I’m embarrassed for them. You’d expect that with the importance of evidence and logic, they’d understand the words they use and the reasoning behind them. In the case of Tim Hunt, we’ve now had frenetic attempts at vindication based on:
He is claimed to have said, “Now seriously…” after his sexist remarks, proving that he was only joking. Even if we accept that dubious addition, it means nothing. Sexist remarks are often thrown about as jokes; they’re still just as damaging, still perpetuate stereotypes, and the excuse is still absurdly common. It also doesn’t address what critics say: no one claims Hunt got up to seriously propound on his master plan to oppress women.
The latest is the most pathetic. After hours of build-up, with the claim that she had proof that Tim Hunt was only joking (again, that he was light-hearted in his stereotyping of women means nothing), Louise Mensch published a photo from the event in question that included a woman in the audience sort of smiling. We don’t know when in the talk it was snapped, we don’t know what the woman was thinking (did you know people often smile in situations of mild stress?), but it’s proof of an irrelevancy.
Do I even need to mention that these oft-cited proofs were published in the Daily Mail and the Sun?
Do I need to point out that it is completely unsurprising that older scientists (myself included) are human beings who will carry biases, and that the standard of proof that they are paragons of virtue ought to require much higher requirements than two words possibly misquoted or a photo of an audience member’s reactions?
Do I need to state that in an interview after the talk, Hunt openly admitted that he meant those remarks? Somehow people are putting more emphasis on the out-of-context interpretation of dubiously sourced phrases than his plain statement of intent.
My position is that Hunt is not a monster or a horrible human being, but simply someone with such an exalted status that he came to believe that his trivial and often wrong opinions about women were as robust as his ideas about cyclin-dependent kinases, and he got caught out expressing them inappropriately. We all need that kind of reality check, and people in particularly privileged positions need them most of all.