This is an interesting twist: the Observer ran a piece on Tim Hunt yesterday in which the reporter, Robin McKie, said disgusting things but Tim Hunt said some good things. Tim Hunt arguably took a fairer view of the reaction to his remarks than did the science editor for the Observer.
Robin McKie’s lead-in:
The beleaguered UK scientist Sir Tim Hunt on Saturday thanked the hundreds of female scientists who have written to support him in the wake of the furore triggered by his controversial remarks about women in science.
Hunt, who won the Nobel prize in 2001 for his work on cell biology, became the focus of furious online attacks earlier this month over comments about women in science being disruptive. He had to resign from several academic posts, including an honorary position at University College London (UCL).
However, support for Hunt has since mushroomed, with fellow Nobel prize winners, senior academics and leading scientists and politicians – including Brian Cox, Richard Dawkins and Boris Johnson – lining up to denounce the treatment of the 72-year-old biologist.
Nasty stuff. Starting with “beleaguered,” as if Hunt were a martyr. His “controversial remarks” – always a useful way to hide the actual nature of the remarks in question. He became “the focus of furious online attacks” – again, he’s a martyr and victim, while his critics are scarily enraged. And then McKie cheers on the Nobel prize winners, senior academics and leading scientists and politicians for trying to shout down the pesky insubordinate women.
I wish these people would take a harder look at what they’re doing.
Hunt says he has a long record of helping women colleagues.
“I certainly don’t recognise myself as the horrible sexist portrayed in media reports, and I don’t think the women who have worked with me throughout my career do either,” said Hunt, who added that he was particularly upset by the journal Nature which accused him of “belittling women”, an accusation he flatly rejected.
No, sorry, that won’t fly – the “joke” was a belittling joke. I’ll accept that he didn’t intend it to be, but not that it wasn’t. It was.
Hunt also pointed out that, initially, his remarks about women in science and their alleged tendency to weep had not been fully reported. “Let me tell you about my trouble with girls,” he told delegates at the World Conference of Science Journalists in Seoul. “Three things happen when they are in the lab. You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticise them, they cry.”
Crucially, Hunt said, he then added the words, “now seriously” before going on to praise the role of women in science and in Korean society. “The words ‘now seriously’ make it very clear that I was making a joke, albeit a very bad one, but they were not mentioned in the first reports and I was deluged with hate mail,” Hunt said.
Sigh. That doesn’t matter. Imagine making a joke of that type about people from South Asia or the Caribbean. Saying it was a joke doesn’t rescue it.
However, he did acknowledge that his “idiotic joke” had touched a nerve. “My comments have brought to the surface the anger and frustration of a great many women in science whose careers have been blighted by chauvinism and discrimination,” he said. “If any good is to come from this miserable affair, it should be that the scientific community starts to acknowledge this anger, recognise the problem and move a lot faster to remove the remaining barriers.”
There. He said that. Exactly so. And that was what Anne Perkins was saying with her “Yet this is a moment to savour” that Dawkins, cluelessly, took to mean she was relishing Hunt’s plight. Nonsense: she was relishing the fact that his comments have brought to the surface the prejudice against women in science. Here’s what she wrote, in context:
Even the response of the Royal Society suggests that the great institution doesn’t entirely get it. Science needs everyone regardless of gender, they said as they frantically pedalled away from one of their leading lights. How about, sexism is wrong, full stop?
Yet this is a moment to savour. Hunt has at last made explicit the prejudice that undermines the prospects of everyone born with childbearing capabilities. It is not men who are the problem, it is women! Women are distracting. They provoke emotions. Worse even than that, they express emotions.
And Hunt said the upshot of all this “should be that the scientific community starts to acknowledge this anger, recognise the problem and move a lot faster to remove the remaining barriers.” He said the scientific community should start to acknowledge this anger – which means it should not gasp in horror and call the anger “witch hunts” and “lynch mobs.”