Monday, November 23, 2015

A Brief History of Tim's Trouble with Girls

(Some texts are written mainly to make their titles possible. This is arguably one of them. It is an extract from a longer piece—perhaps one day a book—that I'm writing about or around the Tim Hunt affair. But I post it now with a specific purpose. I imagine it expresses some "casual" or "ingrained" views about gender, perhaps even about women. These are, of course, wholly my own, and neither those of Hawking nor Hunt. My point is that if these were their views they would, in my opinion, have nothing to be ashamed of. Nor am I at all ashamed of the views I express here. I am, however, willing to discuss them seriously with Dan Waddell and* Philip Moriarty. If they find that my position is not offensive, we can go on to the next step, namely, to attempt to persuade them that Hunt may well have meant nothing more than I'm suggesting here. If they find this way of talking about the opposite sex "offensive" and "damaging", we can take the discussion there. A world in which I should not say these things for fear of hurting people strikes me as a very frail one. As I've said before, I hope Hamlet wasn't right about the name of frailty.)

In early October of 2015, the answers to an “Ask Me Anything” session at Reddit with Stephen Hawking were made public. The questions and answers focused mainly on the the prospects and dangers of artificial intelligence—an issue that Hawking has been making a great deal of lately—but one answer of a more personal nature found itself making headlines.

“What mystery do you find most intriguing,” he was asked, “and why?” He offered a one-word answer: “Women,” and then elaborated: “My PA reminds me that although I have a PhD in physics, women should remain a mystery.”

The reaction on social media was not, if you will, a titter, but, if I may, a shudder. Reporting the remark on her Washington Post blog, Rachel Feltman offered the following note: “Ugh, Hawking, really? No. Women aren’t a mystery, we’re just people.” Similar sentiments were expressed elsewhere. Tweeting Feltman’s post to her 30,000+ followers, Katie Mack, who describes herself as an “astrophysicist [and] occasional freelance science writer,” explained her dismay at Hawking’s answer. “It’ll be great,” she said, “when it’s no longer a cute joke for prominent male scientists to pretend women are alien creatures.” That is, she interpreted his remark as a sexist joke.

Mack and Feltman, it seems, could not read Hawking's remark as expressing a sentiment that could also be shared by women, and here just happened to be expressed by a man. Hawking could have said, “The opposite sex,” but that would have been a bit less pithy, if perfectly gender neutral. Moreover, it seems pretty clear that he meant mainly his attraction to the opposite sex, or, still more neutrally, the attraction between sexes. The most intriguing mystery in the universe, for many men and women, is the profound importance and difficulty of dealing with sexual attraction—or what in polite company is called romance. That, surely, is mainly what he was saying.

Indeed, the lack of charity among those who chose to take offense at what he said is really quite remarkable. Here is a physicist whose passion is to understand the very universe that, one might argue, has undertaken humiliate him in the most thorough way imaginable; by striking him with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, it has taken away his ability to control all but a few muscles in his body. Even under this extreme privation, he has the generosity to acknowledge the mystery of the very process that brought him, bodily, into being, through an act that he now presumably enjoys, if at all, only with the greatest of difficulty, and under conditions of enormous compassion. That he would find the kindness, and, let’s suppose, the occasional cruelty, of women “mysterious” under these conditions does not surprise me. That some women would have him keep this sense of wonder to himself, however, is mysterious indeed.

The mild reprimands by feminists like Mack and Feltman were ultimately all that Hawking had to suffer for his honesty about the limits of his understanding. But he was in an important sense lucky to get off so easy. The previous four months had clearly demonstrated how dangerous it can be for scientists when feminist “science writers” on the internet don’t share either their sense of humor or their sense of wonder. I am, of course, thinking of the case of Sir Tim Hunt, the Nobel laureate who was publicly humiliated for remarks he made at an informal luncheon in Seoul in June.

When discussing this case, it has become customary to stipulate that he did, in fact, speak at least 39 words about his "trouble with girls". Most of that trouble was explicitly mutual: he falls in love with them and they fall in love with him. (I know that kind of trouble; and it is, indeed, all that.) He then said something that made a number of people shudder or cringe or perhaps gag or otherwise upset them. He said that, when you criticize them, these women cry. To put a button on it, he said that perhaps, given this trouble, we should consider separate labs for men and women (he may have said "boys and girls"; it is his wont.) That last was, of course, a joke, as reasonable people on both sides have come to acknowledge.

I think the story I just told about Sir Tim's remarks is uncontroversial on points of fact. The controversy is about the consequences of his remarks. In the first instance, it is about about how "damaging" the remarks were. I.e., there is some disagreement about how much damage Tim Hunt caused by saying what he said to about a hundred people in Seoul after lunch. After that, it's a bit of a mess. Hunt's remarks were tweeted and then reported in the media as though he seriously suggested segregated labs, and with the strange spin that he'd said that he found women in the lab sexually distracting (i.e., #distractinglysexy; this early piece in the Guardian by Rebecca Ratcliffe is indicative of the framing that caused the outrage.) Many people, myself included, also initially thought he was saying all or most women cry simply when criticized, not when someone they are in love with, or who is in love with them, criticizes them. We were relieved to find out he was joking, and then everything began to make sense.

As I see it, Sir Tim was trying to talk about gender equality to women as though they were his equals. He was trying to find a comical angle on the serious problem that the phrase "women in science" unfortunately sometimes denotes. Under the circumstances, he was no doubt painfully conscious of being a man. He thought he'd found just the way to put it. (For the record, I think it is a very good way to put it.) The trouble with girls, friends, whether in a lab or anywhere else ... and, yes, yes, damn blast yer intellex, only from a heterosexual man's point of view, of course ... The trouble with girls is love.

*Update: Dan Waddell and I have agreed to stop debating this topic. Apparently, my decision to address myself to him alone, and not Paula Higgins as well, who had not engaged with me personally on this matter, and who Dan had told me he was "consulting" with to see whether, and how, she wanted to engage, was taken as an attempt to "marginalize" his specifically female co-author. (Please note that we're talking about ideas now, not texts, and I don't like to engage with people in teams if they've addressed themselves to me directly.) Anyway, Dan has respectfully declined my challenge, as far as I can tell for the reasons I just stated. I personally think it's a ridiculous excuse not to discuss these issues, and of course (it shouldn't be necessary to say this) reject his accusation that it had anything to do with Paula Higgins' gender.


Elegant Axe Handle said...

I don't see why you make the charitable assumption that Stephen Hawking meant that 'the nature of attraction between the sexes' is mysterious, rather than that 'women' are mysterious. It's a one-word answer to a plainly worded question. You seem to be reading volumes into that word, when the the simpler answer would be that he was providing a stereotypical response.

And if he did mean the stereotypical answer (given your description, I see no reason to think otherwise), then Hawking did make a sexist joke. Perhaps you could share additional context that disposes you to believe otherwise?

That the internet did not flip out, compared with Hunt's case, is less that Hawking got lucky, but that he did not make a sexist joke in a professional context about women in his field.

In the conclusion of your article, you seem to be making the same problematic statement that Tim Hunt did. If the trouble with women "anywhere" is "love", then should women simply give up on the idea that in professional settings they can expect to be treated as professionals? Should they just expect that men will always view them as objects of "love", to the degree that women's presence in a professional setting will always cause "trouble"?

You seem to have a very depressing view of men.

Thomas said...

My view is that when men say that "women" are mysterious, they mean it situations where there is some attraction. He could've have said "Love is the greatest mystery." But that would be sort of sappy. I like that he said it in this way, from his own, inexorably male, perspective. That's how I would have liked to say it. Henry Miller would have been even more direct. I think you can imagine.

Thomas said...

As to your last paragraph Elegant Axe Handle (which is an elegant handle, indeed!) I think, yes, that we should all give up on having purely professional lives. It's messy. One tries to be decent. But there's just so much life going on everywhere. To indicate a difficulty is not despair. Let's just get in there and do it. As Leonard Cohen said, "The doctor's are working day and night, but they'll never ever find a cure for love."

Elegant Axe Handle said...

To be honest, I think that your interpretation of 'what men mean' says more about you than it does about most men. :)

But I suppose you're right that there is no "purely professional" in the workplace, because we're all messy human beings. And yes, let's just get in there and do it.

Thomas said...

Always great to end up on the same page. Be careful out there. Axé!

Johan Fynbo said...

Thanks for your interesting thoughts. I have long followed the Tim Hunt case and been frustrated about what seems like a very unjust treatment of what seems to be a nice person with all the best intentions. There seems to be a strange situation. Everywhere we look in society there is an obvious play going on between the two sexes (and for the homosexuals between us towards people of the same sex but lets ignore that for the sake of the argument). We all more or less consciously try to make ourselves attractive and impressive both towards members of the other sex to show that we are attractive and towards those of our own sex to show that we are impressive competitors. I think this part of heritage from evolution - just look at our cousins among the other great apes. On the other hand there is the notion in some circles that gender is a purely social invention and there fundamentally cannot be any of this "play" visible in our discourse. We have to pretend that we are all purely rational beings and the gender does not exist.

It seems obvious to me that any discrimination has to be opposed. In principle any person of any gender can fill any position in society (almost - I guess there could be exceptions). When it comes to judging each others professional skills we have to ignore gender. But why do we have to assume that men and women are identical (and, e.g., should be equally represented in all types of positions) and why do we have to assume that the mysterious play between the sexes does not exist?

Philip Moriarty said...

Hi, Thomas.

My sincere apologies for the long delay in responding. It's been a hectic week, topped off, as you know, bwith a tweet-spat with Louise Mensch (which I must admit I found very revealing -- it's clear that I've been giving Mensch far too much credit. Let's just say that her debating skills are far from well-honed.)

I think we are going to have to agree to disagree, I'm afraid, when it comes to Hunt. Yes, I agree it was a joke. But just as John McDonnell's awful, awful "Little Red Book" joke after Osborne's speech last week in parliament was hopelessly misplaced and damaging, so too was Hunt's unfunny 'joke'. And when I say damaging, I mean, for one thing, doing damage to the reputation of the Royal Society. (Much as McDonnell's "joke" did real damage to the Labour Party).

Just 2 out of 43 University Research Fellowships went to female researchers in 2014. Hunt's "unbelievably stupid" joke (to quote Mary Collins) needs to be considered in this context. Moreover, to parse it correctly one needs to know the full details of Tim's background. Humour is a very subjective thing. I like my comedy to be witty and intelligent with, at best, insights that make me look at the world in a different way. You think Hunt's joke works. I don't. Like McDonnell's 'quip', Hunt's 'joke' falls flat. It doesn't work in any way. It's buttock-clenchingly cringeworthy because it's so dumb and so ripe for misinterpretation.


Thomas said...

Hi Philip, no worries. I wish you would have taken longer, and then actually taken up the challenge I suggested. Instead of telling me what Collins thought of Hunt's remarks, tell me what you think of my interpretation of Hunt's (and Hawking's) remarks. Leave aside for a moment whether it's reasonable to attribute it to Hunt. Is it a legitimate view of women for a scientists to have? Do I have an acceptable sense of humour? I don't mean whether you like my sense of humour or share my views, of course, just whether they are permissible. If not, like I said, we may as well take the conversation at that level. If they are permissible, however, we have to have the more detailed conversation about how certain we can be they weren't more or less the views Hunt was expressing and/or how tolerant of ambiguity we ought to be. I just wanted to know which disagreement we're having. Until then, we obviously can't "agree to disagree".

Philip Moriarty said...

#1 of 2 comments

OK, Thomas. Fair enough. Against my better judgement -- because I've been around this loop pointlessly with others quite a few times before -- I'll address your interpretation and respond to your questions.

I can understand entirely why Katie Mack wrote "“It’ll be great when it’s no longer a cute joke for prominent male scientists to pretend women are alien creatures" except I'd argue that it's not really a joke, let alone a cute joke. It's not witty or amusing. It doesn't make me giggle. It doesn't even being to raise a smile.

It's just...toe-curlingly naff. Much like a 70s mother-in-law joke from Jim Davidson et al. Luckily, we had the genius of Rik Mayall, Ade Edmondson and colleagues in the early eighties (and, before them, Stephenson, Atkinson, Smith, and Jones (NTNOCN)) to show us that comedy didn't have to be so...unfunny. It could be witty, intelligent, original,

Now, as I've said before elsewhere, my inability to 'appreciate' Hawking's and Hunt's, errm, 'jokes' may well be because I'm a dour, lefty gobshite incapable of raising a smile. That may indeed be true but I have been in tears laughing at, for example, Fr. Ted, The Day Today, On The Hour, The Thick Of It, Life of Brian, Black Adder, H2G2, the aforementioned Young Ones etc.. etc...

I like my jokes to be intelligent. To be original. To puncture stereotypes, rather than reinforce them.

You find Hunt's joke "witty". I don't. At all. It's the polar opposite of wit. Blakemore was entirely correct to refer to it as "appalling silliness". (You argue in your DM to me that you think my interpretation of Blakemore's use of "appalling" to describe TH's comments is flawed. I'd appreciate it if you could explain on just what you're basing that. It seems very clear to me in the context of Blakemore's resignation statement that he did, indeed, find TH's comments appalling.)

I realise that at this point you'll say that I'm missing the self-deprecation angle of the "joke". (As I noted above, I've been round this circuit a number of times previously...). I'm not. I am fully aware that Hunt was, at least in part, attempting to be self-deprecating (although his "I was only being honest" comment, regardless of whether it was meant to refer to his personal circumstances, muddies the waters). But much like McDonnell's "joke" failed because it was so poorly thought out and naff, so too does Hunt's terribly misjudged nonsense about "My trouble with girls...".


Philip Moriarty said...

#2 of 2 comments

You also asked whether your sense of humour is permissible. Well, that's entirely context dependent. I'll ask you again. If I were to stand up in front of an audience of applicants for our physics courses -- and let's just say that they're mature students applying for our Foundation Year (so we can avoid any silly patronising counter-arguments about students not being adults) --- and start off with "My trouble with girls..." and say exactly what Hunt said (those precise 39 words) and follow it up with "But seriously...", would that be fine with you? Permissible?

Or would it be just downright stupid and a liability when it comes to showing that the University of Nottingham treats male and female applicants on an equal footing? The idea that Hunt's background justifies the naffness of his remarks simply doesn't wash with me. Why would anyone think it funny or witty or amusing to state that "My problem with girls is that they cry when criticised"? Naff. Arse-clenchingly naff. The polar opposite of wit.

When it comes to being tolerant of different views, how about we replace "girls" with any other group -- "gays", "Irish", "Jews", "blacks" etc. --- and repeat Hunt's 'joke' word for word. And again, remember that I fully appreciate the idea that it was meant to be self-deprecating. We can dream up many scenarios/'gedankenexperiments' where I could well be making a similar 'joke' in a self-deprecating fashion, particularly when it comes to the Irish. (As you know, I'm Irish). It still doesn't make it witty or anything more than cringe-makingly naff. (And the fact that Hunt himself has muddied the waters about the self-deprecating aspects vs his heartfelt opinions, as you yourself have pointed out, only serves to exacerbate the problem).

Thomas said...

Thanks, Philip. Surely you don't have to have the comic talent of Rowan Atkinson to make a joke at a luncheon? Just as you don't have to be as brilliant as Tim Hunt in a lab to do an experiment.

I'll answer your question about the Foundation Year students in a post soon. I think Samantha Flavell's post (HT Moriarty) provides a nice context for it. After all, in all of these cases (including that of Hunt's remarks in Seoul) one can imagine an institutional response that comes out of our careful and considered reflections on the matter and, by contrast, and if you'll pardon it, a response that comes out of our clenched and cringing arseholes.

Philip Moriarty said...

Thanks for that response, Thomas. The atypical light-hearted flavour is, if not funny, at least a little more engaging than the usual pronouncements from on high!

You asked me specifically to comment on your taste in comedy. You find TH's and Hawking's 'jokes' to be witty. I place the bar just that little bit higher in terms of wit and originality. The type of 'joke' that Hunt/Hawking made is far from the epitome of carefully considered wit. It's --- oh, those arseholes have been clenched enough at this point so let's say, errm -- teeth-grindingly naff and devoid of wit and originality. It does both Hawking's and Hunt's intelligence a great disservice.

Moreover, note that Samantha's post (which she wrote as coursework for a module I teach and for which she received an entirely justified high mark in terms of the quality of the argumentation -- Louise Mensch could learn a thing or two) states the following:

"My defence of Hunt is not so polarised as to categorically place him as a victim of social media and rushed judgements. His insensitively and poorly chosen joke does deserve to be reprimanded, but I think it grossly disproportionate that his whole life’s work should be been reduced to a few unwise words."

I thought that your argument was that TH shouldn't have been reprimanded?