(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.