Regarding the Tim Hunt Controversy

I really wanted not to comment on this, but as I follow a number of scientists and science journalists on Twitter, I still constantly get this topic in my timeline, and I find some of what is written on it troubling to an extremely high degree. This is going to be long, and I might say something to deeply anger or offend any conceivable reader along the way, so read it at your own risk. Here it goes:

As my readership (if it yet existed) may have heard, Nobel Prize winning biochemist Tim Hunt recently came under fire for his remarks in a speech at a luncheon organized by the Korea Federation of Women’s Science and Technology Associations. Citing his apparent reputation as a “chauvinist”, he told his audience about his “trouble with girls”, culminating in the remark that “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”, and a demand to separate scientific laboratories by sex.

Now, I agree that this was a terrible thing to say, particularly given the audience. You don’t have to be a feminist or sympathizer of feminism (I most definitely am not, and it will probably be apparent from this article) to see that there is something wrong with portraying grown-up women as overly sensitive girls who will perpetually cry about criticism. Hunt has defended himself by claiming his statements were intended to be humorous, and I personally believe him, but there is still a little problem with that excuse: They are virtually indistinguishable from what someone who actually believed these things would say. So at the very least, he didn’t think through remarks that he must have known concerned a sensitive topic. Unlike last year’s extremely abstruse “scandal” revolving around a space engineer’s somewhat unprofessional choice of attire, this is a case were I actually can sympathize with sharp reactions to a senior male scientist’s behaviour towards female colleagues.

Yet, the reaction has been taken to a point where at least two aspects of all this seem objectionable to me:

1. This:

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.

This seems to be part of a wider trend among commentators on prominent English-language blogs and news sites. Other examples include this, from a Berkeley biologist’s blog post:

So, you’ll have to forgive me for recoiling when people ask me to measure my words based on the effect they will have on Hunt. I understand all too well the effects that criticism can have on people. But silence also has its consequences. And we see around us the consequences of decades of silence and inaction on sexism in science. If the price of standing up to that history is that Tim Hunt has to weather a few bad weeks, well so be it.
or this (not directly related to the Tim Hunt controversy):

When one comedian makes a joke about women as sex objects, it doesn’t matter. When every comedian, and every movie, and every video game treats women as sex-prizes to be earned by strong, assertive men, then it contributes to a culture that doesn’t value women as human beings. […] Then you have to call out the one comedian, because he or she is part of something far bigger and more evil than themselves.

Incidentally, the first two texts also present facts that might make the Korean luncheon speech appear far more dickish, although I disagree too which extent. In particular, the first one is written by one of the science journalists who originally broke the story, and she essentially accuses Hunt of lying about his comments being just jokes, based on her confronting him at the conference itself. Yet, the decisive quote from her own Storify on the matter is (emphasis mine), “And #timhunt said that while he meant to be ironic, he did think it was hard to collaborate with women because they are too emotional 1/6″ Now, imagine he had said instead, “Women and men are socialized to embrace different communication styles and societal roles, which can lead to problems when they try to work together. The role associated with the female gender is to be emotional, caretaking, motherly.”, and basically the same kind of opinion would have been fit to print in any mainstream publication or taskforce report on gender inequality. (The second text makes a somewhat fairer point on Hunt’s recent history with women who experienced discrimination. Nevertheless, I don’t think “he mocked women as teary-eyed love interests” is an accurate description of the – gender-symmetric – things he said about “falling in love”.)

Yet, the more important point is: What do all of the above quotes have in common? They advocate a point of view where both the individual person and the individual incident in question scarcely matter anymore (eerily enough, the first of these quotes even explicitly states this). Instead, their importance is their representativity of a real or alleged problem in wider society, their moral evaluation is guided by how big and devastating that problem is, and the appropriate reaction to them isn’t guided by someone’s personal guilt or responsibility, but by the “greater evil” they are a part of. This kind of “sledgehammer collectivism”, reduces human beings to borg drones of whatever groups they belong to and whatever societal context their actions have (did I mention before I do not sympathize with feminism?). Moreover, it is remarkably out of touch with the consequences the actions of all parties involved actually have: Assuming there is a deeply entrenched culture of treating women as lesser beings, then that also means the effect of one particular person’s joke to make things better or worse can only be regarded as very small, possibly to the point of being miniscule. One man or woman simply couldn’t bear the responsiblity for all the evils in the world, nor do I think anyone else has the right to put it on him or her. On the other hand, several of the above commentators do acknowledge themselves that a media or social media “storm” can have profound effects on the person at its center. Essentially, they are making a scary argument of sacrificing the individual “for the greater good”, no matter how little it will actually achieve. But would we really be that much worse off if the backlash to incidents like the Korean luncheon speech would be measured not by the wider societal problems they are part of, but by their specific contribution to those problems?

2. There is the fact that Hunt wasn’t just harshly and angrily criticized (as long as the line to a campaign of demonization and personal destruction is not crossed, I am OK with that – of course, it frequently will be in such cases), but fired from his job at the University College of London – well, technically, he was “made to resign”. Presumably, the rationale that most supporters of that move would give is that his comments discouraged women from doing science, and the University College should not want any part of a societal atmosphere that does that. Yet, as hinted in the previous section, I think there is something wrong with this line of thought: For, whatever level of sexism is present in modern science, it rather obviously does not stand or fall with the employment of one single person, not even a Nobel Prize winner. In case there are, indeed, many researchers who would explicitly share such views, you might argue the firing sends a signal to them, and indeed, it probably does: A signal to be less honest about what they actually think, while they still continue to do so and act upon it.

Maybe you object that the specific quotes given above might, by themselves, already have a huge demotivational effect on women and girls considering a career in science. I agree, but I don’t believe we can hold Hunt solely responsible for that. After all, the public could have framed the issue in different ways: As a big deal, representative of a wider problem in the field, and something that should be talked about a lot. Or the way suggested by a writer at reason.com: “Seventy-two-year-old man of science makes outdated joke, tumbleweed rolls by, The End.” Which of these two possibilities you prefer will depend on your view how big an issue gender-based discrimination, in fact, is, and how much discussion it needs. But either way, without the public debate on Tim Hunt’s comments, their effect would have been confined to a relatively limited audience in Korea, few of whose members would presumably have given up their career paths based on a single speech. Only by the actions of other people, like… well, me, and also everyone else who intervened in this debate to attack or defend Hunt, did his remarks get endlessly repeated and delivered to millions of people, lots of them likely female and possibly at least somewhat put off from pursuing a STEM career. You may not like hearing this, but can you honestly tell me that the previous two sentences are wrong?

However, let me be clear about what I am trying to say and what I am not trying to say: I do not mean to sneakily excuse the Korean conference comments just a few paragraphs after acknowledging they were terrible. They still are, and what Hunt did still is wrong. He does, to reiterate, deserve criticism. Neither do I want to claim that the people who commented on the issue (including myself) are morally at fault for it, just a few paragraphs after recognizing the outrage as justified (and, also, while writing on the topic myself). What I do want to claim is, firstly, that even if someone behaved in a foolish and obnoxious way, there is only a very limited extent to which that person can be faulted for all unforeseen (in this case global) consequences of his or her behaviour. In and of itself, the harm done by this speech was clearly existent, it wasn’t something to just gloss over, but it was also rather clearly bounded from above.

On the other hand, there are obvious discontents to firing people for saying something offensive, which should be weighed against this: It creates insecurities regarding free speech, to say the least (unless you belong to the “soft censorship” crowd who believe that “free speech” just means your speech is protected from government intervention – something hardly anyone would argue for any other fundamental right). It makes our society less honest, which is something I personally find highly loathsome – when people like Tim Hunt apologize, we can never know for sure if they really mean it, or are just caving in under the pressure, a situation that I can’t imagine either to be good for them or any women that work with them. In fact, part of me thinks it would be better if everyone could acknowledge their biases and prejudices openly and without fear of repercussion, so women – and men, and talking raccoons, and everyone – would simply know which PhD advisors etc. to avoid, and all people who don’t get along could happily ignore each other. And, thirdly, just as a discriminatory atmosphere may cause our society to lose talented scholars, so can absolute intolerance for people occasionally being jerks. Whatever personal flaws someone might have, science still might lose the input of a brillant person. In this case, a Nobel Prize winner.

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