Jun 25 2015

The Tim Hunt Hubbub

I have watched from the sidelines the recent controversy over the comments made by Nobel Laureate, Tim Hunt. Here is what sparked the controversy:

The British scientist told delegates at the World Conference of Science Journalists in South Korea that when women work alongside men in labs, three things happen: “you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticize them, they cry.” He then went on to suggest that perhaps the best way to solve this problem is to have sex-segregated labs.

Hunt was widely criticized for his comments, which were interpreted (quite reasonably) as sexist. Within days he was pressured to resign from his honorary post at University College London. In response to that others came to his defense, including 8 Nobel laurates and Richard Dawkins, who characterized the reaction as a “witch hunt.” Others, like Brian Cox, did not go that far but did say the response was “disproportionate.”

This has led to a round of criticizing those defending Tim Hunt. And now the Tim Hunt camp has responded further, saying that Hunt was taken out of context, that he followed up those words with, “Now seriously, women are needed in science,” indicating the whole thing was just a bad joke. That claim, however, is disputed, and there is no objective record to resolve the dispute.

The whole situation can be charitably characterized as a mess. I think there are some interesting lessons to derive. The first is how social media and the internet has so radically changed our society. The Hunt affair played out very quickly, with camps forming, prominent people expressing their opinions, multiple rounds of claims and counter-claims, all within days. This is a new reality, and we all have to adapt to it or will be vulnerable to…well, whatever you want to call this.

I think to some degree it represents a fundamental loss of privacy. I am a modest figure on social media within a fairly small subculture, and yet I have had to shift my attitude significantly over the last decade. I pretty much assume I have no privacy unless I am alone or with only family. Anything I say, any e-mail I send (even if in my mind it is private), I just assume that it can and will be made public at some point. This means that the circle of my private completely unedited persona has shrunk very small.

This is not to say I have anything to hide, but there is something to be said for having a space where our thoughts can run free, where we can consider unpopular ideas and sort out how we really feel about things. It seems to me that increasingly this private space is merging with the public space. This has now become the background noise of social media, sometimes magnified by a feeling of distance or anonymity.

Of course, Hunt was speaking in front of journalists, so he should have known that every word he uttered was completely public. I don’t know Hunt at all, and so I have no context in which to relate what he said to his character. Perhaps it was a bad joke gone horribly wrong. Perhaps it was an “ironic” joke – the kind where you say what you really feel but hide behind the cover of irony. How we joke often reveals how we think, just with a layer of plausible deniability.

Hosting a podcast every week and getting literally thousands of e-mails with feedback over the years has been a valuable experience. I have learned, essentially, not to do that – not to joke in a way that can be superficially interpreted as sexist, racist, or whatever and then think that the intended humor will negate the implied attitude. It is tricky, because we try to be funny, lighthearted, familiar, and spontaneous – all setups for saying things that can give the wrong impression about how we actually feel. (I do have the benefit of editing, of which I make good use.)

The lesson here is that, if you are a successful standup comedian, you can probably get away with this. If you aren’t, then you should be very careful, and probably just avoid this kind of humor. If Hunt is sincere that his comments were bad humor, then he provides an excellent example of why it is a bad idea.

Along similar grounds, I think we have all had the experience of what we have in our heads and the words that come out of our mouths being two very different things. Crafting what you say in real time is a difficult skill. Successful politicians develop this skill, and it shows. It also tends to come at the expense of seeming genuine. Unless you are brilliant or very talented, it is difficult to be crafted and seem genuine at the same time.

I suspect that most working scientists have not developed their skill for giving finely crafted interviews that allow them to avoid saying anything that can be taken out of context or give the wrong impression.

In the end, Hunt is responsible for what he said, especially since it was overtly in public (in front of journalists). Perhaps he harbors sexist ideas, and he was essentially caught with his pants down. Perhaps his comments made him sound more sexist than he actually is. I don’t know (although it is hard to imagine he isn’t sexist at all, even if he intended the comments purely as humor).

I think history has shown that the best response to saying something in public we then regret is to just suck it up and thoroughly apologize. Rip that bandage off in one go. Hunt has sort of apologized, in a way that really doesn’t mitigate what he said, as evidenced by the lingering controversy.

Hunt should have also been especially careful as a Nobel Laureate, a de facto representative of the institution of science. Women have historically been given the short end of the stick in science, and this injustice, although improving, persists to this day. It was profoundly unwise to utter comments that could only be interpreted as reinforcing old prejudices against women in science. What he says has real consequences, and therefore should also carry real responsibility.

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