[Read Part 1.]
[Read Phil Moriarty's response.]
One thing that Tim Hunt's critics and supporters, and even Tim Hunt himself, can at times agree on is that telling a room full of science journalists in Seoul about his "trouble with girls" was a stupid thing to do. What I've been calling "the fear of being Tim Hunt", then, is, in part, the fear of being severely punished for a momentary lapse of reason. After all, many of his critics say that if we grant that his toast was, as
Hunt himself[Mary Collins] put it, "an unbelievably stupid thing to say," then surely he had whatever he got coming to him.
I've recently had a couple of exchanges on (and one off) Twitter with Phil Moriarty, who has come down pretty hard on Hunt since this controversy began. I have found Phil to be intelligent and thoughtful (that's not a redundant thing to say) and I must say that, now that I know him a little better, I don't understand how he ended up on the "wrong" side of the Tim Hunt issue. So, at a deeper level, the fear of being Tim Hunt is the fear of having otherwise intelligent and thoughtful people come down on you for being, for a moment, less intelligent and thoughtful than you normally are. In a sense, it's the fear of letting your guard down.
I put it this way for a reason. In one of his earlier posts, Phil points out that the Tim Hunt that was savagely denounced in the media was not the Tim Hunt that he thought he knew. Phil had
met Prof. Hunt and attended meetings with him (and others) in the context of challenging the damaging focus of the research councils on near-term and near-market socioeconomic impact in science funding. In those discussions, Tim came across as a modest, insightful individual who passionately advocates the value of curiosity-driven science. I found him to be personable, likable, and, indeed, often inspiring, as this BBC4 programme from a few years back amply demonstrates.
But for some reason, and for a reason I simply don't understand, Phil chose not to give Hunt the benefit of the doubt. (Indeed, even in this very paragraph Phil seems to identify a possible reason that Hunt might have some powerful enemies who'd like to take him down a notch.) Instead, he simply sets aside this powerful "prior" (as statisticians put it) and concludes that "what [Hunt] said in that conference in Seoul was beyond dumb. It was crass. And immensely damaging."
Now, what Hunt was reported to have said was indeed crass and beyond dumb. Reportedly, i.e., according to Connie St Louis' soundly discredited but still not retracted report, Hunt seriously suggested that women are such an emotional nuisance in the lab that it would be best if they were given a lab of their own. (I like that play on Virginia Woolf's famous title. Remind me to pick it up some other time.) But when Hunt "admitted" that it was "stupid" to say it, he didn't mean that he had actually said that. He meant that it was stupid to say something that could be misconstrued that badly in front of an audience that, it seems, has a powerful incentive to thus misconstrue it.
In fact, I would put the point a bit more sharply against the science journalists. It was stupid to think that he was in a room full of intelligent and thoughtful people who would be able to understand [and appreciate] the "reductio ad absurdum" (25:27ff) with which he, jokingly, concluded his lighthearted reminiscences about the joys (and inevitable pains) of working with intelligent women. After all, he was in a roomful of people who had just elected the likes of Connie St "if it bleeds it leads" Louis to the executive board of their global professional federation. This same Connie St Louis still sits on the board of her national professional association, which continues to defend her work on the "highest standards" of British science writing.
Speaking candidly to that lot was, indeed, an unbelievably stupid thing to do. I'm sure he won't do it again. (Nor will I.) In fact, I suspect it was just naive and ignorant, i.e., not so much ill-advised as ill-informed. He didn't know who he was dealing with.
But this post isn't really about the work of a hack like Connie St Louis. The fear of being "Hunted" is the fear that sincere and intelligent people, people who've met you, people who know you in person to be "a modest, insightful individual who passionately advocates the value of curiosity-driven science", will suddenly for political reasons turn against you on the counsel of an execrably written tweet. What I don't understand, I guess, is how someone like Phil Moriarty could be turned against Hunt so efficiently, so effectively, so viciously. Why didn't Phil trust his experience-based personal opinion of Hunt and assume that the quote had been taken out of context and distorted?
That, then, is what this post is intended to probe. What happened, Phil?