story about Edmund Muskie being hooked on ibogaine out of whole cloth. It's that kind of excess we're dealing with here. Also, Connie St Louis is no Hunter S. Thompson.

Jonathan said...

Instead of saying that science journalism has different functions: it can explain science to people, it can help them sort through scientific findings, it can contextualize science in myriad ways, etc... she wants to say that science journalism has only one function: exposing misbehavior by scientists. Everything else she dismisses as science publicity. She cannot even write clearly herself, and hence it took me a whole lot of time just to figure out that that was her point. I do not concur with that point at all, because it leads to a "gotcha" mentality. If you are covering science stories and doing so with an open mind, some stories will expose bad behavior and some will not.

Thomas said...

I'm grateful for the reminder, Jonathan. There must be good science writing out there, too. I should walk back my blanket condemnation of the profession sometime.

TLITB said...

"...Connie St Louis is no Hunter S. Thompson" I've not read any HST but I'm sure you're right I'm going to check him out :)

On second thoughts I think my approval of that CSL article merely stemmed from the fact I was struck by how it resonated with my current jaded opinion of science reporting but what Jonathan said prompted me to think further. He's absolutely right she does seem to really only have a "gotcha" mentality. That took me back to the strange story she tells in a video in your earlier post "This Is Science Writing?" where she makes a point about hectoring Craig Ventner into admitting "some financial misconduct", she seems triumphant about that and then goes on to make scathing comments that nobody else in the room followed it up, only making "de da de da let me show off my knowledge to Craig Ventner" type comments. But there's no evidence she actually uncovered anything other than he admitted someone stole some paper clips just to try and please her!

I'm coming round to thinking that she just has some sort of chip on her shoulder about science which is quite a strange situation for a science reporter!

Thomas said...

I totally agree with your Ventner analysis. That was my reaction too. She probably tweet the "someone stole some paper clips" story, framing it as grand larceny, of course.

It does sound like she's part of what Harold Bloom calls "the school of resentment", and a pretty unsophisticated variant.

I think I'm going to expound a little at some point on the difference between "gotcha" and "gonzo".

Unknown said...

I would really rather not keep posting about this, but it really bugs me how inaccurately people are quoting Tim Hunt. So I broke it down for them in The anatomy of a joke.