Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The Fear of Being Hunted, part 3

Hopefully the Tim Hunt affair will go down in history as an injustice done to an innocent man. Hopefully, it will be one of the cases that caused us to rethink the use of social media to shame and ridicule people for acts they did not carry out, or views they do not hold. But I'm not sure that the real blame lies with an imperfect medium, or even the people who use it, whether innocently or cynically, to promote social change.

To me, Tim Hunt was a false positive in the "overdiagnosis" of sexism. But overdiagnosis does not result from individual failures to correctly identify an otherwise real ailment. Overdiagnosis is a systemic problem that results from collective pressures and the institutional failure to push back against them.

Jon Ronson has made a compelling case against initiating and participating in social media shaming mobs. In a certain sense, he's trying to instill a sense of shame in the shamers. That certainly seems like a much-needed corrective. But there's an important moment in his TED talk when the victim's "employer got involved". The prospect of firing someone who has said something offensive energized the mob, and made a spectacle of the whole affair.

The employer could have said something more protective of their employee. Something like, "We don't hire racists and we assume that her remark was misunderstood." Perhaps even something courageous like, "We don't fire people at the say-so of an irrational mob." But they didn't. Instead, they participated in the mob.

One of the events that Tim Hunt had to miss this year was the Lindau Meeting of Nobel laureates. At a panel on "Communication Overkill", his case was discussed with some concern (see this video at 1:16:00 to 1:24:00). Torsten Wiesel raised the question of whether the community should not have done more to stand by Hunt in his time of trouble. Brian Schmidt rightly pointed out that the only protections scientists really have against the irrational shaming of the Internet are strong, real-world institutions that "stick by their values".

There is, indeed, nothing one can do about the rage of the mob except to seek shelter from the storm until it blows over. It is our institutions that provide such shelter. At Lindau, Adam Smith pointed out that the Tim Hunt case "highlights the dangerous environment that everyone inhabits". Given what happened, one could forgive scientists if they were "discouraged from getting out in front of the press and saying anything at all." This fear among scientists is not a good outcome.

At the World Conference of Science Journalists, Tim Hunt was in a place where he could not* speak freely. He had stepped into a "dangerous environment" where off-the-cuff remarks are connected directly to the irrationality of the mob. We cannot expect merely responsible journalism and the consciences of individuals on social media to prevent another Tim Hunt debacle. There will always be mobs to incite and hacks to incite them. But we should be able to expect the universities that we associate with to grant us a fair hearing.

I think the solution lies in strengthening our institutions to make social media as harmless as, well, extemporaneous speech. What is really shameful is that an almost 200 year-old institution like UCL took three minutes of improvised remarks and their spread through a 140-character rumor mill so seriously.

*Update 31/12/15: The word "not" had been left out in the original version.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Meg Urry on Science and Gender

When I joined the ceasefire in the Tim Hunt controversy, I stipulated that I would continue to defend Hunt against fresh instances in which his name is invoked as a symbol of sexism in science. It didn't take long before such an instance came up. Meg Urry recently published a comment at Nature that opens in a way that I hope we'll soon see the last of. "Gender equality in science made headlines repeatedly this year," she begins, and then goes on to mention Shrinivas Kulkarni, Geoff Marcy and, yes, Tim Hunt.

There are at least two problems with this framing.

The most important is that Hunt and Kulkarni clearly don't belong on a list with Geoff Marcy. They were accused of expressing casual sexism while discussing their work. Marcy was accused of sexually harassing his students inside and outside the lab. And while Hunt has now been completely exonerated of actually being a sexist, the case against Marcy seems to be holding up. (This, of course, is because the journalism in the Marcy case was competent, while the journalism in the Hunt case was not.) My hope for 2016 is that this thoughtless use of Tim Hunt's name to stand for "sexism in science" simply stops. Though it is true that he "made headlines", continuing to use him in this way amounts to propagating a falsehood.

The other problem is that it uses cases of supposed sexism in science to frame a discussion of gender inequality in science.** The conflation is these two issues is actually something that Tim Hunt has an opinion about, and he went on the record with it long ago, without causing any particular controversy. In the Lab Times in July of 2014, he said that he did not "think there is any discrimination" in science but had to "admit the inequalities in the outcomes, especially at the higher end, are quite staggering." He also asked "why women being under-represented in senior positions is such a big problem" and, on all these issues, admitted that he didn't know the answers. That opinion, in fact, is really the only corroborating piece of evidence that was ever offered to suggest that Tim Hunt is the sexist he was made out to be after his toast in Seoul. If Urry wanted to use him to frame a discussion of gender inequality, she could have engaged with these much more considered remarks.

Indeed, when Hunt started defending himself against being called a sexist, Deborah Blum accused him of "turning the issue from the main point - the status of women in science - to a focus on sympathy for himself". But here again, if Blum really had wanted to discuss the status of women in science with him, she could have simply engaged with his sense of the situation as stated the year before, rather than falsely accusing him of being a sexist, resulting in his marginalization from the conversation she'd like to have. In any case, in this post I would in fact like to turn attention away from Tim Hunt and onto the issue that Blum and Urry would like to discuss. Let's see how that goes.

While they should not, in my view, be simply conflated, gender inequality and sexism are, of course, related issues. Where there is gender inequality, it is reasonable to hypothesize that sexism is among the causes. But it is also reasonable to suppose that sexism is among the effects of gender inequality in a particular discipline. If, for whatever reason, a field is dominated by a single gender, one will imagine that the sense of humor and even the overall intellectual style in that discipline will be "gendered" accordingly. But this assumes something important, namely, that there are notable differences between the genders.

Urry clearly believes that there are. "Women can be more likely to apply to institutions that describe themselves as 'collegial' and 'student-oriented' than 'top-rated' and 'world-class'," she tells us. "Different ideas lead to scientific advances," she also says, "Sameness leads to stagnation." That is, the presence of women in science is tantamount to the presence of ideas that wouldn't otherwise be considered. Women presumably think differently.

I happen to share Urry's belief that we need women in science because their presence, as a gender, increases the variety of ideas that may be considered and approaches that may be taken. (I'm less comfortable with Emily Grossman's version of this argument, namely, that women should be valued for their emotionality and self-reflection.) Indeed, I suspect that there are some truths about our universe that a woman will discover sooner than a man. Perhaps there are even a few discoveries that are simply beyond the imagination of men to make (though, once made, these men of science would of course be able to understand them and replicate them.)

But it seems to me that Urry fails to consider the consequences of accepting such gender differences for our understanding of what Hunt calls the "staggering" inequality in outcomes. Here I'm of course going to get on the old libertarian (high?) hobby horse of insisting on the difference between equality of outcomes and equality of opportunities. Once we agree that women bring something distinct and different to science, we must consider the possibility that these differences also correspond with other unequally distributed aptitudes and attitudes.*

The to my mind best "best practice" that Urry proposes for fostering true equality is to hire and promote researchers in a rigorously blinded way. She reminds us that the pool of real talent for philharmonic orchestras was greatly increased when the unconscious bias of conductors was checked simply by letting musicians audition behind a curtain. We can see this as a victory for women, who now had the same chance of being hired based on their musical ability as their male competitors. But we can also see this as a victory for the arts, which were now enriched by perhaps a different kind of playing, which could now be noticed as competent rather than merely "feminine".

But if this all makes sense, then why are we so eager to blame sexism for the inequality of outcomes? We can show that girls do as well or better than boys in schools in most subjects. We can show that young women are accepted into university at higher rates than young men. We can show that they are as likely or more likely to graduate than their male counterparts. We can show that they populate the graduate schools in roughly equal numbers. And we can show that women are increasingly populating permanent and high-level academic positions in most disciplines. That "staggering" inequality at the top persists, but given the lack of inequality at the lower levels, it's hard to imagine that sexism is the mechanism that is responsible for it.

This can be true despite the existence of sexism. There may be sexists of the kind that Tim Hunt has wrongly been accused of being, but they just don't seem to be very effective at keeping women away from or out of science.

Sensitivity to gender differences is also what drives Urry's mild "affirmative action" proposals. "Recruiters should note that female applicants, being more selective in their attempts, are likely to be well suited to the position that they have applied for." I'm not sure how to read this, except that somehow the very fact that a woman has applied for a job should be seen as an indication that she's qualified, which seems odd when you've got her CV right there in front of you. It also contradicts, as far as I can tell, the very good idea I just noted, namely, to make recruitment "blind" to gender. And it suggests a reason for inequalities that sexism can't really be blamed for: women simply don't apply for jobs they are qualified for as often as men. Fixing that might equalize things; but it doesn't require us to hunt down sexists and humiliate them on Twitter.

I have to admit I'm a bit incredulous about the anecdote she tells about her "male colleague's" attitudes about affirmative action. (I'd like to get his side of the story, actually, so if he's reading this he's welcome to step forward in the comments.) Here's how she tells the story:

Recently, a colleague worried openly about young men who, in the face of added competition from women, might not land that coveted assistant-professor position. If a woman of equal ability were hired affirmatively in place of a man, he suggested, the unsuccessful male applicant should be compensated with $100,000. My jaw dropped. By that reasoning, shouldn't we compensate the thousands of women or other underrepresented scientists who were preferentially not hired over the past 50 years, despite being as talented as — or substantially more so than — the men who got the jobs?

It hard for me to believe that he made his appeal for compensation in the hypothetical situation where the applicants are equally qualified, though I suppose one could argue that the only fair thing to do in that case would be to flip a coin. The problem, however, is that no hiring decision ever ends up with two applicants whose only distinguishing characteristic is gender, so that if it happened to be two men or two women you'd really be in a coin-toss situation. What her colleague is saying is precisely that a woman who is discriminated against because of her gender, and therefore not hired despite being more talented, does, in fact, deserve compensation, and that a man who is not hired, simply because of his gender, should have similar recourse.

Again, I'd invoke the libertarian argument that in a competitive environment a department or lab does well to hire simply the most qualified applicant and offer a competitive salary to attract and retain that person. The important thing is to hire and promote according to ability, not gender. Given the obvious differences between the genders on so many points (including the specifics of the "female brain", I would add) I don't understand why an inequality of outcomes should today be seen as an indication of the effectiveness of sexism. As I see it, sexism is a failed ideology. We're giving it too much credit here.

Tim Hunt says he doesn't think sexism is what is keeping women out of the upper echelons of the scientific establishment. It may be that the particular combination of ambition and curiosity that is required for one's career to lead to such a post is differently distributed among the sexes. He doesn't actually say this, and I don't know if that's true either. But it's something that's worth talking about. It's not something we should be calling people out on simply for not being sure about. I, for one, really don't see how the idea can be shocking in a world where we have to be sensitive to the fact that women are unlikely to apply to a post they are qualified for simply because the lab is advertised as "world-class" rather than "collegial".

Let me conclude by noting something that Mary Collins pointed out about her husband. Tim Hunt, she says, doesn't himself think he has what it takes (if you will) for a top administrative post in the sciences. Marry Collins, by contrast, clearly does. In this light, why we have to begin conversations about gender inequality in science by remembering Hunt's misreported toast in Seoul is beyond me.

*In order to avoid needless controversy, I've added the words "and attitudes" here. I'm not trying to suggest that "an aptitude for science" is less prevalent among women in some simple sense. As I point out below, it will be some combination of aptitudes and attitudes, as well as curiosity and ambition, that might be distributed differently in the population of scientists by gender and therefore explain differences in outcomes as something other than an effect of discrimination.

**Update (05/01/16): On Twitter, Sarah Kendrew has emphasized to me that Urry never uses the word "sexism" in her piece. But she does use the words "discrimination" and "bias", and by leading with Hunt and Kulkarni she is, as I see it, framing her argument as one about needing to push back against the sexism that remains in the minds of individuals. It is that framing that has occasioned my criticism.

Like Hunt, I don't think subjective bias notably determines outcomes at the top of the scientific establishment. Like Hunt, I do think that the differences between the sexes cause "trouble" for men and women in the workplace, as they do in all workplaces. We've gotten past the stage where we need to call men out for thinking of women as, in a variety of ways, different from men. Correcting these residual subjective biases (in a word, sexism) by calling out individuals when they occasionally express them does more harm than good. In any case, when we talk about inequalities of outcomes we should certainly take the many possible confounders that stem from demonstrable differences—some of which are invoked by Urry—between the sexes into account and weighing them before we conclude that the inequalities are a significant effect of sexism.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

What is Connie St Louis' side of the story?

On December 9, 2015, Connie St Louis was interviewed by Aoibhinn Ní Shuilleabháin at Sci:Com 2015 in Athlone, Ireland. The intereview, including the Q & A was scheduled for 45 minutes and appears to have been done by video. The blurb called Tim Hunt's remarks one of "the biggest science communications stories of the year" and promised to let the audience "hear [St Louis'] side of the story".

I was intrigued. What, indeed, is Connie St Louis' side of the story half a year later? The Sci:Com interview offers an important contrast to Tim Hunt's interview with the historian Alan Macfarlane, which can be viewed on YouTube. It would be instructive to see St Louis' corresponding interview, but so far no effort has been made to make it public. (I would assume/hope the recording still exists.)* Indeed, so far, except for a few live tweets, I haven't been able to find an account of what St Louis said.

So, if anyone was there and took notes, I'd love to hear from you in the comments. This is also a call to the Sci:Com 2015 organizers to make the interview public and to Connie St Louis to write up her side of the story so that we can better understand her decision to tweet Tim Hunt's remarks the way she did, which subsequently had, as the conference blurb puts it, "a profound effect on both St Louis and Hunt." I'm especially curious know how she assesses the proportionality of cause and effect in this case, and what responsibility, if any, she sees herself as having for the long-term consequences of this episode for science and for science communication.

*Update: Sci:Com 2015 informs us that the interview was not recorded. That's a shame. It would have been a useful historical document. (But I should say that I fully respect the idea of not recording the interview. It allows for greater frankness.)

(Note: In observation of Pax Athena, I am not, at this time, inviting discussion, just documentation and straight reportage of what St Louis said. Anything "argumentative" in the comments will be deleted.)

Friday, December 18, 2015

Correcting the Guardian, again

I didn't find Sue Nelson's statement agreeing to Athene Donald's ceasefire very gracious. I hope that what she meant is that she never wants to hear Tim Hunt's name sullied again, since that sullies her name too through her involvement in the story. As I said in my comment to my last post, this ultimately shows that this was a bad story that should never have been told. It's a controversy that nothing good came of.

A good example of how sullied Tim Hunt's name is because of the controversy, is the coverage of Mary Collins' decision to move to Japan in the Guardian. I'm working towards a time when the Seoul episode is no longer written about in that way. The story should be remembered something like this, which I would suggest as a correction to the Guardian's article if I thought it would help:

Hunt, who won the Nobel prize in 2001, lost his honorary post at University College London after he spoke at a lunch for female science journalists in South Korea. His wife, Professor Mary Collins, a prominent immunologist, also at UCL, was enraged by the way UCL treated her husband. She said that the university had behaved in “an utterly unacceptable way”. She has since left UCL for a position in Japan.

Hunt became embroiled in controversy after it was falsely reported on Twitter that he had called for separate laboratories for men and women and had suggested that women cried when they were criticised. The reports failed to point out that Hunt had been joking at the time in the context of a lighthearted toast that was highly supportive of women in science. “I really do hope there is nothing holding you back," he had quipped, "especially not [chauvinist] monsters like me.”

Hunt immediately regretted the easily misinterpreted remark, and apologized for the offense that the interpretation caused, but he was nonetheless mercilessly ridiculed on Twitter for finding women scientists "distractingly sexy" and became, for a time, the public face of sexism in science. His forced resignation from UCL was a major factor in his loss of reputation, contributing unwarranted credibility to the initial and now discredited reports.

This provides a much better framing of Collins' departure from UCL (though her motives are of course entirely, and rightly, left to speculation). And it resolutely avoids dragging Tim Hunt's name back into the mud from which Louise Mensch has recovered it.

The attempted destruction of Tim Hunt's reputation caused a lot of "collateral" damage and came at a great cost also to the reputations of those who "called him out". 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 therefore the damage, and those (like Connie St Louis) who believe that Tim Hunt caused it. I would still like to debate this question with Sue Nelson, even accepting her version of the facts. But I will wait for her to engage if she chooses.

Update: The Daily Mail's framing of this story, its obvious slant notwithstanding, is much closer to how I think history will, and certainly should, remember this episode.

Update 2: There's a much better piece in the Observer. I respect Mary Collins' view that the move to Japan is driven by her own career choices, not the events surrounding her husband's remarks in Seoul. But in making these decisions, it seems to me, one is always comparing one's current employer with the prospective one. UCL failed, in my eyes, to retain Collins as a member of their faculty, which is a loss to her colleagues and her students.

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.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Schrödinger's Mistress

for Nicola Gaston

I've been trying to remember where I heard this story the first time, and I'm pretty sure I've now found it in Leon Lederman's The God Particle, which I must have read about twenty years ago. Since this apparently happened at almost exactly this time of year, ninety years ago, and I happen to be spending a week with a girlfriend of my own, while the Tim Hunt affair seems to be reaching a kind of resolution through Louise Mensch's "formulation", let's say, I thought this might be a good time post it.

A few months after Heisenberg completed his matrix formulation, Erwin Schrödinger decided he needed a holiday. It was about ten days before Christmas in the winter of 1925. Schrödinger was a competent but undistinguished professor of physics at the University of Zurich, and all college teachers deserve a Christmas holiday. But this was no ordinary vacation. Leaving his wife at home, Schrödinger booked a villa in the Swiss Alps for two and a half weeks, taking with him his notebooks, two pearls, and an old Viennese girlfriend. Schrödinger’s self-appointed mission was to save the patched-up creaky quantum theory of the time. The Viennese-born physicist placed a pearl in each ear to screen out any distracting noises. The he placed the girlfriend in bed for inspiration. Schrödinger had his work cut out for him He had to create a new theory and keep the lady happy. Fortunately he was up to the task. (Don’t become a physicist unless you are prepared for such demands.) (P. 167)

Times have of course changed. Scientists have their work cut out for them in other ways these days. Only now the demand is not that they perform both intellectual and physiological feats but intellectual and ideological ones. Let's say they have to create new theories—or discover new proteins or land probes on comets—and keep the ladies happy. They have to make sure they don't offend the finer sensibilities of a particularly ambitious species of feminist with either their style of dress or sense of humor.

I wonder what they even think of Lederman's little anecdote, either in tone or content. I wonder if they can approve of either Schrödinger's behaviour or Lederman's obvious enjoyment of it. I would encourage them to make room in their conceptual apparatus to distinguish evidence of sexism in science from evidence that scientists like sex. I guess I'd say you shouldn't become a scientist, or a science writer for that matter, if you aren't prepared to make the distinction. Scientists, after all, have particularly open minds. If we don't respect this about them, and keep browbeating them for their candor, our attempts to make science a "safe space" for women may end up ruining it for scientists.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Sir Tim Hunt FRS Doesn't Know How the Internet Works Either

(An imaginary dialogue.)

—Do you have any comment on the offense your remarks caused this week?
—What remarks?
—You said something about women in science at a luncheon in Korea.
—Yes, I was asked to say a few words. No one was offended, as far as I know.
—Lots of people are offended on the Internet right now. Everyone is talking about it.
—How did it get on the Internet?
—It was reported on Twitter.
—What's Twitter? A newspaper of some kind?
—No, it's a social media site where anyone can say anything they want.
—There's no editorial oversight?
—No. But people can like and retweet what people say there.
—People have followers on Twitter and these followers promote things that are said.
—And someone said I said something and it was promoted and now everyone's offended?
—Yes. That's how it works.
—That sounds frightful. Did they post a recording or transcript of my toast? (I wonder what I said.)
—No, they just quoted a few dozen words. You said you think female scientists cry too much and shouldn't share labs with men.
—That's ridiculous!
—Well, there's not much room for nuance on Twitter.
—Why not?
—You only have 140 characters to work with.
—Well I probably didn't say much more than 140 words, they could've gotten the quote right.
—140 characters.
—140 characters.
—And why did you call me?
—To get your reaction to the outrage your remarks caused.
—Outrage that anyone can express in 140 characters and which is then promoted by "followers" who "like" it?
—Yes, that's how it works, like I say.
—And then you're going to broadcast my reaction on the radio?
—Yes, this is for the radio.
—And then I take it the people who are outraged will hear that?
—As well as the people who "reported" my original remarks "on Twitter"?
—And they'll report my reaction on Twitter too?
—And then anyone who reads their 140-character reaction to my reaction (now reduced to a few dozen words) will either be satisfied with what I say to you right now, or be outraged even more?
—Yes, that's how it...
—And then you'll call me for another reaction?
—No, I don't think we'll follow up on it. We'll just sort let the story live it's own life on Twitter after that.
—Thanks. I don't have a comment at this time.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Dr. Emily Grossman Doesn't Know How the Internet Works

Imagine if everyone had a button installed in the back of their neck that, when pressed, made them explode. Let's agree this would change the way we "interact", as the social scientists like to say. Now, suppose that all deaths by this means were considered "accidental" by definition. That is, if you killed someone with a knife that would be murder in the usual way, but if you, literally, pushed their button there would be no law with which to convict you of anything.

That might be a good plot for a science fiction movie or an episode of the Twilight Zone [or Black Mirror]. But suppose you knew someone who actually believed that there was a button in the back of their head that could make them explode and that if you pushed it no law would hold you accountable for that act. Unless you're a total asshole, you'd probably treat that person with an exceptional amount of courtesy, at least until you were able to help their family arrange to find some competent psychiatric help.

Okay, maybe this is still just a movie pitch for a pretty far-fetched psychodrama, but suppose you heard that this person had fallen in with a group of people who also believed that the button in their neck is real and they were supporting them in the belief that anyone could kill them with complete impunity at any time. We can imagine a sort of "cult" built up around this belief. And, course, the worst people in the world, according to this cult, would be those that were trying to explain that there is no such button in anyone's neck.

Perhaps the title of my post has already given away where I'm going with this. But I have to say I was puzzled by Dr. Emily Grossman's presentation about her experiences with "online misogyny" at the Feminism in London conference in October. I am, however, encouraged by the fact that she claims to have learned something from her experiences and that it was only before all this happened that she had been "naive" about how things work on the Internet. It is possible that she has already been disabused of the feeling that a mean-spirited tweet by someone she doesn't know and who doesn't know her might harm her. Unfortunately, it's also possible that she's fallen in with people who have assured her that such a tweet is, indeed, extremely dangerous, very harmful or, as they say, "damaging".

There are lots of things I want to say about Dr. Grossman's presentation. (There may be more posts.) But the most important one is that she does not, as far as I can tell, offer even one example of an actually harmful or even threatening tweet or comment. I would have thought that if she was going to talk about how the Internet had caused her great distress for two weeks, there would have been some seriously nasty character who had been harassing her constantly, across platforms, and reaching into her real life. As far as I can tell, her "trouble with boys", let's say, could be solved quite simply by ignoring, muting and (though she doesn't offer even one example where this would have been necessary) blocking, a particularly vile and useless character.

I'm trying to use all my terms advisedly. I say that Dr. Grossman had some "trouble with boys", not just to play on Tim Hunt's ill-fated witticism, but because my approach to the Internet is to assume that if someone I don't know is talking like a twelve-year-old up all night with some buddies and a case of Red Bull then, well, that's probably what I'm dealing with. And I say "character" because, well, all of us have a selection of "game faces", "masks" or "personae" that we put on when we get online and write our tweets, comments or blog posts like this. I would encourage her to find one or two of her own instead of making the mistake of being her own damnable self all the time.

Also, although the Internet may seem a very rude place sometimes, there's all kinds of etiquette here. (Notice, please, that that's where we are right now. It's just a more polite corner of it. More arrogant, too, I'm told. But at least we're being articulate, right?) Dr. Grossman didn't think that "turn off your phone" was good advice because she wanted "to know what people were saying about" her. Well, that sort of narcissism is perfectly respectable. (I cultivate it myself sometimes.) But when dealing with "the Internet" (as a whole?) it's a good idea to distinguish what people are saying to you from what they are saying about you and what is just sort of being said around you.

There are variously subtle cues. On Twitter, I've found it depends on whether your tag appears earlier or later in the tweet, and sometimes whether it's your name or your tag. Sometimes, and this can be a little tricky, people say something ostensibly to or at you but are really just posturing in front of their friends. If you engage, you can look a bit foolish, and they'll have a good laugh. But that is really just about it. You ignore, mute or block them and go on with your day. Trolls really have no bite.

I don't deny that there are real forms of abuse on the Internet. But these are cases where people start sending emails to your employer or publish personal information about you so that actually disturbed persons, not just people who are fucking around online, can make a target of you. There is, however, as far as I know, absolutely no actual correlation between receiving a mean, or even "threatening" tweet, and an increased chance of physical bodily harm. The police have something they call a "credible" threat, and, though I'm no expert, I suspect it depends on the amount of effort and knowledge it took to actually issue it.

I know. I'm mansplaining. And Dr. Emily Grossman feels differently about this, and she feels it was a really important experience, and it told her something important about "the extent of sexism in society" or something, and what she feels is, I guess, her own business and she's entitled to feel it. I'm just trying to explain to her, and to anyone else who cares, how the Internet works and, if we learn how it works, I really do believe it can help us communicate better, man to man, woman to woman, and even across those gender lines. It's all about separating the signal from the noise.

I hope this is what Dr. Emily Grossman has learned by wasting two weeks of her life taking the Internet much more seriously than it deserves. And I hope she doesn't let her new friends tell her that I'm "gaslighting" her. Again, I hit on that word in Dr. Grossman's presentation for a reason. I didn't know what that word meant myself until I got accused of doing it in, you guessed it, the context of discussing sexism in science. I looked it up then, and as far as I can tell it is not interchangeable with "straw manning". Importantly, gaslighting is indeed psychologically destructive, but it is (fortunately?) something that only someone who is already abusing you in some other less virtual way can resort to. Straw manning, meanwhile, is perfectly possible on the Internet. That's just where someone demolishes an argument you didn't actually make. And it is, you guessed it, perfectly harmless. If that's what I've done here, she's in absolutely no danger whatsoever. I assure you.

I have a daughter ("have while she is mine") and I intend to watch Dr. Emily Grossman's presentation with her and then explain to her how the Internet actually works. Actually, I don't think it'll be necessary. She's fourteen.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Found Upon Revision

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.

Wednesday, December 09, 2015

Too much of water hast thou, Sue Nelson

"[O]ne of the reasons Hunt’s words mattered and resonated with so many women [is that c]asual sexism, even if unintentional, has a wearing drip, drip, drip effect. The wrong choice of words can undermine women in so many ways." (Sue Nelson)

The Tim Hunt case brings to light the axioms of a particular kind of "feminist linguistics". There is, after all, a particular theory of language beneath the assumption that "unscripted and thoughtless" words can do a great deal of harm. This theory of language rejects what we might call the "folk theory" of linguistic action, often expressed in a slogan about the difference between sticks and stones, on the one hand, and words on the other.

In her essay, Sue Nelson has given apt expression to one of the theses of feminist linguistics. We can call it the "drip, drip, drip" thesis. The idea here is that a woman—presumably her self worth—can be "undermined" by the careless use of language—perhaps especially by a man, and especially if the words (wrongly) chosen somehow take aim, not at her person, but at her gender. On this view, it's not wrong to ask a woman to calm down if she's irate, but it is wrong to imply, by saying "Calm down, dear," for example, that the reason she is irate is not that she, herself, is being irrational, but that her irrationally derives in some essential way from her femininity.

I agree that such an implication is wrong. But it takes a particular theory about both language and women (i.e., a feminist linguistics) to believe that to imply such things "can undermine women". "The idea that women cannot think logically is a not so venerable old stereotype," Rosmarie Waldop once said. "As an example of thinking, I don’t think we need to discuss it." A feminist linguist of the kind I'm thinking of would disagree with Waldrop. There is much here to discuss, Nelson would say.

The "drip, drip, drip" thesis, I presume, suggests the metaphor of a dripping faucet in the kitchen, which, if left unfixed slowly wears down your mood with its tiny, almost imperceptible interruption of your attention. (Nelson invokes a "wearing down" not a "running over".) If you let it go, I guess (though I'm not quite sure this is true of dripping faucets) this annoyance becomes a part of your general comportment, your demeanor, your personality, your way about the world, presumably making it less pleasant than you'd like. Metaphorically, of course, the solution lies in replacing the washer (O-ring), which is a simple and inexpensive operation. I have found that fixing a leaky faucet is a good way of reconnecting me with the machinery of my ordinary life, offering a Zen-like understanding of the "things" of practical experience. But it's also perfectly legitimate to call in some "professional help", a plumber, to carry out the repair, if you want.

Perhaps you know where I'm going with this. A "feminist linguist" (of the particular kind that Nelson represents, of course) clearly has a very different take on the metaphor. Sue Nelson, it seems to me, thinks that the local linguistic plumbing in the minds of actual women is beyond regular repair and ordinary maintenance and the only solution is to call the water company and get them to turn down the pressure until the washer is able to handle it. Literally, all men have to stop saying things that might "dismay" any woman because the resulting "harm" simply cannot be dealt with in the situation. It will, as Nelson say, eventually, inevitably "undermine" her.

Please don't tell me I'm "trivializing" sexism. The dripping faucet metaphor is not mine, but Nelson's. We are here talking about, precisely, trivial, i.e., "casual" acts of sexism. We're not talking about violent physical aggression ("sticks and stones") or even boisterous verbal abuse.

But I do, of course, have a more serious point in mind. If we solve the problem of your dripping faucet by turning down the pressure in the pipes throughout the whole city we're going to be unable to do a lot of the things we normally like to do with water (like take our showers at the same in the morning). Likewise, if we take the "pressure" out of our language—if we lower the intensity—we're not going to be able to do the things with words we'd like to be able to do (like insult or seduce each other). Even some of the things that feminists, I'm sure, would like to with words will become impossible. Since there wouldn't be enough "water", perhaps we could start doing them with tears. Male tears?

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.

Degrees of Humour

"There are no contradictions, only degrees of humour." (Deleuze & Guattari)

—Did you say it?
—Yes, but I meant it ironically.
—That’s a "yes" then?
—I was kidding.
—But you said it, right? You’re confirming you said it.
—I didn’t mean it seriously.
—I think we know what you meant. We just need you to confirm the quote.
—But it’s been taken out of context!
—Sure it was: out of the context in which you said it, right? That's why we need you to confirm you said it.
—But it was meant in jest.
—I think we’ll let our readers decide how funny you are.
—But you’ll tell them I was kidding, right?
—We’ll tell them what you said. That’s why you’ve got to confirm that we’ve quoted you accurately.
—This is ridiculous. I’m not going to confirm it then.
—So now you deny saying it?
—I'm telling you, I was joking.
—Tell you what. Why don’t we just say you "couldn’t be reached for comment"?

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.

Saturday, December 05, 2015

Waddell and Higgins Jump the Shark

"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:

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.

Friday, December 04, 2015

Let it Blede

”If it leads it bleeds [sic].”
Connie St Louis

“Don’t bury the lede,” is familiar advice to journalists. But the recent correction to Rebecca Ratcliffe’s early coverage for the Guardian of Tim Hunt’s infamous toast in Seoul demonstrates the effectiveness, even viciousness, with which the technique can also be deployed to further an ideological agenda. It turns out the Guardian didn’t just bury the lede—they murdered it.

The basic facts around which Ratcliffe’s article is written are stated in the first three paragraphs:

Scientists should work in gender-segregated labs, according to a Nobel laureate, who said the trouble with “girls” is that they cause men to fall in love with them and cry when criticised.

Tim Hunt, an English biochemist who admitted that he has a reputation for being a “chauvinist”, said to the World Conference of Science Journalists in Seoul, South Korea: “Let me tell you about my trouble with girls … three things happen when they are in the lab … You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticise them, they cry.”

Hunt said he was in favour of single-sex labs, adding that he didn’t want to “stand in the way of women”.

This is what (especially American) journalists refer to as the “lede”, which establishes the situation that the story is about. Let me emphasize the most salient "facts", which are of course also those that made Sir Tim so famous this summer. Ratcliffe informs her readers that “according to” Tim Hunt, “scientists should work in gender-segregated labs.” She repeats this again to be sure we’ve got it: “Hunt said he was in favour of single sex labs” (my emphasis). She also notes in passing that Hunt “admitted that he has a reputation for being a chauvinist’” (my emphasis, again).

With those facts established, we’d be forgiven if we thought “You must be joking?” would have been a rhetorical question. And a sufficiently curious or outraged reader is entitled to know what Hunt said when the journalist writing this curiously outrageous story contacted him for comment. Until two days ago, the reader was being told that he “could not be reached for comment”.

Now, Ratcliffe had, in fact, tried to get a comment from him. Here’s how the reader’s editor at the Guardian put it when Louise Mensch asked him about it:

Rebecca Ratcliffe was asked to cover the story by the news desk, which had seen it on other new websites and the front page of The Times. She emailed Prof Hunt at 00.55 on June 10 and got his out of office message. She then filed her story, which was scheduled for launch on the site at 6.53 later that morning. By the time she got home she saw an email from Prof Hunt timed at 01.55 … She sent that to the night news desk to append to her story scheduled for launch at 06.53 and went to bed.

But the night news desk missed it, it seems, and by the time anything could be done about it, Tim Hunt’s explanation was or would soon be public anyway, so they didn’t deem a correction of the article necessary. Until now, at Louise’s urging, when the “could not be reached” formulation has been replaced with the following:

Hunt, who won the Nobel Prize for discovering protein molecules that control the division of cells, said when contacted for a comment: “I’m very sorry that what I thought were light-hearted ironic remarks were taken so seriously, and I’m very sorry if people took offence. I certainly did not mean to demean women, but rather be honest about my own shortcomings.”

In other words, this is the story that Ratcliffe and the Guardian would have liked to publish and which only an “editing error” prevented from seeing the light of day. Given that Hunt’s version of events would come out within hours anyway, the Guardian did not think the difference very great.

I sort of agree with them. The "corrected" version is as misleading as the one they originally published. Once they knew that Hunt’s account contradicted the “facts” stated in the lede, they should have buried not the lede but the story, or at least put its publication on hold pending further investigation. If you cannot confidently assert that Hunt said labs should be sex-segregated, nor that he admitted he was a known chauvinist, but must report that he claims to have been kidding, then you’ve got some research to do before you print any of these things. (It's important here to remember that all reasonable people today agree that he was, in fact, kidding, at least about the segregated labs.) The paragraph that Ratcliffe wanted to have "appended" to the article simply belies the claims made in the lede.

I believe journalists used to say “Stop the presses!” Some stories, in any case, should be stopped before they're published. When that fails, they should be corrected. And some corrections should really just be retractions, i.e., admissions that the paper got the story wrong.

Nowadays, it seems, journalists are happy to let their stories bleed as long as they lead. Maybe I just have too high expectations of journalism, but I thought that if you’re working on a story about someone who (you think) “admitted” he was a chauvinist, and, when you reach out for comment, he says, “I was being ironic,” surely you can’t print “he admitted he’s a chauvinist” in the lede and just also print “he says he was being ironic” in the last paragraph. Surely, you now have to either abandon the story, or, at “best”, write that "it was rumoured on Twitter that he had admitted..."? (I think we can all agree that this would be a pretty unsensational story.) A news article isn’t a chronological record of the things you heard while researching it, letting you say what you thought was true until you get to the last paragraph and say that it turned out to be false. A news story is a presentation of the current facts as best as you’ve been able to determine them. Right?

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

The Anodyne Alternative

" accordance with the Fascist policy of intellectual freedom and free expression of opinion by those who are qualified to hold it..." (From the announcement at the beginning of each of Ezra Pound's radio broadcasts from Rome during WWII.)

Philip Moriarty has been challenging me to consider alternative situations, in which it would be clearer that Tim Hunt's infamous 39 words would be inappropriate. In the comments to my earlier post he writes:

If I were to stand up in front of an audience of applicants for our physics courses -- and let's just say that they're mature students applying for our Foundation Year (so we can avoid any silly patronising counter-arguments about students not being adults) --- and start off with "My trouble with girls..." and say exactly what Hunt said (those precise 39 words) and follow it up with "But seriously...", would that be fine with you?


When it comes to being tolerant of different views, how about we replace "girls" with any other group -- "gays", "Irish", "Jews", "blacks" etc. --- and repeat Hunt's 'joke' word for word. And again, remember that I fully appreciate the idea that it was meant to be self-deprecating. We can dream up many scenarios/'gedankenexperiments' where I could well be making a similar 'joke' in a self-deprecating fashion, particularly when it comes to the Irish. (As you know, I'm Irish). It still doesn't make it witty or anything more than cringe-makingly naff.

The pre-emption of my "silly patronising counter-arguments" stems from a Twitter exchange about a scenario he suggested on his blog:

I’m undergraduate admissions tutor for the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Nottingham. A couple of weeks ago I stood up in front of hundreds of potential applicants and their parents for two days running at our open days and gave talks about the teaching and research we do in the School and the various aspects of the physics courses available at Nottingham.

Let’s say that I made the following “gag” at some point during my open day talk (or, indeed, opened up with it):

“Let me tell you about my trouble with girls in physics courses. Three things happen when they are in the lab: you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticise them they cry. Perhaps we should make separate labs for boys and girls taking our courses?

Now, seriously, I’m impressed by the strides made by girls in our physics courses over the years I’ve been at Nottingham. Science needs women, and you should do science, despite all the obstacles, and despite monsters like me.”

Then, when asked by a student during the Q&A session at the end of my talk to clarify my comments, I say:

“I’m really sorry if I have caused any offence. I was only being honest.”

Would my Head of School be justified in calling me into his office, explaining why my comments weren’t entirely appropriate for that audience, and asking me to stand down from the Admissions Tutor aspect of my job?

I agree that there'd be something here for the Head of School to look into. What Philip thinks is "silly" is my intuition that, in the case of prospective students, the remarks become less appropriate (and a reprimand therefore more appropriate) because the audience is less "adult". I think the presence of the parents is what makes that example so clear. I thought that's why he put them there, actually.

In any case, there's an important thing to keep in mind when comparing it to the Hunt case. However we re-imagine the situation, we have to remember that Hunt spoke about his "trouble with girls in the lab" well-aware that he was talking at a luncheon to honour "women in science". That shared understanding of why he was speaking was part of his context. It contextualizes the specific irony of calling himself a chauvinist in a way that is entirely absent when talking to either coming undergraduates or graduate students.

To see what I mean, consider two examples where this relationship between the joke and the audience is maintained. Instead of making it a joke told about women in the lab to any audience, make it a joke about Tim's trouble with the audience itself. I'm going to try to construct a context in which it would be almost certainly innocent, and perhaps even witty, and one in which it would just as certainly fail, and indeed, would come off utterly vile unless it was exceptionally funny.

Suppose Hunt was speaking to an audience of children (something he apparently does often and well.) Suppose he said, "Let me tell you about my trouble with children in the lab..." Remember that he's talking directly to the children as an adult, even an "old man" (from their point of view). He's probably going to invoke some stereotypes about how, say, "curious" the children are and how much "mischief" they therefore cause, and he might play those off against some "ageist" stereotypes about himself and how children befuddle, even "distract" him. And he might end with the punchline that "maybe that's why we have altogether separate labs, one for children (in school) and one for adults." It would be natural to go on from here saying, "But seriously, we actually need you children in the lab because, however distracting and disruptive you are, it's that curiosity that drives the whole thing. So I really, really, really hope grumpy old monsters like me don't hold you back."

Now, to pick a group off Philip's list, imagine Hunt being invited to speak at an NIH Black Scientists Association luncheon. It's almost impossible to imagine a "my trouble" joke here that could conceivably be in good taste, and that is of course Philip's point. But I stress the almost. Suppose Neil deGrasse Tyson had spoken immediately before him. And suppose we gave Louie C.K. and Chris Rock a week, working together, to come up with a toast that started with "You know, it's surprising that a white supremacist like me should be invited to speak here today. Let me tell you about my trouble..."** The difficulty setting, if you will, on this one is really high. In fact, there's a good reason I'm not even trying to imagine a punchline here. It's above my pay grade, as they say. And above Tim Hunt's, I'm sure. But, like I say, it's not* completely inconceivable that Louie or Rock could come up with a stereotype-dismantling joke that conforms to the terms of Philip's challenge.

I think the appropriateness of Hunt's infamous 39 words lies somewhere between the entirely innocuous bantering with children and the dangerously incendiary BSA situation. I thought the joke was worth trying and, if it fell flat, that should not have made the news.

Pay grade is actually an interesting notion here. After all, Tim Hunt is not a professional comedian but a professional scientist, and in the BSA example we need serious professional help. (Philip's challenge, i.e., the "set up", doesn't call so much for constructing a joke here as dismantling a bomb.) In his comments, Philip adduces as evidence of his own sense of humour that he finds Rowan Atkinson funny in Black Adder. That's a pretty high bar, if you ask me, for a luncheon toast. But there's something telling about this comparison. The occasion to denounce Tim Hunt's joke as "stupid" and "unfunny" seems to be that he stepped out of his professionally assigned role of speaker of scientific truths about cell division. He was not duly qualified to make a joke, certainly not one involving women. It's interesting that the "free expression of opinion by those who are qualified to hold it" is an actual Fascist policy.

What we might call the Seoul Incident, which sounds like a Robert Ludlum novel about a precipitating event that puts the world on the brink of global fascism, suggests that science journalists fancy themselves enforcers of a similar policy. As Connie St Louis put it, Hunt was not to think he would "get away with it". In a recent interview, Hunt suggested that, to avoid all this trouble (!), he could have just offered some "anodyne" remarks about the ERC's policy on gender equality. I think a lot of people do exactly that, in part for fear of being "Hunted". Let's call it the Anodyne Alternative, which also sounds like a Robert Ludlum novel. A thriller, to be sure. Unlike the luncheons that conform to the policy.

*OOPS. Missed this word in the original posting.

**Update (02/12/15 at 16:15): I intentionally left off a cognate of "black people" here in order to give our two experts some freedom about how to make the shift that would be analogous to the one from "women" to "girls". Hunt's use of the latter has been interpreted by some as a slur, though I think it's plausible that he just means to invoke "boys and girls". It's important to me to point out that I've chosen this scenario, not just because the joke would almost certainly appear racist, but because, in the context of a BSA luncheon, that context would be the only saving grace, the only element that could make the joke work. Without that (i.e., imagine the context to be an AAAS luncheon), the problem is not difficult but, I would think, impossible to solve.