Tim Hunt: Nobel laureate's comments about girls and science.

Sexism and Its Inevitable Backlash

Sexism and Its Inevitable Backlash

Bad Astronomy
The entire universe in blog form
July 1 2015 7:00 AM

Which Hunt?

women in science

Photo by Shutterstock/Jef Thompson

In early June, Nobel laureate Tim Hunt was asked to speak at a luncheon sponsored by the Korea Federation of Women’s Science and Technology Associations at a science communications meeting in South Korea.

What he said there is now Internet history. He made a series of sexist comments, saying that the problem with “girls” in science is that they fall in love with the men; the men fall in love with them; and when you confront them, they cry. He then went on to suggest labs should be single-sex.

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When I first read this, I figured it was a joke. A very poorly conceived one, and a really dumb one to make, especially given that crowd. But there’s a lot more to it than that.

Many science journalists were at the lunch and witnessed the whole thing, including Deborah Blum, Ivan Oransky, Charles Seife, and Connie St. Louis. After discussing what they saw and heard, they decided St. Louis should write an article about it in a blog post at Scientific American.* What’s very important to note here is that both Blum and Oransky have corroborated St. Louis’ report, multiple times. Seife did as well. Blum asked Hunt about his comments, and he confirmed that he thought women were too emotional to work with men in labs.

In other words, it’s clear that even if he framed it as a joke, he was being sincere in his meaning and intent.

Then it all hit the fan. For one thing, on Twitter, news of his comments went viral very rapidly. The hashtag #distractinglysexy went viral, an amusingly tongue-in-cheek way for women to mock the idea that women are too emotional or liable to fall in love in the lab. For another, Hunt was asked to resign from his honorary position at the University College London. He also resigned from the board of the European Research Council and the Biological Science Awards Committee of the Royal Society.

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Mind you, he is a retired professor, and was not fired or asked to resign from any paying positions. He lost no employment over this, despite some people claiming otherwise.

At this point the backlash began. Richard Dawkins, who, honestly, should know better by now than to wade into controversies about sexism, defended Hunt against what he termed a “witch hunt.” However, there didn’t appear to be any organized campaign to get him fired, and furthermore the University College London says it did not ask him to step down due to the social media uproar, but because of Hunt’s own remarks.

A lot of electrons have been spilled over whether Hunt went on to say, “Now seriously…,” which would indicate he was actually joking. Seife (who, again, was there at the luncheon) says Hunt never said this.

Hunt’s comments and the defense of them were bad enough, but the situation has taken an even worse turn.

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The execrable Daily Mail has waded into this. On Friday, it published what can only be called a hit piece on Connie St. Louis which, bizarrely, was endorsed by Dawkins.

To say the article is problematic is to severely understate the case. It attacks St. Louis’ credentials; however, she is an award-winning journalist, former president of the Association of British Science Writers and was recently elected to the board of the World Federation of Science Journalists. The City University London (where she is a senior lecturer) has publicly supported her after the Daily Mail article came out. St. Louis points out numerous errors in the article there as well.

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Not to put too fine a point on it, the Daily Mail is to journalism what ipecac is to digestion. Also, a perusal of links to their articles running down the right-hand side of their site doesn’t exactly show them to be champions of women’s rights.

I also found it very odd that the article also dismisses statements corroborating St. Louis’ claims by Blum and Oransky (and it doesn’t even mention Seife)—who, I remind you, were all there at the luncheon and agree on what happened. Why single out St. Louis here?

And now another attack piece on St. Louis has been posted on the far-right-wing Breitbart site, saying she has become immune from criticism because she’s black.

Yes, you read that right. And that’s not all. In a sentence so tone deaf I’d swear it’s parody, the author, Milo Yiannopoulos, writes*:

St Louis is responsible for the sacking of Sir Tim Hunt, a Nobel prize-winning biochemist who became the target of an online lynch mob after his comments about women in science were taken out of context.
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Yes, again, you read that right. You might ignore the obviously incorrect statements in that one sentence (Hunt wasn’t sacked, he was asked to resign from an honorary position; and as we’ve seen his comments were not taken out of context), but it’s much harder to ignore that, in an article attacking a woman because she’s black, Yiannopoulos used the phrase “lynch mob.”

Yikes.

Yiannopoulos, for his part, is a vocal advocate for Gamergate, a movement that claims it’s  “actually about ethics in gaming journalism” (a phrase so thin it’s become a standard Internet joke), but which has also been viciously attacking women online. Yiannopoulos appeared on the British 24-hour news channel Sky News to “debate” this topic with Dr. Emily Grossman; while glib, his arguments were unconvincing, and unsurprisingly Grossman has been receiving misogynistic backlash for her appearance (that link also shines a light on more of Yiannopoulos’ incorrect statements).

Clearly, this is quite the rabbit hole.

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A lot of people are trying to squeeze this whole Tim Hunt affair in a “he said/she said” frame, but what they’re missing is twofold: Even if he was making a joke initially, he meant what he said, and that’s why he’s suffered the consequences of it, and either way this event has once again shone a spotlight on the rampant sexism in society in general and in the sciences specifically.

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

So what now? The good news is that at least this important issue is getting airtime, getting discussed. The problem is it’s also getting hijacked, distorted, and drowned out by nonsense. This happens every time institutionalized sexism is discussed.

As always, it’s important for men to speak up as well. This isn’t a women’s problem, clearly. It’s something we all need to be aware of and to speak up about.

And in the end, while the spotlight may be on Hunt and what he said, that light has certainly cast a very large reflection on the rest of us.

Here are other articles I’ve written on this issue:

*Correction, July 1, 2015: This post originally misspelled the last name of writer Milo Yiannopoulos. Also, I originally wrote that the article St. Louis wrote about the luncheon was for her blog, but it was for a guest post on Scientific American.