Why has Tim Hunt still not been reinstated?

28 Jul 2015


“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. Perhaps we should make separate labs for boys and girls? [...]”

- Tim Hunt


Yikes! Awful, isn’t it? Hunt’s comments, made over a month and a half ago on 9th June at a conference in South Korea, were quickly tweeted by Connie St. Louis, lecturer in Science Journalism at City University.


Another person attending reported that, before beginning his remarks, Hunt also thanked the women journalists for “making lunch”.


The next day, Hunt was forced to resign as Honorary Professor from University College London, without consultation with the university’s governing body. On 13th June, he told The Guardian he had “been hung out to dry”.


One single tweet — painstakingly analysed by the media and Hunt’s fellow professionals — has stained his career.


Media outlets succumbed to social media pressure by printing negative articles about Hunt. In typical, click-bait histrionics, the Huffington Post posted an article listing the tweets of a number of female scientists: “Female Scientists Respond Brilliantly To Biochemist Calling Women Distractions”. In reply, Maria Leptin tweeted the Huffington Post highlighting that Hunt was chair of a board that appointed her as the first female European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBO) director.


St. Louis later wrote an appalling article for The Guardian defending her decision to tweet Hunt’s comments. (The unedited version can be found here — worryingly sloppy for a lecturer at the most prestigious journalism school in the United Kingdom).


Yet, none of this tells the full story. I would not be defending Hunt if it were so. There is a serious problem with gender inclusivity in science. The percentage of women in science, technology, engineering and maths occupations is only 13%. It would be irrelevant that Sir Tim is a Nobel Prize winning, life-saving biochemist if he had made genuinely sexist comments. This article is not to defend sexism but to defend truth and facts. Not only did St. Louis and others fail to tweet what Hunt said next, they — suffering from confirmation bias and a persecution complex — lied and misrepresented ironic statements.


Indeed, Hunt continued: “Now, seriously, I'm impressed by the economic development of Korea. And women scientists played, without doubt an important role in it. Science needs women, and you should do science, despite all the obstacles, and despite monsters like me.”


This — found in a leaked EU report — was not reported until 24th June, over two weeks after Hunt made the comments. Reports printed a month later, on 18th July, also affirmed the joviality of Hunt’s remarks:


“Congratulations everybody, because I hope, I hope, I hope — I really hope — there is nothing holding you down, especially not monsters like me [LAUGHTER].” [Witnesses say “sustained applause” followed — rubbishing claims by St. Louis published on the BBC, who have not updated their article, that “nobody was laughing - everybody was stony-faced”. The Times reported that the audience praised the speech as “warm and funny” and an EU official said: “I didn’t notice any uncomfortable silence or any awkwardness in the room as reported on social and then mainstream media.”]


“Science needs women” — this is the crux of what Hunt had to say. Yet St. Louis, a lecturer in journalism (that art of fact-checking and truth-telling), who has experienced other issues with the truth, failed to report this context. Even The Guardian, when defending Hunt, failed to report the full context. The first paragraph of its editorial read: 'It is three weeks since Sir Tim Hunt, a Nobel prize winner, shared his sexist opinion of female scientists – distractingly sexy, prone to weep when criticised and best segregated at work – with a room full of science writers.'


The piece completely misrepresented what Hunt had to say. What sort of honest reporting is that?


St. Louis also tweeted that Hunt had called for gender segregation in laboratories. In fact, Shiow Chin Tan, a Malaysian science journalist, dismissed this, telling The Times:


“[He] added that men would be the worse off for it [if the sexes were segregated]. I did laugh at his comments, because it was very obvious to me that he was saying it in a very light-hearted and joking manner . . . I think that the whole incident has been blown way out of proportion, and that Tim Hunt has been made a scapegoat for sexism in science. This is really sad.”


In addition, Louise Mensch (who wrote an essay on the debacle here) points out that the Hunt's comments about male and female scientists falling in love was a personal joke that the general public wouldn’t understand. She wrote on her blog:


“He made an ironic joke about his own life. The joke was not even ironic about women in general. It was ironic about Sir Tim Hunt specifically. His specialized audience in the room would have known… that Sir Tim had fallen in love decades ago with his lab student, who had left her then husband to marry Hunt. The couple remain married and remain scientists. His wife’s name is Professor Mary Collins; she is a distinguished immunologist [and]… a Professor at UCL.”


What’s more, reports by Buzzfeed, the Assosiated Press and others, that accused Hunt of thanking women for making lunch, turned out to be false. In fact, it was a female politician who made the comment.  


What happened to Hunt is a symptom of a bigger problem in today’s technological world. In the 21st century, a shadow minister can be forced to resign and a scientist can break down in tears over a shirt because of a Twitter storm. Tim Hunt was fired from multiple institutions and his career ripped to shreds before he — or any of his defenders — had had the chance to mount a response. The kneejerk Twitter cyberstorm raged by vicious, hysterical arm-chair bullies found Hunt guilty despite being innocent.


Sexism and misogyny are diseases. But misrepresenting people like Tim Hunt — who is not a sexist nor a misogynist but someone who has actually fought for women’s participation in the scientific community — undermines those who are genuinely fighting for real equality. We have to cure ourselves of this persecution complex; remember what happened to the boy who cried wolf?


We are living in a new world where silly and ironic comments meant in jest are enough to destroy someone’s career and make their life a misery. Not every joke reveals someone’s actual beliefs. Sir Tim Hunt is a victim of friendly fire — he is no sexist.


Therefore, Sir Paul Nurse, President of the Royal Society, of which Hunt is a member, was right to say that “[Hunt] should never have been sacked by University College London.” Proper journalists — particularly at The Times — objectively seeking out truth without any confirmation bias have redeemed Sir Tim Hunt.


Hunt — innocent of all charges — should be reinstated and those who hounded him should think again before presupposing the truth on the basis of a hasty tweet.


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