"The narrative seems to have shifted."
Paula Higgins and Dan Waddell*
This morning I noticed a puzzling tweet by Dan Waddell that made me have a closer look at the piece about Tim Hunt that he and Paula Higgins recently published at Byline. They argue that the December 2 correction of a June 10 Guardian story does not weaken, but actually strengthens, the case against Hunt: "far from exonerating Hunt, The Guardian statement appears to reinforce ... the idea that he was speaking about women in the lab generally." I happen to disagree with them about this point, but that disagreement isn't the subject of this post. What puzzled me was an exchange on Twitter that Waddell had with Fred Wyropiquet, which ended with the following tweet by Waddell:
@wyropiquet so his shortcomings are his inability to keep his hands off the lasses in his lab?— Dan Waddell (@danwaddell) December 4, 2015
As far as I can tell it's supposed to be a sort of reductio ad absurdum of Wyropiquet's reading of Hunt's comment to the Guardian. But it feels more like a non sequitur. Nothing in what Wyropiquet said seems to me to imply it, even at a stretch, but since literally no one has accused Hunt of having this kind of "trouble with girls" it can only be taken as a way of following out a line of argument to its most absurd conclusion.
I had already found myself smiling a little at Higgins and Waddell's condescending suggestion that Hunt's defenders are "shifting" the "narrative" about what he had meant in Seoul. After all, the burden of a plausible narrative about his remarks falls not to his defenders but his accusers. And if there's a narrative that's been "shifting" since Connie St Louis' original tweet, it is the narrative that tries to make a scandal of his toast. It has gone from being an earnest statement of his views about women to an inappropriate sexist joke, from a clear expression of his misogyny to a bungled manifestation of his stupidity. The idea seems to be that if you keep spinning the story it'll remain upright. To defend Hunt, meanwhile, we don't need a coherent narrative at all, just a little charity of interpretation. Because of the absolute paucity of evidence, we just have to propose a plausibly innocuous intention and give him the benefit of the doubt.
Even Hunt's attackers, I thought, now mostly grant that Hunt isn't much of a an actual sexist. His remarks were, at worst, an unfortunate expression of ambient sexism in Hunt's environment, and he could at most be accused of not properly restraining his poor taste in front of an audience of apparently very vulnerable women that might be "harmed" by his words. So this suggestion that an argument in defense of Hunt might commit one to the idea that Hunt's actual and admitted failing in the lab was "his inability to keep his hands off the lasses in his lab" came out of left field for me. Was there something I had missed about the current state of the case against Hunt? Had the narrative, if you will, shifted again?
So I returned to Higgins and Waddell's piece and did indeed find a rather stronger condemnation of Hunt than I thought was current among his attackers. At the end of their piece they suggest the following interpretation:
It seems clear, from both Hunt’s BBC Today interview and his statement to The Guardian, that among the 'shortcomings' about which he was ‘being honest’ in his Seoul toast, is his belief that women in the lab are more likely to cry when faced with this type of criticism, thus bolstering the damaging sexist stereotype that they are over emotional, and his view of the lab as a highly sexualised or emotionalised space that is terrible for science.
I don't agree with Higgins and Waddell that it's "clear" that Hunt believes that women are likely to cry when criticized, but I recognize and understand the argument for interpreting his toast in Seoul that way. (I think the balance of the evidence shows that he's not seriously concerned about the ability of women, as a gender, to deal with criticism.) I think the idea that he traffics in "damaging sexist stereotypes", by contrast, is directly contradicted by his record of respectful collaboration with women throughout his career. I thought maybe the word "bolster" was supposed allow that his toast only unintentionally offered support to those stereotypes, but the next part of the sentence unmistakably attributes a "view" to Tim Hunt that is so ridiculous that I think we have to conclude that Higgins and Waddell have, as they say, jumped the shark.
Actually, the sentence is a bit difficult to parse. It's not clear whether they are saying that (a) Hunt's view (that labs are "highly sexualised or emotionalised spaces") is "terrible for science" or that (b) Hunt's [the] view is that highly sexualized and emotional spaces are terrible for science and that labs with women (and therefore much sex and emotion) in them are therefore terrible places to do science. Both interpretations are of course utterly ridiculous.
[If I'm not mistaken, they are here attributing to Hunt the view that highly sexualized and emotional spaces are terrible for science, which is of course not too controversial. But they are also saying that Tim Hunt believes that merely putting women (with all their sexiness and emotion) in labs turns them into such unscientific spaces. And this is of course utterly ridiculous.]**
To defend Hunt against these charges would, indeed, be almost as ridiculous as defending him against the charge that Hunt chose to use his toast in Seoul to admit that he has trouble "keeping his hands of the lasses in the lab". If this is where the prosecution has decided to stand, if this is where their narrative has shifted, the defense can safely rest. But I think it's really just an indicator that Waddell and Higgins do not represent the strongest case that can be made against Hunt and are therefore not worth paying much attention to. I've suspected this for some time.
*Out of habit (and no doubt some latent misogyny someone is about to explain to me I suffer from), an earlier version of this post mistakenly reversed the order of the authors. Waddell and Higgins have worked as a team on the Tim Hunt case and I put them in the order I had them in when talking about their "Saving Tim Hunt". I know Higgins is a bit touchy about standing in Waddell's shadow, so I've ensured that she comes first in this post now in all cases where I'm referring to the Byline piece. When talking about them simply as the Hunt-smearing duo they are in general, I've put Waddell's name first by, I guess, tradition.
**Update: I don't think the sentence is as ambiguous as I first thought. I've rewritten the paragraph to reflect what I think is the most plausible interpretation.