The illiberal persecution of Tim Hunt

What is truly alarming, what should really send a shiver down every liberal’s spine, is not the words that came out of Hunt’s mouth but the haranguing of him that followed, the shunning of him by the academy and possibly by the scientific elite itself. (As the Guardian crows, Hunt is a “fellow of the Royal Society… at the time of writing, at least.” Yes! Let’s cast him out of that institution too! And can we pelt him with rotten eggs as he leaves?)

The response to Hunt is way more archaic than what Hunt said. Sure, his views might be a bit pre-women’s lib, pre-1960s. But the tormenting and sacking of people for what they think and say is pre-modern. It’s positively Inquisitorial.

The irony is too much to handle: Hunt is railed against for expressing an old-fashioned view, yet the railers against him do something infinitely more old-fashioned: they expel from public life someone they judge to have committed heresy. Kick him out. Strip him of his titles. Mock his misfortune. “Savour the moment.” How awfully ironic that the Royal Society, which played a key role in propelling Britain from medievalism to modernity, is now being asked to behave in a medieval fashion and send into the academic wilderness a heretic among its number.

The Hunt incident is quite terrifying. For what we have here is a university, under pressure from an intolerant mob, judging a professor’s fitness for office by his personal thoughts, his idea of humour. Profs should be judged by one thing alone: their depth of knowledge. It shouldn’t matter one iota if they are sexist, stupid, unfunny, religious, uncouth, ugly, or whatever. All that should matter is whether they have the brainpower to do the job at hand.