Reason.com

Free Minds & Free Markets

'Sexist' Scientist Tim Hunt: The Real Story

The "Tim Hunt, misogynist scientist” narrative has been falling apart piece by piece over the past month.

Remember Tim Hunt, the Nobel Prize-winning British biochemist mocked and vilified on Twitter and in the media after he reportedly told a gathering of women scientists that "girls" in the lab are a nuisance because they are lovesick crybabies, and suggested sex-segregated labs as the solution? Remember how we were told that this shocking incident reveals still-entrenched sexism in the world of science? Well, now that the dust has cleared and the story has faded from the American press, there’s a postscript that amounts to: Never mind. It turns out that, just as Hunt has claimed, the 72-year-old scientist’s comments during a luncheon at a science journalism conference in Korea in June were an awkward self-deprecating joke—greeted with laughter (not the reported "stony silence") by a mostly female audience.

The "Tim Hunt, misogynist scientist” narrative has been falling apart piece by piece over the past month; last week, it was finished off by a snippet of audio recorded by a female attendee and made public by The Times. Attention should now tturn to the real scandal: irresponsible journalism magnified by social media frenzy.

It all started with a June 8 tweet from City University London journalism professor Connie St. Louis, lamenting that the luncheon at the World Conference of Science Journalists had been "ruined by sexist speaker Tim Hunt." According to St. Louis, Hunt announced that he had "a reputation as a male chauvinist" and continued, "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 criticize them they cry.” Then, she wrote, he compounded it by advocating "single-sex labs" but adding that "he doesn’t want to stand in the way of women."

Twitter exploded in outrage, and the story quickly got picked up by major media around the world, with such headlines as, "Nobel winner: Women in labs 'fall in love with you ... you criticize them, they cry'" and "Sir Tim Hunt's sexist remarks: With lab rats like him, is it any wonder there’s a shortage of women in science?" St. Louis’s account, corroborated by two prominent American science journalists—former New York Times columnist Deborah Blum and Retraction Watch blogger Ivan Oransky—was roundly treated as fact. To make it worse, Hunt was said to have stood by his comments in an interview to BBC Radio even as he apologized for causing offense. It was not long before the story was updated with news of Hunt’s resignation from his honorary post at University College London and from several prestigious science boards and committees.

paloma cl/Flickrpaloma cl/Flickr

Even after The Guardian ran a sympathetic interview with Hunt and his scientist wife Mary Collins, who defended him against charges of sexism—as did several other female scientists—most of the coverage stuck to the party line. Blum stepped in to rebut Hunt’s assertion that he had been "hung out to dry" over an unfortunate joke; she claimed that she asked him the day after the luncheon if he had been joking, and that he simply reiterated his point ("he did think it was hard to collaborate with women because they are too emotional") and told her he had been "trying to be honest about the problems." St. Louis penned an essay for The Guardian portraying the sympathy for Hunt as "an outcry from the establishment" in a "typical pattern of oppression" and telling his supporters, "mainly men," to stop defending him.

That narrative took a major hit on June 24 when The Times obtained information that a European Commission report on the conference, based on the notes of a European Union official who attended the luncheon, gave a very different account of what happened. The report summarized Hunt’s remarks as follows:

It’s strange that such a chauvinist monster like me has been asked to speak to women scientists. 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 criticize them they cry. Perhaps we should make separate labs for boys and girls? 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.

A follow-up article revealed that the EU official also said Hunt’s remarks were well-received, contradicting his accusers’ claims of an uncomfortable silence (or even a "deathly silence," as St. Louis told BBC Radio 4), and that one of the luncheon’s organizers, a woman from the Korean National Research Council of Science and Technology, told him "she was impressed that Sir Tim could improvise such a warm and funny speech."

In the days that followed, this account was corroborated by several people who attended the luncheon. One of them, Russian science journalist Natalia Demina, had challenged the accusations against Hunt from the very start on Twitter. Another, Malaysian science journalist Shiow Chin Tan, provided a new detail: she told The Times that after his facetious comments about segregating the sexes, Hunt added that "men would be worse off for it." While St. Louis has continued to insist that Hunt did not say "now seriously" or praise women in science, Blum has acknowledged that the purported transcript had "some of the right elements" and was a "polished version" of Hunt’s "somewhat fumbling actual talk."

What about Hunt’s alleged admission to BBC Radio (and to Blum) that he was "just being honest" about the problems with women in science? Hunt has told The Guardian that his BBC "interview" was a hasty, clumsy statement recorded over the phone on his way home, in response to a text message asking for comment on the controversy of which he had been previously unaware. British newspaper columnist and politician Louise Mensch, one of Hunt’s staunchest advocates, makes a strong case  that his comments were misleadingly edited to obscure the fact that he was not referring to women scientists in general but to his own personal experience with romance in the lab and the resulting "emotional entanglements." (He met his wife in the laboratory while she was married to another man.) It's plausible that he said something similar to Blum the day after the luncheon; Kathryn O’Hara, the photographer who took their photo during that conversation, confirmed to me that she recalls Hunt saying he was trying to be honest about his own experiences.

Regardless, the new revelations turned the tide. By mid-July, Paul Nurse, the head of Britain’s chief scientific body, the Royal Society, defended Hunt on BBC radio and in a letter to The Telegraph and blamed the fiasco on "a Twitter and media storm." The Guardian ran a semi-apology for its tendentious coverage. A scathing Times editorial blasted the "betrayal" of Hunt:

Thirty-nine words were lifted wholesale from their context by a partisan witness of questionable credentials. Bracketed by kneejerk outrage these words were tweeted round the world and used to destroy the reputation of a distinguished scientist on no solid ground at all.

But it still wasn’t quite over. On July 18, The Times published a new bombshell: a 12-second recording of the final moments of Hunt’s remarks that Demina had discovered among her materials from the conference and turned over to the newspaper with Mensch’s help. In the audio, Hunt says, "Congratulations, everybody, because I hope—I hope—I really hope that there won’t be anything holding you back, especially not monsters like me." There is a hearty laugh from the audience, followed by the start of applause before the recording breaks off.

The recording clearly dovetails with the EU official’s notes provided to the European Commission. One can also see how, in St. Louis’s retelling, Hunt’s final line would turn into "he doesn’t want to stand in the way of women." But in her version, the comment sounds insufferably patronizing, a pat on the head that compounds the earlier insult; in the audio, Hunt sounds warm, gracious, genuinely supportive and self-deprecating, not mocking toward women. In other words, this is a resounding vindication for Hunt—one that, unfortunately, may not undo the damage.

While claims that Hunt’s career has been ruined are somewhat exaggerated—he is retired, his position at UCL a non-paying honorary one, and he is still affiliated with the Crick Institute where he does actual research—there is no question that his reputation and his ability to work for science have suffered. Speaking to The Guardian in mid-June, Hunt said that the worst blow was being forced to resign from the science committee of the European Research Council, to which he had devoted years of effort. More recently, Hunt’s invitation to speak at a conference of the Italian Society of Anatomy and Histology in Ferrara was withdrawn as a precautionary measure, apparently due to threats of disruption from activists.

This is particularly shameful given that Hunt is not only a great scientist but, by many accounts, a genuine friend to women in science. There are numerous testimonials from women describing him as a caring and inspirational mentor, one who never treated his female students and colleagues differently from their male peers and has aided in their advancement. European Research Council president Jean-Pierre Bourguignon is on record as saying that Hunt "actively supported" the Council’s initiatives to support women in science. The only charge of sexism anyone has tried to pin on him beyond his ill-considered remarks in Seoul is a 2014 interview in which he dared to suggest that the numerical disparities between men and women in science are not necessarily a huge problem. But this hardly means, as fellow UCL scientist David Colquhoun has insinuated on his blog, that Hunt also seriously believes women shouldn’t work in science alongside men. (Ironically, as Mensch has discovered, Colquhoun himself had to field accusations of sexism on Twitter only a few months ago after voicing the heretical opinions that the paucity of women in senior scientific positions was due to different family roles, not sexism in academe.)

A few days before the disclosure of the case-clinching audio, science ethicist Janet Stemwedel wrote a piece for Forbes.com titled "What If Tim Hunt Had Done It Differently?" (While the column was written after the leak of the European Commission report, Stemwedel still quotes only the portion of Hunt’s remarks originally reported by St. Louis.) There is no question that Hunt made his share of mistakes; for instance, Stemwedel is correct that he should have waited to get home and assess the situation before giving a statement to the BBC. But it’s hard to tell if that would have helped: the media storm was already raging in his absence, and it’s unlikely that even a more measured statement would have calmed it down.

Photo Credit: paloma cl/Flickr

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • CPADave71||

    Internet outrage machine blasts perceived offender without having all the facts? Humbug! Next you'll tell me water is wet!

  • Sevo||

    "...A deliberate conspiracy to frame an innocent scientist for misogyny seems far-fetched..."
    Not to me, it doesn't.
    I assume Ms. St. Louis and Ms. Blum have followed protocols, that perhaps mistakes were made, that the passive voice has been activated and that they have nothing more to say.

  • ||

    I have had nothing but harassment from my female colleagues. When we're in the lab, I can almost feel them undressing me with their eyes. They get ladyboners and "accidentally" rub them against me. They'll pat my bottom and call me Stud Muffin.

    I fucking love science.

  • Trump's Woodchipper||

    I never believed for one second that the scientific community was immune to the type of workplace drama I've experienced I've pretty much seen at every place I've ever worked.

  • ||

    It's not. I've run a bunch of research groups, and trust me, STEM PhDs are just as irrational and political game-playing as anyone else.

  • buybuydandavis||

    "This is particularly shameful given that Hunt is not only a great scientist but, by many accounts, a genuine friend to women in science."

    That can't be! War on Women! Misogyny! Penises are EVIL! EVIL! EVIL! EVIL!

  • Microaggressor||

    Can't let inconvenient hatefacts get in the way of The Narrative.

  • NotAnotherSkippy||

    I blame lead.

  • SQRLSY One||

    Sarcastic humor if VERBOTEN in leftie-land... Lefties are WAY too emotionally and intellectually constipated to even THINK about tolerating sarcasm. All most tow the party line! Humor, even self-deprecating and self-defecating humor, will NOT be allowed, unless approved by a unanimous vote of the committee for cleansing the community of chauvinism! Here's how to apply: Fill out form BR549 and these other 10,000 auxiliary forms, and wait 5 years for your joke to be approved... THIS is what we call intellectual freedom!

  • JimBob7||

    How many feminists does it take to change a light bulb? (wait for it)
    .
    .
    .
    .
    .
    THAT'S NOT FUNNY!

  • peter302||

    Start making cash right now... Get more time with your family by doing jobs that only require for you to have a computer and an internet access and you can have that at your home. Start bringing up to $8596 a month. I've started this job and I've never been happier and now I am sharing it with you, so you can try it too. You can check it out here...
    www.jobnet10.com

  • the other Jim||

    The truly sad thing, to me, is that someone even needed to write such a detailed account of how a non-event got turned into ZOMG WAR ON WOMEN!!!!" I mean, we're down to the level of talking about how some outraged SJW warrior misrepresented the reaction of the audience to some British scientist's innocuous joke, and then how some other peabrain SJW reporter ran with the story.

    Good on Cathy Young for having the patience to parse this all out and help set the record straight. But man, they do not make teacups tiny enough to hold such a pathetic little tempest as this. I just hope this poor guy gets reinstated at whatever organizations booted him out. Assuming he would still want to associate with any group so beholden to Twitter lynch mobs.

  • Migrant Log Chipper||

    I'm glad CY has unmasked these vile shrews as the scumbags they are. The more this kind of conduct is revealed, the sooner these SJW fascists will be mocked as they so deserve.

  • NebulousFocus||

    I believe Louise Mensch did most of the heavy lifting, but Cathy put it in human readable format. Thanks Cathy!

  • Hzle||

    It's hard to over-state what Mensch achieved

    Without her efforts - history books would probably have given the Blum/St Louis version of events - now exposed as a travesty. A year later and how hard it would have been to collect any evidence, or find anyone who remembered anything. The politically motivated distortions would have become "fact"

    It makes you wonder how much of history is lies and rumour.

  • John Galt||

    Male British scientists aren't exactly the most masculine bunch of fellas. Their place isn't in the lab crying, it's in the kitchen cooking up some sandwiches for me and my drinking buddies.

  • Johnimo||

    The femi-nazis are firmly in control of the media, though they frequently come crashing back to Earth when the truth eventually leaks out. There have become far too many things which, even in jest, cannot be uttered .... such as ....

    Go Redskins!

  • 0x90||

    At least his parents didn't name him Mike.

  • John Galt||

    Tim doesn't look like the UFC type.

  • mconroytx||

    Sir Tim should sue Ms St Louis for Defamation. Now that we see more context she is unmasked not only as shabby and unprofessional, but also ironically as responding in the manner of the imaginary woman in Sir Tim's remarks: illogically emotional...

  • Jay Dubya||

    I am not an expert on UK law, but its been my impression that defamation torts are much easier to accomplish there than in the US. No doubt it is Sir Tim's infinite good taste which prevents him from utterly destroying these suffragettes. *polishes monocle*

  • rudehost||

    Good taste would be making an example out of them. Ignoring it is akin to a woman refusing to press charges against a brutal serial rapist who she knows is planning another rape this weekend. He does a disservice to future victims of these SJW jackals.

  • Septawn||

    I think the only sensible take away from this is don't trust women. ;)

  • Ron||

    I think that since it was some women who got outraged only proves his point that they can't take criticism or jokes

  • Jay Dubya||

    "a moment to savor"

    What an extraordinary statement. Surely a black man never savored being collared from a Southern lunch counter. Neither did gays savor losing their job after bein outted by newspapers. As a Jew I can assure you that none of my relations savored their trip to the gas chambers.

    And yet today's militant late wave feminist, when confronted with an act of what she believes to be overt distrimination and hatred, basks in the event lile the afterglow of a fine wine. I am sure that we can intuit much more from such a delighted gasp then simply the paucity of a complaint of unfair dealing. Like a doctor in the Congo who steps into a village with Ebola, I can smell a whiff of a plague, here.

  • Pulseguy||

    No, but Henry 'Skip' Gates the pompous Harvard professor who was caught breaking into his own house by a white policeman who treated him politely but firmly loved getting arrested for disorderly conduct IN HIS OWN YARD! Finally...it happened...he got some street cred.

  • Rockabilly||

    What's wrong with being sexy?

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wrMWRKSNLcs

  • Lorenzo Valla||

    Crybabies gonna cry

  • ||

    Google pay 97$ per hour my last pay check was $8500 working 1o hours a week online. My younger brother friend has been averaging 12k for months now and he works about 22 hours a week. I cant believe how easy it was once I tried it out.
    This is wha- I do...... ✹✹✹✹✹✹ www.online-jobs9.com

  • Win Bear||

    I can't figure out what possessed Hunt to speak at such an event in the first place.

  • ||

    Google pay 97$ per hour my last pay check was $8500 working 1o hours a week online. My younger brother friend has been averaging 12k for months now and he works about 22 hours a week. I cant believe how easy it was once I tried it out.
    This is wha- I do...... ✹✹✹✹✹✹ www.online-jobs9.com

  • Michael Price||

    You know who else wanted male and female seperated in the lab to avoid distactions?
    http://tinyurl.com/qjvlhql

  • Michael Price||

    You know who else wanted male and female seperated in the lab to avoid distactions?
    http://tinyurl.com/qjvlhql

  • Hzle||

    "it is just as possible that they simply saw the events through the filter of their own biases"

    Good point. But there is still plenty that troubles me. Watching the exchanges on twitter, I see little remorse from those who were happy enough to be members of an internet-style "lynch-mob", little recognition of the effect their fanaticism has had on the lives of decent people.

    Their cause is so important to them that a few unfairly sacked and disgraced Nobel prizewinners (or a few publicly humiliated silly-shirt-wearing Astrophysicists) are a small price to pay - they might just have enjoyed the feeling of power a teensy bit.

    Their cause is "feminism" - a rather difficult thing to define. Everyone has their own version, so one wonders if the word has any use at all. Louise Mensch (who deserves congratulation for her hard work - without her Tim Hunt's reputation might have been unfairly blackened forever) thinks it means gender-egalitarianism.

    I very much doubt Blum, Nelson & Connie ST Louis etc think much about what egalitarianism means (for some people "equality" is just a hurrah-word) But they do enjoy 2 things: scolding men, and fomenting internet campaigns. I think the internet has given a kind of power to some unpleasant personalities

  • Viral Stories||

    Throughout the years, the people have been modeling and looking to Inspirational Leaders as a source of inspiration for achieving goals for themselves. Inspirational quotes from great leaders have since become daily brain food for people wanting to create better lives for themselves.

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online