Along with an awful lot of other people, I owe Sir Tim Hunt an apology. I’d previously said he was guilty of misjudged tone-deaf comments that, while not a sacking offense, were deserving of ridicule. Now it’s looking as though the accusations against him were false. He’s been completely exonerated by Sir Paul Nurse, the president of the Royal Society. As reported in The Times.
Connie St Louis, the journalist who gave her version of Sir Tim’s toast, to a lunch for women in science last month, described the horror with which his demeaning of women in science was received. “There was a deathly silence,” she said. “Nobody was laughing . . . these guys are incredibly upset. And so after he’d finished, there was just this deathly, deathly silence.”
That did sound bad. And Ms St Louis drove home her point on BBC television. “It was a room of about a hundred people.” she said. “Nobody was laughing . . . everybody was stony-faced.”
That would rightly cause a storm if any of it were true. Except it wasn’t. As more evidence has come to light it’s become clear that no only were Sir Tim Hunt’s comments taken so out of context that their meaning was completely reversed, but the “deathly, deathly silence” was completely false.
While we’re seeing a lot of justified criticism of Twitter mobs made up of people who didn’t bother to check facts before piling in on an issue that fits their chosen narrative, I think a lot of Tim Hunt’s early accusers deserve some slack. The initial accusation came from someone holding the post of Professor of Science Journalism at City University in London, who ought to have been a reputable source. The fact that this person behaved in the manner that resembles the amoral hacks from celebrity gossip scandal sheets does leave City University with serious questions to answer.
These sorts of public witch-hunts achieve nothing when it comes to reducing the amount of sexism and racism in the world. If anything they have the opposite effect, by empowering the worst bigots on the opposing side. Look how Requires Hate has boosted the standing of Vox Day. I do sometimes hear the argument that it’s necessary to destroy the careers and reputations of innocent people “‘pour encourager les autres”, but I for one utterly reject that as totalitarian garbage.
It’s not about justice, it’s about power.