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“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.

8 replies on ““Witch hunts”, Tim Hunt, and sexism in science”

My feeling is that yes, we should not make jokes about women in the sciences (as I am one myself). These jokes by these men are annoying and repellent: men in academia should not do this. But Hunt was certainly abandoned by LSU; his side of the situation was not considered at all, the university was too spineless to stand up for him or acknowledge this is a gaffe but not a malevolent action nor even a statement meant as an insult to women in general. And, beyond that, is the fact that a huge percentage of the people who share posts ridiculing the man and showing false outrage are doing so purely to be malicious; they are acting out of joyful Schadenfreude.

On what do you base the “huge percentage” claim? How do you know it’s false outrage and not real outrage? Bit of irony there.

It’s nice of Hunt’s colleagues to show some support for him, but I teach high school science. The girls in my classes are already well outnumbered by the boys, and this is not representative of the school’s total student numbers. What would motivate me to FAKE my displeasure at someone who ought to be a role model (however minor and obscure), instead adding to the pile of crap I work to shovel off my girls?

No fake outrage is necessary.

“And, beyond that, is the fact that a huge percentage of the people who share posts ridiculing the man and showing false outrage are doing so purely to be malicious; they are acting out of joyful Schadenfreude.”

That’s a fact, is it? What’s your source for that claim? Are you psychic? Do you have some reason to believe that all of these people are lying out of malice? How absolutely ludicrous to claim as fact something you actually just made up out of whole cloth. Bonus points for the irony of your made up “fact” being that others are faking their outrage.

Thank you for another great post. I may have discovered a minor error though.

Another speaker at the same event (who confirms Blum’s account) perhaps puts it best, though, in saying:

I do have sympathy for anyone caught in the leading edge[…]

Emphasis added.As far as I can tell that is also Blum’s account, as she is also the author of the article you quote.

You’re not seriously defending the treatment Matt Taylor received during #shirtgate?

You say Richard Dawkins are telling us “how to understand feminism.” I find that incredibly ironic for someone that, during #shirtgate, wrote this about his South African readership:

“And it’s the South African responses that are annoying me, particularly on Facebook. They – like much of the international commentary, to be fair – are setting up an entirely false dichotomy between “feminist rage”, involving allegations of hypocrisy (“first you say we can wear what we like, but Taylor can’t?”); bullying (“Taylor harassed into a tearful apology”) offset against “the things that really matter”, whether it be the science itself, or the real root causes of sexism.”

So that’s you telling your South African readership that they are misunderstanding feminism. I haven’t seen anything from Dawkins saying he wants to educate people on what feminism means. Who’s the one trying to tell us “how to understand feminism”, exactly?

In this case, with Tim Hunt, he’s saying that a joke Hunt made was taken out of context by an opportunist (Connie St. Louis) and because of this the media initiated a witch-hunt where he was forced to resign. A Nobel laureate, who sarcastically referred to himself as a ‘chauvinistic monster’, was forced to resign because something he said was redacted, mainly ‘Now seriously, science needs women.’ I’m not surprised people are upset.

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