Thursday, November 26, 2015

A Note on KOFWST and Tim Hunt

[This post is occasioned by the Korean Federation of Women's Science and Technology Associations's new statement about the Tim Hunt affair.]

Back in July, when I was first writing about Tim Hunt, I reached out to KOFWST for comment about their puzzling behavior. I was not able to get them to go on record, but I did manage to find a woman scientist who had attended the luncheon and was familiar with the inner workings of KOFWST. On condition of anonymity, she told me that the public scandal first became known to KOFWST on the last day of the conference. Koreans, she told me, are generally polite and courteous and tend not to complain or blame someone openly, especially one of their guests. My sense was that they would have preferred not to embarrass Tim Hunt but felt unable to ignore the issue once it had become public.

As I said back then, I think they handled the matter rather badly. And the latest statement they've issued doesn't improve my opinion of the organization. Like Connie St Louis and Deborah Blum, who were representatives of WFSJ and WCSJ respectively, I think Hee Young Paik, as the president of KOFWST, went public with concerns that should have been taken to Sir Tim, their guest, in private first.* As in the case of St Louis' tweet, it is easy to imagine a much more dignified response from KOFWST.

After contacting him, and sharing with him their embarrassment over the unfortunate coverage of his remarks, KOFWST could have accepted his apology and issued a simple press release:

KOFWST has been in contact with Sir Tim, who has expressed his deep regrets over the way his remarks were interpreted. He assures us that he meant no offense and has offered a complete apology for his own part in the affair, which KOFWST is happy to accept. We are satisfied that his intention was to praise the many accomplishments of women in science, of which he has been a lifelong supporter, and we consider the matter closed.

Maybe a PR person could find an even better way of putting it, but something like this would, to my mind, be more fitting than the baroque two-page jeremiad of a "call for apology" that they published "on behalf of all women scientists in Korea and the world" after receiving Hunt's gracious and contrite apology.

It showed very little of that famous Korean politeness and courtesy. That is why I've always suspected that KOFWST's intervention was instigated by either St Louis or Blum, who, at the time, needed a more "official" statement of outrage than their own (already disintegrating) perception of what had happened at the luncheon.

As I read their "final" statement, KOFWST almost denies this, but only almost. They could have denied any contact with St Louis and Blum, but instead confine themselves to a somewhat guarded denial "that KOFWST’s request to Sir Hunt was influenced by foreign journalists." (I.e., maybe they talked to them, but they didn't let them "influence" their course of action.) Somewhat weirdly, KOFWST thinks that "such allegations ignore undeniable facts and evidence and demonstrate a lack of regard for KOFWST’s autonomy and integrity." It would be more accurate to say that, while there is perhaps little evidence to prove it, many undeniable facts do in fact suggest it, and it of course calls KOFWST's autonomy and integrity into question. That is, [on the face of it,] they have something to answer for.

Like I say, for me, their behavior was suspect from the moment they publicly entered the fray. It seemed ill-tempered and out of proportion. Also, it's not the proper role of a sponsor. They should have taken their concerns, not to Tim Hunt, a guest of the conference and the luncheon, but to WCSJ, the host that had invited him [to the conference] and, presumably, also had invited him to speak [at the luncheon]. Like any sponsor, their only "pull" was the funding they had presumably contributed. The embarrassment wasn't really on them, but on the conference. They needlessly embarrassed both themselves and Sir Tim and the only reason I can imagine is that they were doing St Louis and/or Blum a favor. It certainly did help their "journalistic" case, at least in the short term.

On a personal note, let me say that if KOFWST interprets this post as a defiance of their "warning" to "foreign commentators", so be it. Just as I found their original demand for an apology from Tim Hunt distasteful, I find this statement of their "official and final position" pompous and absurd. They've got questions to answer, and people should be free to draw whatever conclusions help to make sense of their rather bizarre antics.

They're not the only ones who have questions to answer. I've said this many times before, but we STILL have not heard from WCSJ or WFSJ. We've been waiting for a long time.

*Update (7/12/15): Jane Carnall is puzzled by this criticism. Didn't KOFWST precisely contact Sir Tim by private email first and only afterwards publish his apology along with their request for it? I'm not privy to the correspondence itself, but as I understand it, the "call for apology" was sent to Hunt, including the 24 hour deadline stated in the version that was subsequently made public. If I had received such a mail I would not have seen it as an attempt to resolve the issue privately with a view to making a public statement that saved face on both sides (of the kind I propose in this post). Rather, it seems very clearly to contain the implicit threat that if an apology is not forthcoming, that fact, along with the call, would be released to the press. I may have hoped that my apology would be published without that jeremiad enumerating the outraged misunderstanding that occasioned the whole thing, but when it did all get out, I don't think I'd have been surprised. In any case, I don't see the approach that KOFWST took as an especially "private" one.


Faye Getz said...

I would note that Paik is USA educated, by the way (Harvard School of Public Health), and may have learned bad manners there. She also has strong connections in London with something called Portia. In any case, she, CSL and DB all share an obsession with making it appear that the lunch guests were all of one mind about TH (even extending, as you note, to every woman scientist in the world!)

chris westwood said...

This is a very good response. Having read the statement from Korea it appears they are desperate to derail your endeavors. You are obviously getting very close. I take my hat off to you, Thomas, Debbie, and the few other active supporters working with you. To the whole industry of corrupt and crooked journalists you are up against I have nothing but contempt. But no words can describe my utter abhorrence for university academics who choose their company for no other reason than to score political or ideological points.

richard.jowsey said...

Very well said, Thomas. My sentiments exactly.

richard.jowsey said...

As an expert in textual analysis and classification, I can state with very high confidence that there were 2 authors of the "KOFWST Demand for Apology" letter sent to Sir Tim Hunt. One of the author's linguistic style and phraseology closely matches that of Deborah Blum, notably the phrase "personal story told as a joke". KOFWST's claim of "influence" is highly disingenuous, since at least half their demand was written by a native US-English speaker (because spelling, cultural telltales). If necessary, I'd be happy to submit an affidavit linking Blum to partial authorship, with mathematical analysis of the text (Bayesian probabilistic classification).

Faye Getz said...

Richard, would you consider tweeting your conclusions with the hashtag #timhunt and a link to this blog? It's very interesting, to say the least.

Hermann Steinpilz said...

From the Korean statement:

"KOFWST is clearly stating its position and facts of the situation in order to put this matter to rest and will not tolerate any further threats to publish misinformation in articles or other media."

Hahaha. Are they from North Korea? What are they going to do about "threats to publish misinformation" (whatever that nonsensical phrase may mean). Put the perpetrators in re-education camps?