In 1983, the British biochemist Timothy Hunt discovered cyclins, a family of proteins that help regulate the life of cells. Eighteen years later, in 2001, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine. Between June 8 and June 10 of this year, the 72-year-old Hunt went from being a universally respected and even beloved figure at the top of the scientific establishment to an instant pariah, condemned everywhere for antiquated opinions about women’s role in science that he does not, in fact, hold.
In only 48 hours, he found himself compelled to resign his positions at University College London and at the august Royal Society (where Isaac Newton and Robert Hooke once fought petty battles) after being told that failure to do so would lead to his outright firing.
The Timothy Hunt affair represents more than the gratuitous eye-blink ruination of a great man’s reputation and career. It demonstrates the danger of the extraordinary, almost worshipful deference that academia, government institutions, and above all the mainstream media now accord to social media. It is yet more evidence of the way moral panic and (virtual) mob rule can be accelerated and intensified by the minimalism of Twitter, with its 140-character posts and its apparently inherent tendency to encourage snap judgments, prejudice, and cruelty.
Fortunately, the story did not end on June 10. In the weeks following the initial assault, some of Hunt’s most ardent persecutors have been exposed as liars or blinkered ideologues, abetted by cynical hacks and academic rivals on a quest to bring him down or use him as grist to a political mill. Hunt’s partial rehabilitation has largely come about thanks to the dogged investigations of Louise Mensch, the British novelist and former conservative member of parliament who lives in New York City and is herself a powerful presence on Twitter. Mensch was alarmed by what she calls ‘the ugly combination of bullying and sanctimony” in the reaction to remarks made by “an evidently sweet and kind” older man.
She did some checking on Twitter and soon found that the two main witnesses for the prosecution contradicted each other. Then she began a more thorough investigation of Hunt’s offending comments and the lack of due process involved in his punishment by various academic and media institutions. The results of her exhaustive research, published on her blog, Unfashionista.com, encouraged an existing groundswell of support for Hunt from scientists around the world but most important from Hunt’s own female colleagues and former students.
As a result, the false picture of Hunt as a misogynist opposed to the equal participation of women in science has mostly been dispelled.
. . . .
On June 8, Hunt was in Seoul to give the opening lecture at the World Conference of Science Journalists. He was also invited to give an informal toast at a luncheon sponsored by the Korea Federation of Women’s Science and Technology Associations. It was this toast—or rather the way it was reported and reacted to—that led to his disgrace.
Speaking for fewer than five minutes, Hunt praised female scientists with whom he has worked, and then he said this:
It’s strange that 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 criticize them, they cry. Perhaps we should make separate labs for boys and girls.
It is not clear whether Hunt had already mentioned that he and his wife met and fell in love when they were working in his lab, or whether he assumed that everyone in the room was aware of this fact and therefore the context of the remark. Hunt continued: “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 the obstacles and despite monsters like me!”
A few hours after the lunch, a British science journalist named Connie St. Louis sent out a tweet to her followers that read:
Nobel scientist Tim Hunt FRS says at Korean women lunch “I’m a chauvinist and keep ‘girls’ single lab.
Beneath the tweet was a photograph of Hunt and more text by St. Louis: “lunch today sponsored by powerful role model Korean female scientists and engineers. Utterly ruined by sexist speaker Tim Hunt FRS.” (The FRS stands for “Fellow of the Royal Society.”) She went on to give an account of the “trouble with girls” speech that left out his “now seriously” verbal transition and praise of women in science and implied that Hunt was seriously advocating sex-segregated labs.
Shared more than 600 times, the St. Louis tweet ignited a combined Internet, social-media, and then print-media firestorm with astonishing speed. Her observations were repeated in news bulletins across the world. But as has happened before when such Twitter posses gather, Hunt himself became aware of it only when the BBC called him as he was about to board a plane to London.
While he was on the flight, the dean of life sciences at University College, London, telephoned his wife—herself a full professor at the school—to say that if Hunt did not immediately resign, he would be fired. No one at University College had even tried to get his side of the story or any independent confirmation of the incident described by Connie St. Louis. On the contrary, two of Hunt’s colleagues had started lobbying against him as soon as they saw the tweets. One of them, Dorothy Bishop, sent this message to the Dean on June 9: “Could we ask that he not be on any appointments or promotions committee given his views.” Another, David Colquhoun, started a Twitter hashtag called #Huntgate and called for Hunt to be expelled from the Royal Society as well as University College. And in short order Hunt was indeed made to resign from the Royal Society’s awards committee and the European Research Commission.
Although St. Louis was the primary author of Hunt’s destruction, she had a pair of allies with whom she apparently plotted his takedown while in Seoul.2 They were her friends Deborah Blum and Ivan Oransky. Blum, a professor of journalism at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and occasional New York Times columnist, took to Twitter right away to back up her old friend, insisting that Hunt never praised women in science during his toast, that he was not joking when calling for segregated labs, and that his remarks had caused great offense to his hosts.
The first website stories about Hunt’s alleged faux pas appeared on June 9. All of them were based on St. Louis’s tweets; none included a response from Hunt himself or comments from the organizers of the event.
. . . .
Buzzfeed ran a story the same day entitled “Nobel prizewinner makes shockingly sexist remarks at journalist meeting.” The writer, Cat Ferguson, reported that Hunt had said that “labs should be segregated by sex.”
Both Ferguson and Zadrozny added a new element to the case against Hunt, claiming that he had also condescendingly thanked women scientists for “making the lunch.” St. Louis later repeated this additional charge in an interview with the BBC. But it was eventually revealed, thanks to the efforts of Louise Mensch, that Hunt never said anything of the kind. In fact the allegedly offensive expression of gratitude had been delivered by a leading Korean—female—politician who stood up before Hunt.
Like most of the science journalists who covered Hunt’s solecism, Zadrozny and Ferguson were content to rely on a handful of tweets as the only evidence in an obviously controversial story. Sadly, the Hunt affair provides ample ammunition for those who believe Internet reporters are a tribe of third-raters with little or no ethical standards or training in Journalism 101.
But there’s another explanation for the fact that reporters such as Zadrozny and Ferguson felt no obligation to verify the facts of the case or do any old-fashioned reporting. In their cases, the temptation to cut journalistic corners may have been overwhelming. That’s because for anyone with an ax to grind about gender equality or sexism in science, this was one of those stories that the tabloids used to label (jestingly for the most part) “too good to check.”
Link to the rest at Commentary and thanks to Antares for the tip.
Everything is political. I will never be a politician or even think political. Me just deal with life and nature. That is the greatest thing to me.