His claims work to identify women as caste-inferiors

Janet Stemwedel takes a different view of the reactions to Tim Hunt from that of Professor Richard Dawkins FRS. Her view is pretty much the opposite of his.

The vigorous reactions to remarks by biochemist Tim Hunt about women in science on social media and elsewhere are being cast as “internet shaming.” That’s a mistake. The reactions are, in fact, exactly part of the way scientists engage with each other to build knowledge.

Tim Hunt, winner (with Paul Nurse and Leland H. Hartwell) of the 2001 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicinemade news last week for remarks he made to members of the Korea Federation of Women’s Science and Technology Associations at a luncheon at the 2015 World Conference of Science Journalists…

…Asked to clarify his position, Hunt asserted that he “meant the remarks to be humorous” but affirmed that he “just meant to be honest.” In the wake of the public criticism, Hunt resigned an honorary post (one with no salary, teaching responsibilities, or lab space) at University College London (UCL), though there are conflicting accounts of whether this resignation was voluntary or not. Now, the vocal criticism of Hunt’s remarks is being characterized using hyperbolic terms like “lynchmob,” “witch-hunt,” and “disemboweling.”

Stemwedel cites Robert Merton’s “norms of science,” in particular universalism (everybody can contribute to science and social status is beside the point) and organized skepticism (is what Hunt said a crock of shit?).

There’s another facet of the situation worth considering in the context of the norms of science: the content of Hunt’s controversial claims seem to reveal him to be falling short on the norm of universalism.

Merton wrote about instances where members of the scientific community failed to live up to the norms of science, usually due to pressures from the larger societies in which the scientists were embedded. Writing in 1942, when pressures from the Nazi regime on German scientists were likely on his mind, Merton noted:

Scientists may assimilate caste-standards and close their ranks to those of inferior status, irrespective of capacity or achievement. But this provokes an unstable situation. Elaborate ideologies are called forth to obscure the incompatibility of caste-mores and the institutional goals of science. Caste-inferiors must be shown to be inherently incapable of scientific work or, at the very least, their contributions must be systematically devalued. [3]

It’s hard not to see Hunt’s remarks about “the trouble with girls” in the lab as suggesting that women as a group are inherently incapable of scientific work because of their emotions, or their tendency to provoke emotions in men (who are assumed to be capable of scientific work). His claims, in other words, work to identify women as caste-inferiors rather than to recognize them as equal members of the scientific community.


But preemptively characterizing women scientists as a group as likely to cry, as Hunt did, falls down on universalism, writing them out of the knowledge-building conversation before they’ve even had a chance to be heard. (Writing women off like this is ironic in light of the contributions women made to the research for which Hunt shares a Nobel Prize with two other men.)

Professor Richard Dawkins FRS please note.


  1. says

    To be honest, Hunt’s intense adverse reaction to the criticism struck me as being a little odd. I don’t know how academics interact in the field of cell biology, but in computer science, they can be intensely unforgiving of bad ideas. I was once at a conference where two young researchers presented a paper with some very poorly supported ideas and I knew that they were in for trouble when people in the audience began lining up at the microphones positioned in the aisles only two minutes into the presentation. Sure enough, when the mics were opened for questions, the two researchers were absolutely withered by the ensuing questions.

    Science and research are messy things, and academics don’t spare anyone’s feelings if they smell something fishy. Surely Hunt had been exposed to that sort of thing in the past. He presented bad ideas and got his butt handed back to him on a plate. That’s generally the point where one steps back and asks “okay, I got that wrong, I need to work on these ideas given the feedback that just blasted me down.” He’s acting like this is the first time that anyone ever used a bad word in his presence or directed at him.

  2. says

    Huh. Interesting. Could he be thinking the rules are different because he wasn’t doing science, he was just bloviating about women and telling the truth as he sees it yadda yadda?

  3. anat says

    See Are women still at a disadvantage in science?.

    There is an addendum at the bottom with the following quote from an interview with Hunt:

    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.

  4. jenniferphillips says

    Wow, anat, that’s some quote. I’ve been wondering for days whether this wasn’t simply the last straw for UCL. Hunt seemed most chagrined that the press caught him saying something damaging. I would not be surprised at all if he had in fact said many such damaging things previously that were kept on the d/l or not said in a situation where the focus was actually ON women in science. The comment you linked to strengthens that possibility significantly.

  5. guest says

    @1: It just occurred to me that the difference between the kind of interaction you describe, which is both common and useful, and Tim Hunt’s peculiar reaction to criticism in this situation is that men don’t like to be criticised by women. I know in my own work I have to be very cautious, and have developed all sorts of elaborate roundabout ways of expressing criticism, to make sure my points are heard and the men I’m criticising don’t have emotional meltdowns instead of engaging and learning as you’ve described. And this is particularly interesting in light of Hunt’s ‘women just cry when you criticise them’ thing.

  6. guest says

    After writing that comment I realised something that I’m going to share here, because it’s only just occurred to me how important it is to me. A year or so ago I was in a room with a female client and a male engineer. The male engineer physically attacked us when the female client pointed out, in a perfectly calm and rational way, that he had not demonstrated how his proposals met the requirements she’d stated in her project description. I’ve only just realised that this incident has had a significant effect on my career prospects–both I and my boss are now reluctant to assign me to any project he’s involved in, and it turns out that the projects he works on are ones that I’d be interested in doing and would excel in. I’m planning to leave this job, and leave STEM, imminently, and have literally only just realised that the fact that this man threatened me, and is now indirectly keeping me from being assigned to work I’m well suited for and could use to demonstrate my skills, is part of the reason.

  7. Malachite says

    @6: yes yes yes. Similar in my work. I have to be nine kinds of careful, to appear calm and reasonable and heard but not too pointed so that the men (some of them) can hear me. Yes, some of those ways are roundabout. Meanwhile, they are free to spew their emotions: anger, frustration, sharp non-constructive criticism etc. Ironic.

    Unfortunately, I have also a similar situation as @7. It remains to be seen what the long-term consequences are, but I can see it affect personnel assignments for projects.

  8. guest says

    ‘Meanwhile, they are free to spew their emotions: anger, frustration, sharp non-constructive criticism etc.’

    I never cease to be amazed at the nasty emails I get from my male colleagues–they’re not (usually) specifically directed at me but are rather an outcome of anger, frustration, etc. at setbacks in our work or external problems. But every time I get one of these I think I would never, ever even say these kinds of things at work, let alone commit them to writing; apparently it’s OK to vent if you’re a man, but if I did it there’d be serious repercussions.

  9. agenoria says

    Men are assertive, women are strident. Again.

    I came across this quote by Alfred Russel Wallace the other day. He was 86 when he wrote it:

    From The Times, 11 February 1909:

    At a meeting in support of woman suffrage at Godalming last night, at which Sir William Chance presided, a letter was read from Dr. Alfred Russel Wallace, O.M.

    Dr. Wallace wrote:– “As long as I have thought or written at all on politics, I have been in favour of woman suffrage. None of the arguments for or against have any weight with me, except the broad one, which may be thus stated:– All the human inhabitants of any one country should have equal rights and liberties before the law; women are human beings; therefore they should have votes as well as men. It matters not to me whether ten millions or only ten claim it–the right and the liberty should exist, even if they do not use it. The term ‘Liberal’ does not apply to those who refuse this natural and indefeasible right. Fiat justitia, ruat cœlum.”

    Not being familiar with Latin, I looked up the phrase “Fiat justitia ruat caelum” – “Let justice be done though the heavens fall.”

  10. tkreacher says

    guest #7

    How did the engineer not get fired when he physically attacked a coworker and a client??

  11. guest says

    @13 As I patiently explain to my boss when things like this happen, ‘because he is in the club and I am not.’ I don’t want to get in to the details, but the client is one of those young ambitious women who feels like she needs to be a ‘good sport’ about male behaviour in our profession in order to maintain her position. And of course I don’t matter; what benefit would I get from making a big deal of it?

  12. agenoria says

    @12 The tallest funnel in the National Railway Museum at York!

    It’s not right that there are laws which aren’t enforced, because of the cost or because of the consequences of making a complaint. “Fiat justitia ruat caelum” is really only for the wealthy and privileged. I quoted Alfred Russel Wallace because it seems some people haven’t even reached his views of 1909 by 2015.

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