When we do make a noise

I missed one by Deborah Blum with a lot of important details. It was last Tuesday, so I was busy catching up after the conference.

(I know I’m posting a lot about this, but it has many parts, and also many conflicting accounts. Plus I get like a dog with a bone, and we already know that.)

Last week—along with science writers from more than forty countries—I flew to South Korea to participate in the 9th World Conference of Science Journalists. The conference had paired my lecture (Pulitzer Prize winner, 1992, beat reporting) with one by Sir Tim Hunt (Nobel Prize winner, 2001, Physiology or Medicine).

There’s one thing I didn’t know – that their lectures were paired.

Some media organizations have stepped in to defend Hunt’s comments, which he now claims were an attempt to be entertaining. As a co-panelist sitting next to him at the luncheon, I heard a different story. His speech, he told me, was rooted in “honesty,” not humor.

I’m seeing people claiming UCL changed its story. Maybe UCL didn’t change its story; maybe Tim Hunt wasn’t telling the truth about UCL.

The conference started out on a good note. Our lectures, or so I think, were solid. I talked about the importance of history in good journalism; Hunt talked about the importance of creativity in good science. The organizers regarded these parallel talks as a clever way to balance the contributions of science and journalism.

Afterward, we were invited to a luncheon hosted by the Korea Federation of Women’s Science and Technology Associations. Female scientists in South Korea are a definite minority; a recent study found that they represent only 17 percent of the working researchers in the country. This is slightly less than the average across Asia of 20 percent.

Ah, so that was the setup. Blum and Hunt gave twinned lectures, and then went to that lunch hosted by the female scientists.

So they were very proud to have us there and to showcase their work. Because Hunt and I were the morning speakers, they also asked both of us to stand up during the lunch and make a few remarks.  Anyone who has done this knows that the operating principle is kindness. I talked about the ways that women make science smarter; Hunt began also by paying tribute to the capable female scientists that he knew.

A few remarks. Not a talk, but a few remarks, and probably not prepared remarks. Hunt started well…but he didn’t finish well.

Unfortunately, he decided that wasn’t enough. But “let me tell you about my trouble with girls,” he said.

Why? Why did he? This wasn’t an evening at the Groucho with Kingsley and Conkers and the gang. Why did he do that?

If you are a working woman, the word “girl” tends to be a signal flare, a red light warning of problems ahead. He continued. “Three things happen when they are in the lab: You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticize them, they cry,” he said. Next he made a case that science might work better if we separated researchers into single-sex laboratories. Of course, Hunt emphasized, he didn’t want to “stand in the way” of women.

Of course not. He just wanted to portray them as fools and argue that they should be in separate labs by themselves.

Blum and Connie St Louis and Ivan Oransky talked about how to report Hunt’s comments, and agreed on what they did: St Louis tweeted the story and Blum and Oransky retweeted her account.

Our idea was just to get it on the record. In the week that followed—after the story simply exploded—Hunt would resign from an honorary professorship at University College London and from the advisory board of the European Research Council, which had sponsored his trip to Seoul.

He would also tell The Guardian that he had been “hung out to dry.” He would insist that he had only been joking and that no one had asked him to explain his position. At which point, I jumped back in to counter those statements. Because, as I detailed here, I’d made a point of asking him for that very explanation.

Hunt hasn’t been fully truthful, in short. That’s understandable, because it’s all very shaming, and people flail around in the face of shame. He’s been flailing. But unfortunately a lot of ill-disposed people have been treating his account as Definitely True and everyone else’s account as Obviously Lies, and a lot of others read the distorted accounts and believe them. A lot of people are convinced that Hunt was fired from a job as a professor at UCL. Not true.

Some people have described all of this—the eruption across Twitter, the resulting storm of media attention—as taking on the shape of a kind of feminist witch-hunt. You’ll certainly see that in this opinion piece in Canada’s Globe and Mail.

I could not disagree more.

I do have sympathy for anyone caught in the leading edge of a media storm. But if we are ever to effect change, sometimes we need the winds to howl, to blow us out of our comfort zones.  Because the real point here isn’t about individuals, isn’t about Tim Hunt or me.

The real point is our failure, so far, to make science a truly inclusive profession.

Exactly. And wouldn’t it be nice if people like Brendan O’Neill and Brian Cox and Richard Dawkins could grok that and help instead of going into a panic about putative lynch mobs destroying Tim Hunt?

The real point is that that telling a roomful of female scientists that they aren’t really welcome in a male-run laboratory is the sound of a slamming door.

Yes it is – and yet so many of the pundits saved all their concern for the guy slamming the door, with none left over for the women on the wrong side of it.

Let me quote now from a letter that the Korea Federation of Women’s Science and Technology Associations sent to Tim Hunt regarding his statement:

“As women scientists we were deeply shocked and saddened by these remarks, but we are comforted by the widespread angered response from international social and news media: we are not alone in seeing these comments as sexist and damaging to science. Although Dr. Hunt is a senior and highly accomplished scientist in his field who has closely collaborated with Korean scientists in the past, his comments have caused great concern and regret in Korea.”

That’s another thing I didn’t know about. I wonder if Dawkins considers the Korea Federation of Women’s Science and Technology Associations a lynch mob.

I interrupted myself to tweet that question at him. He won’t answer, but it’s worth a try.

They also noted that although Hunt belatedly called his remarks an attempt at humor, he had earlier defended them as “trying to be honest.” (That was certainly what he said to me among others.) His remarks, the letter said,  “show that old prejudices are still well embedded in science cultures. On behalf of Korean female scientists, and all Koreans, we wish to express our great disappointment that these remarks were made at the event hosted by KOFWST. This unfortunate incident must not be portrayed as a private story told as a joke”.

They asked for an apology – and got it. Hunt stopped flailing and sent them a real apology.

Hunt wrote that he regretted his “stupid and ill-judged remarks.” He added: “I am mortified to have upset my hosts, which was the very last thing I intended. I also fully accept that the sentiments as interpreted have no place in modern science and deeply apologize to all those good friends who fear I have undermined their efforts to put these stereotypes behind us.”

Great. What a pity he’s letting people in the UK paint him as a martyr to baying witch-hunting lynch-mobs of PC feminists. He didn’t paint the Korea Federation of Women’s Science and Technology Associations that way, so why is he not protesting when his defenders do so?

Blume ends with optimism.

When we do make a noise, stand up for what’s right, have an open conversation about gender balance in science—even if that conversation is conducted as a virtual shouting match—we remind each other of the essential importance of equality. And we move, all of us, in a direction that matters.

I wish. Not all of us do. The O’Neill-Dawkins faction doesn’t.


  1. anthrosciguy says

    Besides his being a weasel in the aftermath, the most obnoxious, and telling, aspect of this action of Hunt’s is that it was specifically addressed to an audience of mostly women, at a lunch for an organization of women in science.

    Remember Larry Summers’ brain dead statements about women in 2005? That was given at a Conference on Diversifying the Science & Engineering Workforce. These were not only not just gabbing at the bar after with their chums, or even at a general audience, but to audiences of people specifically striving to get past this sort of crap. To my mind that makes this even worse.

  2. jenniferphillips says

    I thought Blum and St. Louis and Oransky handled this in the best possible way, really. They *didn’t* sit cackling as they live tweeted these damning remarks straight into the ether. They *did* pause to confirm that he actually did say what they thought they heard. They compared notes. They discussed what to do with the information, as science journalists and advocates for diversity in STEM. They gave a lot of thought to what kind of impact this would have on Hunt personally AND on diversity in STEM generally. They knew it would blow up, but felt obliged to report it and take the consequences for the good of the field. Kind of the exact opposite of nastily chumming the waters, really.

    The real point is that that telling a roomful of female scientists that they aren’t really welcome in a male-run laboratory is the sound of a slamming door.

    Yes, holy hell. This is indeed the REAL POINT. It is not a difficult point to grasp. It baffles me that so many people struggle with this concept.

  3. says

    Since he claimed that he was trying to be honest and the later appeal to humor* is best interpreted as a reaction to the criticism that implicitly lets us wonder about some things.

    Let me tell you about the trouble with girls. You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticize them, they cry…

    -He thinks in ways that universalizes behavior for girls that is not universal (just who he would call a “girl” is a thought).
    -He admits to being prone to romantic feelings for colleges and/or subordinates.
    -He remembers reactions to criticism by girls as irrational and overly emotional.

    Polarized thinking with respect to sex, and negative memories about emotional attachments tied to irrational reactions to what he remembers as criticism are definitely worrisome signs in an authority figure.

    *Even if he was going for humor he is not excused. Humor is meant to transform one emotion into another and/or change emotional intensity. Since this is disparaging towards women it’s reasonable to assume he was making himself feel better about negative feelings he had concerning women.

  4. says

    From the article linked by jenniferphillps@#4:
    Hunt’s interview in the Observer at his lovely house in rural Hertfordshire is full of anecdotes of him doing the grocery shopping and cooking.

    Probably even has some black friends. Oh, wait, I got confused.

  5. xyz says

    Damn. That’s cold. He knew what he did, yet now he’s hiding behind Dawkins & co.

  6. =8)-DX says

    I’m only vaguely aware of the situation of women scientists in Korea (plenty of sexists even there), but if the Korean professional Go (baduk) scene is anything to go by, those Korean women scientists kick serious ass. All in all it seems utterly disrespectful, gross and just downright rude to spoil the air of positive empowerment that is expressed by such a meeting of women scientists. Even if Hunt were right, saying what he did at the official luncheon basically equates to: “So you invited me over to talk and inspire you, and now I’ve done that here we are about to eat together so it’s time for me to tell you how your gender is a problem, how you make work in the lab difficult. Ha ha.”

  7. UnknownEric the Apostate says

    That Guardian article contains possibly the line of the year: “8 Nobel laureates, plus the ubiquitous Richard Dawkins” Bwa-ha-ha-ha.

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