Blimey. That Tim Hunt then. It feels like any single point of view is not enough; I need a superposition of states here. I read Athene Donald explaining that, however much we can and should deplore his comments, he’s not a bad chap, and I think yes, that was very much my experience of Tim when I was on a judging panel with him: I liked him, found him not at all bigoted or oppressive or objectionable. Comparisons with Jim Watson are unfair – I think it is clear he is not that kind of person. Athene seems right to be saying, let’s not make it all about Tim, we need to focus on measures that will rid science of the blight of sexism that still evidently afflicts it.
Then I read responses and comments by Jenny Rohn, Margaret Harris and Deborah Blum, and I think yes, we mustn’t offer up feeble “he’s just a different generation” excuses and give a basically decent chap a break for making a stupid blunder. There is too much of this sort of low-level crap going on in science all the time, and when it comes from someone in a position of such authority and influence then we need to come down hard on it.
I can’t help feeling a bit sorry for Tim, seeing how genuinely distraught and despairing he seems. Christ, the man is human, and not a monster. And yet I can’t help feeling, you bloody fool, what really did you expect? And I don’t know quite what to believe anyway. Do we accept this as a bone-headed attempt at a joke, or do we believe that Tim passed up the chance to say later that of course he didn’t truly think these things? Do we believe rumours that Tim had form for this kind of thing, or accept the testimony of friends and colleagues that they’ve never seen him previously behave in a sexist manner?
The world can’t possibly need someone else saying “Here’s what we should do about Huntgate.” (I’m glad that’s not a word. Forget I wrote it.) But. Well, I’d simply like to offer a fee suggestions:
1. We stop name-calling and belitting of anyone who, while condemning the remarks, differs slightly from our own view of what is the appropriate way to deal with them. There’s no obvious right answer to that. What’s needed is discussion. (Obviously, this excludes London mayors who think Tim was merely pointing out some well known gender differences, and who in any event reckon it is OK to make off-the-cuff jokes about “piccaninnies”.)
2. We agree that denouncements of “politically correct witch hunts” are beside the point. People on Twitter will say horrid and unfair things about Tim Hunt because people on Twitter do that. Why cares (aside from the fact that it’s intrinsically nasty)? I see no reason to call the responses of, say, UCL, a witch hunt, let alone a “politically correct” one (unless your view is that it is trendy political correctness to show disapproval of sexism and want to distance yourself from it).
3. Tim’s situation has been worsened by the timing. People are frankly and rightly sick of the sexism that exists in science. When I think that my girls, were they to choose careers in science, might have their prospects damaged by bias, harassment, and exclusion, I want to take a hammer and smash up a lot of Pyrex. Actually I think I will encourage them to do it themselves (I suspect they’ll be quite good at it). I’m not saying that Tim got worse than he deserved for this reason, but just that it’s a part of the explanation for what happened.
4. We follow Athene’s action points, and use this sad affair positively to make change happen.
5. We stop making excuses. We can all make mistakes and say thoughtless things, for sure, but having an attitude that fundamentally opposes discrimination of all sorts and recognizes it when we see it in so obvious a manner as this is not bloody hard, whether you are 17 or 70. Science is, frankly, a bit crap at this. It tolerates obnoxious fools for too long, on the grounds that they once did some good science. (I’m not talking about Tim here.) It doesn’t just tolerate them, it excuses them. I don’t give a toss how good your science is, if you don’t behave decently and respectfully then you should expect to get no respect in return.
But here’s what gives me great hope and comfort: I’m not sure science is going to be this way much longer. It’s going to take time and effort, but it will change. I am buoyed by the fact that the ambassadors for science these days (and here I’m qualified only to talk about the UK) are people for who “jokes” about women scientists (no, “girls”) falling in love and crying and working in segregated labs aren’t just objectionable but utterly bloody weird. People to whom it would never occur to say or think such an outlandish thing no matter how “confused” or “nervous” or jet-lagged or drunk they were. People like Athene Donald, like Monica Grady, Alice Roberts, Maggie Aderin-Pocock, Brian Cox, Jim Al-Khalili, Mark Miodownik, Ed Yong, Andrea Sella. Certain older members of the science-communication fraternity (I use the word advisedly, and mention no names) might just purse their lips and mutter about witch hunts and the waste of scientific eminence. But their time is over.