The Nobel isn’t all that

Matthew Francis at Forbes says Nobel prizes aren’t so hot.

They’re a huge status symbol, but that doesn’t mean they’re the last word on what’s the best science.

[P]eople listen to Nobel laureates when they speak, even when they are out of their areas of expertise. Sometimes the prize seems to go to the winners’ heads so much that they seem to lose it entirely. William Shockley, a co-discoverer of the transistor, and James Watson, who won the Nobel for discovering the structure of DNA, both used their reputations to promote very racist ideas. Most recently, Tim Hunt said some sexist and insulting things in front of a group of female Korean scientists — who had invited him to speak, no less.

What Hunt said was just another example out of too many to list of the kind of pervasive old-boy sexism in science. [Read more…]

Guest post: Humanism and the New Pessimism

Guest post by Bill Cooke, author and International Director for the Center for Inquiry.

Humanism and the New Pessimism

What should humanism stand for in the decades to come? Are the assumptions and values of humanism easily transferable to these new conditions? Many would see even posing such a question as laughable. Is not humanism as a voice of reason, progress and optimism, thoroughly discredited in an age where such things ring hollow?

It’s true that many of the promises of the twentieth century have proved to be illusory. And even when they have been realized, only a relatively few have benefitted. Looking to the future, even if we take the more alarmist forecasts with a pinch of salt, the changes ahead are going to be enormously challenging. Climate change, population growth, peak oil, failed states, rogue states, religious fundamentalism and terrorism, just to name the most menacing of them, all smoulder in sullen anger. And the Western nations seem oblivious to the dangers, preferring instead to wallow in celebrity culture, “reality” programmes, and an untenable sense of entitlement to the resources of the world.

So, for humanism to have something worthwhile to say in the years to come we will need to adjust to the difficult conditions ahead. Promises of sunlit new uplands where our children will achieve more than us no longer ring true. Whichever adjustments are made, they will all have to involve some accommodation of humanism and pessimism. But what is meant by either term in the current context? [Read more…]


And now Damian Thompson at the Spectator blog joins the fun and of course it’s the usual tangle of inaccuracies and hyperbole.

Connie St Louis, director of City University’s Science Journalism MA, is the woman who brought Sir Tim Hunt’s career crashing down in flames by tweeting out allegedly sexist remarks that the Nobel Prize winner made at a conference in Seoul.

She didn’t bring Hunt’s career crashing down in flames – his career is not down, let alone in flames. His research is still his research; he still has his Nobel; he’s still a Fellow of the Royal Society. Some of the pro bono work he was doing is closed off, but that is far from having his career down in flames. And Connie St Louis wasn’t acting alone, and other people in addition to Deborah Blum and Ivan Oransky have corroborated the account.

He goes on to wonder why the Guardian/Observer and the BBC aren’t reporting on the Daily Mail’s big story about her exaggerated CV. My guess? It’s because they can tell that however puffed out Connie St Louis’s CV may be, that doesn’t make the several overlapping accounts of Tim Hunt’s sexist “jokes” go away.

Church fires in the South

The SPLC reports:

In what may not be a coincidence, a string of nighttime fires have damaged or destroyed at least six predominately black churches in four southern states in the past week.

Arsonists started at least three of the fires, while other causes are being examined in the other fires, investigators say.

The series of fires – some of them suspicious and possible hate crimes — came in the week following a murderous rampage by a white supremacist who shot and killed nine people at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C.

The most recent fires occurred early today at the Glover Grover Baptist Church, in Warrenville, S.C., and at the Greater Miracle Apostolic Holiness Church in Tallahassee, Fla.

Federal agents have been brought in to assist local officials in determining the unknown cause of the fire at the Glover Grove Baptist church. In Tallahassee, fire officials say the fire that totally destroyed the Apostolic Holiness Church may have been caused by a tree limb falling on overhead electrical lines.

While those investigations continue, arson was determined to be the cause of three fires earlier in the week at other predominately black churches in the South. [Read more…]

“Nothing wrong with witty satire”

The Tim Hunt War continues. It could have been over in 24 hours, but now it’s become the site where the issue of sexism in STEM is getting a thorough airing, so I’m just going to keep on reporting on it.

Dawkins is still digging that hole deeper and deeper.

1.2 million followers on Twitter, remember. Gets his letters published in the Times. Large megaphone; conspicuous platform. Influencer.

Richard Dawkins ‏@RichardDawkins 8 hours ago
Am I naive to be disconcerted by a lack of kindness, of empathy, on Twitter? There’s so much unforgiving, merciless, even cruel condemnation

Isn’t it interesting that he’s saying that now? After responding to a tweet that called Tim Hunt “a shitty person”? Isn’t it interesting that he didn’t say that in 2011 or 2012 or 2013 or 2014? Isn’t it interesting that he’s ignored the relentless harassment and bullying of women on Twitter, much of it by his fans defending his every word, but is upset when it’s addressed to someone like him? I think it’s interesting. [Read more…]

The elite closes ranks

Another one for the reading list: Chocolate and Vodka.

[W]hether or not Sir Tim was joking is ultimately irrelevant. He should never have spoken those words in the first place. As a Nobel Laureate, a professor and a Knight of the British Empire, Sir Tim definitely has power, influence and authority. He therefore has a responsibility to think very carefully about the words he uses in his public and professional lives.

People in Sir Tim’s position have an obligation to use their power to help, support and inspire others, not to denigrate a group of people — in this case, women — who are already at a disadvantage. Sir Tim failed in that obligation. He did not take his responsibilities seriously. Instead, he abused his position of power and has either refused to or been incapable of understanding the impact his words have had, or how he is supporting the institutional sexism rife in academia, and particularly in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and maths).

[Read more…]

Guest post: Do you really expect us to unravel the work of more than a century in order to knit you a comfort blanket?

Originally a comment by Maureen Brian on Charles Seife is telling the same story.


You don’t sound as though you’re old enough to have been around in the ’60s and ’70s but believe me we achieved a hell of a lot then. There is no need to go back and do that work again. It is done.

Achievements included, depending upon where you are, anti-discrimination laws and the codes of practice in place in most institutions and big companies, a means of redress for discrimination, direct or systemic, access to better education, equal pay (in theory) – the list is too long but we’ve got the works in law and in policy at least on paper. [Read more…]

Nothing less than the silencing

If nothing else, at least I’m finding some brilliant people to read the blogs of which, and to follow on Twitter and all that good stuff.

Like Richard P Grant at the Guardian’s Occam’s corner.

[W]hat is happening now is nothing less than the silencing of voices that should be heard. Voices of people who took issue with what was said in Korea, who highlighted the sexism, and who said that such comments were harmful and should not go unchallenged.

Again, it doesn’t matter whether you agree with those voices, or which side you are on; what matters is that respectable academics still low down on the career ladder are being silenced by those who hold positions of real power.

[Read more…]