Monday, December 07, 2015

The Stakes

I was happy to have an exchange of views with Jane Carnall yesterday and today about the various forces that are currently arraigned against Tim Hunt's reputation as a scientist, a man, and, I suppose, a human being. I had reacted to a retweet by an anonymous "Bill" of a tweet by Carnall asking us to "consider what damage Louise Mensch may have done to Tim Hunt's reputation" with her ongoing (and very vocal) investigations into the debacle in Seoul. Interestingly, Bill (who I generally take to be on the side of the forces arraigned against Hunt) suggested that Hunt's reputation has "recovered completely" but that his "legacy" was now being put at risk by Mensch continuing to push the point.

There were lots of ways to read this. Many observers, I would think, would grant that if Hunt has indeed completely recovered his ethos from the disaster in Seoul, then Mensch can take a good deal of the credit. But the interesting possibility that Bill and Jane are raising is that Mensch is now overplaying her hand and risking the gains she's made, investing her winnings badly, if you will. What struck me, however, was that this entire line of thinking must, at least for the sake of argument, be predicated on a shared concern for Hunt's reputation, a shared "value", if you will, a belief that Hunt's good image is good for science. (That's my view.) So I tried to probe them a bit about what they thought Tim Hunt's reputation should be at this point. How much "damage" or "recovery" does the man, finally, deserve?

I didn't get a very clear sense of exactly what they think Tim Hunt should be known for. Carnall did say, I think, that she thought it would be fitting if Hunt was, as he himself has said he may well be, "finished" as what I call "a face of science", i.e., as a public image of the ideal scientist. But Bill, of course, thinks that his image is doing much better than that, which made me wonder why Carnall was even worried about Mensch's harmful influence. Carnall, it seems, still wants to take Hunt down a notch from where Bill thinks he is. Why not let Mensch do the dirty work?

But as we talked about it, something more interesting came up. Carnall countered my concern for Hunt's reputation with a concern for the reputations of the journalists who broke the story and the organizers who demanded he apologize. After all, Mensch is quite deliberately going after the people who smeared Hunt. Specifically, she's convincingly showing that St Louis, Blum and Oransky are yellow journalists, and that Hee Young Paik, the president of KOFWST, is a sort of spineless pawn, or possibly a mendacious opportunist. If that bears out, I think we can all agree, it's clearly "damaging" to their reputations. And Carnall asked whether I didn't think Mensch should feel as bad about that consequence as she thinks they should feel about what they've done to Hunt.

This sort of "moral equivalence" argument is, I think, highly misplaced in this situation. After all, journalists stake their reputations on their reporting as a matter of course. The idea is that they uncover facts, source them as a well as they can, and publish them with the confidence that they will stand the test of time. If they are wrong, they know they will have the integrity to retract and apologize, and it is that integrity that takes them into their next story, where both their sources and their readers will trust them enough to let them report it. Likewise, it is simply the job of presidents (like Paik) to stake their reputations on their collective actions as a federation (like KOFWST). Also, as I pointed out long ago, these people took deliberate and coordinated action to humiliate another person in public. They had time to reflect and to plan. So whatever judgments we arrive at about their integrity and competence on the basis of their actions are not unfounded. Those actions really do reveal what kinds of people we're dealing with.

By contrast, Hunt's remarks were improvised on short notice. He spoke for two or three minutes off the top of his head. He, I am quite certain, was not staking his reputation—as a scientist, a man or a human being—on whatever happened to come out of his mouth at that moment. He was just trying to be entertaining among intelligent people. To suggest that Hunt is "responsible", not just for the opinions that the people in the room that day formed about his relative charm as a public speaker, but also the opinion that the global readership of, say, the Guardian formed about his absolute "views" about women in science, based on what was made of a decidedly half-assed tweet by Connie St Louis, is entirely out of proportion. We're talking about two minutes of extemporaneous speech. If his words were poorly chosen they should have fallen flat, not gone down in infamy.

A stake is, literally, "that which is put up". "Weekley suggests 'there is a tinge of the burning or baiting metaphor' in this usage. Hence, 'an interest, something to gain or lose'." I don't think Tim Hunt actually staked anything on his remarks in Seoul. But Connie St Louis, Deborah Blum, Ivan Oranksy and Hee Young Paik did, we can reasonably insist, stake their reputations on the fire they lit beneath him after they tied him to a stake of their own contrivance.

1 comment:

Faye Getz said...

Another excellent piece. Thanks.