Monday, September 07, 2015

The Highest Standards of British Science Writing

(This is a long post. Some may want to start with part 2, which is where the "news" is: the Association of British Science Writers continues to stand by Connie St Louis' Tim Hunt reporting, even in the light of subsequent developments. The first part is mainly background.)


During the summer break, I had a brief email exchange with Martin Ince, the president of the Association of British Science Writers, about Connie St Louis' journalism in the Tim Hunt case. ABSW had previously come out in "full support" of St Louis, who serves on its board, in the face of criticism of her cv by the Daily Mail that followed her coverage of Tim Hunt's allegedly sexist remarks in Seoul in June. In its statement, ABSW described the Mail's criticisms as part of "a media furore directed at Connie for the everyday act of reporting a news story". The board stood by her "as an organisation of science writers which fosters excellence in journalism" and vowed to stand by any of its members who face similar "personal attacks" in the future.

The critique of St Louis' credentials, of course, has become part of a much more comprehensive unravelling of the story that she broke in early June. It now appears that she's not quite the science journalist (nor, in fact, the "scientist") that she has previously claimed to be, just as it seems very clear that Tim Hunt is not the sexist that she originally made him out to be. In the early days of this story, many of us were trying to figure out who to believe, and the "ad hominem" argument, i.e., the question of who has greater credibility, has become a natural part of the process.

My view, as I've said on Twitter, is that Connie St Louis is no longer a credible journalist, just as Tim Hunt is no longer a credible sexist. By and large, those two judgments go together. Given Connie St Louis' claims (and the absence of any kind of correction or retraction on her part) I can't adjust my opinion of Tim Hunt without adjusting my opinion of Connie St Louis, and vice versa. The sort of credibility we're talking about here is precisely the kind that David Kroll gained in spades when he publicly apologised for running with St Louis' story without checking the facts first. It's impossible, at this stage, to have respect for both St Louis' journalism and Hunt's feminism. One has to choose.

I didn't create that situation, nor did Tim Hunt. It was Connie St Louis who contrived to tell a story that is now entirely her word (and that of, on my count, three deeply implicated "eyewitnesses") against Hunt's (supported by eyewitnesses, photographs, an audio recording, a leaked official report, and common sense, at least.) Moreover, while everything depends on whether we believe Connie St Louis, almost nothing depends on whether we believe Tim Hunt. Unlike, St Louis he hasn't made any strong statements about what happened; he has merely acknowledged that his words may have been misunderstood. And he has a great many very credible character witnesses behind him. (I don't think even one person has come forward to accuse Hunt directly of inappropriate behaviour.) Indeed, I'm inclined to discount a good portion of Hunt's early "confession" as largely coerced. It's not a question of whether Hunt's defence is convincing at this stage, but of whether St Louis' allegation is even plausible.

As I've been saying for some time now, my conclusion is that, whatever Hunt may have said or meant, the coverage of his remarks was extremely shoddy. If there was a story about "sexism in science" somewhere in what he said, St Louis botched the telling of it terribly. If this was indeed an important occasion for feminism, she did not rise to it.

That's why, for some time now, a good part of my curiosity has been directed at how the science writing community responds to what is happening. This is similar to the shift of focus that took place in Rolling Stone's UVA rape story, where it became increasingly important to arrive at a judgment about the quality of the journalism, rather than continuing to use it as an occasion to talk about the campus rape problem or the appropriateness of the university's response. The question, for a time, became whether the original story had gotten the facts even remotely right. As in that case, I still think Tim Hunt's university acted rashly. I.e., I'm not letting UCL off the hook for accepting Tim Hunt's resignation. But this post is about the journalism alone.

The focus of my query to ABSW was what I saw as the undisclosed conflict of interest that was implicit in Connie St Louis' role on the executive board of the World Federation of Science Journalists, which hosted the World Conference of Science Journalism. (The WCSJ is the semi-annual conference of the WFSJ, which is traditionally organised by a national member organisation that bids for and wins the honor of doing so.) When St Louis said that Hunt's "hosts" were much offended, she should have included herself under that label. That is, she should have taken part of the responsibility for her guest's behaviour and, in my opinion, should have taken steps to mitigate any possible damage his words might have done rather than to compound it by amplifying his remarks. At the very least, she owed her readers full disclosure of her role at the conference.


My exchange with Martin Ince culminated in a statement from the executive board of the Association of British Science Writers that runs as follows:

[W]e do not think that this situation constitutes a journalistic ‘conflict of interest’, in that Connie St Louis’s position as a Board member of the World Federation did not directly influence her reporting of the story. The question to ask is, if her position was stated explicitly in her first tweet whether it would have changed the story, or individuals understanding or response to the story – in our view it would not.

There are a number of points we would like to make to expand on our view. First, Connie has never intentionally tried to hide the fact that she is a Board member of the World Federation of Science Journalists. Second, the World Federation Board is not the organiser of the Conference. Those responsible for choice of sessions/events/speakers were the Korean Science Journalists’ Association who won the bid to organise the event. The Conference website shows the organisational structure quite clearly, the World Federation is considered a ‘host’. Third, we would consider it inappropriate at a journalism conference to ‘gag’ members of the Federation Board or those more directly responsible for choosing speakers. As journalists they should be free to report on the event as they see it, whether that be critical or not. When the ABSW organised the World Conference of Science Journalists in London we demanded no restrictions on reporting by any of those involved, all of whom were free to debate issues at the event and report on them in whatever way they felt appropriate. Finally it is important to note that Tim Hunt has not disputed the quotes that have been attributed to him by Connie St Louis.

Perhaps not surprisingly, I disagree with ABSW. I do believe St Louis had a conflict of interest, and one that should have been disclosed. And I certainly would have been differently receptive to her initial comment if the story had been "Member of WFSJ executive board and two members of WCSJ program committee denounce sexist comments made by their invited speaker." You can't tell me that wouldn't have been a completely different story.

As for the other details: First, as I understand the norm of disclosing conflicts of interest, i.e., being up-front about them, one does not meet it merely by not intentionally trying to hide them. Second, it is sufficient, to my mind, that Connie St Louis be "considered a host" to give her an interest worth disclosing. Third, I'm not suggesting that anyone be "gagged" but rather that, in this case, their first responsibility was to minimise the harm of Tim Hunt's remarks, and only then, and after discussing it with their guest (i.e., Tim Hunt), move to tell the story publicly, in a way that could shed maximum light on the issue of gender bias in science.

I'm sure ABSW "demanded no restrictions" of their members when they hosted the conference themselves, but I would hope that they expected their own executive board members, and the members of the program committee, to raise any possibly scandalous incidents through internal channels before, perhaps in frustration, taking them public. Note that, in that case, the scandal would be much greater, since it would amount to whistleblowing on the ABSW, WCSJ and/or WFSJ's unwillingness to act against a speaker who made an outrageous comment. (In this case, in fact, there has been no official statement from WFSJ, i.e., no comment from the very board that Connie St Louis serves on and who, as ABSW points out, can be considered Tim Hunt's "host".)

Finally, I find it really outrageous that ABSW feels that "it is important to note that Tim Hunt has not disputed the quotes that have been attributed to him" when he has, very clearly, including in his oft-promoted apology to KOFWST, disputed the meaning that Connie St Louis attributed to him. To say that Hunt's assurance that he was trying to make a joke does not count as "disputing" St Louis' claim that he seriously suggested sex-segregated labs is so ignorant that it'd almost be kinder to call it dishonest.

In any case, the ABSW's standing orders state that "members of the Association are expected to observe the highest professional standards. Wilful or frequent misrepresentation or inaccuracy, wilful breach of confidence, or behaviour in any way prejudicial to the interest of the public in accurate scientific reporting, or of the professional interests of the membership of the Association, shall be considered in breach of these standards," and may lead to "suspension or expulsion" from the Association. So long as Connie St Louis remains a member in good standing of ABSW, I assume we can take her work on the Tim Hunt story as exemplary of "the highest professional standards" of British science writing. We can form our judgments of that professional group accordingly.


Anonymous said...

What is the ABSW for? WFSJ? Why was Connie St Louis calling for the formation of a European Federation of Science Journalists? Why do science writers need to present awards to themselves?

There is, for example, no British Association of Financial Journalists. There are many prizes awarded for good financial journalism, but these are awarded by industry bodies themselves, for example the Association of British Insurers.

There is of course, the annual British Press Awards, where journalists and editors give awards to their peers. Wikipedia describes this as "a financially lucrative part of the Press Gazette's business". Perhaps this shines some light on the real reason for these associations and federations.

A newspaper I work for presents awards to people in the industry it covers and these awards ceremonies make a lot of money.

In the words of the great Connie St Louis herself: "follow the money".

It's all a scam folks!

Thomas said...

While I can see where you're coming from, and it's probably (inevitably) part of the problem (in the sense that all professional organisations at some point develop economic self-interests that they must protect), I think the function of ABSW and WFSJ is also to a large extent ideological. It's a particular interpretation of "science" and, especially, science-in-society that these organizations are helping to shape. Ideological processes aren't simple or homogeneous, of course, (but, then again, neither are economic interests), and I'm sure there's a lot of conflict within these organizations, both about overall approach and the handling of particular cases like Tim Hunt, but my nose says that the energy that drives this thing is the careerism of ideologues. That's not a new phenomenon. It's a bit of scam, yes, like all ideologies are a bit dodgy, but it's also ordinary social life as it's been practiced for millennia.