It is now about a month since Sir Tim Hunt, distinguished scientist, Nobel Laureate, and honoured guest, stood up at a conference luncheon in Seoul to make a toast; and as these toasts tend to go, he began with a self-deprecating joke and ended with a graceful tribute. Then they all ate lunch. Nothing to write home about—except someone did write home, via Twitter, treating the self-deprecating joke as a serious expression of sexism and misogyny directed against women in STEM, while erasing the existence of the graceful tribute, and embroidering the narrative with details that made Hunt’s words appear even more heinous. The rest is history.
Two histories, actually. In one version, a loathsome sexist dinosaur shitlord was quite rightly tossed out on his ear, due to the courageous reporting of one Connie St Louis, professor of Science Journalism at City University, London, and one of those who had been mortally offended over lunch. In the other version, a nice old man who also happens to be a world-class scientist with a history of mentoring younger scientists of both sexes was grossly, maliciously misrepresented by a mediocre journalist with a radical “social justice” agenda and an iffy CV. The evidence points to Version Two being the correct one—but at the point when Ms St. Louis first broke the story, her version was all that the world had to go on.
And her version is what people reacted to with mockery and vituperation: her misrepresentation of his actual words, and a whole raft of words that were put into his mouth, and not just by St. Louis. Hundreds of women working in laboratories jumped on the mockery bandwagon with the hashtag #distractinglysexy. UCL demanded Hunt’s resignation even before he arrived home from Seoul. Indignant commentaries, blog posts, and op-eds abounded, some of them outright slanderous. Maki Naro’s repugnant comic strip in Popular Science, for example, put these words into Hunt’s mouth: “What’s the deal with women? Can’t do science with them, can’t do science with them. Ha ha! Take my wife…No, really! She’s always crying!” Later in the strip, Hunt is shown barring a door against women and POC, and holding a young woman of colour down with his foot.
And then there is shock-blogger Rebecca Watson’s vicious take:
“Nobel Laureate and official knight of the British realm Sir Tim Hunt is in the news for telling a bunch of female scientists in Korea that “girls” in labs are bad news because of three things: they fall in love with Hunt, he falls in love with them, and they cry. I’ve figured out why the girls in Hunt’s lab cried: it’s because they can’t understand how they contracted whatever magical curse caused them to fall in love with a gross-ass scraggly-haired septuagenarian sexist asshole. You would cry, too!
After everybody in the world was like, “Hey, that’s a pretty damaging joke, Tim Hunt,” he went on record to apologize. Not for his comments, which he stands behind and made extra clear that they were not a joke, but for the fact that he said the comments in front of journalists. Now that everyone knows what a dipshit he is, he’s probably afraid he can no longer trick grad students into fucking him using the line, “Have you ever touched a Nobel Prize before? How about a Nobel Prize winner?”
Since then, however, we’ve all learned quite a lot more about the two principals. On the one hand, female colleagues and former students have come forward to speak highly of Sir Tim’s long-standing encouragement of women in science. Contrast Watson’s sneers and sniggers with the words of a woman who actually worked with Hunt:
…I know him well and can say that he is not sexist. I once attended a ‘Women in Science’ event where his wife Mary was one of the speakers and where many of the issues that we have read about in the media were discussed. Tim was also in the audience, and I know that he engaged with the problem of discrimination against women scientists and supports efforts to tackle it….He always supported my work, even when my research project took a different direction from the lab’s main expertise…When my European grant ended, it was exclusively thanks to Tim that I got the extra funding guaranteeing me a good amount of time to continue my project after my maternity leave. At the time, we had several chats about my future. I had doubts about a career as a group leader, but Tim said I was good at science and technically very skilful, giving me the encouragement that I needed.
On the other hand, Connie St. Louis has been shown to be economical with the truth as regards both her own resumé, and her account of the fateful luncheon. Other accounts surfacing over the next few days put her partial quote into context, and shed a very different light on her outraged interpretation. Fact-checking by the colourful Louise Mensch pulled together more of the picture. It became clear that Hunt was not seriously advocating same-sex labs; that no crack was made about the womenfolk making lunch; and that the audience did not sit stony-faced and offended while Hunt wittered on for five to seven minutes of unfiltered sexism. A Russian journalist present at the luncheon wrote:
My name is Nataliya Demina, I am a science journalist from Russia. I was at that Lucheon where Tim Hunt delivered his speech. Actually it was a toast and he was asked to say something, it was not his initiative to say a speech. You can see my video – a fragment of Tim Hunt’s lecture. It was really interesting about passion and game in research. For me Tim Hunt’s speech was a joke. I remember that many of my colleagues smiled and applauded to Tim. And I was completely shocked to to see the accusations against him. I don’t remember if Hunt told “now seriously . . .” but I do remember that his speech was divided into 2 parts – a joke and a serious one. And he began his first part by smth like “They say that I am a male chauvinist (ha-ha). And let me tell you about my troubles with girls…” During this part Tim laughed and people also laughed. And the 2nd part was quite serious about the conference… I tried to defend Tim Hunt in Twitter (demna25) but perhaps I was alone.
Clearly, Ms Demina is not a native English speaker—yet it seems she was perfectly able to understand Sir Tim’s gently joky intentions.
It should be clear by now that (a) Connie St. Louis and a couple of her colleagues at the luncheon either had a total comprehension fail, or were willing to be dishonest to further their agenda; (b) Tim Hunt is not now, and has never been, a sexist; and (c) the facts will not make a blind bit of difference to those eager to believe the worst of old white males. And speaking of “old”—this whole affair has reeked of ageism, from Watson’s juvenile smut, to pitying or patronizing comments suggesting that a man of Hunt’s generation would be expected to be sexist, to be unwilling to accept that women can do science too.
Children, Sir Tim Hunt came of age in the 1960s. His generation was the one that began taking it for granted that men would share in domestic duties and childcare as a matter of course, that women would have careers and independent finances, that orgasms were not a male prerogative, and lady-brains were just as good as gentleman-brains. We called them “liberated males”, to distinguish them from “unreconstructed males,” and they were not perfect, but they were definitely egalitarian. If Sir Tim is behind the times, it is in being naive about the humorless, McCarthyist ideology of the Social Justice warriors, and in treating women merely as equals, colleagues, and fellow human beings.
The council of UCL will meet shortly (Thursday 9th July) with this issue on the agenda, but it is almost certain that Hunt will not be reinstated. UCL’s Provost Professor Michael Arthur “has already stated that he believes that reinstating Sir Tim would send out ‘entirely the wrong signal’ and his comments ‘contradict the basic values of UCL.’”
So apparently the right signals to send out are that slander, misrepresentation, and twitter-lynching are perfectly okay; that evidence, reason, and charity are trumped by political correctness; and that a reputation built over a lifetime of honourable service can be undone by one third-rate ideologue’s malice.