Friday, November 20, 2015

On the Fear of Being Hunted, part 2

[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?

[Read Phil Moriarty's response.]


Philip Moriarty said...

Thomas (or may I call you Tom?),

Your commenting system unfortunately allows only a maximum of 4096 characters. I've therefore responded at my blog:

Best wishes,


Thomas said...

Thanks, I've added links to your response and responded over there in kind. People mostly call me Thomas these days because Tom isn't a common way of shortening it in Denmark. But when I lived in Canada, people did call me Tom, so I don't mind at all. Brings back warm feelings.

shub said...

Why doesn't Moriarty participate as a commenter?

Thomas said...

We've agreed to have the conversation on his blog.

Hermann Steinpilz said...

I find it amusing that Phil Moriarty pre-emptively objects to the use of the term 'SJW'. Well, of course he would, because he is one himself (as is Dan Waddell), as he apparently recognizes. Tim Hunt is the victim of a mob of SJWs, who practice character assassination as a matter of routine. All to create a better world, of course.

If it is good for The Cause to throw a perfectly decent and outstanding scientist under the bus, then it must be done. Connie St Louis did most of the dirty work, but people like Phil Moriarty and Dan Waddell are not much better.

Michael Saunby said...

Does anyone know why Tim Hunt was at the Seoul meeting in the first place? My best guess is that he was invited, and therefore presumably invited to speak, and someone organising the meeting discussed with him what he might say. Or is this a part of some world so far removed from my own that it's not even possible to guess?

Hermann Steinpilz said...

Tim Hunt was at the 9th World Conference of Science Journalists to give a public lecture on Monday, 8 June 2015. His talk was titled "Creative Science - Only a Game?" and this is its summary:

"What is science, and why should we support it so generously from the public purse? How can we recognize excellent projects and practitioners? Should we make allowances, relax our standards, for colleagues who work in less than ideal conditions? Is it best to favour practically oriented projects - clean energy, cancer research for example – or should we trust researchers to follow their own noses wherever they may lead? In my talk I will try to explore this landscape by means of examples and illustrations from my own experience as a biologist and as a member of the European Research Council’s Scientific Council. We will also see what some great scientists of the past had to say about such matters."

Ironically, his nemesis, Connie St Louis, was a keynote speaker at the same conference. On 10 June she gave a presentation under the strange title "Something is rotten with the state of Science. (The antidote to Science communication)."

From this title I gather that her talk was not going to be all that positive about science. In fact, it sounds as if she was going to vent a grudge. Unfortunately, the outline of her session is anything but informative. Judge for yourself:

"“Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.”

The quote in context

Shortly before midnight, Hamlet meets Horatio on the battlements of the castle. They wait together in the darkness. From below they hear the sound of the men in the castle laughing and dancing riotously; the King draining his “draughts of Rhenish down” (10). Hamlet explains to Horatio his dislike of such behaviour. To Hamlet, drinking to excess has ruined the whole nation, which is known abroad as a land full of drunken swine.

Horatio spots the Ghost of Hamlet’s father approaching. Hamlet calls out to the Ghost and it beckons Hamlet to leave with it. Despite the pleadings of Horatio and Marcellus, who are afraid that the apparition might be an evil entity in disguise, Hamlet agrees to follow the Ghost and the two figures disappear into the dark.

Marcellus, shaken by the many recent disturbing events and no doubt angered (as is Hamlet) by Claudius’s mismanagement of the body politic, astutely notes that Denmark is festering with moral and political corruption. Horatio replies “Heaven will direct it” (91), meaning heaven will guide the state of Denmark to health and stability.

For more please see the commentary for I am sick at heart (1.1.8).
Compare Marcellus’line to King Lear (5.3.377):

Friends of my soul, you twain
Rule in this realm, and the gore

http ://


For this relief much thanks; 'tis bitter cold
And I am sick at heart. -- ENDING
- Hamlet (1.1.10), Francisco to Barnardo

One of the things we have learned during this sad affair is that Ms. St Louis is a terrible writer. So maybe we should not be too surprised that the chaotic 'outline' of her talk consists entirely of text 'borrowed' from a website on Shakespeare. Perhaps someone who has attended her speech can tell us what it was all about. A great communicator she is not.

Conference programme:

Thomas said...

I found the abstract of her session weird, too. Not only was the text borrowed, but the idea of just explaining the allusion in your title is strange. Especially when your title is an allusion to the most famous play in the universe, i.e., the play that everyone is free to allude to as they wish. Also, she doesn't actually explain the allusion, she just narrates what happens in the play. It really is "the quote in context", not the meaning of the quote. It's so foreshadowy that one almost feels like this whole debacle was written by Shakespeare!

Hermann Steinpilz said...

I get the feeling that Tim Hunt was just too good an opportunity for Ms. St Louis to demonstrate that "Something is rotten with the state of science" to pass.

Thomas said...

There's the old joke about the man who goes to the psychologist to find out what's wrong with him. The psychologist tells him to look at a card and tell him what he sees. The first card is a vertical line:


The man says, "That's a naked woman standing in a field." The next card is an L-shape:


The man says, "That's a naked woman sitting in a field." The third card is a horizontal line:

The man says, "That's a naked woman lying in a field."

The psychologist looks at him and says, "Well, I think we've figured out what your problem is. You have a dirty mind."

"I have a dirty mind?" the man objects. "You're the one drawing all the dirty pictures!"

I think St Louis was going to hear a dirty joke in Hunt's remarks no matter what he said.

Phillip Helbig said...

I've commented on this quite a bit elsewhere. I tend to think that the reaction to Hunt was exaggerated. Some people have compared his case to that of Geoff Marcy, but they differ in essentially all respects.

I think that even if Tim Hunt was guilty of the strongest claims against him, one shouldn't dismiss him based on a tweet. (To make matters worse, said tweet came from a source known to be problematic.)

Hermann Steinpilz said...

Maybe Shakespeare's plays, with all their back stabbing and betrayal, inspired Ms. St Louis to do something similar.

Hermann Steinpilz said...

There are sports journalists who mainly report on doping scandals and corruption, and not so much on sports per se. Similarly, there are science journalists who are mainly interested in fraud and other problems in the scientific community, while paying little attention to developments in science itself. I get the impression that the science journalist who were so eager to portray Sir Tim as a sexist dinosaur were nearly all of the scandal-seeking kind.

Not that there is anything wrong with that branch of journalism in principle, but one would hope that such journalists do their work honestly and carefully. In this case it looks as if the temptation to run with a good story has compromised several journalists' carefulness, and in some even their honesty.