Tim Hunt, women on Twitter, and more academic precarity

ATTENTION CONSERVATION NOTICE: Blame University College, London for firing Tim Hunt, not the female scientists who riffed on him.

Most of us have heard of the Tim Hunt mishegosse. For those not in the know, it goes something like this: Hunt is a Nobel prize-winning biochemist who had an honorary affiliation at University College London and who, depending to whom one listens, either let his sexist flag fly or ‘was joking’ and made a rather ridiculous statement when recorded and in front of an audience. The quote, from the Guardian, goes like this:

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”.

The 72-year-old, who won the 2001 Nobel prize in physiology or medicine, made the remarks when addressing a convention of senior female scientists and science journalists.

His comments were tweeted by Connie St Louis, who directs the science journalism program at City University, London, and was attending the conference. She commented: “Really, does this Nobel laureate think we are still in Victorian times?”

He subsequently apologized, and the apology isn’t much better, actually–it’s far too woolly and you get the sense that he’s still genuinely puzzled about how it’s not very wise to note that women cause trouble in labs, and oh, it’s just true that you fall in love in the lab. You can hear the apology here in audio. DR. HUNT PLEASE STOP TALKING I BEG YOU.

Note: it’s possible to work with women without falling in love with them. It’s even possible for homosexual males to be in science, and to fall in love with each other, or not fall in love with each other. And, um. Other stuff. Good Lord. This was joke? Has he never talked to the media before? He has a Nobel Prize! How can that be? Ack.

Now this is were is gets even woollier. Twitter got involved, of course. The response, I felt, was rather light-hearted, with scientists posting photos of themselves in the lab, snarking about how they haven’t cried that day or had anybody fall in love, noting that lab suits and the like are hardly the stuff of glamour or SyFy movie scenes where one (male) scientist looks at another scientist, pulls off her glasses, while her hair tumbles over her shoulders, and exclaims “Miss Howard, you’re beautiful!” in shock and surprise, even though Miss Howard is clearly beautiful the whole time because she’s a 21 year-old actress with breast implants that some costume department has put glasses on instead of somebody who actually holds two PhDs in difficult fields.

Some of these were quite clever.

There was the typical reaction-o-sphere, and it’s really hard to tell whether his comments were just an ill-considered joke or, as a joke, part of his inability to deal with people well, particularly women. This later piece, in the Guardian, makes Hunt out to be a victim of the internet meanies. The first Guardian story, you’ll note, mentions that even prior to his comments, Hunt had a rep for misogyny. Now, I don’t know where the rep came from, and that’s important. But in the Guardian story, a number of his female students and colleagues over the years spoke up for him, and that’s says a lot to me anyway.

Because now, of course, are going to come the sad, sad stories of how those internet meanies forced University College, London to force Hunt to resign. Soon this will be all the feminists’ fault. However, let’s get real: UCL over-reacted. It’s not Twitter or female scientists’ fault, or the internet meanies. On Twitter, a conversation occurred mocking the original statement, which deserved to be mocked.

It became a moment where–OMG OMG–female scientist used social media to speak for themselves, represent themselves, and talk about their jobs for a bit. We can’t conflate that as meanness or with the yapping journalists outside the Hunts’ door (Why, for heaven’s sakes? What is interesting about this after the initial comments? Leave them alone!)

So who is at fault? Tim Hunt’s wife, an immunologist, hits the nail on the head:

His wife, Professor Mary Collins, one of Britain’s most senior immunologists, is similarly indignant. She believes that University College London – where both scientists had posts – has acted in “an utterly unacceptable” way in pressuring both researchers and in failing to support their causes.

Certainly the speed of the dispatch of Hunt – who won the 2001 Nobel prize in physiology for his work on cell division – from his various academic posts is startling. In many cases this was done without him even being asked for his version of events, he says. The story shows, if nothing else, that the world of science can be every bit as brutal as that of politics.

Yes, well, if you have ever read Bruno Latour, you won’t spend a lot of time being surprised that scientists are human beings and all (the last sentence), but yeah: administrators at University College, London wet their pants and forced him out instead of protecting an asset and working with him. Somebody at the university should have helped the man with his apology, which was a shitshow.

The man has a Nobel-freaking-prize. The fact that they are so worried about their public image that they are willing to flush him because of bad press is the problem, not the fact that women in science used social media to break the silence that often surrounds them. Female representation in science is dismal, and university environments in general are often awful for women in general and for women in science in particular, but many brilliant women persist and make contributions to labs every day.

Letting that story be told, without institutional over-reaction and vilification of one guy, could have been an important moment. But now it will turn into another sad tale of Political Correctness!! Gone wild!! Instead of what it should have been: yet another instance of administrators worried about press and brand reputation more than than messy work of public dialogue and deliberation.