Tuesday, December 08, 2015

An Inconvenient Tweet

"There is no decent place to stand in a massacre, but if a woman takes your hand then go and stand with her." (Leonard Cohen)

In "Lost in Translation", Sue Nelson approaches the Tim Hunt story much like I did back in July. I called it a "train wreck" at the time, and it continued in the months that followed. "So far the fallout from Hunt’s unscripted comments," says Nelson as she surveys the scene, "has caused death threats, Twitter trolling and online abuse, most often targeted at women. It has caused academics and journalists, both male and female, to withdraw from the debate for reasons of health or sanity." I agree with her terse judgment at the end of the piece: "It is a mess."

I'm not going to argue about whether the abuse has been equally or fairly distributed, but I would like to emphasize some other "fallout". In the days immediately after the story broke, Tim Hunt lost an honorary post at UCL, and resigned both from the ERC and an awards committee at the Royal Society. Presumably his contributions had been valued up until then by these institutions, but they would no longer be able to draw on his experience. He had been scheduled to participate in a webinar for the AAAS, but the participants here, too, would have to do without his advice about how to "persevere in science". That webinar had been organized in conjunction with this year's Lindau meeting, which Hunt also decided against attending because of the scandal. Then, in July, things got downright terrible. Hunt's appearance at a conference in Ferrara was cancelled because of what appears to be a threat of violence. It may be true that the vitriol of the conversation caused many people to "withdraw"; but the first person to be browbeaten into a corner was surely Tim Hunt himself.

This is not an attempt to "weigh up" or "balance" the damage that the Seoul Incident has wrought. I would prefer simply to add the damage that was done to Tim Hunt's life and career, however temporarily I may hope it will turn out to be, along with the associated "collateral damage" that has been done to the lives and careers of the young researchers who, for a time, have had to do without his advice, and the imponderable damage to the course of science that removing him from influence on the direction of research in STEM fields, to the total accounting of the damage that this debacle of a story caused, including, of course, the distress that the backlash against the story appears to have caused those who chose to take a side.

And then, for perspective, let's note the very mild formulation Sue Nelson uses to assess the actual effect of Tim Hunt's actual words: "Hunt’s unscripted and thoughtless words dismayed many women in science." Please pause for a moment to consider what Nelson is saying. Hunt said something that "dismayed many women". And the result was the "fallout" Nelson and I have only just sketched above. "Hell hath no fury," indeed!

How did this happen? Nelson in fact answers this question in the sentences immediately before and after the sentence I just quoted:

All journalists should be free to report the facts — no matter how inconvenient they may be. Hunt’s unscripted and thoughtless words dismayed many women in science. If his comments hadn’t been in front of journalists, it would have simply passed the world by.

That's roughly my assessment of the situation as well, though I would question the meaning of the word "many" in this context. The actual amount women that Hunt dismayed was determined mainly by the Twitter campaign that followed, not the dozens of women he was actually speaking his words to. In any case, is it really true that the "inconvenience" that was caused to Hunt, his colleagues, his students, his family, his research networks, his waiting audiences, as well as the "inconvenience" that was caused to the many women dismayed, who now posted "sexy" pictures of themselves to regain their dignity, as well as the "inconvenience" that was caused by all those who had to endure abusive language in their Twitter timelines, directed either at them or at their friends, is it really true, I ask you, that all this could have been avoided if only Tim Hunt had realized there were journalists in the room? If true, what does that tell us about journalists?

As it happens, I think Sue Nelson is wrong about how the mind of a journalist works when it is functioning properly. It is simply not true that, faced with a fact, the reporting of which might be as inconvenient as what happened here, a journalist is compelled to tweet it to the world within three hours. This entire inconvenience would have "passed the world by", not so much if Hunt had kept his mouth shut, but if Connie St Louis had considered more carefully the possible "fallout" of tweeting his words utterly devoid of context along with an interpretation that was bound, I think we must agree, to "dismay". A good journalist might have nosed a story, sure. But a good journalist would then have reported it carefully enough to ensure that it wouldn't still be a shambles of fact and unfact, littered with lies and insults, six months later.

It's not even true, of course, that journalists are "free" to report any fact, no matter how inconvenient. A journalist has a duty of care to report (especially very inconvenient) facts accurately. Nelson insists that "Hunt must take responsibility for how this all began." I think, in fact, that he has. He acknowledged that he said (at least some) of the offending words and apologized for the offence they had caused. What Tim Hunt is not responsible for is the damage that resulted from publishing an egregiously under-researched and over-geared "news story". And that damage was much, much greater. Indeed, it accounts for all of the damage we would consider serious. After all, if the "story" had been simply left unreported, literally nothing would have happened.

It was not Tim Hunt's words that caused the damage; it was Connie St Louis' tweet. It was inconvenient, indeed. Unlike Hunt, however, she has not publicly acknowledged the enormity of her error. Nor does Sue Nelson seem to think that would be necessary.


chris westwood said...

I think that sums it up well. I have given up feeling sorry for Tim Hunt, because we can now see him being welcomed back into the the community as more people see how he was maliciously attacked over an innocent comment at an informal dinner toast. My sympathy lies with decent science journalists who will find doors slammed in their faces by an academic discipline that no longer values their contribution, and media studies departments in universties whose existence is now questinable alongside academic disciplines who seek truths.

Thomas said...

Yes, it has puzzled me the whole way through that they really didn't realize that they were staking both their personal reputations and the reputation of their field/discipline on the way this story would play out. They put together a story that could only stand up under extremely favourable conditions. They didn't guard it against some very predictable pushback (serious, factual criticism) and then used the most vitriolic and irrational attacks against them as a synecdoche for "criticism" in general. As journalism is was poor craftsmanship and the entire profession should have been pointing that out.