It will likely surprise no one here that a story of international import with which social justice warriors took the most serious umbrage, hounding a Nobel-prize-winning 72-year-old scientist out of several honorary and employment positions, turned out not to be, strictly speaking, completely true.
Such is the case with the story of Sir Tim Hunt, a scientist rather renowned for his skills, as his title suggests, in the United Kingdom before he spoke to a room full of scientists in Seoul, South Korea at the World Conference of Science Journalists in June. During a short speech or toast, Hunt made comments about women in science that perfectly fit into the left-leaning cultural critique of the scientific community as plagued by institutional sexism fueling underrepresentation of women.
There are vanishingly few reports of his actual comments despite the fact they were given in front of a conference full of journalists (perhaps it was one of those journalism events where journalists don’t dare do journalism for the evening, like the White House Corespondents Association Dinner). But the Twitter account of one academic named Connie St. Louis quoted Hunt as saying:
“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.”
“Really, does this Nobel laureate think we are still in Victorian times?” St. Louis tweeted at the notion that she said Hunt suggested—that men and women should work in separate lab environments. And, the Internet mob was off, churning out “think” pieces, demanding every professional association of Hunt’s disassociate itself, and serving up a sunny hashtag as the complement to its quest to hound him out of employment— #distractinglysexy, accompanied by pictures of female scientists in their element.
Absent a recording of Hunt and any detailed additional reports, it was Hunt’s word vs. St. Louis’, and St. Louis’ version fit a helpful narrative of the Left. Hunt’s explanation did not. He claimed he had been joking, perhaps clumsily, in the statement quoted, even satirizing sexist tendencies of the scientific community and being self-deprecating about his own role in it.
If you didn’t already want to roll with the sexism charge, it was pretty possible to believe an older scientist might make an awkward joke about women. Some will dismiss my take on this as “boys will be boys” excuse making, but it’s actually more like the “socially awkward will be socially awkward” and shouldn’t be expected to be flawless in their public presentations about sensitive issues when delivering off-the-cuff remarks.
If Hunt had said just the quoted comments, they would certainly have been obnoxious, worthy of condemnation in some circles, but not a fireable offense. However, it’s pretty likely that wasn’t all he said. A leaked report from an EU official’s investigation into the incident suggests there was much more to his comments and they bear out Hunt’s version of events and that he prefaced them by self-deprecatingly calling himself a “chauvinist monster” and rounded them out with a commendation of women scientists:
But a leaked EU report seen by The Times supports Sir Tim’s claims that his remarks were an “idiotic joke” and not meant to be taken seriously.
A European Commission official who was at the lunch for women journalists and scientists offered a differing transcript from the account compiled by three reporters present.
The official included previously unreported comments that came directly after Sir Tim’s controversial remarks, the Times reported.
He allegedly continued: “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.”
Too bad for Hunt that he had already been forced out of positions at the Royal Society and the University College London. In subsequent reporting, British newspapers have found the CV of St. Louis to be as exaggerated as her tweets on this subject, but we’ll hear almost nothing about that while Hunt was dragged through a week of international news cycle.
Other scientists and public figures have spoken up for him, but to no avail. Richard Dawkins called for those who went after Hunt to apologize considering the missing context from his comments.
Good luck with that. The outrage industry made a stand, claimed a reputation, and moved on. End of Discussion. Someone should write a book about it.