Thursday, November 12, 2015

(Re)Framing Tim Hunt

The ongoing vilification of Tim Hunt is a sad sign of the state of our sciences, our politics, and our public discourse about them. By "ongoing vilification" I mean the way in which he is confidently presented as an example of the problem of sexism in science. The most notable recent examples are Sarah Zhang's "A New Twist in the Fight Against Sexism in Science" in Wired and Mark Strauss's "Nobel Laureates Who Were Not Always Noble" in National Geographic. In both pieces, Tim Hunt is presented as part of the problem—in the latter in very strong terms, taking his place in a "rogues' gallery" of "racists, frauds, and misogynists". As far as I can tell, however, even those who support this basic narrative online (people like Dan Waddell and Paula Higgins) don't really claim to have any evidence that he's a sexist. Some say it doesn't even matter whether or not he's a sexist, only that he "said something sexist". This is strange to me, and, like I say, saddening.

To see what I mean, imagine that Tim Hunt's remarks had been misconstrued, not as an expression of sexist views (that he doesn't hold), but as an admission of sexual misconduct (that he doesn't, of course, engage in). Suppose the story had been, "Nobel Laureate admits trying to seduce women in his lab and, when they refuse his advances, verbally abusing them until they break down in tears." Suppose it was this sort of thing that was being said in Wired (where he was in fact paired with Geoff Marcy) and National Geographic. (Writing in the LATimes Robin Abcarian suggests shooting Hunt into space locked in a capsule with Marcy.) I would hope that everyone who's been writing about this, on both sides, would agree that such a characterization, and such a legacy, would be unfair to Hunt.

To defend Hunt from such an accusation would not be tantamount to trivializing the problem of sexual harassment, it would be the simple pursuit of justice for a falsely accused man. Tim Hunt, after all, has never actually been accused by anyone of sexual harassing them. If he had we can be pretty sure that it would have come out by now. But what those who use his name to stand for "casual sexism" forget is that he has also never been accused of sexual discrimination or even of casual sexism before or since his toast to women scientists in Seoul. Just as no women have come forward to tell stories about how he came on to them inappropriately in a lab or how his brutal criticism (born, let's say, of his disprized love) made them cry, no woman has ever suggested that he passed her over for promotion because she was female, or that he treated the men in his labs with greater respect than her. In other words, the image of Tim Hunt as even a casual sexist is as unrelated to reality as the image of him as a sexual harasser.

And yet, because of a three-minute improvised toast in (as Waddell and Higgins have taken great pains to tell us) a half-listening room, he has been made into a symbol of something that, his record shows, he is actually the very opposite of. The reason for this was a sloppily composed tweet by a journalist who was in an important sense (as a member of the WFSJ board) his host, and who herself said she wasn't listening carefully (only realizing when she thought he said something offensive that he was also notable enough to make for a sensational news story), published three hours after his words were spoken. Subsequent research exonerates him of all charges of actually harboring sexist views, and reveals only that he may be a bit too optimistic (for some tastes) about the current state of gender equality in the sciences.

Whatever you may think about what he is said to have said, if you think Tim Hunt is a casual sexist and therefore got what he deserved, you're wrong. And you're wrong in exactly the same sense that you'd be wrong if he really was a casual sexist but was being presented in the science press as a sexual harasser like Geoff Marcy. However wrong what he stands accused of may be, what is being said about him is just plain false.

How can such a grave injustice be done? A recent piece in Nature, which, unfortunately, also propagates the myth of Tim Hunt as a "sexist", provides an explanation. “People who don’t have power really can have their voices heard,” it quotes Northeastern communications researcher Brooke Foucault Welles as saying. “They can reframe the story.”

That is, what we now call "the power of social media" is really the power to use any event and any personality as a focus point around which to "reframe" a narrative that, one believes, isn't getting enough attention. If you want to bring attention to sexism in science, for example, just accuse a scientist of being a sexist, and then celebrate the "support" that his "victims" are getting every time he is called a "misogynist" (see David Calquhoun's tweets) or, my personal favorite, a "rat fucking bastard". Also make sure to emphasize the abusive trolls that predictably attack your accusations with vitriol, while ignoring principled defenses that try to assess the evidence.

In fact, what you do is to construe any defense as illegitimate, by equating the claim that the accused isn't actually a sexist with an expression of sexism itself. It's absurd, of course. This not only harms the reputation of the accused, who in this case happens to be a great supporter of women in science, it is an affront to all the real women that have in fact been victimized by manifest bastards who actually hate women. The ability of these women to tell their stories is significantly diminished by the sloppy journalism and slapdash activism that (re)framed Tim Hunt as a "sexist scientist".


TLITB said...

"Tim Hunt, after all, has never actually been accused by anyone of sexual harassing them. If he had we can be pretty sure that it would have come out by now. But what those who use his name to stand for "casual sexism" forget is that he has also never been accused of sexual discrimination or even of casual sexism before or since his toast to women scientists in Seoul."

This is one of the most disturbing things about this episode, in that it seems there is strong desire to create a new normality; to try and make us accept we need to allow sniffing out transgressions at the lowest possible level of sensitivity. A kind of 'broken windows' zero tolerance. And this is before we get to the look at the fact at the possible defective quality of the smell test - especially in Tim Hunt case. In fact it seems we are not even allowed to discuss the accuracy of the reporters here as that would be - well - insensitive I guess!

So this new "empowerment by social media" effectively becomes a ratchet effect that allows heightening every claim, no matter unsupported or biased, to the status of fact. An attractive win-win situation for every grievance monger.

The funny thing about the Nature article is that a prestigious science journal is so n a hurry to jump on the bandwagon that it misses the special nature of the Tim Hunt case, a case that actually provides evidence of the problems of that empowerment. The Tim Hunt case hints at how devalued that situation will become if it allows all cases to be ranked equally. I.e. it won't take long before the worst people crowd out and flock to that method of grievance-mongering whilst the more sober mined become silent and move away, quietly making a note to never accept anything from that quarter. A kind of Gresham's law for discourse.

BTW thanks for drawing my attention to the fact the person calling Tim Hunt a "rat fucker" with no real first hand knowledge was Laura Helmuth. Although you need to know I had to fix the above link to get to her tweet. I think we all deserve to read one of Waddell and Higgins star witnesses in all its glory ;)

Thomas said...

Thanks for the headsup about the link. I've fixed it now.

PS: Interesting parsing of "rat fucking bastard". I've always thought the "fucking" was just a gratuitous expletive, meaning basically "very bad bastard" (as in "big fucking deal") but you seem to read it as saying he's a rat-fucking bastard, hence "rat fucker". I like that interpretation and next time I need to call someone a rat fucking bastard that's what I will mean. :-)

Thomas said...

Oh, yes, and I of course agree with TLITB about the rest of it. I really think "communications studies" needs to develop a theory that does allow us to understand and analyze false accusations, i.e., unsustainable "reframings". As activist strategy, the twitter campaign against Tim Hunt must, I would think, be considered a failure and communications studies should help us to understand also the limits of this sort of power.

TLITB said...

I may be wrong about that interpretation but that is the immediate impression that leapt out at me. Although now checking on wiki it seems in the US "ratfucking" means "political sabotage or dirty tricks" which makes less sense to me now, unless Helmuth holds to some paranoia that Tim Hunt is part of some subtle campaign? ;)

chris westwood said...

My biggest regret reading about the accusation of "rat fucking bastard" is that I did not record other comments. Hunt's wife has been accused of "fucking her way up the academic hierarchy", and other women vocally supporting Hunt have faced similar abuse. But I am sure Louise Mensch has all of these recorded, and look forward to when she uses it all.

Muggins said...

I've been following this on Twitter, as you have. One of the things that strikes me about this is that some people seem to *need* to believe that there are old-fashioned chauvinists secretly pulling the strings in the UK science establishment

When the Tim Hunt story broke, they thought they had their long-awaited proof. Except that they don't: the story was egregious misreporting, we know he isn't seriously sexist, doesn't have a problem with women, and is actually a very nice chap

But their stupid & completely wrong narrative is so important to them that they have to go on bullying this gentleman & brilliant scientist, partly because he is a famous name. It also gives them a feeling of power

Revolting people

Anonymous said...

IF Tim Hunt had argued for segregated labs, that would indeed be a news story. But he didn't, and does not. There was no story, by any journalistic standards. There was nothing to report. Period. It is baffling to me, simply baffling, that the journalists involved felt no compulsion to pursue the question of whether he indeed supported segregated labs; nor bothered to examine his long history of supporting women in science. It is a sad example of the prohibitive, puritanical moral code of ages past being replaced by a new secular code that is just as bad, if not worse, in its arbitrary nature; and that combined with the lethal, idiotic echo chamber of social media. I am agnostic in my beliefs, left in my politics, and horrified at this assault on a man for a offhand joke, however badly the joke bombed, or was ill-judged. Deeds, not words, were once said to be important. For those assailing Hunt, a few words, however one interprets them, obliterate decades of noble deeds. Have the reporters who distorted the situation no consideration for how their 'reporting' has impacted the emotional life, and well-being of Tim Hunt's wife, and his daughters? All women. For shame. This is reverse McCarthyism. Have you now, or ever been...Have you today, or ever, said any words that could be misconstrued...? ... Bravo to you and Louise Mensch.