Thursday, December 17, 2015

Time to Move On?

Athene Donald and others have called for a cessation of hostilities in the Tim Hunt affair. The publication of Louise Mensch's rather definitive deconstruction of the myth of the great offense Hunt caused in Seoul, after all, does seem to bring a kind of closure to the whole affair. The most compelling argument, to me, comes from Mary Collins, whose family has been greatly harmed by these events, and who deserves to be spared any further nuisance. Unfortunately, it is not quite that simple.

Let's remember that the call to "move on" is as old as the early signs that Connie St Louis' account wasn't holding up. At that time, she demanded that people should "stop defending Tim Hunt" and (start attacking the Royal Society).

Roughly since the publication of National Geographic's "Rogues' Gallery", it has been clear to me that the matter can't be fully "dropped" until Hunt is no longer used as a symbol of sexism in science, whether in a click-baiting list piece or as an introductory anecdote for a book on the subject. Nor should journalists think it is clever to imagine him locked in a space capsule with Geoff Marcy.

In short, it remains important to change the meaning of "Tim Hunt" back from "sexist scientist" to "brilliant scientist". Unfortunately, that will require his name to mean, say, "false positive" for a while yet.

So I want to declare my (own personal) "rules of engagement" openly. I'm not going to write about Tim Hunt on the Internet from now on unless I see him mentioned in a fresh piece as a symbol of sexism. At that point, I will engage, treating the writer as the either ignorant or callous (as the case requires) ideologue that he or she is.

On the matter of the broader issue, which no one is asking for a moratorium on, as far as I can tell, I do, in fact, have an opinion, and I will continue to express it. I will try very hard not to use Tim Hunt as an example of the failure of our institutions (e.g., UCL) and professions (e.g., ABSW) to provide conditions under which scientists can speak freely, without fear of having their lives and livelihoods upended by overzealous mobs that are too easily "triggered". Fortunately (or, rather, unfortunately) he's not the only example.

Update: It looks like Athene has managed to negotiate a ceasefire. It will be interesting to see how it is respected in practice.


Unknown said...

Louise Mensch's "rather definitive" deconstruction...? For one so precise about language, this is a nonsense up there with "quite unique".
Nothing will be considered definitive until minds are changed on the matter, and very few people seem to have altered their original position.
I think that your considerable skill at knocking down faux arguments on this subject will continue to be employed for some time.
A shame.
Athene Donald is right - time for a ceasefire.

Hermann Steinpilz said...

In the comments to Athene Donald's piece, Sue Nelson writes:

"I’d like nothing better than to go into 2016 never having to hear Tim Hunt’s name again. I expect it’s the same for a number of people."

Not for me. I wouldn't mind at all hearing Tim Hunt's name again, especially if it was in connection with science. On the other hand, I would be delighted if I never came across the names of Connie St Louis, Deborah Blum, and Sue Nelson again, or that of any of the other non-entities who tried to destroy Tim Hunt's reputation. I still think liars like St Louis and Blum should have lost their job over this affair, but in the absence of that kind of justice they should at least disappear into well-deserved oblivion.

I am certainly never going to read any book or article written by Deborah Blum or Sue Nelson. I wouldn't trust a word they wrote. Fortunately, it seems unlikely that there will ever be a book by Connie St Louis -- unless she can find a ghost writer.

TLITB said...

"I’d like nothing better than to go into 2016 never having to hear Tim Hunt’s name again. I expect it’s the same for a number of people."

I don't know why Sue Nelson thinks anyone is interested in hearing this announcement of her fear of future painful cognitive dissonance?

Tim Hunt is a Nobel winning biologist with a clear track record of inspiring people and many more years left in him to keep on doing this. So therefore his name should be expected to crop up in future science news. Unless of course Sue Nelson is actually announcing her intention to finally quit her pretense at science journalism and avoid all mention of him? Then that's great news ;)

Thomas said...

I agree with Hermann and TLITB that that was an unfortunate way for Sue Nelson to put it. She probably just meant that she doesn't want to talk about the controversy anymore. This is why I think we need to change the meaning of "Tim Hunt" back to what it was before Connie St Louis smeared him with the "sexist" label. It's the sullied name of Tim Hunt that Sue Nelson doesn't ever want to hear again.

Ultimately, it shows that this was a bad story that should never have been told. It's a controversy that nothing good came of. The two sides that are now enjoying the peace of a Christmas ceasefire are those (like me) who believe Connie St Louis caused the controversy and those (like Connie St Louis) who believe that Tim Hunt caused it.

Interestingly, this is really the issue that got me into the controversy in the first place. Who is to blame? Was it the toast or the reporting of the toast that was harmful?

Thomas said...

I guess I’d like nothing better than to go into 2016 never having to hear Tim Hunt’s name sullied again.

chris westwood said...

I find it sad that in academia the academics agreeing to the truce do so slagging off Louise Mensch. It was Louise with Thomas and others who exposed them for what they were. I see no apologies. Demonising Hunt reinforced their agenda. That he was a victim is just a minor inconvenience.

chris westwood said...

Since my last post I have read the most recent posts on Dame Professor Athene Donald's blog. I respect her and have the highest admiration for her, but find the grovelling comments from those who attacked Hunt to be beneath contempt. There is not one apology from them for the damage they did to Hunt and the vicious attacks on his wife. Sue Nelson believes she has the right to attack whosoever she wishes to, and disapproves of any negative response in return. Looking on Twitter, Paula Higgings complains that Louise reads her tweets and broadcasts what she says. Perhaps should not have said it. At least Blum, Oransky and St !ouis are quiet. Out of respect I have not commented on Professor Donald's blog. But those people who attacked Hunt are still in post, unlike Hunt and his family who now leave the UK. If it is a truce I expect to hear no more attacks on Hunt, and I expect thd BBC to remove the St Louis video clip.

Thomas said...

I am completely baffled at Nelson's perception of this, and her unwillingness to simply discuss the issues we disagree about, instead perceiving every disagreement as "abuse". I thought your comment about the proper use of computers was very much on point. But I really am going to observe the truce until the New Year. Hopefully, at that point, there will be more interesting things to discuss in this area, and more interesting people to argue with.

Debbie Kennett said...

I've been very disappointed that so many of those people who piled in on Tim Hunt in the first place and helped to spread false rumours still haven't apologised for the part that they played. Some of them are now trying to portray themselves as victims of abuse without recognising that people were retaliating in response to their own actions and words. If they had only apologised for their mistakes at the outset we would not still be talking about events in Korea six months later.

chris westwood said...

Debbie, I agree fully with you. What disgusts me is that so many of them are academics at our universities. Of these I have very little respect for Bishop and Colquohoun. But even they fade into insignificance compared to Paula Higgins. What she tweeted over the last few weeks was utterly vile. And yet she expects no one to comment, and criticises Louise for making it public. She thinks she can make the most vile comments imaginable, but that it should only concern her and the unfortunate recipients. There is something lacking in the worldly knowledge of our academics these days. It makes me glad my academic days are way back in the past. As for the likes of Sue Nelson and her journalist pals, they are living in a past age where they control the press, but haven't realised that with access to the internet the object of their vilification can fight back.

I am no fan of Twitter. Perhaps it has its uses, but with me it is a generation thing. After reading what Louise put out I got the hang of trawling through tweets and following conversations. It was absolute joy watching the anti Hunt team shooting themselves in the foot. It was equally enjoyable watching you, Thomas, Louise and a few others taking on the overwhelming might of the media thugs and beating them. Happy Christmas to you all, and a well earned rest. Oh, just a final thought: Louise's final contribution used only a fraction of what we have seen her compiling. Posible book to follow?

Debbie Kennett said...


I think Twitter has a tendency to aggravate tensions. It's difficult to communicate in 140 characters, and tweets can easily be misinterpreted. Some people seem to be using double standards. They ignore the effect of their own false accusation and rude comments, and then complain when others do the same to them. Fortunately not all academics are the same, and I collaborate with a good team of academics at UCL. I do not believe that Paula Higgins is actively employed in academia these days.

I'm still concerned about the power of this very small group of journalists to influence the media, particularly in America. Hopefully after the Tim Hunt debacle people will be more wary of trusting their word.

There will be more to come on the Tim Hunt story but you might have to wait a while!

Thomas said...

Hi Debbie and Chris,

Thanks for the comments. I think both academia and journalism need to reflect very seriously about what happened to Tim Hunt, and I'm planning to be part of that conversation. The amount of energy it took to (almost) destroy his reputation was pitifully small compared to the amount of effort it took to restore it.

This has a corollary in academic writing, where many of us are concerned that it is much more difficult to correct an error in the scholarly literature than it is to introduce it. Hence the so-called "replication and criticism" movement.

What it is really about, for me, is protecting the sorts of minds that Tim Hunt (and, for me, his quinces) represents. They can't work under these conditions. And that is a great loss for science. Well get this sorted out before my kids start in university!

Happy holidays!