I didn’t really write this post. In a sense, it is merely a revision of Sue Nelson’s “Lost in Translation”, containing everything that isn’t spin and apologia for Connie St Louis, and making claims that I think are
entirely[largely] supportable. It is what I agree with her about, what I find of value in her essay. Indeed, when I read it I was surprised by how much ground she gives to St Louis’ critics on points of fact, and was vaguely touched by what appears to be her unassailable to loyalty to St Louis in the face of these facts. This, then, is the most “sympathetic” reading of Nelson’s piece that I am capable of. More critical interventions will follow.
Some of us are indeed trying to “rewrite” the original narrative about what happened in Seoul and to restore Tim Hunt’s reputation. Our efforts focus on a number of questionable aspects of the early reporting, and I’m happy to see that even some of Connie St Louis’ defenders agree with us that serious mistakes were made.
As Nelson notes, “one verbal faux pas does not make a sexist.” Even some of Hunt’s critics, like Professor Jane Clarke from Cambridge University, don’t think it would be fair to Hunt if he became the “poster boy” for sexism in science.
Branding him a misogynist was certainly “unnecessary, untrue and going too far.” As was his inclusion in National Geographic’s ‘Nobel Laureates Who Were Not Always Noble’ article, which included a white supremacist and described Hunt as a “clueless sexist”.
Hunt’s toast was made before an audience of scientists and journalists, many of whom were deeply involved in the topic of sexism. Three of the journalists present thought his words needed to be reported. Connie St Louis, Deborah Blum and Ivan Oransky, Nelson informs us, agreed that St Louis should break the story in order, we are told, "to avoid any appearance of American journalists targeting a British Nobel laureate." (I find this focus on nationality weird, but we’re led to believe that this is information Nelson has directly from the people involved, so I take it this describes their reasoning.) St Louis revealed what had happened first via Twitter, then on the BBC and other media.
Twitter, as Nelson points out, isn’t a good medium for nuance. In order to go beyond the 140-character limit, St Louis used the method of taking a screen shot of a longer text, tweeting it as an image.
“Why are the British so embarrassing abroad?” it began, and went on to claim that the lunch was “utterly ruined by sexist speaker Tim Hunt.” It cited the infamous 39 words that caused the most outrage. Importantly, St Louis said he called for single sex labs, not that he joked about this as an absurdity. The text looks hastily written, including punctuation errors and misspellings.
Strangely, the original report/tweet did not contain a comment or response from Hunt, which Nelson and I think would have been in order for the sorts of claims St Louis was making.
Given the alternatives (Blum and Oransky), suggests Nelson, it may have been a mistake to choose St Louis to report Hunt’s words. “If someone intends to shine a spotlight on the traditionally white and male establishment of science, having a black woman deliver the news was bound to introduce problems.”
The aftermath suggests [to Nelson]* why this wasn’t a wise strategy. Indeed, it may have been better to let Oransky take the heat for being an American attacking a Brit. St Louis has been called everything from “useless trash” and “scum” to a “c**t” and “feminazi pig”, says Nelon. “Many referred and continue to refer to her skin colour.”
As a result, a great deal of energy has been devoted to dealing with these largely irrelevant attacks and not much on the serious factual and ethical issues involved. This has even put the “health and sanity” of some of the participants at risk, Nelson tells us. I found it strange that she did not find my posts suggesting that St Louis is an unprofessional and incompetent journalist, and a somewhat confused social justice activist, worthy of mention. Perhaps I should just have called her a “lying ugly fat c**t”, which is the sort of post Nelson appears to find relevant in her survey of the controversy.
* * *
“After [Tim Hunt] finished, there was this deathly, deathly silence,” St Louis said on the BBC’s Today programme. “And a lot of my colleagues sat down and were taking notes, because they just couldn’t believe, in this day and age, that somebody would be prepared to stand up and be so crass, so rude in a different culture, and actually to be so openly sexist as well.”
As Nelson points out, “These are strong words. Journalists are supposed to report the story in measured tones, present the available facts, add analysis or context, and then let the audience make up its own mind. St Louis, as anyone who heard the Today programme broadcast can attest, was subjective and at times sounded outraged.”
As a tweet from a woman reacting personally to something she has just heard, there’s not much to object to other than the factual inaccuracies. “But as a journalist reporting another person’s words, the facts must be presented objectively,” Nelson reminds us. Indeed, she points out something that I think is very important. A good journalist would be “correcting and updating them later if initial reports are clarified or turn out wrong.” I agree that “St Louis blurred the lines between objective journalism and personal opinion,” but I would go further and say that she blurred the lines between journalism and activism, and finally between journalism and victimhood. She became the story that she wanted this to be.
“Her story also changed,” notes Nelson. “The day before, she told The Times that there had been some ‘nervous laughter’.” Nelson asked her about this. “St Louis said that, ‘The silence in the room wasn’t at the end. It was in the middle when we all realised what he was saying. At the end there wasn’t silence as a few people were laughing.’”
Nelson concludes that “St Louis had gone beyond the basics of the story on the Today programme” and explains this with “the adrenalin rush of live interviews.” There’s something odd about this, since, as she will soon make clear in excusing her poor writing skills, broadcast journalism is St Louis’ métier. In any case, by embellishing, she introduced doubts about what Nelson thinks is the indisputable core of the story. As I see it, it in fact now became very reasonable to question the veracity of her account of what Tim Hunt had said at all, and the allegedly negative impact of those words.
As a journalist, Nelson was, “irritated by these inconsistencies.” But, also as a journalist, she knows these sorts of things can happen and so she is predisposed to be forgiving about it. I’m not a journalist myself, so for me it just became part of my judgment of the journalist; and in so far as it has no consequences for her career as a journalist, I come to doubt the seriousness of the profession. In this context, by “the profession” I mean “science writing”.
There’s a strange moment in Nelson’s piece when she talks about the claim that Hunt had, “thanked the women for lunch.” Apparently she asked St Louis about this and emphasises that she “is not alone in believing he said this”. Of course, today it’s a completely untenable claim and everyone knows he didn’t say it. As if to suggest that St Louis is being generous, Nelson reports that she “is happy to admit she got that wrong if the consensus says otherwise.” The question is whether she is unhappy—indeed, mortified—about getting this fact wrong in the first place.
* * *
Nelson grants that Hunt was “publicly criticised, mocked, censured and relieved of honorary unpaid positions. There’s no doubt this must have been deeply hurtful. Journalists tried to contact their daughter’s former partners.” She does not mention that an established science journalist called him a “rat fucking bastard” and that a UCL colleague called him a “misogynist”. Both claims have turned out to be completely false.
The Daily Mail is an interesting source in this story. Nelson notes that it “delved into [Hunt’s] private life by revealing that Hunt, who is almost 20 years older than his wife, fell in love in the lab. Hunt had an affair with Collins when she was a PhD student and also married to someone else.” It’s sort of unclear what this information is doing in Nelson’s essay, though it’s presumably true. I guess we’re just supposed to make of it what we will. As we’ll see, when the Daily Mail was writing about St Louis’ CV, Nelson takes quite a different tone, and her compassion for how the subject must feeling is certainly less measured.
Several high profile scientists defended Hunt in UK national newspapers and Hunt and his wife received a sympathetic treatment in The Observer together with supportive comments from female academics. In contrast, St Louis’ treatment by the press was the opposite of sympathetic. It was ferocious. In August, she described her mood to me as “veering between depression and a nervous breakdown”.
Much of the attention was focused on her CV. It appeared badly edited and contained a number of errors as well as omissions. “Many people add a sheen to their CV but one statement was obviously stretching the truth: describing herself as a scientist. Normally, one would need a qualification beyond an undergraduate degree in science to earn that label.”
Nelson grants that “St Louis spent a year out in a lab as part of her undergraduate degree and then, after graduating, worked as a research assistant for three years,” but she still thinks St Louis gets the tense wrong when she says “I’m a scientist.” She may be a “former scientist” but isn’t one now.
Journalists digging into her past were also unable to find the print journalism alluded to in her CV. St Louis has revealed to Nelson, however, that her print pieces were written under pseudonym. “This was because they related to race and, as her children were young at the time, she didn’t want her family to experience any repercussions.” I think this would have been an excellent time to provide the pseudonym, so that this factual claim could be immediately checked,** and the quality of her writing verified, but, alas, Nelson did not think that providing that information was relevant in her essay.
Nelson notes that St Louis’ CV exhibited poor grammar and spelling, helpfully explaining that she has dyslexia. Indeed, the emails Nelson has received from St Louis are always in a “poor state”. Notably, she says that “the incorrect position of a comma in some tweets have been a source of the confusion.” It is therefore no wonder, says Nelson, “that her successful career was in broadcast journalism: radio, the spoken word.”
But it does raise questions about why she chose social media to break this particular story. If you suffer from dyslexia, perhaps live-tweeting other people’s extemporaneous speeches shouldn’t be your journalistic jam.
Nelson describes the infamous tweet as an “inconvenient truth”, but it’s clear from her own account that it was more inconvenient than true. It was a serious disruption not just of Tim Hunt’s professional and private life, but also Connie St Louis'. As journalism, it wasn’t just a “mess”, as Nelson puts it; it was a disaster.
It remains true that only one in seven people working in STEM is female. There are all sorts of views about why that is the case, but no serious person, I think, any longer believes that Tim Hunt is what is keeping women out of science. Nelson thinks that progress demands that we “step on a few more toes” and admits that this will “hurt those on the receiving end”. For some reason she thinks that as long “the intention” isn’t “to break bones”, all is well. One would have thought that only the intention to get the facts right would justify journalism.
*Update (11/12/15): Thinking about this some more, and prompted by Hermann Steinpilz's comment below, I want to make it clear that this is Nelson's judgment. The consideration of your race or gender shouldn't really factor into a decision about whether to report a particular story, even when it is about gender issues. (The idea that Tim Hunt's race is important in this regard is completely strange to me. But that's for another post.) What I can grant is that St Louis' gender and race explain a particular range of reactions against her that are so predictable that they should have been automatically ignored.
**Update (11/12/15): See the first comment below. I had forgotten that the Daily Mail did actually do a pretty thorough job of investigating whether St Louis had written for them: "it’s demonstrably false to say she ‘writes’ for The Independent, Daily Mail and The Sunday Times./ Digital archives for all three newspapers, which stretch back at least 20 years, contain no by-lined articles that she has written for any of these titles, either in their print or online editions. The Mail’s accounts department has no record of ever paying her for a contribution." Given this, Nelson should, in my opinion, have supplied documentation for St Louis' explanation. Without documentation, the explanation is pretty much useless, since believing it depends precisely on the trust it is intended to reclaim.