The nature of the bubble

Someone’s been arguing with me about Tim Hunt on Twitter on and off since yesterday. He started off a little aggressively but it became a conversation after that. He cops to some empathy for Hunt because he cringes at things he said himself ten years ago. Ok, but that’s not a reason not to criticize what Hunt said, or a reason to call that criticism “witch hunts” or “lynch mobs.”

His latest pair of tweets, last night, is interesting.

Atticus_of_Amber ‏@Atticus_Amber 13 hours ago
@OpheliaBenson Super successful people often live in a bubble. Their own fault; but they’re often unaware of it until they get a rude shock.

@OpheliaBenson My view is that we should be administering more of these bubble-breaking “rude shocks”, but the shocks should be less lethal.

Well the shock wasn’t actually lethal – Tim Hunt is still alive. He lost three honorary positions – and yes that is a steep price to pay, but at the same time, such positions are based on merit, just as non-honorary ones are. They are awarded for reasons. They’re not a right, and they’re not a permanent unconditional possession. His Nobel prize is a permanent unconditional possession, if I understand it correctly, and that wouldn’t be withdrawn unless he were exposed as a fraud or similar. But the honorary position at UCL and the one at the Royal Society and the one on the European Research Council’s science committee were all merit-based and, clearly, not irrevocable. They were revoked because Hunt was seen as not meeting their criteria in some way. They’re allowed to have criteria. The positions did not come with tenure – they were not tenure-track positions. Academics of all people know the difference between tenure and no-tenure. Hunt didn’t hold those three positions as some sort of permanent right, and he lost them because he publicly expressed contempt for women in his field, women per se, women as women. If he’d expressed contempt for other races, or Jews, or Muslims, I doubt we’d be hearing about lynch mobs.

But the more interesting point is the one about the bubble. What is that bubble exactly? What is that bubble that super successful people live in?

It’s the bubble in which people don’t say anything when you talk sexist or racist shit. That bubble.

That means it’s the bubble in which everyone else who has to live in that bubble – the one where super successful men get to talk sexist and/or racist shit – are left to put up with it, because people don’t want to challenge Mr Sir Professor Important FRS.

That’s a bad bubble. That bubble sucks. It’s a very pleasant bubble for Mr Sir Professor Important FRS, but it sucks for everyone else. It sucks hard for the underlings – the people of the wrong gender and the wrong race and the wrong nationality.

So a shock to that bubble is a good thing. That bubble needs a shock – and not a mild soft gentle shock. Of course the shock should not be literally lethal, but then this shock hasn’t been that, so that’s ok. But should it be forthright, and warm? Yes, it should.


  1. says

    Don’t we all occasinally cringe a bit, when we think of things we said?? Unless we’re completely brilliant our entire lives, of course, like Richard Dawkins…

    Shortly after I first started hanging out on Pharyngula I got in a pointless and heated argument about an aspect of feminism I actually agreed with, but made the mistake of dropping the term “feminazi” which red-flagged me for a thoroughly appropriate chewing on. I cringe when I realize that I was playing exactly the same tropes that Dawkins is: I was being hounded inappropriately, the people criticizing me sounded like fascists, etc. I think it takes watching that scenario play itself out a couple hundred times with some other person on the receiving end, for it to sink in. Sometimes it doesn’t – Dawkins has clearly had plenty of opportunity to observe and realize how poor a deflection saying “waah you sound like nazis!” is. For me, it took seeing creationists and MRAs say the same thing I did, and thinking “what a bunch of weakness. oh. um. urrr.” over and over.

    It takes a little thinky stuff. Not much thinky stuff, just a little. PZ even bent over backwards to give Dawkins a bit of thinky stuff but, no dice. So now Dawkins is serving as an example to others. In the same sense the Titanic did. The lesson he’s taking from watching Hunt sink below the waves is, unfortunately, an “extinction burst” behavior like we see in creationists, not a rational mature scientific perspective.

  2. anthrosciguy says

    People have to think about why an organization gives an honorary position to someone. It’s so that the aura that someone has, a bit of their reputation, rubs off on the organization, so they can be identified with the borrowed reputation. That’s why these organizations wanted to have a talk with Hunt about the position they’d given him, because suddenly the stuff that was rubbing off on them didn’t smell so sweet.

    That’s a perfectly normal, understandable, and appropriate thing for those organizations to do. And in at least one of these cases, Hunt didn’t even have the grace to sit down and talk with the organization, instead dodging calls and eventually just quitting preemptively. That’s the kind of move a person does if they’re both cowardly and object to being questioned on anything they do. Certainly not the kind of rep you want rubbing off on your university, or any other organization.

  3. Jenora Feuer says

    I used to refer to that bubble as ‘an ablative shield of yes-men’.

    At the time I first used that I was referring to Michael Jackson, and how he could have ever thought some of what he did was a good idea; he obviously missed his own childhood, and once he had enough money to do all of what he wanted, he also tended to be surrounded by people who weren’t going to tell him ‘no’. It also applies to things like authors who refuse to be usefully edited. (See, for example, Piers Anthony.) But the basic principle is there: a person with enough money and social standing often ends up actively selecting for people who won’t talk back because they want to stay in close proximity to that money and standing. A nice little self-selecting bubble of people more concerned with image than with truth.

  4. quixote says

    “An ablative shield of yes-men.”

    Perfect. Absolutely perfect. I am so stealing that, Jenora.

  5. Crimson Clupeidae says

    The bubble…most bubbles, I would wager, need to be nuked from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure. 😉

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