Sympathy for the Devil?

My Facebook feed is awash with people standing up for Tim Hunt: “The witch hunt against Tim Hunt is unbearable and disgraceful”, “This is how stupidity turns into big damage. Bad bad bad”, “Regarding the Tim Hunt hysteria”, and so on. Each of these posts has prompted a debate between people who think a social media mob has unfairly brought a good man down, and people like me who think that the response has been both measured and appropriate.

I happened to met Tim Hunt earlier this year at a meeting of young Indian investigators held in Kashmir. We both were invited as external “advisors” brought in to provide wisdom to scientists beginning their independent careers. While his “How to win a Nobel Prize” keynote had a bit more than the usual amount of narcissism, he was in every other way the warm, generous and affable person that his defenders of the last week have said he is. I will confess I kind of liked the guy.

But it is not my personal brush with Hunt that has had me thinking about this meeting the past few days. Rather it is a session towards the end of the meeting held to allow women to discuss the challenges they have faced building their scientific careers in India. During this session (in which I was seated next to Hunt) several brave young women stood up in front of a room of senior Indian and international scientists and recounted the specific ways in which their careers have been held back because of their gender.

The stories they told were horrible, and it was clear from the reaction of women in the room that these were not isolated incidents. If any of the scientists in positions of power in the room (including Hunt) were not already aware of the harassment many women in science face, and the myriad obstacles that can prevent them from achieving a high level of success, there is no way that could have emerged not understanding.

When I am thinking about what happened here, I am not thinking about how Twitter hordes brought down a good man because he had a bad day. I am instead thinking about what it says to the women in that room in Kashmir that this leading man of science – who it was clear everybody at the meeting revered – had listened to their stories and absorbed nothing. It is unconscionable that, barely a month after listening to a women moved to tears as she recounted a sexual assault from a senior colleague and how hard it was for her to regain her career, Hunt would choose to mock women in science as teary love interests.

Hunt’s words, and even more so his response to being called out for them, suggest that he does not understand the damage his words caused. I will take him at his word that he did not mean to cause harm. But the fact that he did not realize that those words would cause harm is worse even than the words themselves. That a person as smart as Hunt could go his entire career without realizing that a Nobel Prizewinner deriding women – even in a joking way – is bad just serves to show how far we have to go.

So, you’ll have to forgive me for recoiling when people ask me to measure my words based on the effect they will have on Hunt. I understand all too well the effects that criticism can have on people. But silence also has its consequences. And we see around us the consequences of decades of silence and inaction on sexism in science. If the price of standing up to that history is that Tim Hunt has to weather a few bad weeks, well so be it.

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    […] la polémica sigue. El biólogo y bloguero científico Michael Eisen afirma que Hunt y él coincidieron, un mes antes del incidente de Seúl, en una reunión de investigadores de […]