It may be far too late to make any useful comment on the case of Nobel Laureate and Fellow of the Royal Society Sir Tim Hunt, but I was waiting for “better and further particulars” as the lawyers say, though those have been slow in coming. Astoundingly, much has been decided very quickly, with scant basis for judgment. Judgment requires time in which the facts can be gathered and evaluated. “News” is fast moving, but academia ought to have time for thought, and even time for wisdom.
The facts so far are that Sir Tim Hunt gave a lunchtime talk at a conference. There appears to be no recording of this talk. One conference guest reported that Sir Tim had made offensively sexist remarks which stunned the audience of women scientists. At least one other conference guest seemed to agree with this interpretation. Two other attendees gave very different interpretations: that his introduction had been a light hearted and self-mocking joke about his chauvinist tendencies, but his subsequent talk had been about lauding women scientists’ contribution to science, all of which had been accepted warmly by the female audience. In a subsequent radio interview Sir Tim appeared to confirm his remarks and said that male scientists found it difficult to give necessary criticism to women lab scientists. Sir Tim resigned from his honorary post at UCL and from his honorary duties at the Royal Society. Both resignations were accepted, and UCL made a statement which accepted and approved of his resignation. The Royal Society President also approved of his resignation.
What processes were followed by UCL and the Royal Society? I would have expected that in each institution some appointed person or committee would have asked for details about the conference remarks, and contacted Sir Tim to get his side of the story. Even if these noble institutions had received his resignation apparently out of the blue, I assume they would have taken steps to find out why a Nobel Laureate should suddenly want to sever connections with them. So far as I know, none of this has happened. If the remarks were confirmed to have been of the reported form: “keep women and men scientists in separate labs” I assume the named person or committee would have then gone on to check up whether Sir Tim was known to have behaved in a biased, unfair and offensive way to women scientists and to women job applicants. Many scientists have in fact said that this was not the case, and that he has been supportive and encouraging of women in science, his attendance at the women’s conference being part of this positive pattern.
I would have assumed that, after considering all these facts, the committee would have come to a judgment and made a statement, saying what the facts were, and how they intended to respond. As far as I know, none of this has happened. Instead, the procedure has been reminiscent of the Soviet terror: the esteemed scientist is seen on the podium in Red Square with all his medals pinned on his overcoat waving to the cheering crowds; some months later he makes a tearful confession about sundry seditious crimes, including economic sabotage; he is stripped of his medals, responsibilities and privileges; becomes an Un-person, and is mentioned no more. Miscreants are not even accorded a show trial. They are given verdict without process. Even to ask about them, on this fearsome model, becomes a risky business.
The consequence for individual academics of judgment without trial is that if they say something which others take badly they may be damaged where it hurts most: their reputation as a scientist is trashed and their influence as a teacher reduced to nothing. The consequence for academia is a fetish for form over function: curiosity, observation, and conjecture will take second place to a circumspect acquiescence to political policies. Scientists will become missionaries rather than actuaries, selling a line rather than examining claims. Researchers will have to develop the skills of politicians, and favour missionary zeal over the mundane routine of collecting data and examining possible causal links.
Professional societies are often unprofessional when they deal with what they regard as disciplinary matters. They do not understand due process, and fail to resolve their conflict of interest: they have to uphold the good name of their societies and also deal fairly with the interests of their members. Very few provide their members with independent legal advice and representation. Members who do not get a fair hearing have a probable case in law, but rarely fight to get redress. Academics and health professionals are easily crushed. They work in an atmosphere of trust, and once that trust is lost, even on the flimsiest of evidence, they are broken. In recent times I worked to give support to professionals who had been ruined by newspaper accounts, and it is very hard to get them to assemble their defences. They are usually on the tender-minded end of the personality spectrum, and more likely to accept the ministrations of a psychologist than the advice of a hard-nosed lawyer (though I always recommend additional help from the latter). Retirement generally looks a good option, rather than fighting the case. Although I understand why they retreat, every time they withdraw from the field they leave their colleagues more open to new hostile attacks.
What saddens me is the speed with which a remark is judged sufficient to end a career. As far as I know, no-one has brought a validated case against Sir Tim Hunt showing him to have damaged the career of a woman scientist, or to have turned down well qualified candidates because they were women. To my great surprise Nobel Laureate Sir Paul Nurse, the President of the Royal Society, has been quoted in The Telegraph (I assume they have a recording) thus: “Tim is a lovely man and I have known him a long time,” he said. “But there is no question about it, he did say some stupid things which cannot be supported and they had to be condemned. He said he was a chauvinist and that is not acceptable.”
Notice that what was not acceptable (if the report is accurate) was that Sir Tim Hunt said he was a chauvinist, not that he has been proved to be a chauvinist in the way he actually treats women scientists. You do not need to know much about psychology to know that people who say they have prejudices may often act without prejudice in their professional lives, and that people who say they have no prejudices whatsoever sometimes act very prejudicially. The match between self-assigned attitudes and actual behaviour is often weak. An honest person’s self-examination may lead to more confessions than the few admitted by a self-satisfied prig, which is yet another example of the ubiquitous Dunning-Kruger effect.
It really does surprise me that any President of the Royal Society should regard Sir Tim Hunt’s comments as if they were an incantation which requires immediate ex-communication. It has a very religious flavour to it, which I do not associate with a scientific society. Talk about Totem and Taboo, and magical thinking about human sacrifices! Sir Tim has been judged to have made comments which (despite whether he meant them in the way they were interpreted) the President finds unhelpful to the cause of getting more women into science and into the Royal Society, and so Sir Tim has to be lustrated. Words are a mortal sin, and a blameless life helping women scientists is no defence. He must be banished, for the purity of the congregation. In the bestiary of punishments, if a joking reference to love affairs in the lab destroys a career, what punishment should be meted out to academics who grossly exaggerate their CVs?
Sir Tim’s observation that some male bosses might avoid their usual management criticisms of juniors if those juniors are women is a possible problem worth discussing. Here is another topic, one which Sir Tim did not raise, but one I have an interest in. What do women scientists think of women scientist bosses? How do they rate them, compared to male scientist bosses? Are women scientists any better than male scientists when managing their lab workers, both male and female? Indeed, as a general rule, are women Professors better leaders and managers than male Professors? According to some researchers women cry more often and more copiously. Is that of any significance in how they perform their jobs and how they are managed? Do women excel in science, or are they too normal? Should one especially encourage women into science and, come to that, should one especially encourage anyone into science? (Doing well in research requires great talent and lots of hard work, for relatively low rates of pay. Funding is never guaranteed, and you must dance to the tune of grant giving bodies. Researchers should be a community of scholars, but can sometimes be a pack of wolves. School teaching might be more fun than lab work, and with far better holidays). Are there any occupations in which same sex organisations are preferable? Front line troops, for example? Should women be allowed to cluster in biology while men do Physics? On Ricardo’s theory of comparative advantage, it may be the best policy, even if only on motivational grounds.
I do not expect these questions to be answered, but I would love them to be asked, at lunch time conference talks and in open debate. Disinterested curiosity is the lifeblood of true civilisation, etc.
Back to the wolf pack, where the story usually ends. The Un-person shuffles off to a country retreat, and the questions he raised are avoided, as newcomers learn to avoid the topics which led to his downfall. This time an unusual thing has happened: the ritual shaming process has been questioned by notable scientists who have spoken up in Sir Tim’s defence. Many of them question the speed of judgment, the lack of procedure, and ask that his remarks be seen in the light of his well-known kindness and helpfulness to all scientists, both men and women. They want him judged in the round, for all his achievements and actions, and not as just a sound bite. Few of his friends think that he went about introducing his lunchtime speech in a way which meets modern sensibilities, but they want this good scientist brought back to his honorary duties, to continue the very teaching which took him to the women’s conference in the first place.
What do his pursuers want? I do not know, but I surmise that they want to punish anyone who uses words of which they do not approve and anyone who expresses ideas, however ironically, they find “unacceptable”. They have raised the reaction of being offended into a weapon of culture war, secure in the knowledge that it has always worked. Their trump card is to dare you to question them, for fear of being given the same treatment.
They have broken a butterfly on a wheel. Sir Tim Hunt is bright enough for a Nobel, but not crafty enough to understand what modern academia has become.