“Witch hunts”, Tim Hunt, and sexism in science

tim-huntAs with “shirtgate”, where Rosetta scientist Matt Taylor was in the news for wearing a shirt depicting naked scantily-clad women, the Tim Hunt case has prominently featured Richard Dawkins, telling us how to understand feminism and the issue of sexism in science.

In his letter to The Times (paywalled, so – sorry – I’m linking to the Daily Mail‘s quotes of the letter), Dawkins says:

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.’

One might hope that Dawkins is demonstrating “disproportionateness” via example, but he’s no doubt serious in this one-sided portrayal of events. Not only that, he’s perpetuating a misunderstanding he found in the libertarian Reason.com in his “moment to savour” quote – the Guardian quote, in context, reads:

Yet this is a moment to savour. Hunt has at last made explicit the prejudice that undermines the prospects of everyone born with childbearing capabilities.

In other words, it’s not the Hunt resignation that the author is savouring, but rather the opportunity it provides for discussing the ingrained sexism that is still experienced by women in professional settings such as laboratories (not to mention elsewhere).

When the speaker of the offensive remarks has felt the need to apologise, fully acknowledging that the remarks were inappropriate, seeing a senior male scientist like Dawkins describing reaction to those as a “feeding frenzy of mob-rule self-righteousness” is unlikely to reassure anyone who has concerns regarding perceived or actual sexist treatment of women in the workplace.

Yes, it’s true that some on social media had strong words to say about and to Tim Hunt. I don’t think it clear that this forced his dismissal, though. As usual, one can find evidence to support the case you want to make – Hunt and his wife claim that he was “hung out to dry” by University College London, and UCL say that he resigned (from an honorary, not paid, position) before they had a chance to speak with him about the incident.

He says he was joking when he made the remarks. And it’s true that many of the quotes of his remarks have left out the “now seriously” he utters in the second paragraph below:

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.

But the issue is not whether he was joking or not. No reasonable person could doubt that he was intending to make a joke. The issue is what jokes you regard as appropriate or not, in which contexts. In a professional context such as this, addressing a room full of female scientists who have most likely encountered plenty of glass ceilings, this was a stupid and insensitive joke to make.

Furthermore, what Dawkins and others are perhaps not reading is the non-baying-mob part of the Internet, for example these tweets from someone who interviewed Hunt just after he made the remarks in question. Here’s one of the tweets:

Blum goes on to record that Hunt said “he was trying to be honest about the problems” – meaning he perhaps does have the sexist attitudes that the “joke” was purportedly ironising. If so, why should UCL want him in an honorary position?

I don’t know all the facts – very few of us do. And yes, I agree that social media can bring an unreasonable mob to your door. Another speaker at the same event (who confirms Blum’s account) Blum perhaps puts it best, though, in saying:

I do have sympathy for anyone caught in the leading edge of a media storm. But if we are ever to effect change, sometimes we need the winds to howl, to blow us out of our comfort zones. Because the real point here isn’t about individuals, isn’t about Tim Hunt or me.

The real point is our failure, so far, to make science a truly inclusive profession. The real point is that that telling a roomful of female scientists that they aren’t really welcome in a male-run laboratory is the sound of a slamming door. The real point is that to pry that door open means change. And change is hard, uncomfortable, and necessary.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.