Sunday, June 14, 2015

Which Hunt?

So the Tim Hunt thing rumbles on and on... the story for anyone who missed it, is that an old entitled and successful Nobellist said some stupid and sexist and unfunny things in a public lecture at a meeting on science journalism. Unsurprisingly, some of the journalists reported this, which led to a deluge of twittering and Guardian articles. Old entitled and successful Nobellist clumsily attempted an apology but said that he meant it really. UCL rapidly removes him from his honorary post, ditto European Research Council. Now there's the latest woe is me apologia.

On one side, we have his defenders saying that he's a great scientist and has supported many female scientists through his career. On the other, his detractors point out that his comments add to the hostile environment that many women have to put up with on a regular basis, and have no place in modern research culture. I have to say I come down pretty firmly on the latter side. It's not like UCL or ERC are short of old white men to fill up honorary positions and committees.


Mitch said...

Agreed--why would anyone think this is a joke, unless in the beginning stages of dementia?

jules said...

I think this is quite interesting - from one of the links above ...
'On his remarks about women crying, he said: "It's terribly important that you can criticise people's ideas without criticising them and if they burst into tears, it means that you tend to hold back from getting at the absolute truth."'

Surely we adapt our style to the character and capability of the person? (this is irrelevant of gender) At least that's what I have done. Yes you have to be critical, but even I can only go so far, and I'm hardly the empathetic sort! And yes it inevitably means stopping short of getting at so called absolute truth (which actually just means "my opinion is right"). But the plus side f not getting to absolute truth today is that tomorrow you still have someone prepared to work with you!! Guess that's why he has a Nobel Prize...

He's wrong about the love part to, because that actually enables the brutal honesty he longs for. All my joint papers with James have my tears on them, caused by James' misunderstanding what I am trying to say with variations on, "I can't believe you are so stupid..". It is a bit annoying that papers can't be written an easier way, but they'd probably e crap papers. It is actually an efficient way of progressing. The resulting clarification (after the tantrum the apology and the tea) results in a rapid progression of ideas! Guess it wouldn't work if you had a sulky sort of relationship rather than an instant response one, however.

I have also on two occasions in my career been incredibly cross with bosses to the point of shouting, tears and slamming doors. Once with a male boss, and once with a female. I'd still say they were totally unreasonable, and would do it again! ;-)

James Annan said...

Whereas my boss has never been unreasonable, at least not in the last 8? years...19 if you count home life :-)

CapitalistImperialistPig said...

If you are going to declare a major thought crime every time some old person says something slightly stupid or tactless, wouldn't it be simpler to just shoot everybody at age 65? Save on social Security too.

Of course young and middle-aged people never say anything stupid - or maybe they are just obscure enough that nobody cares.

Anybody who would be intimidated by his sort of patronizing nonsense probably lacks the mental toughness to succeed in any competitive enterprise like science anyway.

I'm not a big fan of internet shame-lynchings for any cause, but if you must, why not save your outrage for stuff a hell of a lot more offensive than this.

JohnMashey said...

Did you folks get over to S. Korea while in Japan?

I think the current numbers in S. Korea: ~1/6 scientists are female, and lower fractions of senior professors and lab directors ...
Given those numbers, in effect he was telling Korean women to forget about science.

CapitalistImperialistPig said...

@JohnMashey - possibly. Or maybe he was just telling them that it bothered him when (a)women cried or (b)became romantically entangled with co-workers.

Or perhaps you were just telling us that you are good at deducing your prejudices from somewhat limited evidence.

EliRabett said...

Monica Grady on Hunt

Monica Grady crying

and take a look at her twitter feed today

nigguraths said...

I hope you say something stupid and you get unceremoniously sacked from your job in your old age. I'm sure there will be someone to point out that was the right thing to do.

James Annan said...

CIP, well maybe you should save your indignation for those who actually decided that they no longer thought he was a suitable holder of his honorary position, rather than the people on twitter who merely ridiculed what was plainly ridiculous.

nigguraths, passing over the "sacked from your job" (what job?) I don't see why you want me to say stupid things, other than some sort of bitter hostility on your part. Wouldn't you prefer me to say sensible things, and not offend people?

As it happens I do have a sort of honorary position at Bristol University. If I was to offend them by saying idiotic things about the female staff there - which seems pretty unthinkable, they are extremely talented and have been a pleasure to meet and (occasionally) work with - I wouldn't be at all surprised to have those privileges taken away.

John, we only had a single short visit to S Korea - and that was to the island of Jeju which is supposedly a bit odd. But I understand it's somewhat like Japan in attitudes (not that the west is perfect, but I can't think of a single female Japanese professor in climate sciences). Making those sort of comments at a women's science association lunch is just unbelievably crass.

nigguraths said...

I don't prefer personalising generally made comments and I prefer due process. If you say something about women in general, I would prefer Bristol University not interpret it to mean something about their staff and sack you.

You write in your post above Tim Hunt's comments were picked up by 'the media'. What happened was Hunt's UCL colleague and ex-BBC journalist Connie St Louis, whose academic interests lie in sexism in science was present at the meet. Her interpretations were fed straight to the BBC and the Guardian and the resignation precipitated, following which Tim Hunt was reached out to get his side. Yellow journalism+Twitter outrage=toxic mixture.

Sexism, like racism, should be less about what people think, and say and more about what people do. If people like Hunt only can make funny/unfunny remarks about women, there is no sexism to boot.

James Annan said...

Not sure what due process you think has been missed out, I presume Hunt was told that if he didn't resign, they would go through whatever process is required to strip him of his status(es). As honorary staff, he probably has few rights, it's not like he was sacked from a job.

If he had been sacked from a tenured university position, it would be a rather different matter. I agree that in that case, he'd have some sort of defence in respect of actions vs words (though tenure in the UK is not absolute). But as a titular figurehead, of course the university wants someone who says things that they can agree with, rather than someone who spouts off stupid and offensive comments.

Tim Hunt's side, as far as I can tell, is that he meant what he said. UCL certainly doesn't seem impressed with his whining, based on their statements.

andthentheresphysics said...

Your final sentence sums it up rather nicely, as far as I'm concerned.

Carrick said...

I'm with James here:

I don't think here's any place for complaining about losing honorific titles over saying comically stupid and offensive things, obviously meaning them, and when given a chance to revise your remarks, double down on stupid by reaffirming that you meant what you said.

CapitalistImperialistPig said...

Did Tim Hunt lose purely honorific titles, or did he lose his lab and opportunity to do research? He certainly seems to think it was the latter.

Also, as Boris Johnson pointed out, there is a difference between saying things that are foolish and foolishly saying things that are true but unpopular. He makes a rather convincing argument that Hunt's crime was the latter:

James Annan said...

CIP, have you actually read any of the first-hand reports?

CapitalistImperialistPig said...


I've only read news stories. Links?

James Annan said...

you can try this and this.

CapitalistImperialistPig said...

If he indeed called for segregated labs, that was stupid and offensive. Oddly enough, that did not seem to make most of the news stories.

James Annan said...

Yes, I thought some of the media coverage was misleading, which might explain some of his defenders. Note also that he has a certain amount of previous form:

In your opinion, why are women still under-represented in senior positions in academia and funding bodies?

Hunt: I'm not sure there is really a problem, actually. People just look at the statistics. I dare, myself, think there is any discrimination, either for or against men or women. I think people are really good at selecting good scientists but I must admit the inequalities in the outcomes, especially at the higher end, are quite staggering. And I have no idea what the reasons are. One should start asking why women being under-represented in senior positions is such a big problem. Is this actually a bad thing? It is not immediately obvious for me... is this bad for women? Or bad for science? Or bad for society? I don't know, it clearly upsets people a lot.

It's not like he was just making some joke about how he met his wife. I mean, I can imagine making some joke about the problems women in the lab, but only to people who know jules and myself, and it wouldn't be followed up with a serious suggestion for segregation. If he has trouble coping with women in the lab, it's entirely correct that he should not run one.

nigguraths said...

Dr Annan, you've been misled by the Storify which doesn't fully quote what Prof Hunt said, but rather, selectively paraphrases him.

James Annan said...

nigguraths, have you got a full transcript?

nigguraths said...

No one seems to have it. Apparently, Tim Hunt spoke for ~10 minutes. The quoted/paraphrased sentences have been presented without much context, if that is true. Or worse, they have been presented with the journalists own spin from the beginning.

James Annan said...

So why do you claim I've been mislead? I have read all the accounts I can find from from people who were present, including Hunt himself. It seems clear that he did say that he had trouble working with women and would prefer segregated labs, and did not retract his comments but instead doubled down on them afterwards in his attempt at an apology. I doubt he would have been sacked as an employee for what he did, but it's not surprising that organisations no longer wish to use him as an honorary figurehead in various capacities.

nigguraths said...

You have been misled to the extent the account of what happened was framed and presented along side a single person's interpretation right from the start. That what he said is something separate from what Connie St Louis and Deborah Blum understood from it, and made of it, has been missed. You present Blum's Storify link as a better alternative compared to some misleading media coverage. In your post, you say 'Unsurprisingly, some of the journalists reported this'. In reality however, what he said was not 'reported' but spun into a tale of sexism - a typed-out confected paragraph of outrage, concern for equal representation in science and presidency of the Royal Society and presented by screenshot on Twitter. It was posted within hours after his speech. Hunt is innocent until proven guilty, his seemingly quirky ideas about women in labs notwithstanding.

Gender politics are unavoidable in labs and offices. My own former boss faced similar problems as described by Hunt. Male and female students and lab techs would fall in love, and he would find it difficult to criticize one without upsetting the other. Why should talking about uncomfortable stuff be wrongly punished, in a hurry?

James Annan said...

You have been misled

You seem to be making up a whole lot of stuff based on very little evidence.

lucia said...

Wow Shub,
I dashed over here when you posted "Shub Niggurath ‏@shubclimate 10m10 minutes ago

James Annan now wants full transcript of #TimHunt's speech(no benefit of doubt to old white entitled man Hunt though) …".

Are you inferring he "wants" one based on his asking you if you have one? Odd.

(Mind you, I was kind of hoping someone did have one because I am remaining agnostic on most of this. If you were basing your opinions on actual facts and could provide them, it might be useful for you to share them. So if you do have a transcript, it might be worth sharing it.)

Louise Mensch said...

Mr Annan,

I rather doubt you have read the evidence from those who were there as it directly contradicts Blum and St. Louis.

Louise Mensch

James Annan said...

[Sorry about the comment publication delay - blogger has now switched on it's auto-moderation, it being 2 weeks after the posting date.]

Ah, what a surprise to find that nigguraths is misrepresenting my comments somewhere else. I'm shocked, not. Thanks, lucia. I don't always peruse your comments thoroughly, though obviously I should :-)

I am surprised that no-one has yet mentioned the comments from someone who actually worked in Hunt's lab. That seems more relevant than whether some other random person was not offended by what he said. Maybe some of you haven't really been paying attention. I certainly have. I also noticed that the organisation that invited Hunt to speak made a statement expressing their disappointment. Having worked in science for all of my career, and half of it in Asia, I think that if some old man is prepared to describe himself as having problems with women in his lab, it's entirely appropriate that he should make way for those more capable and willing to cope better with the diversity that is (and should be) present in the modern workplace.

FWIW, the next conference I'm going to attend has 7 invited speakers. Guess the number of men. Comments have been made and there may be some changes....but it still happened, and took a number of independently-made comments of before anyone even acknowledged that it might be a problem. This in a field where there is no shortage of well-qualified females at all levels of seniority. The probability of this sort of thing happening by chance, if decisions were made in a gender-blind manner, are rather small. So maybe that played a part in influencing my position on the Hunt thing.

lucia said...

I wasn't worried about the delay associated with the comment appearing.

The #TimHunt issue has been appearing all over my twitter time line. My general thoughts match yours on this but I have not and do not plan to spend much time on this. Overall, I really don't see any injustice having been done to Hunt. But perhaps that's because I live in a "at will employment" state. Here's what our state pages say
Yes. Illinois is an "employment at-will" state, meaning that an employer or employee may terminate the relationship at any time, without any reason or cause. The employer, however, cannot discriminate based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin, ancestry, citizenship status, age, marital status, physical or mental handicap, military service or unfavorable military discharge.
In or state, Hunt could legitimately be fired for pretty much any reason. Merely embarrassing his employer is reason enough.

People can enter into contractual relationships that changes; if such existed Hunt would be able to file for breech of contract.

Beyond that, my impression is he resigned. So I'm really not seeing what his defenders are complaining about.

If their complaint is that the criticism on twitter is making him feel bad (possibly making him feel like crying)... well, that would just be ironic. :)

James Annan said...

Well, I'm no fan of at-will employment. I am amused (but entirely usurprised) by some climate sceptics taking the side of an old washed-up white man losing his authority as a result of stupid comments that he made.

I would also be willing to bet that they would generally take the side of the employer in any employment dispute, though of course this isn't really a matter of employment anyway.

lucia said...

That's what we have in Illinois. It has it's upsides and downsides. Downside is obvious. So for example, if a small business (say dog care) hires a dog walker, and they don't work out, you can just fire them. That takes away the risk of facing a suit for what amounts to a mistake in hiring this is mostly an up. OTOH, a boss could fire a long standing skilled dog walker so he can give the job to his now old enough nephew who wants the job. That's not quite fair to the employee-- but it's entirely legal here in Illinois. (It can be bad PR sometimes though.)

With respect to the Hunt thing, it just makes it difficult for me to get too worked up about it. I'd feel much sorrier for the dog walker in the above example. And many customers might too-- and they might find the dog walker and make a private arrangement. That happens too.

Bear in mind, protections can be gained with contracts, and so on and often are. If a work place has something like an employer written employee handbook with a guide of behavior. That acts as a sort of contract. Nearly all large employers have guidelines of that sort.

But I think even those wouldn't apply here because-- as far as I can tell- Hunt was not an employee, and to the extent he had a position, he resigned. And it seems to me that given he just held an honorary position, the entire relationship was "you bring us good PR, we let you use this honorary title". If the PR goes sour the deal ends. I'm not seeing this as unfair to Hunt.

hey would generally take the side of the employer in any employment dispute,
Some would; some wouldn't. It depends on the dispute. If we really wanted to know where people stand on stuff, I'd have to run a post on the "Uber" class action suit. If you really want to see angry people, that's the topic.

With respect to in-the-lime-light sexism stories, this isn't Shub's first rant. I'm pretty sure he will pretty much always take the side of anyone accused of anything remotely sexist.