Tag Archives: Tim Hunt

The Tim Hunt saga contines

Just when you thought that perfect storm of social media outrage and backstabbing academic politics, the Tim Hunt saga, was fading away, it’s all flared up again with Colin Blakemore’s resignation as honorary president of the Association of British Science Writers.

Their reporting of his departure is awful example of weasel-worded dishonesty.

We have accepted with regret Sir Colin Blakemore’s resignation as honorary president of the ABSW, with thanks for his support and assistance over the years.  He has made it clear that he disagrees irreconcilably with the statement we issued in June about media attacks on our former president, Connie St Louis.

As anyone looking at this web site knows already, this relates to her reporting of remarks to the Korea Federation of Women’s Science and Technology Associations by Sir Tim Hunt at the World Conference of Science Journalists in Seoul on June 8. Sir Tim has not disputed the accuracy of St Louis’s reporting and has apologised to the Federation for his comments. Sir Paul Nurse, president of the Royal Society, is on record as saying that Sir Tim’s comments were unacceptable.

Sir Paul Nurse withdrew his initial comments and has since completely exonerated Sir Tim. But their statement completely fails to mention this.

What’s also telling is the way it uses Sir Tim Hunt’s apology as an admission of guilt, in the manner of a Soviet show trial or medieval witch hunt. It’s a natural human response to apologise when you’ve inadvertently caused offence, something we’re taught to do as a means of de-escalating conflict. But it relies on the other party playing by same rules of of etiquette, and that does not seem to be the case here. It looks far more like dealing with an aggressive bully, to whom a forced apology just gives them power.

The story is no longer about Tim Hunt himself, but about the misreporting both by Connie St. Louis and other parts of the media. This does make the stories of her inflating and exaggerating her qualifications and experience on her CV published online at City University entirely relevant.

St. Louis is a director of The Association of British Science Writers. While it’s human nature to close ranks and circle the wagons, they’re starting to look as credible FIFA under Sepp Blatter.

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The case against Tim Hunt unravels.

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.

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The Tim Hunt Affair

Tim Hunt (Wikimedia Commons)I’m not exactly sure how you’re supposed to react when you’re retweeted by Louise Mensch.

The context was a conversation about the ongoing Tim Hunt affair. For anyone who’s not been following the story he’s the Nobel-winning scientist and honorary professor at UCL who’s been forced to resign his honorary professorship because of allegedly sexist remarks made at a conference in South Korea.

It’s an ongoing controversy because there are still conflicting reports of his actual words, their precise context, and the reaction of his audience, since there’s no recording or transcript of his improvised off-the cuff speech. There is also concern over his and his wife’s claims that he was forced to resign without being given the chance to present his side of the story.

From what’s been reported it’s sounding like at worst a tone-deaf attempt at humour than didn’t work, deserving of reprimand and perhaps a certain amount of ridicule, but hardly a firing offence. Many of his supporters are now claiming he’s been deliberately misrepresented and quoted out of context by people with political or personal agendas.

It’s naturally being framed as part of the ongoing sexism-in-science culture wars, and it’s attracted the attention of many of the usual suspects from both sides of the ugly turf war between geek feminism and techno-libertarianism. If, as has been suggested, Tim Hunt has been badly misquoted, the science press isn’t covering itself with glory either; rather than reporting the science they’ve emulating the muck-raking gossip-driven tabloids, treating scientists who often lack media training like the tabloids treat celebrities.

But I’m getting a growing impression that his abrupt dismissal isn’t primarily about sexism at all; it’s really rooted in the ugly backstabbing nature of academic politics, which has a reputation for being notoriously vicious precisely because the actual stakes are so small. The behaviour of one of Tim Hunt’s most vocal accusers, another UCL professor and Royal Society Fellow who is as old, white and male as Tim Hunt himself reinforces this impression. I won’t name this person because he gives me the impression he ego-surfs, but he’s been described on Twitter as “Gallowayesque”, and that sounds like a very good description. He certainly comes over as a thoroughly nasty piece of work on social media, going full ad-hominem on anyone who dares to disagree with him. The sight of a man in a powerful position trashing a woman using very ugly slurs in the name of feminism isn’t a pretty one.

So, is the Tim Hunt affair more about bitter academic rivalry than about sexism?

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