An unreconstructed backwoodsman

Because of all this nonsense talked by people like Dawkins and Brendan O’Neill and Dawkins and Brian Cox and Dawkins, I’m looking into the Tim Hunt question more than I did when it started. (That week was quite full of other things, what with going to a conference and a few other odds and ends.)

So now I’ve read David Colquhoun’s take, or rather takes.

15 June

It’s now 46 years since I and Brian Woledge managed to get UCL’s senior common room, the Housman room, opened to women. That was 1969, and since then, I don’t think that I’ve heard any public statement that was so openly misogynist as Tim Hunt’s now notorious speech in Korea.

Oh? But we’ve been assured it was just a joke, just a few thoughtless words, just a casual passing remark. We’ve been assured it was so tiny it can barely be detected at all.

On the Today Programme, Hunt said “I just wanted to be honest”, so there’s no doubt that those are his views. He confirmed that the account that was first tweeted by Connie St Louis was accurate

Inevitably, there was a backlash from libertarians and conservatives. That was fuelled by a piece in today’s Observer, in which Hunt seems to regard himself as being victimised. My comment on the Observer piece sums up my views.

I was pretty shaken when I heard what Tim Hunt had said, all the more because I have recently become a member of the Royal Society’s diversity committee. When he talked about the incident on the Today programme on 10 June, it certainly didn’t sound like a joke to me. It seems that he carried on for more than 5 minutes in they same vein.

Everyone appreciates Hunt’s scientific work, but the views that he expressed about women are from the dark ages. It seemed to me, and to Dorothy Bishop, and to many others, that with views like that. Hunt should not play any part in selection or policy matters. The Royal Society moved with admirable speed to do that.

The views that were expressed are so totally incompatible with UCL’s values, so it was right that UCL too acted quickly. His job at UCL was an honorary one: he is retired and he was not deprived of his lab and his living, as some people suggested.

Although the initial reaction, from men as well as from women, was predictably angry, it very soon turned to humour, with the flood of #distractinglysexy tweets.

It would be a mistake to think that these actions were the work of PR people. They were thought to be just by everyone, female or male, who wants to improve diversity in science.

The episode is sad and disappointing. But the right things were done quickly.

Now Hunt can be left in peace to enjoy his retirement.

And that will be fine, but some of his defenders are not very retired. I only wish they were.

16 June 2015

There is an interview with Tim Hunt in Lab Times that’s rather revealing. Right up to the penultimate paragraph we agree on just about everything, from the virtue of small groups to the iniquity of impact factors. But then right at the end we read this.

In your opinion, why are women still under-represented in senior positions in academia and funding bodies?

Hunt:  I’m not sure there is really a problem, actually. People just look at the statistics. I dare, myself, think there is any discrimination, either for or against men or women. I think people are really good at selecting good scientists but I must admit the inequalities in the outcomes, especially at the higher end, are quite staggering. And I have no idea what the reasons are. One should start asking why women being under-represented in senior positions is such a big problem. Is this actually a bad thing? It is not immediately obvious for me… is this bad for women? Or bad for science? Or bad for society? I don’t know, it clearly upsets people a lot.

This suggests to me that the outburst on 8th June reflected opinions that Hunt has had for a while.

Nooooooo, it’s not a bad thing. It’s natural and right that men should have all the senior positions, because it’s always been that way and what the hell, know what I mean? Why change it?

19 June 2015

Yesterday I was asked by the letters editor of the Times, Andrew Riley, to write a letter in response to a half-witted, anonymous, Times leading article. I dropped everything, and sent it. It was neither acknowledged nor published. Here it is [download pdf].

One of the few good outcomes of the sad affair of Tim Hunt is that it has brought to light the backwoodsmen who are eager to defend his actions, and to condemn UCL.  The anonymous Times leader of 16 June was as good an example as any.
Here are seven relevant considerations.

  1. Honorary jobs have no employment contract, so holders of them are not employees in the normal sense of the term.  Rather, they are eminent people who agree to act as ambassadors for the university,
  2. Hunt’s remarks were not a joke –they were his genuine views. He has stated them before and he confirmed them on the Today programme,
  3. He’s entitled to hold these views but he’s quite sensible enough to see that UCL would be criticised harshly if he were to remain in his ambassadorial role so he relinquished it before UCL was able to talk to him.
  4. All you have to do to see the problems is to imagine yourself as a young women, applying for a grant or fellowship, in competition with men, knowing that Hunt was one of her judges.  Would your leader have been so eager to defend a young Muslim who advocated men only labs?  Or someone who advocated Jew-free labs? The principle is the same.
  5. Advocacy of all male labs is not only plain silly, it’s also illegal under the Equalities Act (2010).
  6. UCL’s decision to accept Hunt’s offer to relinquish his role was not the result of a twitter lynch mob. The comments there rapidly became good humoured  If there is a witch hunt, it is by your leader writer and the Daily Mail, eager to defend the indefensible and to condemn UCL and the Royal Society
  7. It has been suggested to me that it would have been better if Hunt had been brought before a disciplinary committee, so due process would have been observed.  I can imagine nothing that would have been more cruel to a distinguished colleague than to put him through such a miserable ordeal.

Some quotations from this letter were used by Tom Whipple in an article about Richard Dawkins surprising (to me) emergence as an unreconstructed backwoodsman.

No surprise around here, I imagine.

I’m pleased that he said this:

Would your leader have been so eager to defend a young Muslim who advocated men only labs?  Or someone who advocated Jew-free labs? The principle is the same.

I often make that argument when people blow off sexism as unimportant, but I get waved away a lot when I do. I’m pleased to see DC saying the same thing.


  1. PatrickG says

    I often make that argument when people blow off sexism as unimportant, but I get waved away a lot when I do

    Well, of course you do. Sexism is different, because, um, well…


  2. says

    Why was the Times’ article anonymous, anyhow? Could it be that the writer knew they were expressing repugnant views that could come back to haunt them? (pro tip: if your views are repugnant, don’t ask yourself how you can conceal them, ask why you hold repugnant views)

  3. chrislawson says

    I cannot believe we have a Nobel-winning scientist trotting out the old “it’s just statistics” canard. Did he never record p-values in his own papers?

  4. Pierce R. Butler says

    … Richard Dawkins[‘] surprising (to me) emergence as an unreconstructed backwoodsman.

    Sorry, try as I might, I just cannot imagine Dr D in a buckskin jacket and coonskin cap.

  5. anthrosciguy says

    Natural and right for men to have all the senior positions? Not just that, little lady, he’s saying it’s probably for your own good: “it’s not immediately obvious to me… Is this bad for women?” Which he answers “I don’t know”.

    He doesn’t even know that? He’s not just saying as far as he knows it’s good for society, for science, and for the women who get screwed over.

    The only reason he could not know that it’s bad for women is if he believes that women are so ill-suited for science that it’s actually bad for the woman to be doing science. That’s even worse than claiming they’re no good at it, or too emotional, or too distracting. It’s incredibly bad, and incredibly stupid.

    It was real nice to read that some men get it, and are vocal about it in places where it really counts.

  6. brucegee1962 says

    This article seems rather unfair towards backwoodsmen. I’m sure that plenty of them, perhaps most of them, would be smart enough not to say the kind of things about women that Tim Hunt or Richard Dawkins said.

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