Saturday, 20 June 2015

criticising criticising criticism of a critcism

Here’s a few interesting posts about the Tim Hunt story:

In Sympathy for the Devil?, Michael Eisen provides some interesting background to the original story.  That background makes it even worse.

Another thoughtful entry in the debate is Janet D. Stemwedel’s post on why Good Scientists Should Publicly Criticize Tim Hunt's Claims.

I had assumed there were women involved in the history of Hunt’s discoveries.  Helen Cahill’s Guardian piece provides some details on The unseen women scientists behind Tim Hunt’s Nobel prize.

So, the story so far:
  • Tim Hunt criticises women (oh, my bad, “girls”) for being far too sensitive to criticism to do science.  When explicitly asked about his statements, he said he was trying to be honest,
  • Several women (and some men) call out Hunt for his blatant sexism.  And an amusing line of “distractingly sexy” photos gets tweeted.  
  • Hunt appears rather sensitive to this criticism.
  • Many men (and some women) then criticise these people for criticising Hunt, using oh so reasoned and non-hyperbolic terms like “baying witch hunt” and “feeding frenzy of mob-rule self-righteousness”.
So, when a man makes a sweeping statement of how women should be kept out of the lab, it’s just a joke, banter, unimportant.  When women call him out on it, that’s a witch-hunt, stifling academic freedom, a lynch mob, thought police.

The usual double-standard at play.

It’s not so much the original comments, bad enough as they are, as the doubling down and not-pologies and subsequent whinging, that causes the fury, by the way.  Other prominent people have made a huge gaffe, had it brought to their attention, realised they did wrong, apologised sincerely, and things have moved on (apart from a few people trying to say they were bullied into apologising, because, hey, why else would they have done so?).  Tim Hunt needs to learn about the first rule of holes.

Oh, and if an eminent scientist were to say that labs should be racially-segregated, or something equally racist, and was called out on it, would these people leap to his defence then, saying it was just a joke?  I suspect not.  So what does that tell you about how the defenders view this issue?


  1. Susan, I really enjoy your blog but this post is seriously dishonest. Let's have a look at what he actually said:

    "It’s strange that such a chauvinist monster like me has been asked to speak to women scientists. 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. Perhaps we should make separate labs for boys and girls?
    Now seriously, I’m impressed by the economic development of Korea. And women scientists played, without doubt an important role in it. Science needs women and you should do science despite all the obstacles, and despite monsters like me."

    He was talking about his own experience, and he was quite clearly making a joke at his own expense. To claim that he "[made] a sweeping statement of how women should be kept out of the lab" is simply untrue.

    It's fine to call him out on his comments -- but deliberately and aggressively misconstruing what he said and/or not reading what he actually said *in context* is intellectual laziness.

    1. Dear "anonymous"

      Since there is apparently no transcript made at the time, only after the event from memory, your quotation marks are marking a paraphrase. But let's say he did indeed say "now seriously", flagging the previous statement as an attempt at a joke. That is irrelevant. A sexist joke is still sexist.

      To see this, just replace "women/girls" with "black/boys" throughout. Go on, do it.

      Still an acceptable "self-deprecating" comment? No. (Well, it better not be!) So it's not acceptable here, either. You can't just say something is "a joke", a "self-deprecating joke" even, to magically make it just fine. Saying outrageous things, relying on damaging stereotypes, then saying "just joking", is what bullies do.

      And that "non-joking" material after the "now seriously" is also sexist. "Science needs women [it wouldn't be wrong to say these things to you in a domain that doesn't need women] and you should do science despite all the obstacles [you must accept those obstacles, rather than having them removed], and despite monsters like me [because *I'm* not going to change *my* behaviour to level the playing field]." Ye gods! *This* is the context you are using to defend him?!

    2. Dear Susan,

      You have to remember that he's 72 years old. It is not that uncommon to call women "girls" and men "boys" if you're of that generation. And when you're at his age, you feel like almost everyone younger than you is either a girl or a boy. It's simply a generational thing.

      I take your point about replacing gender with race. I agree that his words might be offensive to women. But at worst he *said* something foolish and without any sort of real-life implications. And as I wrote before it's fine to call him out it. But does he really deserve to get fired from two positions (the resignation from UCL was anything but) for *half a minute* of throwaway speech? Does he deserve all the hatred that has been pouring in on him -- never mind the fact that he has worked with and supported female students and colleagues (and vice versa) throughout his career?

      For example, let me quote the Guardian article you linked to.

      "But the most important people in the story have been drowned out: the women scientists who are living proof of just how wrong Hunt is."
      Wrong about what? He never said anything about the quality of women scientists!

      "In his Nobel lecture, Hunt lauded the simple, but brilliant, experiments of Ruderman and Katherine Swenson, who were the first to show that cyclins bring about cell division. He described their experiments as “electrifying”, saying the women produced a “spectacular result” that “made people sit up and take note”. Admittedly, there are shamefully few women in Hunt’s personal “cell cycle story”, but he clearly respects their scientific insights and has directly benefitted from their input, making it extremely hard to understand why he thinks working with women is a waste of his time."
      The idiocy of this paragraph and especially the last sentence needs no remark.

      I won't bore you with more quotes but this is part of the "baying witch hunt": people like the author of that Guardian piece deliberately lying and defaming someone's character with absolutely no basis. So I think it is not hyperbolic to say that there is a frenzied mob of self-righteousness.. just look at the media.

    3. Dear "anonymous"

      Thanks for agreeing "his words might be offensive to women". I think the response to them would allow you to stregthen that "might be" a little.

      Despite this agreement, you then say
      "at worst he *said* something foolish and without any sort of real-life implications".
      (Again, would you have said that if it had been the racist version of the speech? Really?)

      Anyway, clearly it did have real-life implications!
      For a start, his hosts were "not alone in seeing these comments as sexist and damaging to science" and demanded an apology.
      If you want to play the age card, then you also have to admit he comes from a time when *offending your host* is about as bad as it gets.

      And further, this sort of speech demonstrably *does* have real-life implications for the *targets* of the speech. See
      which says, among other things:

      "Ford and Ferguson concluded that jokes don’t create hostility to the outgroup where it doesn’t already exist. But the evidence, they said, showed that joking reinforces existing prejudice. If you joke about women and get away with it, those who are hostile to women will see this as social sanction for their views and behavior. The joke tellers don’t themselves have to be actively misogynist to end up encouraging others to be."

      So the implication is clear: they shouldn't get away with it. As Uta Frith says
      we should call out such put-downs. And the recipient (and the recipient's defenders) should embrace criticism (as hard as that is to do, of course!), because, after all, "if they burst into tears, it means that you tend to hold back from getting at the absolute truth."

      You claim that the piece you quote is "lying and defaming" because it expresses some inferences of the actual words spoken. Well, "they never said [the precise thing you state]", despite the thing being a clear implication of what was literally said (if only to those who are well used to hearing these sort of coded messages *all the time*), is a standard defence up there with the passive-aggressive "just joking" ploy.

      So no, the only "baying witch hunt" I see is from the (mostly relatively powerful) people trying to silence the (mostly relatively junior) critics. As said here:
      "with great power comes great responsibility" -- including the responsibility not to defend others with power from the consequences of their mistakes, to the detriment of the less powerful. (I recommend the David Morrison video quoted at that link.)