It's been almost 3 months since Tim Hunt joked about his "trouble with girls" at a science journalists' conference in June. Earlier this week, David Shiffman wrote that he couldn't believe we were still talking about it. Others are wondering why Tom Levenson has so many tweets to bat away at after his recent reflections around this in the Boston Globe.
Once this rolled into its second week, I started to study it. I've been writing a rolling series of posts, and a data analysis to add about the northern summer's Tim Hunt storm. That's here, along with an overview of the time after my initial analysis at the end of July.
1. When did the Tim Hunt storm die down for the general community?
The media storm exploded on 10 and 11 June, and then began to tail off. It petered out for the US after not much more than a week. By the end of that week, the major "facts" had settled down. It started with both high-end and tabloid interest. After that point, though, any blogs or media got relatively little attention compared to the first week. There was still intense debate in the scientific community, but the major community event was over.
It took till the 6th week in for the UK to reach that point, though. The graph below is one way you can see this process. You can read more about the methods I used for this here. This plots the 241 pieces from that exercise, in major newspapers or online news outlets (like Buzzfeed and Breitbart) in the UK and USA, that met the criteria I'd pre-specified. (There were also some blog posts from key players in June and July in the full dataset.)
Interest didn't peter out for everybody, though. I'll come back to that shortly, too.
There were lots of statements made by people on all sides of this that weren't corroborated by others, including several in the first day. Some were corrected within a day, others took about a week. There has been some refining of detail since then, and more information on Tim Hunt's solid reputation with his colleagues, but nothing that changed the fundamentals about events: that Hunt tried to be disarming and funny on the day - succeeding with some, but most thinking he'd been inappropriate; then he made it worse by trying to explain his thoughts to a journalist the next day, and again shortly after with rash remarks to the BBC.
Even though the details sorted out quite quickly, a lot of damage had already been done. The numbers here give you an idea how big this event was: I had counted up more than 55,000 comments with all the pieces in my original post. (The point at which I reached saturation point, the next outlet in line was Huffington Post). Facebook looked massive from what I could see, but the data weren't regularly available. There appeared to be fewer tweets than Facebook shares/likes, but I didn't collect those either, as that wouldn't give a good indication of Twitter activity. Kiran Garimella scooped up over 250,000 tweets using related hashtags.
These numbers show one of the reasons it was so big: large numbers of powerful people, powerful newspapers/outlets, and powerful institutions weighed in, clashing with each other.
What the numbers don't show is how much damage was done. There was savagery on both sides, followed by a torrent of abuse about the storm itself. The Tim Hunt "spot fire" had joined up with other cultural wars about feminism, journalists (especially feminist journalists), social change, and social media - and a deep well of racism. It made open discussion impossible. (I wrote about these issues here, here, and here.)
I had underestimated the damage greatly in June. Even if you think you're keeping up with something like this, unless you spend a lot of time looking at what's going on well outside your usual channels, you have a very biased view.
People at the center were genuinely savaged, and most people had their eyes more on some than others. The depths to which some are prepared to go to get a story, or to try to win an argument, are shocking. Even tracking down ex-spouses was not seen as going too far by some journalists - a truly low point in this saga.
2. What is keeping the disputes going?
Left to itself, this would have petered out completely. But there's been a lot of effort from the side that didn't get the upper hand in that decisive first week, or succeed in reversing certain institutions' decisions. There are conspiracy theories and motivated reasoning, smear campaigns, raking over every possible tiny detail repeatedly - and repeating questions and claims over and over: Was this 2.5 minutes or 3 minutes? Who retweeted whose tweet? Who saw that tweet and said nothing? Who said something intemperate? Did this person laugh or didn't they? Who knows who, and is therefore in a conspiracy or beholden to someone? ("Are you or have you ever been a member of the Anglo-American science journalism community?")
Studying the discussions showed this issue melding in seamlessly as another installment in a larger political activism picture that seeks to discredit journalists (especially feminist ones): a countermovement to feminist and social activism generally, that has veered into cyber harassment as a normalized part of daily life.
In July I (belatedly, unfortunately) took to the methods we use in my neck of the science woods to minimize bias. No one who is interested enough in this subject to be writing about it is free of bias now, of course. So that means the measures people have (or haven't!) used to limit the impact of their own bias are critical.
You can read about what I did and why, here. For the details about what happened that day in June, after sifting through the various first person accounts of the day in media stories and blogs, I narrowed it down to 3 key versions, and worked through them (here).
There were other individual accounts, but they tended to be fragments, internally inconsistent, or not corroborated by anyone else. I don't think there's much to be gained from trying to take a poll of the eye-witness accounts (direct and secondhand), as they amount to only a few percent of the audience, and the differences don't seem to be material to general opinions. The main issue they vary on is whether people thought the comments were appropriate or not - just the same issue that divides the opinions of people who weren't in the room.
There's no single source where all the contradictory versions are gathered. For example, Tim Hunt was there via the European Research Council (ERC). The European Commission staff person who accompanied him is frequently cited anonymously. Usually, though, it is with his positive remarks, but not this: "The official also described the first part of the speech as “meant to be light-hearted”, adding, “although completely inappropriate”." Or only Natalia Demina's reports that she and several of her companions took it all in good spirit, without reference to her also saying that most people thought it was the wrong time for Hunt to make that joke.
Many would consider the key "go to" places for a contrary view to mine are Athene Donald's blog posts (all linked in my post) and media articles, and the series of posts on Louise Mensch's blog: they're also linked in my post - it's called Unfashionista. (Here's info about Louise Mensch.) Others that didn't meet the inclusion criteria I specified for my post are:
- A post by Debbie Kennett (a blogger and Honorary Research Associate at UCL)
- Posts by Cathy Young: one that met the criteria for my post, and this one on Reason.com (about that organization/magazine)
Subsequently, another article supported strongly by many people with a contrary view was published:
That last article, which is devoid of any linking to original sources, and the fact that nowhere are all the accounts gathered in one place, both point to one of the central problems in this kind of issue. [Update: on 19 October I posted links to all the accounts I had been able to find when I made my assessment.]
The time it would take to fully fact-check conspiracy- and smear-laden pieces in each detail would be considerable, and likely to be of interest to very few (other than those who would put effort into discrediting it). (See for example how much effort that went in this series of posts about another issue using the same tactics running concurrently.)
Some examples of the way bias operates in details, emphasis, and emotive or value-laden language, from the Foreman article in Commentary:
By the end of June, with St. Louis’s claims in tatters but with the refusal of University College, London, to change its stance, the broadcaster Jonathan Dimbleby resigned from his honorary fellowship there, and a well-known author publicly dropped it from his will.
Almost immediately St. Louis protected herself and her dishonesty against investigation by asserting her victimhood. “Women are vulnerable to vicious trolling on Twitter,” she told Scientific American, “and black women doubly so.”
St. Louis also went on the offensive. This included an article for the Guardian entitled “Stop Defending Tim Hunt.”
Yes, Dimbleby resigned at the end of June. But St. Louis didn't "immediately" take to Scientific American: that was 2 weeks previously, and the Guardian article had been on the 23rd. The author with the will was presumably this one on 18 July. It's not just that the absence of link back to sources obscures this kind of thing - it also makes it impossible for a reader to check the interpretations of the sources, although the choice of language really says it all.
Both Ferguson and Zadrozny added a new element to the case against Hunt, claiming that he had also condescendingly thanked women scientists for “making the lunch.” St. Louis later repeated this additional charge in an interview with the BBC. But it was eventually revealed, thanks to the efforts of Louise Mensch, that Hunt never said anything of the kind. In fact the allegedly offensive expression of gratitude had been delivered by a leading Korean—female—politician who stood up before Hunt.
Although different writers do it in different ways, the narrative becomes one in which certain people are demonized and others made heroic, sometimes via truthiness, sometimes via selectivity, and sometimes by portraying the innocuous as nefarious. Even though the record was correcting over a number of days (if not backtracking to update unfortunately), it is claimed that little correction took place, and that the debates present from day 1 on whether it mattered if Hunt was joking didn't occur.
3. What now?
In the ideal world, we'd have moved into a phase of reflection and open, constructive dialog. People would be seeking wisdom, not revenge, and reviving respect would be the antidote of choice to the damaging over-reaction about Tim Hunt, the person. The goal would be getting things into perspective and ensuring Tim Hunt could contribute to the scientific community without "being a hashtag". Then we could learn something, and reduce the chances of doing so much harm to people the next time there's a controversy.
But instead of that, some are committed to keeping the fight going, turning it into another episode in a long-running series of vendettas. Alliances seem to have embedded themselves now, between some members of the scientific community and tabloid/"trolling" communities. The energy going into trying to destroy people's reputations, and in some cases careers, makes a posture of defense inevitable. And the distortion of the record obstructs understanding. A misinformed community won't help the next "Tim Hunt". Controversies aren't going away any time soon.
I'll do several things differently next time - both in terms of how I approach a controversy from the outset, and in how I would go about writing about it. I've come to the conclusion that it is possible, and useful, to study an event like this in real time. At one point, Uta Frith remarked that some of the work I had done suggested the beginning of a research agenda, and I think this area can and will grow. The biggest obstacle to a more rigorous approach around dealing well with controversy isn't a lack of techniques - or even time for data collection and discussion. It's that the issue of online harassment is a magnet for people who enjoy harassing others. And a climate of intimidation and abuse is anathema to both social and scientific progress.
Hilda Bastian, 7 September 2015.
UPDATE ON COMPLAINTS (18 October 2015):
Later in September, the BBC responded to several people who had lodged complaints about their coverage of BBC. Mary Collins tweeted: "BBC have emailed all who complained. We've seen it, it's generous and should end matter, thanks @BBCr4today", asking for the emails not to be published, thereby preventing another flare. She further tweeted: "Tim was unwise to give off the cuff statement. He's a grownup BBC weren't evil". (Mary Collins, professor of immunology at UCL, is married to Tim Hunt.)
On 10 October, Robin McKie reported in The Observer that, Colin Blakemore, had resigned from his position as honorary president of the Association of British Science Writers (ABSW) over its handling of complaints about Connie St Louis' reporting on the Tim Hunt controversy. (Colin Blakemore, a professor of neuroscience and philosophy at the University of London, is director of its Centre for the Study of the Senses.)
On 10 October, the ABSW posted a statement about Blakemore's resignation and on the 11th, another statement, along with a link to a statement to ABSW by Blakemore [PDF]. (For a formal hearing of such a complaint about a member from another member, ABSW's procedures require it to be signed by at least 3 members [PDF].)
On 22 October, ABSW posted a statement indicating that Blakemore had "asked the Board to make clear he condemns the abuse to which Connie St Louis has been subjected, and that the ABSW Board's previous statement regarding his resignation should not be misinterpreted as indicating otherwise." The statement also addressed "claims that the ABSW Board has refused to investigate complaints about the professional conduct of Ms St Louis. These allegations are incorrect", as of 21 October.
On 25 October, Louise Mensch posted on her blog a copy of a complaint about Connie St Louis she reported sending to ABSW.
[Updated on 25 October with posts of 22 and 25 October.]
[If you're interested in keeping track of my latest updates and activity on this across the posts, I have a mini-guide here. A listing of major media outlet coverage follows below.]
Pieces on major media outlets:
I stopped formally monitoring media in August, but I check in from time to time. I've added here pieces that seem to me to have attracted particular attention, either making the English language (US) Google News feed (from any country) with substantive mention of Tim Hunt or mention in context of women in science or free speech, or via discussion noticed on Twitter (no systematic assessment).
Around 5 August there were many brief mentions of Tim Hunt in media coverage of the #ILookLikeAnEngineer hashtag, for example in The New York Times, Kathryn Varn: Woman Behind #ILookLikeAnEngineer Says Campaign Against Gender Stereotypes Is 'Long Overdue'.
12 August: Independent (Ireland), Joe O'Shea: 'We're still not doing enough to encourage women into science'.
BBC Discovery, produced by Andrew Luck-Baker: Women on the 'Problem with Science'.
Financial Times, Emma Jacobs: Hashtag clubs bring comfort and clout.
24 August: Sydney Morning Herald, Paul Sheehan: Witch-hunting the blood sport for vigilantes, bullies and boofheads.
30 August: Boston Globe, Thomas Levenson: Sexism in science leads to willful blindness.
Times, Zachary Spiro and Oliver Moody: University in sexism row paid female staff less.
Telegraph, Claire Cohen: University in Tim Hunt sexism row admits paying women less.
Evening Standard, Anna Davis: UCL caught up in row over paying female staff less than men.
3 September: Evening Standard, Rosamund Urwin: We need thick skins to ignore online lynchers.
There was a spate of brief mentions in reviews of Nicole Kidman's performance in the play, Photograph 51, similar to this one on 7 September in The Independent by Adam Sherwin - Nicole Kidman says her return to the West End is a tribute to her late biochemist father, and this one on 14 September in the New York Times by Ben Brantley: In 'Photograph 51', Nicole Kidman Is a Steely DNA Scientist.
8 September: The Independent, Martin Daubney: Are supermarket shelves sexist, or do we need to stop being so easily offended?
9 September: sponsored content, Observer/Guardian, Susan Smith: Picture perfect: how marketers can harness the power of images.
Der Tagesspiegel, Richard Friebe: "Da treffen zwei Welten aufeinander".
The Independent (Ireland), Carol Hunt: Why we feminists really need to pick our battles wisely.
Sante Fe New Mexican, Editorial: Our view, so what does an engineer look like?
15 September: Observer/Guardian, Zoe Williams: Feminazi: the go-to term for trolls out to silence women.
24 September: Daily Mail, Katherine Rushton: Dimbleby wades into row over 'sexist' professor: BBC presenter says he was 'appalled' at way Sir Tim Hunt was treated and says university bowed to 'intimidation'.
6 October: National Geographic, Mark Strauss: Nobel Laureates Who Were Not Always Noble.
10 October: Observer/Guardian, Robin McKie: Tim Hunt sexism row reignited after scientist quits writers' group.
19 October: Wired, Sarah Zhang: A new twist in the fight against sexism in science.
20 October: Mention of Tim Hunt on BBC Education, Hannah Richardson: Sexist banter 'should be tackled' in schools.
21 October: Huffington Post, Tyler Kingkade: Professor accused of harassment is gone, but debate isn't over.
22 October. NZ Herald, Solbin Kang: "Science is sexist because we are sexist about science" says Kiwi scientist.
24 October: LA Times, Robin Abcarian: Justice for a sex-harassing Berkeley astronomy professor.
BBC Radio 4, Roger Scruton: In Defence of Free Speech.
The Atlantic, brief mention by David Frum along with examples of terrorism: The False Trade-Off Between Security and Liberty.
Guardian/Observer, Laura Bates: Feminism isn't dead, despite all the assassination attempts.
The Hindu, Hasan Suroor: Free speech? What's that?
Last updated 26 October 2015
There is a further update post to bring this to the 1-year mark: Whatever Happened to #TimHunt?
- The Value of 3 Degrees of Separation
- A Tim Hunt Timeline: Cutting a Path Through a Tangled Forest
- The Outrage Factor - Then and Now
- "Just" Joking? Sexist Talk in Science
Commenting is enabled here, but it is moderated. If you comment, be prepared for a significant delay. I don't edit comments, so any that are even in part libelous, ad hominem, or nasty will not see the light of day. Making the same point repetitively is also a shortcut to the delete button.
Given the cultural differences involved in this issue, in case you're wondering, I'm an Australian who has been living in the US for 4 years. I lived in Germany for 7 years before that.
The cartoon at the head of this post is my own (CC-NC license).
Disclosures: I have a full-time day job. Blogging and cartooning are my hobbies, and income related to those activities is below the threshold applicable to me for conflict of interest. I'm a freelance contributor to MedPage Today, where Ivan Oransky is global editorial director. (We haven't discussed the Tim Hunt case, and there has been no financial relationship.) As a scientist and blogger/tweeter, I know quite a few of the people participating in this debate. I met Deborah Blum briefly (less than a minute) at Solutions 2014, had minimal Twitter encounters with her before these events, and have communicated with her about the events since. She has been neither a personal nor a professional colleague, and there has been no financial relationship. I was for a time a blogger at Scientific American - the coordinator/editor there was present in Seoul: we haven't had any contact about these events. I met Dorothy Bishop, who is one of the authors and interviewees in pieces in this analysis, when I was an invited speaker in my scientific capacity at a meeting she chaired on Reproducibility and Reliability of Biomedical Research in London earlier this year: we have discussed the Tim Hunt events. I made some edits to Tim Hunt's Wikipedia page in the thick of the controversy: these are detailed here (all edits to Wikipedia pages are recorded permanently. My Wikipedia name is the same as my Twitter handle: hildabast.) The thoughts I express here are personal, and do not represent the views of any organization I work for or am associated with.
[Updates on 9 September] In response to continued representations about perceived interests, I added further detail to the disclosures, including specifying the lack of financial interest (absence of statement on this was because there was nothing relevant to disclose), and to further the specify the minimal levels of my interactions with Deborah Blum prior to these events. Also corrected ERC to EC for the staffer's report on the Korean remarks and their reception.
[Updates on 18 October] I added the post-script on complaints, and in response to questions about the Foreman article, which I'd inadvertently included with others that fell in the timeframe of the original analysis, I amended that. (Thanks, Shaun Lawson.)