Why what Tim Hunt said in Seoul matters
On June 7 the biochemist Tim Hunt, above, a Nobel laureate, addressed a lunch for women scientists at the World Conference of Science Journalists in Seoul, South Korea. He started with his own experience:
Let me tell you about my trouble with girls … three things happen when they are in the lab … You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticise them, they cry.
He added that he thought labs should be single-sex: labs for men and labs for “girls”. His comments were tweeted by Connie St Louis, who directs the science journalism programme at City University, London, and was attending the conference.
The comments were met with outrage from women scientists along with women who don’t like to be told they’re distracting crybabies at work. The Royal Society, of which Hunt is a fellow, tweeted that:
Tim Hunt’s comments don’t reflect our views.
On June 9 it issued a statement saying it had:
Acted to distance itself from reported comments by Sir Tim Hunt FRS about women in science made during an event at the World Conference of Science Journalists in Korea.
Two days later Hunt offered his resignation from the Society’s Biological Sciences Awards Committee, and the Society accepted. He also resigned from his position as honorary professor at University College London, and stepped down from the European Research Council’s Science Department.
It’s a familiar enough story. Big Name person says horrible sexist or racist thing, loses some gigs or honors or respect, repents or sulks, and the world moves on. The swift disassociations seemed perhaps a little harsh – I cringed for him a bit – but at the same time they also seemed like progress: institutional understanding that it’s not ok for senior male scientists laden with honours to express contempt for their female colleagues at professional conferences.
It seemed like recognition, after decades of trying, of the fact that constant routine disparagement of underlings is a barrier to those underlings. Basically I was pleased to see the institutions making that so clear. “No, guys, you can’t go to conferences and say women are a problem in the lab and should be segregated – not with our endorsement you can’t.”
But there was a reaction to the reaction, a backlash against the backlash. Tim Hunt and his wife Mary Collins, a professor of immunology at UCL, complained to the Observer science editor Robin McKie that Hunt had been “hung out to dry”. A number of reactionary commentators hastened to denounce the “witch hunt” (yes, people actually said that) against Hunt.
It was interesting to see how willing the commentators were to misrepresent the whole thing in order to make their case. “Sacked over a joke!” they cried. “No one is safe!” But he wasn’t sacked, and it wasn’t a mere “joke”. He lost three honorary positions – unpaid positions, no-contract positions – and his “joke” was delivered at a professional science conference to an audience of women scientists.
Brendan O’Neill produced one of the purest examples of this systematic obfuscation for Reason online.
The Hunt incident is quite terrifying. For what we have here is a university, under pressure from an intolerant mob, judging a professor’s fitness for office by his personal thoughts, his idea of humour. Profs should be judged by one thing alone: their depth of knowledge. It shouldn’t matter one iota if they are sexist, stupid, unfunny, religious, uncouth, ugly, or whatever. All that should matter is whether they have the brainpower to do the job at hand.
No unwary reader could possibly tell from that that Hunt was not a working professor at UCL at all, but an honorary professor – one with no teaching or research duties, no students, no contract, no tenure. Honorary professors are in fact judged by criteria other than their knowledge, because they’re there as status symbols. UCL had never employed Hunt, as it pointed out in its statement; it had given him an honorary title which comes with a stipulation:
Honorary associations of this type are not employment relationships and UCL reserves the right to withdraw honorary status from an individual at any time.
Some particularly hyperbolic blasts came from Richard Dawkins, who has been specializing in choleric sniping at feminism and “political correctness” on Twitter for a long time. Along with the familiar flurry of tweets, he sent a letter to the Times:
Sir, Along with many others, I didn’t like Sir Tim Hunt’s joke, but “disproportionate” would be a huge underestimate of the baying witch-hunt that it unleashed among our academic thought police: nothing less than a feeding frenzy of mob-rule self-righteousness. A writer in The Guardian even described it as ‘a moment to savour’. To ‘savour’ a moment of human misery — to ‘savour’ the hounding of one of our most distinguished scientists — goes beyond schadenfreude and spills over into cruelty – Professor Richard Dawkins, FRS, Oxford.
The writer in the Guardian – Anne Perkins – did not describe Tim Hunt’s misery as “a moment to savour”; rather she was talking about the fact that Hunt had “made explicit the prejudice that undermines the prospects” of women. It’s a subtle difference, but not all that subtle. In any case I find Dawkins’s use of loaded and emotive phrases like “baying witch-hunt” and “feeding frenzy of mob-rule self-righteousness” shocking.
He has 1.2 million followers on Twitter, and he knows he can inspire them to harass people. (How do I know he knows that? Because I’ve told him so, and he responded.) He knows that if he makes incendiary remarks about feminist women, some of his fans will proceed to harass feminist women. It’s surprising and disturbing that he keeps on making the incendiary remarks anyway.
Flame wars aside, the reason all this misrepresentation of what Hunt said and where he said it matters, along with the melodramatic exaggeration of what happened to him as a result, is because it ignores or denies the actual harm done when senior people with fame and power express contempt for their underlings.
There’s a massive body of research on the effects of this kind of contempt on the people who are objects of it. Institutionalized contempt is a barrier for those people. There’s a myth, perhaps especially popular among freethinkers because it appeals to some of our core aspirations, that people can and should simply grit their teeth and work harder and rise above all that contempt … but, sadly, it doesn’t work that way. The mental effort used to grit the teeth and rise above is mental effort diverted from the work to be done – so performance suffers. There’s no magic that makes it possible to grit and rise above without effort. It would be so useful if there were, but there isn’t.
In any case, it’s not obvious that we should have to. Why should we be made to struggle to overcome contempt and hostility? Why can’t we tell the people on top to stop kicking us down?