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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2 Responses to The Tim Hunt Affair

  1. Synthetase says:

    “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”

    Actually, as someone who’s spent a great deal of time in academia, the stakes are anything but small to the people there. There’s very little room for meaningful career advancement and since the job market for academics is far smaller than that of other professions, people guard their positions very carefully indeed – in addition to playing nasty politics for the limited promotion opportunities.

  2. Tim Hall says:

    Good point there. I was using an old quote which may not have been that accurate.

    It’s certainly true in the tech industry that those who devote all their energy into engineering solutions often end up being outmanouvered by those who spent more of it on corporate politics.