Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The Two Tim Hunt Narratives

Sue Nelson recently wondered aloud why people were still talking about Tim Hunt. After all, the "man concerned [had] admitted and apologised for his words." As someone who is still thinking very hard about what happened, this puzzlement, and sometimes bemusement, about my interest in the case, especially on the part of people who actively participated, as I did not, in the first round of the outrage cycle, is a bit puzzling and not very amusing to me. I think I've hit on a way of explaining why I feel that way. At bottom, it has to do with two different ways of reconstructing (in hindsight) "what happened", one of which treats it as a minor incident in the stream of current events, the other which treats it as a significant event in the history of modern science.

One way of seeing the difference is by the very different role they assign to the title character in the drama. His critics have always thought of this as something Tim Hunt did. His defenders have thought of it as something that happened to Tim Hunt. (This, I have been suggesting, is a question about where the agency in the narrative is best understood to have been.) Since the man who did something apologized for it, his critics don't see why this is still a big deal. Since the man that something happened to is still suffering its ill effects, his defenders don't see how it isn't a big deal.

Let me emphasise that these two interpretations compete for control of the rear-view mirror. When the action was hot, the roles were more or less reversed. Hunt's critics were sure this was a very big deal that should occasion systemic changes in the organization of science, while his defenders said it was a tempest in a teacup occasioned by a joke.

The difference in these two perspectives on "what happened" can be made even clearer if we try to summarize the narratives. Here's how Tim Hunt's critics might summarize the story:

On June 8, Tim Hunt said something at a luncheon in Seoul that offended women scientists all over the world. While we may never know what he really meant, he admitted that he said the offending words and apologized for the offense. Incidentally, he also resigned from an honorary position at University College London.

And here's how his defenders tell the same story:

On June 10, Tim Hunt resigned from an honorary position at University College London. UCL president Michael Arthur explained the resignation, saying that, in light of his reported remarks in Seoul, he no longer brought the requisite honour to the position. Eventually, the reports of his remarks were shown to be flawed in important respects.

At that level of abstraction, the two stories aren't really in conflict, but they do suggest very different interests in the case. And I think it is natural that those who are pursuing the second story would still be working on it, while those who were pursuing the first might think this is already history.

Interestingly, at about the same time that Sue Nelson wondered why we're still talking about it, Hilda Bastian posted a detailed overview of events and sources at her blog, which was quickly endorsed by Deborah Blum, who was involved in the original reporting of Hunt's remarks. Bastian clearly holds to the "what Tim Hunt did" narrative. An equally detailed summary by Debbie Kennett has long been available, but she is guided by the "what happened to Tim Hunt" narrative. Both collections of facts are "comprehensive" and do of course largely overlap, but one is organised around the offence Tim Hunt "caused", and the other is organised around the dishonour he was subjected to.

In a sense, I agree with Sue Nelson that the "What did Tim Hunt do?" story is dead. But it didn't die when Tim Hunt apologised. It died when it turned out that the original reports had gotten his remarks egregiously wrong. The story that continues, therefore, is the "What was done to Tim Hunt?" story.

Friday, July 24, 2015


Starting in the mid-1980s something terrible happened to about a million men. They were diagnosed with prostate cancer, which is pretty terrible, but what's worse is that they were treated for it. It's worse because these men did not need either the diagnosis or the treatment they got. While it is true that they had cancer, it was of a kind that would not develop into a medical condition before they died of some other cause. If they had left it untreated, it would never have bothered them. The treatment, meanwhile—either surgery or radiation—bothered many of them a great deal, leading to both incontinence and impotence. Indeed, about one third of them had complications as a result of treatment. Even just by getting the diagnosis, of course, they were subjected needless worry.

I first came across this very instructive episode in the history (1986-2005) of modern medicine through the work of Gilbert Welch. (His research is featured in this article at WebMD.) The concept of "overdiagnosis" has stuck with me ever since, and has applications, I think, also into the diagnosis of social ills. Indeed, perhaps those who have been reading along these last few days already know where I'm going with this. I think of Tim Hunt as a victim of the overdiagnosis of sexism in science today. In fact, the 2014 interview that has been cited to support a deeper charge of "ingrained" sexism (of which his "joke", then, was just an expression) seems to make the same point.

Before I make the connection, let me just point out a few more features of the PSA overdiagnosis problem. Treating a million men for a cancer that would never have caused them any health problems is, not just inconvenient to them, but very expensive for society. The treatment itself is costly and they work less efficiently while they are undergoing it. Also, we have to ask whether the effect of treating them does anything to bring down the overall level of mortality from cancers. Welch found that, using a conservative estimate, you have to treat around twenty people unnecessarily in order to save one additional person from death by prostate cancer. The reason for this is that mentioned before, namely, that not all cancers develop into what we can properly call a "disease", i.e., a health issue. He quotes (in this video) from George Crile's "Plea Against Blind Fear of Cancer" , who explains that "to say that a patient has a cancer gives as little information about the course of the disease as to say that he has an infection". That is, it may lead to his death if untreated, it may be treated and cured, or it may go away without any treatment whatsoever. Time, sometimes, is a healer.

Cancer is becoming increasingly less dangerous to men, prostate cancer included. This is the result of increased knowledge, of course, including better means of detection and, importantly, better means of treatment. But PSA screening, at least until its ill effects were discovered, proved to be a well-intentioned but ultimately harmful approach. It caused more harm than it prevented.

Consider also, the false positives. These are people whose PSA screenings come back positive, but who are later found not to have cancer. Their lives are turned upside down between the first and the second test. "These men have already taken a hit," as Welch puts it, "They've been told they have a diagnosis of prostate cancer. By the time you are told you have prostate cancer, you are all nervous, you have already lost some sense of well-being. The real issue is, do you want to play this game?" That is, the question is whether you want to get screened. Welch, and the American Cancer Society, no longer recommend it.

In my opinion, Tim Hunt was a false positive "sexist", caught in a regime of overdiagnosis of a very real, but smaller, problem, namely, gender inequality in science. When I say "false positive" I mean that Tim Hunt, in that fateful toast, failed a very sensitive test for sexism, namely, the habit of calling women "girls", that upon further testing would have revealed no actual, practical sexism underneath. He doesn't actually treat women different from men qua scientists and is mindful of their particular problems qua women, such as the possible need for a creche near a lab. Even if you don't quite buy that, then you might grant that his sexism was like a microcancer that would never grow into a full-blown malignancy, a microsexism (to use a suggestive term these days) that would never become the full-blown misogyny he was immediately accused of. Indeed, in all likelihood, Tim Hunt's views about women, like most men his age, had probably mellowed over the last thirty years, owing to increasing contact with intelligent (if sometimes "distractingly sexy") women in the lab. He was harmless and only getting better.

Welch points out that when we introduce new methods of early diagnosis we always discover that a lot more people had the disease than we thought. It's because we're looking much more closely. In what at first seems a paradox, however, a lot fewer people are at the same time dying of them. We certainly have that in the case of women in science. While it would seem that sexism is rampant and on the rise and proliferating in new forms, the amount women in science is increasing, and they are making increasingly successful careers there too. I don't know, but maybe this was also what was on Sir Tim's mind when he answered that interview question for Lab Times in 2014, for which he was accused of claiming that sexism isn't a problem in science. He was simply saying that it's a problem that is naturally going away, and that we may cause more harm than good by trying to "treat" the remaining microsexists that are, on the whole, unlikely to cause any trouble. If we look closely enough, there is a little sexism in everyone, but not only are there better ways to spend our time and resources, there is no need to treat a condition that will not otherwise cause anyone any harm.

To steal some sentences from Gilbert Welch, these men really take a hit. They've been outed as unreconstructed sexists. By the time everyone thinks you're a sexist monster, you are nervous and you have already lost some sense of well-being. That's when the BBC comes looking for you. The real issue is, do you want to play this game? Do we?

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Agency, Part 3

"The real point is that telling a roomful of female scientists that they aren’t really welcome in a male-run laboratory is the sound of a slamming door." (Deborah Blum)

"Are women scientists really so fragile that they’ll be discouraged by a flippant comment made on the other side of the world?" (Joanna Williams)

I hope I have established that, in their treatment of Tim Hunt's toast at a WCSJ luncheon in Seoul last month, Connie St Louis, Deborah Blum and Ivan Oransky were horrible science writers (i.e., "journalists") and terrible conference organizers (i.e., "professionals"). In this post I want to go all in and argue that they're also not very good feminists. And then I want to put a button on it by questioning their "cultural sensitivity". I think Norman Mailer's slogan, which he got from Andre Gide, is worth invoking here. "Please don't understand me too quickly."

And one other caveat before we begin. I think it's clear at this point that Tim Hunt did not make any sexist remarks in Seoul last month. He made a joke at his own expense (at first figuratively and, sadly, ultimately literally) and his remarks were then grossly distorted to express sexist, even "misogynist" sentiments. But in this post I'm going to proceed, for the sake of argument, as though what he said could reasonably have been construed as in some sense sexist, at least at first pass. Even on that assumption, which I don't actually hold, I think Hunt was treated unfairly and science suffered. Also, it did no service to feminism, or any other kind of progressive politics, to shame Hunt in public. That's what this post is about.

Like my previous two posts on agency, this one is inspired By Janet Stemwedel's counter-factual analysis at Forbes, in which she asked us to imagine how this train wreck of public discourse could have been avoided. Not everyone, mind you, is equally worried about the quality of public discourse. While expressing "sympathy for anyone caught in the leading edge of a media storm," Deborah Blum, for example, argued that the important thing is ultimately to "stand up for what’s right [and] have an open conversation about gender balance in science—even if that conversation is conducted as a virtual shouting match" (my emphasis.) My view is that Sir Tim's remarks, no matter how they could reasonably have been construed at the time, should have been met with curiosity, charity and, if necessary, criticism, not with denunciation. He should have occasioned something more like an open conversation and something less like a shouting match.

Hunt's critics, I think, have an exaggerated sense of the power of words. They think it is very important not to express sexist sentiments and, correspondingly, very important to denounce such sentiments when expressed. Tim Hunt should not have said what he said, they argue, but, since he did, we're going to have to step up and "un-say" them, if you will. It is as if they think that once words are spoken they go straight into the minds of their listeners and become beliefs about the world. (In fact, a few years ago I made more or less this criticism of the presumptions of science writers about their readers. In some sense, then, this shouldn't surprise us.) So, if Tim Hunt says something sexist, his female listeners will believe that there is no place for them in science. His words, as Blum says, are "the sound of a slamming door."

In my first post on the Tim Hunt affair, I ribbed Stemwedel a bit about her apparent sense that the only one who could have done anything very different was Tim Hunt, i.e., the man at the centre of attention. Everyone else, mainly women, merely had to re-act. It was strange for a feminist, I thought, to have eyes only for male agency. I had the opportunity to point out the same thing to Deborah Blum directly on Twitter a couple of days later. I had said that Hunt's remarks would have been harmless if they had been ignored, but might have been beneficial if they had been discussed rather than simply denounced. "You think it's harmless," she replied, "to say to a roomful of women scientists (17 percent of Korean research population) that they are a problem for male scientists?" To which I countered that, seriously, none of the women in the room that day were harmed, nor were any who read Connie St. Louis's tweet. "As we know," she responded, "repeated messages of this kind can do harm, be discouraging to minority groups." (Note that we're supposed to imagine that getting "the message" from Sir Tim in a small room is harmful, but when Blum blazes it across "countless media platforms" with her personal assurance that he's wrong it's perfectly safe.) I pointed out that she seemed to think that Sir Tim and Deborah Blum (et al.) were the only people with agency in the room that day, the only people who were capable of doing and undoing harm, the only people who could form an opinion about women in science on their own.

Tim Hunt was speaking to roomful of scientists as equals. The subject happened to be women in science, and it happens to be one he is passionate about. (He has done a lot, we now know, to further the cause of women in science throughout his career, and nothing notably to hinder that cause.) He thinks, rightly or wrongly, that one of the consequences of getting more women into science is that things get a bit "emotional", not because women are emotional mind you, but because men and women fall in love. But even if his experience were that women are bit more emotional than men and express their hurt at being criticised differently than men, would a woman really be "harmed" by hearing this view expressed publicly? Is that really how the female mind works? Of course not.

All the women in that room—all of them possessed of the kind of intelligence you need to be a professional scientist or a professional journalist—must, out of simple respect for their humanity, not their femininity, be presumed to have been able to make up their own minds about what Sir Tim meant—whether it was funny, whether it was directed at himself or at them, and, of course, whether the premise of his joke was in any way anchored in reality. Tim Hunt at one point ventured that he had "stood up and gone mad". Maybe that's exactly what happened. If so, the women in the room no doubt had both the insight and the empathy to discount his statements as daft and be utterly unharmed by them.

For some reason St. Louis, Blum and Oransky were unable to ascribe this modicum of intellectual agency to the women in the room that day. That is why they were forced to intervene. As St Louis put it to the BBC, he was not to think he could "get away with it". In stating this view, I believe her ideological project sort of took over and momentarily possessed her. On the radio she said she "just couldn't believe, in this day and age, that somebody would be prepared to stand up and be so crass, so rude in a different culture, and actually to be so openly sexist as well." On television she said that "it was just really shocking. It was culturally insensitive and it was very sexist. And I just thought 'Where in the world do you think you are ...?'" St Louis, we are here reminded, is not just a somewhat touchy feminist, she is also "culturally sensitive".

This is a telling admission. Tim Hunt, whose daily work takes him all over the world, including Japan (where, let's remember, he helped to set up day care facilities for a lab,)* and having been told he was speaking to room full of women scientists, was not, according to St Louis, sufficiently "sensitive" to the fact that he was also speaking to a room full of ... Asians. This idea, that he was not just representing his gender (something he was obviously acutely self-consious about, as his remarks show) and not just representing his vocation (with a Nobel Prize to his name), but also his "Western" privilege, is, I think, an important part of "what went wrong" in the, let's say, Seoul Incident.

From the perspective of most people in that room, I suspect, Tim Hunt was not from a "different culture" at all. He was, rather, a fellow scientist, or a fellow academic at least—perhaps just a fellow worker in the spirit, an intellectual. But Connie St Louis, because of her "cultural sensitivity", was inexorably in a room full of Koreans. And isn't it true that they are very respectful of authority? And isn't it true that they just politely believe everything you say? "Here's my trouble with Asians," Hunt should have said, "you respect them, and they respect you, and when you criticise them, they immediately grant your point." I really don't know enough about Koreans to be sure whether that joke is even funny. But then again, like Tim Hunt, I would have spoken to them as a man and a scientist, not as a Westerner condescending to "Orientals".

Perhaps I'm being unfair. Perhaps Connie St Louis just has no sense of humour at all and would have been equally offended if Sir Tim had made the same remarks in London. But I'm inclined to think that what went wrong here was a denial of agency that stems from a particular kind of bias, an unconscious "exoticism", if you will, that blinded a few journalists to the moral and intellectual capacity of a roomful of people who, if they'd given it a moment's thought (or more than three hours, let's say, of frantic reaction), they would of course have ascribed the ordinary sort of intelligence that is required to get a self-deprecating joke. If they had not been so intoxicated with their own sense of Western privilege, perhaps their guilt over being associated with this "monster" who was speaking, they might have let the alleged victims themselves, the hosts to which Tim Hunt had been "culturally insensitive", formulate what they themselves took to be a culturally appropriate response. Like I say, I think they would have simply let it slide, like most intelligent people. But we don't know, because Connie St Louis couldn't wait to save them. It was not women scientists that were robbed of agency in Oransky, Blum and St Louis's "reportage", it was Korean women scientists. Poor things.

I'm of course aware of the outrage that such a hypothesis can provoke. Did I just call Connie St Louis a racist in retaliation for calling Sir Tim a sexist? Well, sure, maybe. Maybe I said he's as much a sexist as St Louis is a bit of a racist. A mild, unavoidable, well-intentioned, somewhat ignorant, we'll-get-past-that-too-in-a-generation-or-so sort of racism. A lingering bit of bias that is so ingrained in our habits of mind that it's worth making a joke about every now and then but not worth making a big stink about, and certainly not worth forcing people to resign over—especially in science, where reason really is ascendent, and, as Tim Hunt suspects, gender discrimination probably rules hiring and promotion decisions less than anywhere else in social life and, to the extent that it does, decreasingly with every graduating class.

Real meritocracies, which we can hope science largely is, can handle a bit of retrograde sentiment because the "ultimate concern", to take another jab at UCL's Michael Arthur, isn't gender equality or "cultural sensitivity" but truth. That means you're going to have a few inconsequential bigots among you. If you go after them too aggressively, as Blum et al. did with Hunt, you're going to end up getting some (as we say in science) "false positives", as Blum et al. got with Hunt. And you're going to get them because you took your eye off the real action, the actual work of science in the lab where truth is pursued, and went for the easy scandal. Hounding highly intelligent and otherwise harmless people out of science for expressing themselves in slightly unconventional ways is a very impractical way to make science safe for women. It's not culturally sensitive, it's just sentimental.

Like I say, try not to understand me too quickly. I'm making a real effort to get this point right.

Norman Mailer once said that "It is the actions of men, not their sentiments, that make history." He also said that "Sentimentality is the emotional promiscuity of those who have no sentiment." I think Deborah Blum is what can be called a sentimental feminist. She feels something about gender equality but she does not think very seriously about it. So she would rather be offended at a few words spoken by a very successful man than to look carefully at the record of his actions, both as a scientist and, yes, as a feminist, and then render judgment about whether he is on the right or the wrong side of history. I worry that she is right, of course. I worry that the "actions of men" are no longer considered important in making or understanding history, only their sentiments. I worry that we now only have a "conscience" that "makes cowards of us," as Hamlet put it, that we have "lost the name of action". I truly hope he was wrong about the name of frailty.

*Update (08/12/15): At the time of writing, I was only just beginning to understand who Tim Hunt is, and what he spends his time doing. Japan was the only country in the region that I knew for certain he had visited before Seoul. It of course turns out that Hunt is very traveled, both because of the cosmopolitan nature of scientific work and because, as a Nobel laureate, he's invited everywhere, including Korea which he has visited many times before. Hunt, in other words, is very familiar with foreign cultures, probably much more familiar than Connie St Louis, and has learned to see people as people, scientists as scientist, i.e., in terms of what he shares with them, not as members of "different cultures". Unfortunately, he has only just recently learned to see journalists as journalists, it seems. He's found out the hard way.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

TL;DR #TimHunt

Louise Mensch has now written a very detailed set of closing arguments for the defence of Sir Tim Hunt, or the prosecution of his attackers, as you will. I agree with almost everything she says, except, I guess, that there is no more work to be done. We still have to find out how this happened. But that's not what this post is for. I want to attempt to make a simple statement about just exactly what happened to centre any further investigations of how.

[Update: I had intentionally left the controversy around what Tim Hunt actually said out of this summary. David Kroll has now offered what I think is the most concise and accurate statement I've yet seen. Like him, I am "reasonably certain that his words on women in science were self-deprecating ... and that his overall message was to congratulate the Korean women scientists in attendance for their ability to perform at a level that becomes all the more impressive in the face of outdated attitudes about women in science as exemplified by his self-parody." Indeed, I think that that is all anyone who wasn't in the room that day, and who carefully considers the evidence, can be, i.e., reasonably certain that that's what Tim Hunt was trying to say.]

At this point it seems clear that two members of the program committee of this year's World Conference of Science Journalists, namely, Ivan Oransky and Deborah Blum, along with Connie St Louis, a newly elected member of the executive board of the conference organiser, namely, the World Federation of Science Journalists, deliberately set out to humiliate one of their own conference speakers, and, in order to do so, found themselves having to egregiously misrepresent both what he said and how it was received. When they went public with their accusations, they made no mention of their close connection to the conference at which Sir Tim had been invited to speak, nor their close ties to the federation that organised it. As far as I know, to this day, neither they nor the WFSJ has acknowledged this relationship, and their defenders continue to believe that they were merely intrepid journalists reporting a story.

Though the accusation of Tim Hunt's sexism was contained in a single poorly-worded tweet, the BBC uncritically adopted the framing suggested by St Louis, Blum and Oransky, as did University College London, where Tim Hunt was very quickly forced to resign his honorary position based on his hastily formulated apology (immediately misconstrued as confession) to the BBC. In accepting his resignation, UCL's president and provost, Michael Arthur, made a specific point of saying that Sir Tim Hunt no longer brought "honour" to the position. The UCL council subsequently supported Arthur, saying that the resignation had been accepted in "good faith" and Hunt would not be reinstated. The tail, that is, had wagged the dog.

Agency, Part 2

[Part 1 here.]

In my last post I tried to imagine what would have happened if, instead of Connie St Louis, a careful, conscientious journalist had nosed a story in Tim Hunt's joke in Seoul. In addition to getting Hunt's actual position on women in science properly on the record, I thought it might have been helpful to get Hunt's hosts to explain their decision to invite such a "monster" to their luncheon. At a higher level, she might have solicited the organisers of the conference itself, the World Conference of Science Journalists, for an opinion on the behaviour of one of their featured speakers. This, in fact, identifies another alternative focus of agency in the narrative about Tim Hunt's joke, another set of "decision point[s] from which the universe might have gone forward in different directions," to use Janet Stemwedel's language. What could the conference organisers have done differently? How could Hunt's hosts have responded? And here is where the story of the coverage of Tim Hunt's toast goes completely off the rails for me.

I wonder if this is a wise thing to bring up, but does anyone remember, back about five years ago, when Sarah Silverman did a TED talk? (You can get the story at TechCrunch or you can watch Silverman explain the whole debacle to Bill Maher.) The short version is that she was invited by Chris Anderson to do the talk but in the event, it seems, offended his finer sensibilities. So he apologised on Twitter for the behaviour of his guest and went so far as to call her talk "god-awful". She came back at him, also on Twitter, with a, for our purposes, well-stuck jab, thanking him for making TED an "unsafe haven for all", followed by a nice little bit of invective that I'll let you click through to read or hear yourself.

Why do I bring this up? Because it nicely illustrates the social difficulty that is faced by hosts when their guests end up saying something that is "inappropriate"--appropriateness being, as we all know, highly relative to context. What has happened is the host has come to regret the decision to invite the speaker. Now, Silverman (and most observers, I would think) was surprised that Anderson was surprised at her act. Anderson, it appeared, had not done his homework. The faux pas that Anderson committed was to disown his guest, rather than to own the decision to invite her, which he had now decided was a bad one. He may have reasoned that, on balance, that was the best thing for him to do, but Silverman was right to say it made the event "unsafe for all". As Jack McKenna at TechCrunch put it: "TED speakers beware – make sure your talks are within acceptable parameters or face the wrath of TED. And their friends."

If a good journalist had thought there was a story in Hunt's remarks, I imagine she'd be on the lookout for a reaction from the hosts. Perhaps she would go and solicit it. The conference was organised by the World Federation of Science Journalists and the luncheon was hosted[sponsored]*** by the Korean Federation of Women's Science and Technology Associations*. Obviously these two federations stand in a formal relationship to each other, and there were no doubt representatives from both in attendance at the luncheon. And here's where it gets weird.

In fact, we don't have to speculate about whether there were "officials" in the room. We can read at the conference website that Ivan Oransky, who helped to break the story, was the vice-chair of the program committee for the conference and that Deborah Blum, another of St Louis's collaborators, also served on it. Meanwhile, Connie St Louis herself was running for, and would ultimately win, a seat on[had been elected to] the executive board of the WFSJ. This means that if Connie St Louis had been a serious journalist, and had thought that someone higher up had something to own here, she could have gone, in the first place, to Oransky and Blum and, if she had waited until after the conference[June 10] to publish her story, she could have asked herself for comment about why the WFSJ would invite such a "monster" to speak at their conference.

Instead, the very people who should have owned their invitation of Tim Hunt to speak at their conference ganged up on him to humiliate him for expressing himself with candour. (As in the Silverman case, after watching a few videos of Sir Tim, I can't imagine how anyone could be surprised that he might try to be a bit "funny", no matter what he was speaking about.) They didn't even have the courage to publicly disown him. Instead, when writing about it, they simply neglected to mention their own agency in the event, their own responsibility. Blum, for example talked vaguely about "the conference" and "the organisers", about what "they" had hoped would happen by having Sir Tim speak.

Then something completely baffling happened. Recall that, because the story was so poorly sourced, St Louis's account was quickly drawn into question. Some said he was clearly joking. Details about his actual remarks, and, in particular, the reaction in the room, were made public and it became unclear whether anyone other than St Louis, Blum, Oransky and their followers on Twitter (who of course had not been there) had actually found the remarks offensive.

Enter Hee Young Paik, president of KOFWST, Tim Hunt's host at[which had sponsored]*** the luncheon. Now, it is actually not clear to me whether she was present in the room, nor who emceed the proceedings, nor who asked him to speak. But it doesn't really matter because presidents are made, precisely, to resolve such ambiguities by stepping in and taking responsibility. In a manner of speaking, she did. What she and KOFWST had apparently decided to do, after Tim Hunt had apologised publicly for his remarks and resigned from two committees as well as an honorary professorship at University College London, was to demand a further formal apology. It was ridiculous in scope, claiming to speak "on behalf of all women scientists in Korea and the world" and baroquely implied that he'd never again have "future fruitful collaboration[s] with Korean scientists" if his "sincere and prompt apology" was not forthcoming within 24 hours.

The Korean Federation of Women's Science and Technology Associations, that is, entered the conflict more than a week after the scandal had broken, and then proceeded to act us though Tim Hunt was something that had happened to them, rather than someone they were responsible for (in the double sense of having responsibilities both to him and to his audience. They were responsible both for his actions and his well-being.)

Sir Tim did not, as Silverman with some justification did, lash out at the bad manners of his hosts.*** Instead, he appears to have met the deadline and penned an apology with extreme graciousness and contrition. (Both the baroquely worded demand and his apology bear the same date, namely, June 16, which is also when the press release, albeit somewhat oddly dated June 17**, was published by Connie St Louis on her blog.) Unlike Silverman, who we can perhaps call a professional controversialist, Sir Tim had already decided to avoid further confrontation and withdraw to his garden and tend to his quinces. I don't blame him in the least. (Perhaps he calls his garden "Outside the Asylum"?)

Sir Tim's hosts--both WFSJ and KOFWST--acted entirely out of keeping with all conventions of hospitality that I'm aware of. They knew no tact, no manners, no graciousness. They took no responsibility. And by concealing the power that they had at the time to mitigate the harms of any unfortunate remarks their speaker may have made (when they instead amplified those supposed harms by "reporting" them) St Louis, Blum and Oransky perpetrated a serious breach of professional ethics. Like University College London, they hung Sir Tim "out to dry"; they had no decency. Sure, yes, that's my personal opinion. But I would suggest to all future speakers at WCSJ what John McKenna at TechCrunch said to all future TED speakers: beware. Do not think you'll "get away with" speaking your mind.

I use that phrase advisedly. It's how Connie St Louis put it on BBC, talking about the case. Remember that she was now, and is today, on the executive board of the federation behind the conference that brought Sir Tim so much embarrassment. That interview will be my jumping off point for the third part in this series on the agency of the Tim Hunt scandal. We have talked about the agency of journalists and the agency of professional societies. Next, we will talk about something closer to the heart of the matter: the political agency of feminists and the personal agency of women.

[Part 3 here.]

*While KOFWST does seem to have website, it has a funny effect on my browser, so I'm hesitant to provide a link. The address I've found is kofwst.org. If anyone has any ideas, let me know.

**[Update 14:13: It's possible that this has something to do with the 8 hour time difference. Hunt could have sent his reply from London on the 16th to Seoul on the 17th, after which St Louis might have immediately gotten a copy from KOFWST, which she then published on her blog in London, where it was still June 16.]

***[Update 16:18: It has been brought to my attention that KOFWST never claimed to have "hosted" the luncheon but only that they had "sponsored" it. This would mean that they paid for it, but that the conference itself presumably had organized the event and invited the participants. This also means that they probably had little to do with the decision to get Tim Hunt to speak. My characterization of their role as "hosts" probably came from Connie St Louis's report, which mentioned "the female Korean scientists who were hosting the luncheon". I should of course not have taken her report at face value, and I apologize to KOFWST for the error.]

Monday, July 20, 2015

Agency, Part 1

I think most observers would agree that the Tim Hunt affair is a bit of a train wreck now. Whether he hoped to praise or bury women (it's hard to believe that public opinion is still divided on this question, but anyway...) Tim Hunt did not immediately achieve his goal. Whether they hoped to support the struggles of women or attack the privileges of men, Connie St Louis, Deborah Blum and Ivan Oransky also did not straightforwardly achieve their goal. Mistakes, as Ronald Reagan might once have said, were made.

The question is, Who made those mistakes? In a news story, like any other narrative, it's important to specify the agency that conditioned the contingencies in the situation, the choices on which the events turned. Who had the power to do what differently? And what might then have happened? Could Tim Hunt's remarks have led to a constructive conversation about gender in science? Whose responsibility was it to make that happen?

This was the question that Janet Stemwedel rightly raised in Forbes, and which I took as an entry point for my own engagement with the case. Also writing at Forbes, David Kroll riffed on Stemwedel's piece a few days later, making the important point that Hunt's remarks came to overshadow precisely the women that the luncheon was intended to honor. While I very much like the sort of "counter-factual history" that Stemwedel and Kroll engage in (I think "What if?" questions are absolutely essential when thinking about causality and responsibility), I think both pieces make the unfortunate assumption that Tim Hunt was the central actor in this case. It's also what has caused many observers to balk at feeling any sympathy for him. He is construed as the author of his own misfortune. This post is the beginning of an attempt to broaden our conception of the contingency and, especially, the agency that was present in the room at the time of Hunt's remarks.

Consider Kroll's point that Hunt "overshadowed" the subject of his profile, namely, the "Art Historian-Turned-Civil Engineer" Debra Laefer, who
was one of two recipients of European Research Council (ERC) Advanced Project grants who were featured to WCSJ journalist attendees in a session chaired by Sir Tim Hunt, a now-former member of the ERC Scientific Council and 2001 Nobel laureate ...
While Hunt was present at the conference precisely to draw attention to people like Laefer, the attention ended up befalling Sir Tim himself. His critics suggest (and Stemwedel's analysis largely follows suit) that Tim Hunt drew the attention to himself and then, in the fallout, endeavored to keep attention focused on him. The story now became about him and his suffering, rather than about the women that suffered under his alleged "misogyny". More importantly (and here I agree with Kroll) the story became about Tim Hunt rather than the impressive women who succeed despite the challenges they face in science as women.

But is the underlying assumption true? Was it mainly Tim Hunt who had the power to "do things differently," as Stemwedel puts it? Well, what did he do? He told what he hoped would be understood as a joke. He could have chosen not to try to be funny or he could have constructed a better joke. I'm not as certain as other observers (who also appear to have convinced Hunt himself) that his joke was very awful or very badly delivered. The recently surfaced recording of the event also seems to suggest that the room was more receptive than we had originally been told. But even if we assume that it was a poor jest, surely we've all botched an attempt to be funny and managed to say or imply something that we neither meant to say nor actually believe? Usually, what happens is that the joke falls flatly to the ground. We're embarrassed, there may be some booing or hissing, and everyone moves on.

In this case, we would move on to his high praise of women in science, which, if we were to cover it as journalists, we might exemplify by profiling--you guessed it--Debra Laefer. That is not, however, what happened. Instead, a journalist, Connie St Louis, after discussing the matter with two other journalists, Deborah Blum and Ivan Oransky, decided that this was the story. This was "what happened" at the luncheon. That was a choice they made and they had the power, the agency, to make that contingency into an actuality. They even made a careful and deliberate plan for how to break the story about this unreconstructed "sexist scientist".

Some argue that the remarks were so shocking that they were bound as journalist to do something. The story happened right before their eyes. To remain silent would have been tantamount to suppressing it. I think that is a bit over-the-top, but if we grant that point for the sake of argument, we can ask an important question. What might St Louis, Blum and Oransky have done differently to avoid the unconstructive train wreck that the Tim Hunt scandal became?

Again, let's begin with what they did do.  (The go-to source of straight facts about the events in this case, in my opinion, is Debbie Kennett's dossier-like post at her blog Cruwy's News.) Within hours (I think 3 hours is the commonly accepted number), St Louis had posted what was obviously a hastily written tweet that characterized his remarks in a highly uncharitable manner. I use the concept of "charity" here in the technical hermeneutical sense, i.e., to evoke the interpretative principle of attributing maximum truth and rationality to an utterance* in trying to decide what it means. When making sense of what someone says, it's good to assume that the remarks are as intelligent as they can possibly be. Basically, in this case, it's the difference between assuming the speaker is a blithering idiot and assuming he's an intelligent scientists. In fact, in later interviews, St Louis did openly marvel at how stupid she thought the remarks were.

Now, maybe they were as stupid as all that. To believe it we have to imagine that Tim Hunt, given everything we now know about his career, would seriously plead for what St Louis rightly described as the "Victorian" idea of sex-segregated labs in 2015. It would suggest that Sir Tim had lost his marbles. Note that this interpretation, if it had been taken seriously, should have occasioned an entirely different news story, namely, a sympathetic account of a great mind coming undone. (In the Nobel category, think of the story of John Nash's "beautiful mind".)

Having heard something so utterly outrageous, St Louis and her two collaborators should have wondered whether they had misunderstood his meaning. The only thing they felt they needed to do, however, was to ensure that they all heard him say the same 37 words and then immediately fly it up the Twitter flagpole to see how the Internet would react. As it turned out, it reacted with great convulsions and caused Sir Tim to be literally dis-honoured by UCL. Now that is agency! That is the power to effect change in the world. Though not satisfied with the reaction from, for example, the Royal Society, St Louis was no doubt proud of herself. She had, it seems, accomplished something.

But it turned out her reporting was very weakly sourced. It was not, in the long run, possible to maintain that everyone in the room was offended, that there was a deathly silence, that Sir Tim had thanked the ladies for making lunch, that he seriously meant to bar women from labs. In that sense, the story simply fell apart, and anyone who believed that Sir Tim is a misogynist, even for a few hours, might rightly feel deceived.

How could this be avoided? How could the story have been broken so as not to leave everyone feeling angry and confused, misled and misinformed, and instead occasion a much-needed conversation about gender in science? There are actually two answers to this question. One of them indicates a serious lack of craftsmanship in St Louis, Blum and Oransky's journalism. The other indicates a serious lack of tact, manners, grace and, yes, ethics. I'll end this post with the first of these concerns, and then unpack the second in a follow up.

A serious journalist, tipped off about some possibly outrageous sentiments in the mind of Tim Hunt, would have tried to commit him, in a post-luncheon interview, to a statement of his views about "girls in the lab" that he would be willing to defend in public. A serious journalist would also have gone to his hosts, i.e., the Korean Federation of Women’s Science and Technology Associations[WCSJ]**, and asked for a statement. Were they offended at his remarks? Would they stand by their decision to invite him to the luncheon? Was it a good idea to ask him to speak to that group of women? Had his remarks been cleared in advance? Did he represent the views of the Federation? Etc. In other words, a good journalist would have gotten the event itself properly established as a fact that could be sustainably referenced in subsequent commentary and conversation.

A good journalist would also have tried to get some on-the-record reactions from people in the room. Did they find his remarks funny? Did they find them offensive? Were they planning to register a complaint with the conference organizers? Was this going to affect their attitudes about science? That sort of thing. Finally, a good journalist might also make some preliminary efforts to confirm her suspicion that Sir Tim Hunt is a "sexist", perhaps even misogynist. Perhaps he's even a sexual predator in the lab. After all, he admitted he was a "chauvinist monster"! What a good journalist would have found is what a good journalist like Louise Mensch did find: no, in fact, there is no evidence to suggest that Hunt is really a sexist nor that he has done anything to harm the careers of women in science. He must have been joking, it seems.

I'll leave it there for now. My next post will proceed from the (to my mind, at least) shocking fact that St Louis, Blum and Oransky were not merely the accidental observers of some unfortunate remarks. They were, in a very real sense, ultimately both Tim Hunt's and the Korean Federation of Women’s Science and Technology Associations' hosts at the time. They were key figures in the organization of the conference. This suggests a power to manage this story for less disastrous ends on a completely different scale. It suggests an entirely different kind of agency. It makes their responsibility, in my mind, both for the opportunity that was lost* and for the harm that was done, almost total.

[Part 2 here.]

*Phrasing changed since publication.
**[Update: It's unclear to me at this point who hosted the luncheon, but KOFWST seems only to have sponsored it. It appears to have been put on by the conference organisers themselves.]

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Decency, Part 1

My friends and colleagues are sometimes puzzled by the energy that I put into thinking about and investigating particular cases of "scientific misconduct" broadly speaking. I must admit, I'm sometimes puzzled myself. There doesn't seem to be any particular method to my madness as far as the selection of cases goes. Why this case, or that one, and why not, especially, this one? The Tim Hunt case, however, has brought so many of my pet notions and theories into play that I'm not at all in doubt about why my "nose" has guided me towards it. I have a lot of people to thank for this, not least of course Louise Mensch who has been tireless in her pursuit of due process, and Debbie Kennett who has organized an impressive dossier for us. Today I'd also like to thank Sam Schwarzkopf, who has been pushing me, both on Twitter and in the comments of this blog, to clarify the special opprobrium I've reserved for University College London in this case. That really does get to the heart of the matter.

As I recently said to Sam, it's not really about saving Tim Hunt for me, but about saving the venerable institution of science from, let's say, a certain convocation of politic worms, namely, the so-called "profession" of science so-called "writing". Science needs Sir Tim more than Sir Tim needs science. And we need science a good deal more than we need science journalism, at least the kind of science journalism that is practiced by Connie St Louis, Deborah Blum and (I'm increasingly sad to say) Ivan Oransky (whose Retraction Watch I have otherwise long admired.) The bulwark that protects science from politics is, of course, traditionally known as the university. And that institution appears to be failing.

I've said a few times now that I waited (on the edge of my seat, impatiently) for University College London's council to come to a decision about the rightness of accepting Tim Hunt's resignation. That's because if they had overturned President and Provost Michael Arthur's decision they would have, in one simple step, corrected almost the entire wrong. They may have needed to go a bit further; they may have had to reprimand Arthur to send a clear signal that this was a bad decision made by someone who is entrusted to get such decisions right. But, as far as the institution of science goes, I would have been satisfied, and I would have probably lost interest in any ongoing campaigns to vilify Sir Tim's accusers. Not that such campaigns might not have been justified, just that I would have lost interest, feeling once again that the university is "safe for intellectual life," as Steve Fuller once so evocatively put it. What an irrational mob wants to spend its time doing on Twitter is not really so important to me.

But that's not what happened. On July 9, 2015 University College London's council ratified Michael Arthur's decision to accept Tim Hunt's resignation, saying that this was done in "good faith". It is important to me to point out that, in explaining his reasoning, Arthur had explicitly ensured that the resignation would dis-honour Sir Tim:

An honorary appointment is meant to bring honour both to the person and to the University. Sir Tim has apologised for his remarks, and in no way do they diminish his reputation as a scientist. However, they do contradict the basic values of UCL – even if meant to be taken lightly – and because of that I believe we were right to accept his resignation. Our commitment to gender equality and our support for women in science was and is the ultimate concern.

It is this reasoning that the council ratified as a "good faith" exercise of executive authority by UCL's provost and president. Just so we're clear.

It is the function, indeed, the near-sacred duty of a university to protect unconventional minds from the pressures of conventional thought. The university provides conditions under which scientists can make what was once called "discoveries" of what was once called the "truth". Our aforementioned convocation of worms prefers to see the university as the site of "negotiations" over the "means of knowledge production" allowing for the "co-construction of meaning", mainly because this allows them to play their role as mediators between scientists and their publics. It is the collusion between members of the failing institution of science (the university, the academy) and the nascent profession of science journalism** (or "science writing" to use this vague term that no doubt occasionally absolves them of responsibility to maintain the familiar standards of an existing profession) that keeps me awake at night, and keeps my anger hot.

In this post, I'm going to look mainly at the institutional issues, which is to say, a set of collective responsibilities. In a later post, I will look at the professinal issues, and therefore the personal responsibilities of the individuals involved. At this point, like I say, you are free to see the Tim Hunt case merely as an illustrative example of a largely "academic" point. We're thinking the implications through, that's all.

I have long tried to figure out a way to talk about my hunch that there is an important connection between formal institutions and ordinary decency, just as there is very probably an important connection between our intuitions and our honesty. Basically, I think decency is to justice what honesty is to truth. I.e., not exactly the same thing, nor wholly co-extensional, but interrelated and codependent in interesting ways. Also, I believe that over the past two or three decades we have seen the emergence of what Peter Drucker, long ago, called "a society of organizations" (Charles Perrow has offered a similar analysis), which, in my view, is best understood as a challenge to institutional order. Neither is chaos, but there is a difference between being "orderly" and being "organized".

Okay, so what is "institutional order"? What makes it different from "mere organization", if you will? The difference, I want to argue, is that institutions establish standards of decency. (Indeed, the Danish word "ordentlig", literally, "orderly", basically means "decent" in ordinary speech.) And decency is just the immediate rightness of conduct. It is because it violates an immediate, i.e., unmediated sense of right and wrong, that an "indecent" act offends us. That is what being "offended" is all about. You don't reason your way to taking offence. You just are, immediately, offended.

This is one sense in which decency and justice are two very different things. Sometimes justice requires us to be indecent, i.e., to offend the sensibilities that are instituted in our culture. Lenny Bruce's famously "indecent" performances come immediately to mind, as do a great many variously brazen acts of feminist defiance of convention over the past 100 hundred years. Norman Mailer, speaking about something else I think, once said, roughly, "When a man swears in public he is saying, 'You're bored, and I'm bored, and we have to smash this thing.'" Germaine Greer, who had his "full and specific sympathy"*, let's say, did not become the woman she is by being decent.

The strong case I want to make in the Tim Hunt situation is that he was the victim of both personal indecency and institutional cowardice. "Institutional" cowardice is the sort of thing that happens when a council of twenty people fails to reprimand their duly constituted provost for an act of personal indecency committed in their name. Personal indecency is the sort of thing that happens when your provost gets someone to call up your wife and asks her to strongly suggest to you that you resign.

I know that last remark is contentious for some, and Sam is there to keep me honest about it. I thank him. So let me make clear that I'm not taking a position on what actually happened here. Not at that granular level of detail. I'm just generating illustrative examples. In fact, the mere act of accepting the resignation was, to my mind, "indecent", albeit in such a subtle and "negative" way that it makes for a less clear example. Under the circumstances, let's say, even "merely" accepting the resignation would have been as indecent as accepting the resignation of man you know to be grieving the loss of dear friend in the line of duty, a friend for whom you know the resigner feels disproportionally responsible. The role of the leader, here, is to talk the distressed person down. To assure him that it's not so bad, and then to look into it and reach a more dispassionate conclusion. That may still lead to a resignation, of course, or even a firing. But it will be done on a proper basis, following an orderly procedure.

It is the institutional function of a university, then, to slow the accelerating debauch of reason, to cool an overheating situation down enough to be carefully handled, so that reasonable people can be given time to figure out what happened and respond accordingly. UCL, first in the person of its provost and then in the collective of the council, failed miserably in this function. I will say again, they failed in their near-sacred duty to protect an unconventional mind from conventional thought. They dishonoured Sir Tim. They had no decency.

(I thought I would get to the role of World Federation of Science Journalists already in this posts. But I will leave that for another one.)

*Let me take this opportunity to encourage everyone to watch Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennybaker's excellent Town Bloody Hall, which hails from a time just after I was born. In my opinion the promise of an interesting conversation about gender that this panel embodied has not yet been fulfilled. I'm still hopeful that will change.

**[Update: When I wrote this I had not yet seen Paul Seaman's excellent post about how academic institutions are failing to maintain their integrity in the face of PR pressures.]


[Updated 15/11/2015: This is just for the record. On July 14, I sent the email below to the World Federation of Science Journalists. The next day, I mailed them asking them to acknowledge its receipt and, if possible, to let me know how long I can expect to wait for a response. I reminded them again on July 20, September 7, and November 14 (see below.) I've also notified them of my criticism through Twitter. As of November 15, I have not heard from either the WFSJ or any of the copied persons. Nor have any of them addressed the conflict of interest I suggest. Nor, in fact, has either WFSJ or WCSJ made any public statement about the Tim Hunt affair. I note that Ed Yong was rightly puzzled at the outset for Connie St Louis' focus on the Royal Society and silence about WCSJ.*]

from: Thomas Basboll
to: info@wfsj.org
cc: Deborah Blum, Ivan Oransky, Curtis Brainard, Richard Stone
date: Tue, Jul 14, 2015 at 2:32 PM
subject: Request for Comment on Role of WFSJ in Tim Hunt Scandal

Dear World Federation of Science Journalists,

It recently came to my attention that the three journalists who broke the story about Tim Hunt's remarks at WCSJ 2015, were all closely associated with the organization of the conference. Ivan Oransky was co-chair of the program committee and Deborah Blum served on it as well, while Connie St Louis was a keynote speaker and now serves on the executive board.

As I have noted on my blog, I find it shocking that Tim Hunt, a guest at your conference, found himself humiliated by the deliberate and coordinated actions of its program committee and a member of its (incoming) executive board. I'm very curious to hear what the WFSJ's official position in this matter is.

My thoughts can be read here.


I will of course gladly append any statement from WFSJ or any of the involved parties to the post as clarification. (Please note I would have liked to cc Connie St Louis but was unable to find her email address at City University London's website. I would also appreciate your forwarding this mail to Jae-eok Shim, the conference chair.)

If you have any questions or concerns, please feel free to ask.

Thomas Basbøll

Research as a Second Language


Update 15/11/2015:

The following reminders have been sent to WFSJ at the same address as above. Except for a couple of a couple of typos that I've corrected, they appear here exactly as sent:


Dear WFSJ,

Did you get my mail (see below)? I understand that you might want to think it over, but I would appreciate an acknowledgement of the receipt of my mail. My thinking on this issue is, of course, evolving and it is important to me to get WFSJ on record going forward. The ABSW's statement in support of Connie St Louis was exemplary in this regard.


I will be posting some more on this subject in the days to come. So it will be useful to me to have some sense of when the WFSJ might have its position worked out.

Thomas Basbøll



Just a quick note to say I'm still waiting for a response to this request. I have a post going up tomorrow that focuses on the responsibilities of WFSJ and KOFWST for the way the way the controversy unfolded. A comment would be most appreciated.

Thomas Basbøll



Despite several reminders, I've now waited almost two months for a reply to my queries (see below) about the formal roles of Connie St Louis, Deborah Blum and Ivan Oransky at WCSJ2015, where they decided to scandalise one of the invited speakers, Tim Hunt, for his informal remarks made a conference luncheon.

I'm rather puzzled that a professional organisation of journalists would stonewall so blatantly. As I recently noted on my blog, I'm increasingly comfortable judging the professionalism of science writers by how this affair was handled.

Thomas Basbøll



Back in July, I began to take a serious interest in the internet shaming of Tim Hunt as a result of remarks he made at WCSJ2015. I reached out for comment at the time (see below) but have still not heard anything from you.

I remain curious about why WFSJ did not protect such a prestigious guest from the ill effects of what turned out to be rather misleading reports of his remarks. More to the point, I remain baffled at the behavior of the board in this case, with Connie St Louis, a board member, writing the original tweet, and Mohammed Yahia, the vice president, fanning the flames.

Is this really the sort of treatment one can expect as a guest at one of your events? I can't imagine the leadership of my own professional organisation subjecting a conference guest to similar treatment, even if the remarks had been as wrong-headed as originally reported.

I'm writing about this subject occasionally online, and have taken it up as a bit of a research project as well, so any comment from your end would really be much appreciated. The utter silence of WFSJ about the one thing that WCSJ2015 seems destined to be remembered for already says something, of course.

But you're not going to leave it there, are you?

Thomas Basbøll

*Though I didn't notice it at the time, I should acknowledge that Ed Yong appears to have been the first to notice that the conference organizers were missing from the story. Interestingly, Deborah Blum responds to his concern, not by explaining her role on the program committee, but by deflecting attention to the European Research Council. Here's a screen shot of the tweets:

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

This Is Science Writing?

[For those who need some background, I recommend Debbie Kennett's comprehensive post.]

It is important to keep in mind that all of Tim Hunt's "controversial" remarks (even back in 2014) were elicited and improvised. He had been asked to say a few words or to answer a journalist's questions. And he did so with honesty and candour. The "coverage" of his remarks by Connie St Louis and Deborah Blum (and, somewhat further in the background, Ivan Oransky), by contrast, was calculated and deliberate. While Sir Tim's remarks might, arguably, have revealed an unconscious bias in his thinking about women in science (although he was of course demonstrating precisely his awareness of that bias in his remarks), St. Louis and Blum's so-called "reporting" exhibits what is almost certainly a conscious strategy. This is quite openly an example of agenda-driven journalism. St. Louis and Blum were not trying to help us interpret the world, as Karl Marx might have said; they were trying to change it.

It is also important to keep in mind that St Louis and Blum are highly respected members of the "science writing" profession. Blum and Oransky, as I pointed out yesterday, served in the program committee of the World Conference of Science Journalists, and St Louis sits on the boards of both the World Federation of Science Journalists (which hosted the conference) and the Association of British Science Writers. When St Louis was facing criticism for irregularities in her CV, the latter articulated a strong statement of support. The statement described the criticism as "attempts to discredit her professionally, simply for pursuing a story that she thought correctly was interesting and important." It goes on to characterize her intervention as "the everyday act of reporting a news story" and stood by her "as an organisation of science writers which fosters excellence in journalism". That is to say, the ABSW is telling us that St Louis's reportage is exemplary of the professional standards of the field of science writing. I'm still waiting to hear from the WFSJ but I expect that they, too, will allow us to judge the field of science journalism by the actions of Oransky, Blum and St Louis. This post is a first attempt at figuring out what that profession is all about, or, as the working title of St Louis's PhD apparently has it, "What is a science journalist for?"

To that end, let us look at a plenary presentation Connie St Louis made in 2012 at the Tarrytown Meetings in New York, "unashamedly" donning the "hat" of a journalist, a profession for which she "lives and breathes".

It is tempting to let it speak for itself. But I think we ought to do more than just balk at this embarrassing performance. Unlike St Louis, whose tweet characterized Sir Tim's remarks as "Victorian", and attributed to him the absurd view that laboratories ought, seriously, to be sex segregated, without so much as a few seconds of audio recording to support the interpretation, I will at least let you see the video for yourself before I propose to characterise her view of the relationship between science and journalism as profoundly cynical. Notice that she begins* by invoking the "incredible" power of the media vis-a-vis advocacy groups and policy makers. She encourages her audience (of academics and, I think, practitioners interested in biotechnological issues) to "use [the media] as your tool". And she's quite direct about what sort of leverage the media has. "The politicians," she says, "are really scared of the media" and that fear can be used to "shift attitudes" and "influence policy". This gleeful cultivation of a climate of fear in the relationship between journalists, scientists and policymakers is rather disturbing, especially in light of recent events.

In any case, she follows this up with a very simple-minded, and to my mind irresponsible, set of tips for how academics might succeed with the media. After paying some unconvincing lip-service to making sure your research is solidly grounded in fact ("We [i.e., journalists] love figures," she says) she proceeds to explain how and why to strip all public presentation of such research of nuance and complexity. "If it bleeds it leads," she tells us, "and follow the money". The first point seems to be sort of a throwaway, but I guess, prefiguring the Tim Hunt case, she's saying "If it's not bleeding, make it bleed." As for the second, I'm all for doing a bit of digging into how research is funded, of course, but is it really true that the media are mainly interested in the financial side of research?

In any case, she moves swiftly along to disabuse her audience of the quaint notion that anyone might ever really understand the complex ideas they are trying to express. Right on cue, she quotes the utterly debasing principle of populist communication and popular music: "Keep It Simple, Stupid." But Connie, "for goodness sake", what about the "nuances and complications"? "They ... don't ... care," she helpfully explains. "They do care about a simple message." Let's keep in mind that "they" are the "media", i.e., they are her. When asked about nuances and complexities, her answer is: "I don't care!" Yes, yes, she throws in as an afterthought, the message has to be "backed by figures and accuracy, and all those kinds of things" but the important thing is to keep it simple and stupid. That's certainly a standard to which she performed in the Tim Hunt debacle.

We're not yet four minutes into the video, but I'll leave it there. The rest is devoted to examples and applications and heroic tales of her own journalistic exploits. It is very instructive to pair her self-presentation with, say, Sir Tim's cheerfully frank account of "How to Win a Nobel Prize." After spending just ten minutes in the presence of each of these intellects, we get a pretty good sense of how the now infamous [mis]understanding about Sir Tim's "trouble with girls" arose, I think. Scientists, take note. These writers are bad news. Be careful out there.

[A NOTE ON COMMENTS: I don't really have a comment policy because my blog isn't that popular. But it looks like this topic is a attracting a broader readership, let us say, than I normally enjoy. I am going to delete comments that amount only to one-line invectives. It's not just about civility, but also about style and making a reasonable effort. Anyway: there's no rule except that if I think it's in poor taste it gets deleted, at least temporarily. I hope we can work with that.]

*I'm not sure, but there seems to be an edit around the 25 second mark, so it's not clear where in her overall presentation the bulk of the video comes from.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Less Than Full Disclosure in the Tim Hunt Scandal

[Update: I've emailed the WFSJ for comment, cc'ing Blum, Oransky, Curtis Brainard (president), and Richard Stone (chair of the program committee). Connie St Louis's email seems to be unavailable at the moment at CUL. I'll of course post any responses here as they come in.]

[See also the update at the end of this post.]

I am still working on a post about the journalistic judgment of Connie St. Louis, Deborah Blum, and Ivan Oransky in breaking the Tim Hunt story. But the always informative Louise Mensch has thrown a wrench into my plans by pointing something out to me that I had not noticed, or even suspected. I find it rather shocking and it sets this whole debacle into an entirely new light for me.

It seems that Ivan Oransky and Deborah Blum were on the program committee for the World Conference of Science Journalists, where the infamous luncheon was held. That means that Tim Hunt was speaking at what was essentially their invitation. Moreover, Connie St. Louis had been a keynote speaker at the same conference**, also presumably at the invitation of the program committee. Blum and Oransky, therefore, attended the luncheon, at least implicitly, in a much more "official"* capacity than I had previously thought, and stood in a much more formal relationship to the luncheon's hosts, namely, the Korean Federation of Women’s Science & Technology Associations. They were, properly speaking, representatives of the conference.

This is the sort of information that I do not expect to have to discover for myself. That's what the words "full disclosure" are for. No one reading either Deborah Blum's piece in the Daily Beast or Connie St. Louis's blog post at Scientific American would suspect, as I also did not suspect, that Blum, Oransky and St. Louis were key figures at the conference where Sir Tim's improvised remarks were made. They presented themselves as entirely accidental witnesses, utterly innocent bystanders.

In what now seems to me to be a very disingenuous use of language, Deborah Blum even talked about how "the conference had paired [her] lecture with [Hunt's]" and how "the organizers regarded these parallel talks as a clever way to balance the contributions of science and journalism." Both "the conference" and "the organizers" were, properly speaking, actually self-references. But no one reading this article would know this.

For a reason I simply can't fathom at this point, not only did they do no proper journalism whatsoever in this case, they chose to scandalize their own event. They orchestrated the public humiliation of a man they had themselves* invited to Seoul, after he had agreed to say (what they knew) were a few improvised remarks immediately after having held a lecture. And they did so with the result of ultimately mortifying their host association (KOFWST). It's something you'd expect of Hunter S. Thompson on a bad trip, not an editor of A Field Guide for Science Writers.

Surely, as leading figures within the conference organization itself, their role was not to fan the flames of offence and scandal here, but to work with their speaker and their host organization to mitigate whatever harm may have been done. Instead of collaborating with St. Louis on her hasty "breaking" of the story, they should have talked her out of it. Blum says that their "idea was just to get it on the record". But, if that was really their aim, they could have worked with Sir Tim and KOFWST to issue a joint statement, in which everyone saved face, and the remarks were nonetheless duly retracted.

The fact that they didn't do this suggests, at least to my mind, that there was nothing to retract in the first place. No offence was taken, no harm was done, and the scandal was entirely manufactured after the fact. An important "What If?" here is the question of whether KOFWST would have demanded an apology if they had not been publicly, internationally scandalized by St. Louis's tweet and UCL's overreaction. Indeed, as I see it, they had at that point been browbeaten into thinking some great offence against "all women scientists in Korea and the world" had taken place. If that had really been the case, as members of the programme committee, Oransky and Blum had, if anything, the responsibility to apologize on Sir Tim's (i.e., their chosen speaker's) behalf, who was presumably tired after his lecture and possibly even jet-lagged. They should have assured their hosts that no offence was meant (since none was) and that the whole thing was an unfortunate misunderstanding. Like I say, the way they actually chose to proceed suggests that the impetus for this did not come from KOFWST.

In short, Oransky and Blum here failed, not primarily in their duty as journalists (about which I still have a post coming up), but in their duty as conference organizers and representatives of the World Federation of Science Journalists. I'm really quite shocked at this. It's truly and almost "officially" a stain on the entire profession of science journalism.

[Update 10/11/2015: An anonymous commenter has linked to Waddell and Higgins' "Saving Tim Hunt", implying (I think) that it somehow challenges the issues raised in this post. It does offer a few new details, but leaves the point of this post completely untouched. In fact, they, too, fail to mention that St Louis, Blum and Oransky held key positions in WFSJ/WCSJ and that some of their witnesses (notably Dominique Forget) and commentators (notably Mohammed Yahia) also sit on the WFSJ board with Connie St Louis and therefore not only share interests with her, but have an objective interest in protecting the reputation of their organization. (Indeed, Blum nominated Yahia for his seat on the board. HT Debbie Kennett.)

I was initially impressed with their level of detail and their diligence in contacting witnesses/actors for comment. But now I'm more struck by the questions they didn't ask and the information they left out. In any case, their piece is a bit like making a big deal out of the "smoking gun" long after it has been determined that the bullet didn't come from its barrel. For those of us who think it very unlikely that Tim Hunt is a sexist, and therefore that he intended to say something sexist, it doesn't really change anything to learn that a few more people (than we already know of) interpreted Hunt to be saying something sexist. Clearly, his words could be misconstrued.

I did learn a few things from their piece though. That Dominique Forget (WFSJ treasurer) was in the room is interesting. That Mohammed Yahia (WFSJ vice-president) was promoting the story and talking about how the WCSJ controversy led to Hunt being disinvited from an AAAS webinar is also interesting. The question, now, is whether they think keeping Hunt from talking to AAAS was a positive outcome or "collateral damage".

Reading Waddell and Higgins, leaves the impression that WFSJ conferences are dangerous places for scientists. It's clear that at least two members of WFSJ board were present and that, while one of them chose to attack him on Twitter, the other chose not to defend her guest. If you like to speak freely and frankly, it seems, it's not advisable to accept an invitation to a WFSJ event. Neither the board nor the program committee will stand by you if you find yourself misspeaking or being taken out of context. In fact, if they don't like your contribution, WFSJ board members may come after you in public, rather than taking you aside in private to share their concerns. Even improvised remarks made to what Waddell and Higgins describe as a half-listening room, and mediated through a poorly functioning translation system, can be trouble. If trouble does arise, expect no support from WFSJ addressing controversy. In fact, expect the vice-president of WFSJ to stoke the controversy publicly, even as it begins to have consequences for your engagements elsewhere in the world. The WFSJ board members and WCSJ 2015 program committee members who knew exactly what had happened in the room that day, i.e., were there to see how informally the toast was made and how disinterested the audience was, didn't do any damage control. On the contrary, they gave it maximum spin, ensuring maximum damage to the speaker's reputation.]

*I'm sure they (or someone defending them) will say that I'm exaggerating the power that a "program advisory committee" actually has to determine the speakers at such an event and the "official capacity" that membership in such a committee implies. But even if it is largely an "honorary" function, it is an honour that implies responsibilities. I can only say that if I had been in any way formally associated with this conference, even as a volunteer, I would not have behaved in this unseemly manner.
**[Update: The conference is organized by the World Federation of Science Journalists. When I wrote this post I was not aware that Connie St Louis sits on its executive board. Thanks to Shub Niggurath for the tip.]

Friday, July 10, 2015

Some Thoughts on Sir Tim Hunt's Predicament, and Ours

I was on the edge of my seat all day yesterday, waiting for the decision of University College London's council in the Tim Hunt case. In the excitement I fired off a series of tweets, which, given the nature of such cases, one always does with the profound fear that one is going to get more attention than one bargained for. But the result has been good so far. My favourite bon mot is probably this one:

There are lots more where that came from, some probably less well-considered than others. (One I even decided to delete. Very rare for me.) Indeed, I was grateful to get a little push back from a blogger that goes by the name Wonklife Balance (which is a great name for a policy analyst interested in gender issues, by the way). Reading this post about the affair, I tweeted that I found it strange to see [what I take to be] the intended meaning of Sir Tim's remarks, which had been distorted throughout the incident, described as his saving grace. Not "his" saving grace, Wonklife Balance promptly corrected me, but "a saving grace of the incident", which I took to be inconsequential until I realized that Wonklife was keen not to give Sir Tim any credit whatsoever. I think that is really harsh, but there seems to be a mass of underlying anger out there, which underwrites such harshness. So instead of relying on Twitter, I penned a more detailed response, which I posted as a comment to Wonklife's blog.

Like I said on Twitter, I think you’re not giving Tim Hunt credit for actually stating the “open secret”. He was trying to do exactly the thing you are glad happened.

That is, it’s uncharitable of you to describe his intended meaning as “a saving grace of the incident”, when at this point it’s pretty clear that that meaning was distorted by his clumsy attempt at being humorous and the media’s complete lack of curiosity about what he might actually have meant. For example, you summarize his remarks as seriously arguing for sex-segregated labs, though this was obviously a “modest proposal” on his part.

You are construing the intended primary effect of (this small part of) his remarks, i.e., to be open about a particular difficulty that remains in the relations between men and women in the lab, as an unintended side-effect of what he said, mediated, I guess, by the noble work of the journalists who distorted his meaning (as “Victorian” and “misogynist”), and the administrators who turned it into an international incident by asking (his wife to ask) him to resign.

If you’re really interested in the difficulty of “combining work and family life”, I think you should approach Sir Tim’s remarks with greater interpretative charity, and in the spirit of reaching an understanding–in this case, across generations. After all, it seems plausible to think that when he was talking about “girls [in] the lab”, he was talking about how he in fact met his wife.

I’m all for engaging with his remarks, even to criticize him for what appears to be [a] somewhat sentimental attitude about women (not uncommon to men his age, and worthy of criticism when they express it). But to celebrate his ouster because his apology didn’t “cut it”, is simply not going to help us make progress on this issue.

It was also a tweet by Wonklife Balance that brought Janet Stemwedel's "counterfactual" analysis at Forbes to my attention. Obviously, it's true that Sir Tim could have done many things differently. But much of it would have been for his own good, not for the good of science, nor for the good of women in science. (Like Wonklife says, something very good came out of exactly what he did.) Strangely, however, with a few notable exceptions, Stemwedel traces all the agency (the what-someone-could-have-done-differently) in the situation back to Sir Tim.

It's tempting to point out that this gives the bulk of the agency in the situation to the man, but that would just be a playful jab from a mischievous fellow traveler to a rather earnest-sounding feminist. The real problem with this way of constructing the counterfactual is that, for the most part, as Stemwedel makes clear, what Sir Tim could have done differently at each stage is to have kept his mouth shut. Rather than asking his audience of women to consider a difficulty about (inexorably) mixed-gender labs that actually concerns him, he could have been less ambitious about his message, confining himself to saying something polite and possibly inspiring (because attempts by men to inspire women always go over pretty well, right?). He could have had "no comment" for the BBC. He could have declined to be interviewed sympathetically about his own distress by the Observer.

I was happy to see that Stemwedel put some of the blame at the doorstep of UCL, who, in my view, could certainly have not asked for his resignation (i.e., not "dis-honoured" a man they couldn't fire because they weren't paying him), and worked with him to give him an opportunity to moderate his remarks, while staunchly defending his right to make an ass of himself in public if he so desired. He doesn't seem to have any such desire, which is also apparently not noticed by his critics. But surely he has the right, right?

The idea that the journalists involved, however, could have worked a bit harder to ensure that this story had less personal ramifications for Sir Tim and deeper cultural implications for science doesn't really occur to Stemwedel. To my mind, this is a question of reporting. Connie St. Louis, who broke the story, in collaboration with Ivan Oransky and Deborah Blum, could have sought out Sir Tim for comment immediately, making it very clear how they were spinning to story.* They could have sought to corroborate their suspicion that he's a Victorian-style misogynist, contacting his past students and colleagues. If they had done so, they would have discovered (it now seems clear) that he's a nice and gentle man who does his best to make sure that women, no matter how endearing he sometimes finds them, are comfortable in his presence and gain access to the career paths they deserve. St. Louis could then have written up a nuanced piece and published it in a more stable medium.

The story would have been much more complicated, much more nuanced, and much more interesting. It could have been about the slow and necessary process by which well-meaning people change their often deeply ingrained attitudes about each other. Sir Tim's attitudes about women are probably grounded in his experiences of working in male dominated labs in 1970s (when he was in his thirties). Mine are grounded in working in a much more mixed-gender environment in the social sciences around the turn of the millennium, albeit one where 50ish males certainly dominated. My son, who is 11, will develop his mature attitudes about women in about twenty years, under very different conditions. I'm sure his views will be more progressive than mine, as mine are no doubt more progressive than Sir Tim's. [Our views are also constantly evolving, course. I'm not stuck in the year 2000, nor is Sir Tim stuck in 1975.] All three of us, however, have, and will always have, "trouble with girls". What was it Leonard Cohen said? "The doctors are working day and night, but they'll never ever find a cure for love."

I wish Sir Tim and his quinces all the best in his retirement. I think it is a travesty what they have done to him. And I don't think science will be any better because of it. But I do believe women will have an increasingly better experience in science anyway, and, like Sir Tim, I wish them all the best. We need our best minds working on the problems of science. About half of the best minds are those of women.
[*Update: Apparently Deborah Blum did talk to him afterwards, but only to assure herself that he meant what he said. A brief interview at that time would have been an excellent way to make this story less scandalous and more effective. It appears that the BBC thing blindsided him a bit, so I doubt Blum was very direct about how outrageous she thought his comments were. If she had, and done so as a journalist, I imagine he would have begun to walk the joke back already at that point.]