Reflections on the #TimHunt case

Some days ago, the #TimHunt case exploded on the internet. There was a main report by the journalist Connie St Louis that showed extremely sexist remarks by the Nobel laureate Tim Hunt during a closed conference about the importance of women in science, which happened in Korea. Following that report, a wave of protesters took on social media and started showing their grief about the remarks, some more direct, others with humor (just check #TimHunt on Twitter).

Because of the backlash of his statements on the internet, Tim Hunt lost honorary positions at prestigious institutions, and saw his reputation go down the drain in just a few days after the fact. He defended himself saying that he meant that as a joke, and that he was just being honest. Many scientists (including Richard Dawkins, for whom I have a lot of admiration on his science and the way he reports it to the public) went on to defend him, saying that, during his career, he always respected women and empowered them, and endorsed his defense statements.

More recently, a story appeared on Daily Mail that raised claims about Connie St Louis’ credibility as a journalist, stating that her CV contains untruthful information about her publications and that, therefore, her words should be taken with a grain of salt. Additionally, it contains a report of a anonymous person adding a few key lines to Tim Hunt’s remarks at the conference, strengthening the idea of it being ironic, and really meant as a joke. Whatever you want to believe “the” Daily Mail with an anonymous source on the internet, that is on you.

Now, everyone seems to have an opinion about that. And here is mine: while it is clear that we don’t have the complete context, jokes always have the potential to offend and cause damage, whatever the context. To me, it seems like doing that kind of joke in such a conference would be too stupid of a step to take, and I wonder how clueless could a scientist be about social dynamics that he wouldn’t think about that being completely terrible.

It’s not the first time I see a scientist make a stupid joke that can put him in a bad situation if made in public. At school, I knew many teachers that would spill them out almost daily, and would continue their lives as if there was nothing wrong with their joke. But the fact is that there is. The most damaging jokes are the ones that are not reacted to. Clueless professors and scientists get away with them because they are treated or seen as authorities at their institution. Maybe that is why they are clueless?

The fact that this case exploded is a vindication. For years, people have been quiet about stupid racist/sexist jokes among the scientific community, but now we can take over social networks to speak out loud about this issue. Well, too bad it happened with a “misjudged joke” by a Nobel laureate, but it was bound to happen sooner or later. I have seen many scientific role models, such as Richard Dawkins and Richard Feynmann, having their statements judged by the public as sexist. Especially in Feynmann’s “Surely You’re Joking…” book, it is clear that he had a peculiar taste for practical jokes and toying with women.

But many people ask: do they deserve this? They have their arguments for defending Tim Hunt and other white male scientists: “it was just a joke”, or “he is now too old and clueless”, or “he was raised in a different cultural context” or “he has already apologized, what else do you want”? All of these are perfectly valid, but it is difficult to undo damage. And by that, I mean the damage done to Hunt’s reputation. He may have ended up as a scapegoat, and that is a lesson to be learned by other scientists and professors: be careful with your stupid jokes.

What I do know and endorse is that people who suffered injustice for centuries do deserve equality, they deserve respect, and they deserve to not be joked about. I also think that we should not judge someone based on an incomplete picture. During the shitstorm shortly after Hunt’s remarks went public, I retweeted something that implied he was “not an OK human being.” Now, in hindsight, I regret that retweet, because I was too quick to judge him based solely on the reports being made at the time. And I apologize for that. This piece of text by Alessia Errico on Nature shows another side of this whole story, of a Tim Hunt that is thoughtful of his female scientific partners but, still, a terrible comedian. I don’t know if I am entitled to accepting Hunt’s apologies, but I would urge you to do it, if you were somehow offended by his joke.

Featured image: “MacShane knew of course that the woman wasn’t real.”, photo by Terry McCombs on Flickr, author of the art unknown.


Reflections on the #TimHunt case

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