I’m sorry, this is yet another piece of writing in the wake of the Tim Hunt debacle. I find I am still very angry. We are, I hope, reaching the end of the saga yet little in the way of concrete actions which will actually help women in science has emerged or is likely to; this is why I am angry. All those shrill commenters who shrieked ‘sexist foul’ at the outset have not necessarily done any good for the cause they purport to support. Instead, we have seen the public humiliation of a man who has spent much of his life supporting young colleagues, of whatever race or gender, and who has a good track record specifically of being a promoter of women. I saw a tweet saying essentially who cared what happened to one old white man. If that was the only casualty I might agree, but it isn’t. We should be worrying, as scientists, about evidence, truth and integrity and all too often in commentaries and over twitter they have had far too little of a look in.
I do not want to rehash what happened or even to point fingers. It’s futile and will just continue to stoke the fires. It will now be impossible to ‘prove’ exactly what Tim said and how, but we can disprove some of the wilder claims that have been made. Louise Mensch has done an excellent job of uncovering timelines and facts, as can be seen in her series of blogposts where the hard evidence is gathered together, as has Debbie Kennett on her blog. I may not agree with Mensch’s politics, but I applaud her piece of investigative journalism. Why have others been so lazy right from the outset? Had facts been checked on day one, this whole horrid tale would have been nothing but a damp squib. Tim’s remarks were inaccurately and incompletely quoted; words of others were initially attributed to him and the reception of his words was described as ‘deathly silence’ when a recently released audio tape, available on the Mensch blog, shows there was laughter (and the beginning of applause is audible before the tape stopped).
At the end of this post I put down how I interpret what has been learned over the weeks as more and more people have spoken up (including people who were present on the day beyond the originators of the story). I have put it at the end so that people can first read the messages I want to tease out without having to wade through the minutiae of the tale, crucial though these are. For me I am convinced Tim’s reputation has been traduced based on what can only be described as, at best, sloppy journalism fuelled by a self-righteous fervour. His ability now to go and inspire the young (see this video for an example of him in action) has been unnecessariilydestroyed; invitations to him have now been withdrawn (e.g. the Italian Society of Anatomy and Histology withdrew its invitation to him for its September conference because ‘some hazardous occurrence for you and for the regular course of the event might happen’). What a waste!
I want to focus on evidence and how scientists and journalists alike have not done a good job on this story of seeking it out and using it as the only basis for their stories. Article after article around the world has taken St Louis’s tweeted three sentences and used them as the platform on which to act as judge and jury. They have not even, as I hoped might have transpired quite fast, used them as a catalyst to introduce change in our workplaces, change that is so desperately needed. But worse than this, it is also clear that this story has highlighted how journalism can look like it presents facts when actually there is all sorts of colour being added (or removed) to change appearances. It makes it all but impossible to know what to believe sometimes. I have become very disillusioned with the ‘truth’ of the written word.
Let me start by demonstrating my personal concerns using a piece I wrote for the Observer on June 21st in the wake of the furore. This article enabled me to build on the call for action I had made in my previous Tim Hunt post on this blog, encouraging everyone to do their bit to improve conditions for women in science (recall the pledge I asked people to make: #just1action4WIS)
I wrote this Observer article so it must accurately reflect my views, right? Well no, unfortunately not. The editor chose (and has since apologised for his actions to me) to remove one key sentence and replace it with another without checking with me first. So, in the piece I submitted I wrote
‘That his remarks appear not to have been recounted in full has probably fuelled the view that they were appallingly sexist.’
By this point, as a member of the ERC Scientific Council I had already seen the complete version of Tim’s toast from the EU report that was subsequently leaked to The Times. I knew of the second part of his speech beginning with the ‘Now seriously….’ which he had referred to in his own interview with the Observer. Without wanting to refer explicitly to the report, which as Council members we had been asked to treat in confidence, I wanted to make it clear that all was not as it might seem at first glance. In fact the more extended quote did not appear for several more days (see here (£)) , by which point neither Blum nor Oransky were prepared to deny the correctness of the additional remarks. (It should be noted that Jean Pierre Bourguignon, the ERC’s President, has gone on the record, in one of Louise Mensch’s blogposts, on what the ERC knew right from the outset and how he had personally talked to the Korean host face to face after the event to establish the facts: she had reported that the audience collectively had not noticed anything amiss at the time.)
So, in my Observer piece that crucial sentence went missing to be replaced by something I would never have chosen to write, namely
‘On Saturday, eight Nobel-winning scientists criticised the summary dismissal of Hunt by University College London.’
That eight white male scientists were closing ranks with Tim may have mattered to some, but to my mind it simply looked like the establishment sticking up for their colleagues. It did not strike me as relevant to what I wanted to say. But, there it is in black and white, I ‘said it’ for all to see. And no doubt for people to worry about why I felt what the other Nobel Prize winners said was relevant. But, if even something written in my own name can be modified in this way, why should one trust anything that has been written?
Let us look next at the question of interviews as they appeared in the newspapers. Paul Nurse, as President of the Royal Society as well as co-winner of the Nobel Prize with Tim, was inevitably going to be drawn in. He was interviewed by the Telegraph and when I read this I was quite frankly pretty surprised. I had heard Paul express his own views at length shortly beforehand and what he was quoted as saying was not really consistent with what I had heard him say in person. I think it would be fair to say that when he appeared on Broadcasting House the next day – a live appearance so no tinkering with his speech possible – we hear his views more accurately represented:
‘It became a complete Twitter, media storm, completely out of proportion. He should never have been sacked by University College, London.’
(Audio available on the Mensch post.) Something got lost in translation in the Telegraph interview. What a journalist chooses to include, and the context in which words are quoted, can completely change the nuances of how an ‘interview’ comes across. Clearly true in this case; likely to be true in general.
So, all those who think that the Observer interview with Tim Hunt and his wife Mary Collins demonstrate them as ‘whingeing’ or ‘asking for sympathy’ as I saw stated, might pause a moment to consider whether the flavour of his words are likely to be totally accurate – although I think the point he makes that UCL might have sought to hear more about what happened before they asked for his resignation is hardly a whinge, simply asking for due process (Some people explicitly seemed to think, via Twitter, that was an unreasonable thing for Tim to ask for. Why should he be denied due process? If he had actually been employed would UCL have behaved in such a cavalier way one wonders?)
So it’s time to turn to UCL and a related story about them (Disclosure: I hold an Hon DSc from UCL). They use the Garrick Club for dinners. That’s right, the Garrick Club that recently voted, again, to exclude women as members. The Club that the Times points out has a quarter of all the high court judges and QCs as members but who make it impossible for women judges to join. Not exactly a bastion of equality then, yet UCL – which keeps boasting about its commitment to equality as in the Provost Michael Arthur’s statement
‘Equality between the sexes is one of our core values’
– chooses to hold official events there.
I was asked to comment on this for the Times, which ran the original story. My views were accurately quoted this time, except that the second part of what I said was omitted, no doubt for reasons of space.
‘Individuals can of course make their own choices about where to dine but that professional working dinners should be held in a club which formally excludes women from membership seems totally inappropriate. This is particularly true if the dinners are associated with an organisation, such as UCL, publicly pledged to gender equality. As the incoming Master of Churchill College, last year I found myself attending a dinner at a club which does not admit women as members. I made it clear at the time I was very uncomfortable with this and I would not attend again at the same (or any similar) venue: this year the dinner will indeed be held elsewhere.’
I would have liked this second part to have appeared because it again stresses something I very much believe: we are all in this together and we need to work collectively and individually towards gender equality and improving working conditions for women in science. UCL have failed on this front.
Let us look at what the Garrick event organiser (UCL’s Tony Segal, a club member) said:
‘It has nothing to do with sexism. I love women. The more the better.’
I was tempted to tweet out those last two sentences, without any context (learning from the habits of some journalistic colleagues perhaps) – which personally I find outrageous even in their proper context. He was expressing the view not that it is excellent that we have many women who attend by right, rather it reads to me as if having lots of pretty women around makes for a pleasant evening. Personally I find his remarks offensive, although it prompted no Twitter outrage that I saw. But, he may well be being misreported. How can one tell? But, at the very least, I hope UCL – and Tony Segal in particular – will move next year’s event to a more fitting location. It can be done, as I know from my own experience as stated above. Giving custom to the Garrick financially allows them to perpetuate their injustices against women, such as QCs. Whether or not such women want to belong to a club like this is irrelevant.
So, to conclude, all I can say I have learnt about ‘evidence’ in this sorry tale of Tim Hunt is that little is as you see it. Print journalists, for all kinds of reasons which may be valid from their perspective of selling newspapers, are going to mould stories to fit the narrative they have in mind. Quotes will be selective, words may be inserted into written pieces, interviews will adopt the shape the editor wants not how the interviewee necessarily wants to come across. Evidence is to be used here, as with politicians, when it suits. Cherry-picking will occur.
But we scientists, we don’t need to do the same. Undoubtedly there has been cherry-picking by both eminent scientists and those with less clout throughout the Tim Hunt debacle to fit the image the original misleading tweet conveyed. That view seems to have been that Hunt is a sexist pig who deserves to be outed for all the damage he has done over many years to poor unsuspecting females in his group who haven’t a good word to say for him. Those assumptions were made implicitly – and sometimes explicitly alluded to – without a shred of evidence to back them up. At least one journalist has now made a fulsome apology to Tim Hunt and his (eminent in her own right as an immunologist) wife Mary Collins. I would wish that many of those others – scientists and journalists – who wrote bile based on bilge do likewise now the fundamental inaccuracy on which everything else was based is manifest. The scientists who instantly jumped in saying Tim should be removed from any committee where judgements were made about individuals should consider their own positions on any similar committees, since their own judgements are shown to be capable of bias.
The trouble is there are far too many people who are indeed sexist out there in our universities and labs. The rage unleashed is genuine because so many women have suffered too much at the hands of too many. But none of the evidence demonstrates this has been at the hands of Tim. There was no need for people to jump onto this specific bandwagon, at least without a lot more thought. This sort of behaviour is indeed how a mob behaves. Someone draws blood and that releases others’ inhibitions. More blood is drawn and more, forgetting the fact that there is a person involved.
Now, not only is that person damaged, but so is science – because it has lost its sight of truth and evidence – and so is the situation for women in science. Has the situation in our labs around the country (indeed around the world, since this has been a global story) been improved? I fear not. In fact, no one seems actually to have used this as a trigger to action. I was asked by a journalist whether my previous article of proposed actions led to any known changes in processes or behaviour anywhere, and I had to say not to my knowledge. I could at least add in the caveat that this had occurred during the examination season when universities had other things on their mind, but I fear that fact, although convenient, is actually irrelevant. People are good at wringing their hands, not good at making change happen. And we have to if we are to arrive at that true equality UCL and so many others lay claim to. I am far more worried about the existence of the many who may never say a word out of place, who explicitly make all the right noises about sexism and the importance of diversity, but who day by day act to hinder women’s progress by their actions. Smooth talkers but actual opponents of true equality.
Please, let us not waste the opportunity. Please, pledge just one action for women in science from my original list (#just1action4WIS) or other actions you want to add in and then make sure your own organisation collectively does a great deal more.
Looking at the evidence
So, journalists and scientists alike, please always consider the evidence and any time in the future that you might ever want to attack someone think carefully as to whether you have reproducible evidence from more than one source. The damage was done by the original Connie St Louis tweet which was at the time backed up by Deborah Blum and Ivan Oransky (although they subsequently seem somewhat to have backed off from their original positions and would not confirm or deny the more extended remarks). Nevertheless, it was essentially one person’s word and the many others in the room were not asked for their take on what happened. The evidence now, from a variety of sources including an audio tape from an attendee of the end of the speech (available on the Mensch post) shows the statement from St Louis that the speech was met with ‘deathly silence’ is quite simply not true. Audible laughter can be heard in the tape and the beginning of applause. This tape was made by Russian journalist and attendee Natalia Demina who has throughout tried (through Twitter) to give a contrasting view of what happened to St Louis’ tweet and statements without having had much attention paid to her, at least initially.
There is a very interesting scientific analysis of how people may have ‘heard’ what happened differently, presented by Narinder Kapur and Debbie Kennett here. Eye witness accounts can differ for all kinds of reason, including cognitive bias and what is perceived as humour. Maybe to some listeners the speech really did feel the 6-7 minutes long St Louis stated, even though no account of the words spoken could possibly add up even to a time of half that duration, however nervous and full of umm’s it might have been. Maybe the ill-fated words made such an impression the rest was silenced and the laughter and applause was simply not heard by some. But, the audio proves it existed and that has to be a more reliable witness.
Yet, that one original tweet caused all the damage. Those parties who immediately sprang into action based their entire interpretation on that initial tweet of Tim’s remarks, a tweet that has been shown to be incomplete at the very least, certainly misleading and not correctly portraying the context (see Bourguignon’s comments in Mensch’s post about the reaction from the Korean host
‘Without being asked, [the Korean female host] said she was impressed that Sir Tim could improvise such a warm and funny speech (her words). Later she told me that all other Korean lunch participants she talked to didn’t notice or hear anything peculiar in Sir Tim’s speech.’
There is also a good timeline account here by Debbie Kennett who constantly updated her account as the story unfolded in which she cites much of the evidence. )
Nevertheless these angry readers of the St Louis tweet immediately sprang into action, making many assumptions, their brains racing as they convinced themselves that Tim was sexist, had a long history of sexist behaviour and indeed was a misogynist. I don’t want to give sources for those remarks, although I obviously could, because I hope those people who started throwing words like misogyny around have reconsidered their judgements. In all the sorry story not one woman has come forward to accuse Tim of misogyny or mistreatment. I don’t buy the idea that they would be frightened to do so: at the time (though perhaps no longer) I suspect they would have been greeted with open arms. But, on the contrary, all those who came forward talked warmly about the man: Maria Leptin’s tweet where she states he had been the one who appointed her director of EMBO; Ottoline Leyser, present chair of the Athena Forum and whom Tim had taught, in Times Higher Education (disclosure: Ottoline and I wrote a joint letter to the Times (£) supporting Tim); a collective letter (£) from those who had worked with Tim at UCL and many more, as well as previous unsolicited comments made over several years by those who’d interacted with Tim gathered together in this storify.
So, as I argued in my previous post, where was the evidence of sexism? People took three sentences that one person reported and built an entire edifice upon it, thereby jettisoning a man’s career. And let’s not forget what important work this man did in cell cycle regulation and its relevance to understanding cancer.
What lessons can we learn? Firstly, evidence matters. Why did so many people not stop to think whether it was likely someone would be so overtly sexist to a largely female audience when he had no prior form? I do not accept the argument that the one previous interview everyone quoted (N.B. it was always the same interview not many different occasions) demonstrated he didn’t believe in equality of treatment. I am frequently challenged why I think we need 50:50 in the population of physicists, something in fact I have never said. The problem is not the absolute numbers of female physicists or male vets, it is the number that get turned away for sexist or cultural reasons. Tim’s previous remarks (I give them here in full, not just the limited couple of sentences usually quoted) were:
“I’m not sure there is really a problem, actually. People just look at the statistics. I dare, myself, think there is any discrimination, either for or against men or women. I think people are really good at selecting good scientists but I must admit the inequalities in the outcomes, especially at the higher end, are quite staggering. And I have no idea what the reasons are. One should start asking why women being under-represented in senior positions is such a big problem. Is this actually a bad thing? It is not immediately obvious for me… is this bad for women? Or bad for science? Or bad for society? I don’t know, it clearly upsets people a lot.”
I interpret these as consonant with the idea that there isn’t a problem if there aren’t as many female scientific leaders as male if that is how it turns out when everyone is treated equally. All this proves is that he, like many another, has not caught up with the idea of unconscious bias. Since Tim has been interviewed many times – and given many talks over the years since his Nobel Prize – and all the evidence people can find for his alleged sexism is their interpretation of one single interview, I don’t find it very convincing that he is sexist through and through.
My own evidence of his nature is based on actual interactions with him over a number of years. I found it strange that people believed that a tweet of three sentences was more informative of the character of the man than my many conversations and observations of him in action at committees. I was accused of defending ‘a friend’ instead of people stopping to think if the few words quoted actually amounted to anything more than a bad sense of humour and that my greater knowledge might actually be saying something useful. In my previous post I called his words indefensible. I regret saying that. Now the full content of what he said is available it is clear that his remarks may perhaps have been idiotic and unwise but they were self-deprecating humour about his own tangled emotional life, not thoughts about the emotional state of women. What I fear is that forever more far too many people will remember nothing about the story and the actual facts beyond that original, misleading tweet.
The BBC Today ‘interview’, which even to my ears didn’t sound like a convincing apology, is now shown – via the transcript Louise Mensch has managed to access – to have been mixed and matched in ways to mean one can’t deduce anything much from it: the two versions broadcast an hour apart have the crucial ‘I’m just trying to be honest’ phrase moved around so that it is clear that what is being broadcast is not actually the words in the way in which Tim spoke them. The actual questions to which he was answering have never been released by the BBC. Furthermore, the timing of his recorded response was such that he probably had as yet no idea of how his remarks had been reported and were being perceived, in which case how was he supposed to know for what he was to apologise? As Fiona Fox has indicated, we should not expect our scientists to have to behave (or be judged) like politicians.
So, for me, it is clear that Tim’s actual words convey nothing more than a disastrous attempt at self-deprecating humour about his own emotional entanglements in his life, followed by enthusiastic words about women doing science, entirely consistent with everything he has done throughout his life. He was being honest, but not in the way the original stories chose to portray. His ability to support scientists, of any race or gender, has now been compromised by the actions of others. I see it as a tragedy for him personally, for science in general and for women in science in particular.