Lost in Translation

Over six months after his infamous faux pas, biologist Tim Hunt and his immunologist wife Mary Collins appear to be collaborating with the controversial tabloid columnist and former Conservative MP Louise Mensch.

This latest unexpected twist in the whole sorry saga seems to be an effort to rewrite the current narrative and restore Hunt’s reputation. But it is unlikely this new alignment will lead to any resolution.

So far the fallout from Hunt’s unscripted comments has produced death threats, Twitter trolling and online abuse, most often targeted at women. It has caused academics and journalists, both male and female, to withdraw from the debate for reasons of health or sanity.

The story has been retold so many times, from so many viewpoints, that many of its events have become lost in translation. A few are explained here, with fresh background information that might provide an insight into why the aftermath of Hunt’s words has led to depths of despair for some, and the possibility of an improved workplace for others.

The full audio

I have listened to the full audio of Tim Hunt’s talk. In it there is laughter. He also refers to crying and delivers a spectacularly misjudged anecdote that produces — apart from one lone outburst — an uncomfortable silence.

This was not, however, from the infamous lunch at the World Conference of Science Journalists in South Korea last June. I had paid 99 pence for an audio download of a Royal Society event called A Life in Biology from the 2014 Hay Festival.

The Nobel Prize winner was in conversation with Roger Highfield. Hunt was funny, warm, quick to laugh, self-deprecating and indiscreet. About his Nobel Prize, he told Highfield: “I got phone calls and emails from every girlfriend I’d ever slept with. It was fantastic.”

He even admitted to crying, though not in the lab. “Both my parents died a long time ago and I would burst into tears at the idea of how proud — I mean even now I’m choking up — how proud they would be. It’s very emotional.”

It’s a moving and entertaining start, filled with personal touches and entertaining tales from the world of science. Then he says: “I’m going to tell you another terrible animal story.”

It involved a physiology course, a dead cat with a ruff round its neck, and a “sadistic New Zealander” lecturer. Hunt pulls off the accent, tells the story, delivers the punch line and laughs. “He pulls the head off the cat!”

There is what can only be described as a stunned silence, punctuated by one nervous distant giggle. But Hunt doesn’t seem to have noticed the atmosphere has changed.

“And he then proceeds to stimulate the brain stem of the cat,” he continues, “which then sort of arches his back and hisses and does everything that a cat would do. It’s an absolutely staggering demonstration of the autonomic nervous system.”

Highfield, perhaps aware of the audience’s discomfort, interjects and suggests the lecturer could have used a frog’s leg. “It’s not the same,” replies Hunt cheerfully. “The frogs don’t arch their backs, gosh, the way the cats do.”

Hunt is seemingly oblivious to the fact that the audience — which will contain many cat lovers — is not finding this as hilarious as he does. In other words, during an extremely lively and good-natured talk, Hunt delivered a misjudged anecdote that was received in near silence. Sound familiar?

“The problem with girls in the lab is that you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and, if you criticise them, they cry.”

I’ve always considered Hunt’s words in South Korea inappropriate. So did many of those at the lunch. They heard these words in their full context, and the majority of the reported eyewitnesses were in no doubt that they were offensive. Some present disagreed and did think they were meant as a joke. Many more didn’t.

As reported extensively by journalist and author Dan Waddell and music historian Paula Higgins here, Hunt’s words offended a significant number of people at the lunch, of all nationalities, and produced a newsworthy event for the journalists present. There was no ‘now seriously’ during Hunt’s brief talk and there was no ‘transcript’ by a ‘European Commission official’ (The Times) or an “EU Observer’ (Mensch).

For those present, and others like myself who heard his words reported second-hand, it was yet another familiar example of casual sexism. For Professor Jane Clarke from Cambridge University, like Hunt a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS), it reminded her of an earlier experience with the Nobel Prize winner.

Clarke tweeted on June 10th: “I applied to his lab Asked how I’d manage childcare inferred science & motherhood don’t mix I’m now FRS” [sic]

Recently Clarke confirmed to me that Hunt asked this question during an interview for a PhD position at the University of Cambridge in 1990. She wrote about her experience in 2012 for a Wellcome Trust blog, without naming any names.

“I went to the biochemistry department and talked to a number of people there, who essentially brushed me off. They more or less told me I’d been out of science so long, was too old to start a science career at 40, and had two children to look after. So I went to see Alan Fersht, who was a world leader in protein science, and he said, ‘I’ll give you a studentship, start in October.’”

Years later Clarke, now a Professor of Molecular Physics, reminded Hunt of his words. “He didn’t recall them,” she said.

Other people tweeted, either directly or indirectly, that Hunt’s political incorrectness was not an isolated incident. Others praised him for his positive track record of work with women in the lab and elsewhere. He was, for instance, a member of the selection board that appointed the first female director of EMBO.

The issue also prompted the recollections of more general, negative experiences unrelated to Hunt. Former research physicist Linda Large, for instance, tweeted that misogyny was the reason she had left her university job. Hunt’s words were therefore a reminder that science was a field where women are traditionally under-represented and can face prejudice.

Only six weeks before the lunch in South Korea, the publisher of the science open access journal, PLOS ONE, apologised to two female researchers after a peer reviewer suggested that, “it would probably also be beneficial to find one or two male biologists to work with (or at least obtain internal peer review from, but better yet as active co-authors), in order to serve as a possible check against interpretations that may sometimes be drifting too far away from empirical evidence into ideologically based assumptions.”

In 2014 research showed that scientists making appointments from CVs ranked identical CVs lower for those with female names. Earlier research has shown that women scientists are also paid less.

It was only after listening to Hunt on this download, however, that I gained an insight into how he might have delivered his ‘girls in the lab’ comment while simultaneously having no idea that some people in the audience found it offensive.

Mistakes

One verbal faux pas does not make a sexist. We all make mistakes. I agree with Professor Clarke who believes that Hunt should not become the poster boy (man?) for sexism within science as there are far more serious problems within the profession.

Hunt apologised. Afterwards he admitted “I stood up and went mad”. But words have impact and the #distractinglysexy hashtag that followed felt the right and appropriate response — a mild form of ridicule and rebuke that produced a humorous, more positive image of women in the lab.

Being branded a misogynist by some people was, in my opinion, unnecessary, untrue and going too far. As was his inclusion in National Geographic’s ‘Nobel Laureates Who Were Not Always Noble’ article, which included a white supremacist. Hunt was cited as an example of a “clueless sexist”.

No one could have predicted this response. But when Hunt’s inappropriate choice of words were made in the middle of a room containing scientists and journalists, at a conference where sexism was on the agenda, understandably three of the journalists present thought his words needed to be reported.

Connie St Louis, a lecturer in science journalism at London’s City University, the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Deborah Blum (now director of the Knight Science Journalism Program at MIT) and Dr Ivan Oransky, an assistant professor of medicine and a writer in residence at New York University’s Carter Journalism Institute, agreed that St. Louis should do the first report to avoid any appearance of American journalists targeting a British Nobel laureate.

St Louis revealed what had happened via Twitter, the BBC and other media. (Disclosure: I worked with St Louis briefly at the BBC around 20 years ago while a freelance presenter for the BBC Radio Science Unit. Since then I have met her professionally via mutual science journalism interests on average about once a year, but never socially.)

Twitter is a good place to report breaking news stories but not to discuss or report anything nuanced. St Louis’ tweet was longer than the obligatory 140 characters, however, as it contained an image of text. It began, ‘Why are the British so embarrassing abroad?”

It mentioned the lunch and that it was “utterly ruined by sexist speaker Tim Hunt” and cited the key words by Hunt that caused the most outrage and his apparent call for single sex labs. It appears hastily written, with errors in punctuation and the word ’favour’ is spelt in both British and American (‘favor’) English. It did not, as I believe it should have done, contain a comment or response from Hunt.

The biggest mistake, however, was the choice of St Louis to report Hunt’s words. Unfortunately, if someone intends to shine a spotlight on the traditionally white and male establishment of science, deciding a black woman should deliver the news was bound to introduce problems.

When I first encountered St Louis at the BBC Radio Science Unit in the early 90s, I was a reporter/presenter and she was a producer. We travelled to a technology facility with a temporary media fellow — a scientist interested in seeing how science radio works. At the location, a male ‘meet and greet’ approached the media fellow. “You must be the producer.”

Realising there had been a mistake, he turned to me to instead, shook my hand and apologised. I then introduced him to St Louis as “the producer”.

The assumed order of hierarchy had been white male, white female and finally, black female. Afterwards, St Louis — to her credit — was not only magnanimous, she laughed about it.

Twenty years later and some things haven’t changed. If Oransky (white male) or Blum (white female) had broken this story, I do not believe it would have descended into the toxic pit is now.

“One can only imply that Connie got her position on the basis of Affirmative Action,” a contributor to the right wing Breitbart website, David Atherton, tweeted on June 26th.

While Jan Bell stated: “YOU madam Connie need to get back in the real world CLEANING TOILETS.”

There have been hundreds of abusive tweets aimed at St Louis calling her everything from “useless trash” and “scum” to a “c**t” and “feminazi pig”. Many referred and continue to refer to her skin colour.

“Even a stone cold black liar trumps an honest white prestigious scientist. Milo we need a hero.” tweeted a self-described UKIP supporter to the associate editor of the London office of Breitbart.com, Milo Yiannopoulos.

The deathly silence

Not everyone uses Twitter, of course, so many people in the UK were first alerted to the story either by hearing both St Louis and Hunt on the BBC’s Today programme on June 10th or via articles in The Times or the Daily Mail. Although St Louis’ report of Hunt’s key words on BBC Radio 4 have since been verified by many of those present, the problem for many of Hunt’s supporters lay in the detail.

“After he’d finished, there was this deathly, deathly silence,” St Louis told the Today programme. “And a lot of my colleagues sat down and were taking notes, because they 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.”

These are strong words. Journalists are supposed to report the story in measured tones, present the available facts, add analysis or context, and then let the audience make up its own mind. St Louis, as anyone who heard the Today programme broadcast can attest, was subjective and at times sounded outraged.

As a woman, I can understand why. But as a journalist reporting another person’s words, the facts must be presented objectively; correcting and updating them later if initial reports are clarified or turn out wrong. St Louis blurred the lines between objective journalism and personal opinion.

Her story also changed. The day before, she told The Times that there had been some “nervous laughter”. So which is right?

“The silence in the room wasn’t at the end,” St Louis told me. “It was in the middle when we all realised what he was saying. At the end there wasn’t silence as a few people were laughing.”

Eyewitness recollections all vary in detail. Blum herself has said that there was some laughter in the room. St Louis had gone beyond the basics of the story on the Today programme, perhaps in the adrenalin rush of live interviews, but by doing so she introduced doubt into the veracity of the issue — the negative impact of those key words.

I am not the only journalist irritated by these inconsistencies but, having worked in live news, as the first science correspondent for BBC News 24, I know these kinds of mistakes during live broadcasts are common. In 24-hour news it is known as ‘not wrong for long’.

Journalists might report that a five-storey building belonging to Mr Smith burnt down. Then, later information provides an amended updated report that it was, in fact, a seven-storey building belonging to Mrs Jones. The main fact, however, remains true. The building burnt down.

What about saying he’d thanked the women for lunch? St Louis is not alone in believing he said this but is happy to admit she got that wrong if the consensus says otherwise.

Repercussions

Sadly, Hunt’s careless off the cuff remarks led to repercussions that no one could have predicted. They have caused insults, public shaming, ludicrously complex conspiracy theories and smear campaigns or abuse aimed at any scientist or journalist who so much as squeaks that they thought Hunt’s words were inappropriate. Yet even his wife told a national newspaper it was “an unbelievably stupid thing to say.”

Hunt was publicly criticised, mocked, censured and relieved of honorary unpaid positions. There’s no doubt this must have been deeply hurtful. Journalists tried to contact their daughter’s former partners.

A Daily Mail article published on June 10th also delved into his private life by revealing that Hunt, who is almost 20 years older than his wife, fell in love in the lab. Hunt had an affair with Collins when she was a PhD student and also married to someone else.

Several high profile scientists defended Hunt in UK national newspapers and Hunt and his wife received a sympathetic treatment in The Observer together with supportive comments from female academics. In contrast, St Louis’ treatment by the press — despite visibly racist trolling online which few papers sought to address or mention — was the opposite of sympathetic. It was ferocious.

Since June, St Louis’ has received a persistent torrent of professional and personal abuse. One blog on the affair was simply entitled: “The lying ugly fat c**t who destroyed a man’s science career”.

St Louis also received death threats.

In August, she described her mood to me as “veering between depression and a nervous breakdown”.

It didn’t take long before the story morphed from discussions about sexism within science into arguments about feminism and race. Genuine misogynists began attacking women online who simply dared to express an opinion. Sadly this obscured the wider issue and an important one — that of women working within science and the problems many experience within the lab that hinders their careers.

Press and the CV

Unknown to St Louis, City University had published an out of date version of her CV, compiled from several sources, for an online profile on a trial website. It contained her address and home phone number, was unearthed on the Internet and formed the basis of a Daily Mail article, whose sole aim appeared to be to undermine St Louis’ reliability as a witness.

The response to the online version makes for disgraceful reading. One outraged reader summed up the comments: “So we’ve had people telling her to go back to bongo bongo land, jokes about her weight and appearance, accusations about her mental health, questions about how British she is based on the colour of her skin and lots of green arrows for all. DISGUSTING.”

The CV appeared badly edited and contained a number of errors as well as omissions, such as where St Louis had done her degree. It was Hatfield Polytechnic, now the University of Hertfordshire, where she obtained a 2:1 in biochemistry. This was in the late 1970s, before the days of grade inflation and at a time when few women studied science, and is an impressive achievement.

This qualification obviously isn’t enough for some. “Blum and Oransky are intelligent,” Mensch tweeted in November. “@connie_stlouis is not”.

New Zealand software consultant Richard Jowsey is equally lofty. “She’s a “lecturer”, not a professor. With a polytech “science degree””, he tweeted on November 28th. “She’s barely literate. Thick as a brick!”

Many people add a sheen to their CV but one statement was obviously stretching the truth: describing herself as a scientist. To me, you need a qualification beyond an undergraduate degree in science to earn that label. Otherwise I’d be a physicist.

St Louis spent a year out in a lab as part of her undergraduate degree and then, after graduating, worked as a research assistant for three years. “I’m a scientist,” St Louis told me.

I have an issue with this statement. It’s a case of tense. I feel it should be, “I was a scientist” or “I’m a former scientist”. But then, lots of people who’ve worked in science happily exist in this quantum state. The Twitter handle of Dr Adam Rutherford, the broadcaster and presenter of Radio 4’s Inside Science for instance, reads “Back off man I’m a scientist” even though he is a full time journalist and broadcaster.

Like many, I was also shocked by the poor grammar and basic spelling mistakes in St Louis’ CV. That was until I discovered that St Louis has dyslexia.

This revelation seems obvious in hindsight. It explains the poor state of every email or text I have received from her, the confusion caused by some of her Tweets due to the incorrect position of a comma, for instance, and why her successful career was in broadcast journalism: radio, the spoken word.

But St Louis also mentioned freelance print journalism on her CV. When no one could trace her reference to writing for the print press, many called her out. On Twitter, Mensch was particularly brutal: “Sir Tim Hunt ruined by a habitual liar”.

St Louis has revealed that her print pieces were written under a pseudonym. This was because they related to race and, as her children were young at the time, she didn’t want her family to experience any repercussions.

In hindsight, it’s difficult to disagree with that decision.

The ABSW

The CV listed an award: the 2002 Association of British Science Writers’ (ABSW) award for the acclaimed radio series, Life as a Teenager, which St Louis originated, wrote and presented. The ABSW website, however, listed the producer’s name only and not the presenter’s (St Louis).

As a former winner and judge, I know there is nothing untoward in this. But it has caused conflict. At one stage ABSW entry forms only allowed one name as an applicant and producers often sent in single entries for the radio or TV categories. A Radio 4 presenter famously didn’t speak to a producer for years after his name was left off the award entry and the programme won.

Only the people who make the radio programme know the exact divisions of labour and the intellectual or creative input involved. But radio awards generally go either to the producer, who does the lion’s share of the work and may also have written the first draft or final draft of the script, or both the producer and the presenter if the workload is more distributed.

While there have been issues in the past with acknowledging contributions, there wasn’t in this case. The cash prize was shared equally at the time. St Louis had every right to put it on her CV.

Mensch wrote a blog about the award disparity. She quoted St Louis’ disastrously worded explanation about the omission of her name on the ABSW website from an ‘on the record’ statement. St Louis’ words, which I will not repeat here, were ungracious at best, disparaging and insulting to the producer at worst.

She has since apologised to the producer, who now considers the matter closed. St Louis deeply regrets her response — “I could kick myself” — and admitted to being under tremendous stress at the time.

St Louis refuses to engage with Mensch for obvious reasons but was shocked, when reading the blog, to see that it contained her statement. A statement intended for someone else. Mensch did not reveal the statement’s origin but I will. It was part of an email correspondence between St Louis and The Times’ science editor, Tom Whipple.

The Times

St Louis was supplying Whipple with information for a piece that would supposedly correct facts elsewhere in the media, specifically in the Daily Mail, about the City University profile/CV online.

She had sent Whipple a statement, addressed numerous claims and answered questions about her qualifications that most people at her stage of career would find humiliating. For example, double-checking the class of her science degree. “Is it an upper second as previously stated?”

At the end of a long working day, St Louis replied to yet another email from Whipple — this time about the ABSW award. Her response was written in haste, as there was a press deadline, and on an Iphone.

The email to Whipple also included this paragraph:

I also would ask that you include the following statement “tim Hunt has publicly admitted that he said the things that he did and has apologised for doing so. This is not in question . However the decision by the Times newspaper and other to attack me and “to shoot the messenger” as a freelance journalist and academic is unacceptable, cynical and indicative of the sexism that is so pervasive in the media. It has open the flood gates to death threats, a disgusting display of racism and sexist abuse.” This is an unacceptable retrograde step in journalism.” [sic]

On 29th July, The Times published a piece by Whipple entitled ‘Tim Hunt journalist changes ‘misleading’ CV’. It was accompanied by a short audio recording from the end of Hunt’s short off the cuff speech, where he lightheartedly refers to himself being a monster.

The audio fragment, supplied by Natalia Demina, a Russian journalist present at the lunch, lasted just 12 seconds. There appears to be a fraction of a second of polite applause (three short claps) but then it abruptly ends. It was not from the section where he refers to the ‘girls in the lab’ — the key words under debate. Despite this the sub-header states: ‘Audio recording shows scientist’s comments were in jest’.

The piece then repeated the accusations against St Louis and says ‘her critics still claimed the CV was inaccurate’, noting that Louise Mensch had pointed out the Life as a Teenager award disparity. It did not contain St Louis’ requested comment about the Times or details of her abuse or death threats.

Whipple did not include St Louis’ rash comments about the ABSW award either. He rephrased them (generously in my opinion) as: “Last night Ms St Louis said that although the entry for the award had been submitted under her producer’s name, they had shared the prize.”

When St Louis emailed Whipple to ask how Mensch had got hold of her quotes, a correspondence I have seen, he replied: “Louise got in touch after the article last week. She was planning on writing about it for the Sun on Sunday I think. I don’t think that article happened, but I passed on your statement.”

The science editor of The Times therefore sent the newsworthy contents of an email to another newspaper’s columnist — someone who had been openly hostile to St Louis. Rupert Murdoch owns both The Times and The Sun on Sunday and, while each paper is supposed to be editorially independent, it is not unusual to pass on the record quotes to a writer on a sister newspaper.

“I’m very sorry you feel that way,” Whipple wrote, after St Louis expressed her disappointment and outrage that he had passed on her statement to Mensch. “I must confess, I didn’t even think about it at the time. I assumed because it was an on the record statement that you were trying to get up in full on our website there were no issues. If anything I would have assumed you wanted people writing about it to have your statement.”

But the quotes never appeared in Mensch’s newspaper column. Instead, she incorporated the contents from Whipple’s email into a personal blog, on August 3rd, attacking St Louis.

There are many who testify to Hunt’s decency and character. St Louis, as those who’ve worked with her know, is also gentle, kind and supportive. Fortunately, days earlier in July, a number of former students at City University surprised St Louis with a copy of a letter they had sent the Daily Mail.

Dear Editor,

Journalist and educator Connie St Louis has come under attack in print and social media since reporting sexist comments made by Tim Hunt at a conference in Korea on 9 June. She has been harassed by journalists and commentators, who have implied that she lacks credibility as a journalist and [as] leader of the Masters degree in science journalism at City University London. She has even received violent threats. As Connie’s former students, we condemn the treatment she has received in the media, an industry where many of us work. We regret that many of the attacks on Connie have implied she is not suitable to teach journalism. We believe Connie is entirely suitable to direct the science journalism masters at City.

She started the first-ever Masters in science journalism in the UK and oversees a course that taught us the whole range of skills needed to be a modern journalist. She helped us to get internships and she introduced us to people in the industry. Many of us wouldn’t have the jobs we love today without Connie. It is not a concern that Connie hasn’t done much journalism since she began leading the course. She engages with and brings in working journalists to talk to her students, in order to advise and inspire them. She also imbued us with strong journalistic ethics and values. She taught us to stay determined and not give up — and she has shown us how.

Yours faithfully, Kate Adams, Harriet Bailey, Shivali Best, Attilia Burke, Daniel Copley, Lou Del Bello, Fiona Dennehy, Lindsay Dodgson, James Gaines, Misha Gajewski, Cristina Gallardo, Caitlin Hamilton, Beki Hill, Mi Hoang, Philippa Hobbs, Richard Hodson, Greg Jones, Richard Kemeny, Safya Khan-Ruf, Fareha Lasker, Lindsay McKenzie, Rafi Meguerditchian, Sara Naraghi, Ines Nastali, Deborah-Fay Ndlovu, Maria Neiva, Gena Ng, Ryan O’Hare, Louise Ogden, Victoria Parsons, Namal Perera, Kevin Pollock, Thomas Rodgers, Jack Serle, Fathima Simjee, Rasika Sittamparam, Adam Smith, Peter Stojanovic, Keir Stone-Brown, Jocelyn Timperley, Djuke Veldhuis, Rebecca Winkels

The letter was never published.

Hunt’s silence
Hunt is an honorary Fellow of the Society of Biology. Recently I finished a five-year term as Editor of the Society’s magazine, The Biologist. In June — while still editor — I submitted a written request to Hunt for an interview via a Royal Society press officer who would forward the email onto Hunt:

“It would, as with all our interview features,” I wrote, “mostly concentrate on his career in biology but there will also be a small component at the end on recent events in Korea — understandably considering its global interest. An interview feature in The Biologist would be an ideal place to hear from him about his career, cancer research and work with women in science — in his own words — as the feature is effectively an edited transcript.”

I have some sympathy for Hunt. I work with Dr Matt Taylor through the European Space Agency and knew his choice of shirts didn’t represent the man. Taylor made a heart felt public apology and successfully moved on, continuing to inspire future scientists, both male and female. His reputation took a temporary dip but recovered successfully. I’m a huge fan. So I wanted to give Hunt a chance to provide some clarity and, hopefully, put an end to the issue. Hunt never replied. I tried again months later via Collins on Twitter. I was informed he was not doing interviews with journalists. Considering his track record, with interviews backfiring, I suspected this might be damage limitation.

What I don’t understand is why a man who promotes women in science has stayed silent when so many women in science or science-related fields have received non-stop abuse during the debate that resulted from his words.

It would have been far more useful if he had engaged with these women, who are not ‘feminazis’ by any measure, instead of hiding behind his wife’s Twitter feed for several months. Or now, since Collins deleted her account, apparently communicating via Mensch. “#TeamHunt and I are working on a collaborative piece,” she tweeted in November.

We only have Mensch’s word for this collaboration, but she does appear to have access to Hunt’s emails. On December 6th Mensch demanded of Professor Geraint Rees, from University College London (where Hunt lost an honorary unpaid position): “hi I’m writing you emailed Hunt saying ‘did you say this, you had better resign’. If it wasn’t you, say so.”

She also tweeted the Guardian readers’ editor, Chris Elliott, on November 30th: “Relates to the email Tim Hunt sent the Guardian from the airport, before Today show.”

On December 7th, Dan Waddell was asked by a Twitter follower if “anyone had asked Tim Hunt what he thinks of Louise and others’ ongoing mission in his name?”

Although not tagged in the Tweet, Mensch replied: “How do you suppose I obtained the @Guardian’s correction?” Or, as Higgins and Waddell prefered to put it: “Spinning a simple clarification in The Guardian is the latest attempt to rewrite history in the ongoing Tim Hunt saga.”

Most intelligent people enjoy debate. The debate produced by Tim Hunt’s words crosses a number of issues, from feminism and sexism to race, libertarianism and privilege. But tactics employed by Mensch and others are silencing opposing voices and, while defending Hunt, she continues to insult scientists and journalists and anyone else who has an opinion contrary to hers.

Recently she called the astrophysicist Dr Katherine Mack “a fucking moron” and told Dr Marianne Baker, whose PhD was in cancer research, “fuck off with your lies”, simply because they discussed the issue on Twitter.

Anyone who has read Mensch’s timeline, before she deletes her tweets of course, will know this is the tip of the iceberg. Lately, she has taken to hounding the cell biologist and writer Jennifer Rohn, calling her a hypocrite, simply because her novels are set in the lab and one character cried.

Hunt knows Rohn. He has also heard from enough women during his talk circuit about how difficult it can be working in science. Why hasn’t he engaged with this subject now that it is in the public eye? It would allow people to see the real Hunt. The Hunt we are told cares deeply about women in science.

I also believe some public words from him and an open discussion could put an end to the current sport of targeting women online on this issue instead of it being prolonged by well meaning supporters and those who, quite simply, seem to revel in being nasty.

The wood from the trees

Deciphering all the twists and the turns and the fact from fiction has been difficult. There are far too many other nitpicking points about the whole affair and I can’t deal with them all here. But the most vocal rabble-rousers, often for personal publicity or self-promotion, have been particularly harsh against women. Even when Dan Waddell and Paula Higgins publish joint articles, Higgins receives the most abuse.

I am full of admiration at the months of unpaid research that Waddell and Higgins have put into unraveling the facts about this affair. They have investigated the issue with a rigour that has put many full time professional science journalists employed by newspapers and other media, to shame.

Apart from one blog shortly after the event, my workload has restricted my involvement to Twitter. My timeline, unlike some, is there for all to see. Several people have told me I have been one of the few sane and reasoned voices out there.

Even so, engaging with people about Hunt has brought online insults, abuse, a smear campaign, some outrageous and libelous accusations but also — thankfully — an unexpected positive as well. Men and women, mostly scientists, academics and journalists who have deplored the tactics of Hunt’s supporters and want to see a way forward, have contacted me with kind words of support. I have made new contacts with those who recognise there’s a problem with how women are treated online and within science (and journalism).

Schrodinger’s Hunt

Right from the start, I’ve defended St Louis from personal abuse unrelated to the key issue or corrected facts that I’ve known or believed to be incorrect.

Someone at the conference told me months ago, for instance, that Hunt had been at the back of a room during a panel Q&A at the end of a science and sexism session on June 9th, the day after the lunch. A journalist questioned the panel about Hunt’s words and, although reportedly present, Hunt did not respond or take part in the discussion. Others had also confirmed his appearance

The incident came up on Twitter. Collins corrected me, pointing out via a Tweet that Hunt was speaking in a parallel session. She checked with her husband and reported that Hunt definitely wasn’t at the science and sexism Q&A and joked, “perhaps it was another elderly white male”.

Like many, I was taken aback by how Collins conducted herself on Twitter. My interaction with her has always been cordial, as my timeline shows, but some of her responses, tweets and retweets have been questionable, to put it mildly. At least on this occasion her sense of humour was intact.

The disparity in accounts was ridiculous. So I emailed a number of people present in the room double checking, slightly embarrassed to be honest, if they had physically seen Hunt with their own eyes. I guaranteed anonymity since many people are no longer willing to engage in the issue for fear of online retribution.

It took a while but eventually six people responded. Four said they hadn’t physically seen Hunt but they’d heard he was there. It was beginning to sound like Chinese whispers.

Deborah Blum, who was on the panel, was among those saying that she hadn’t seen him, although one of her Tweets had implied he was there. To her credit, she went on the record via Twitter shortly after I informed her it wasn’t Hunt. “I did think he was there,” she told me, “in part because there was so much discussion about it by people who were at the back of the room.”

Journalism professor Charles Seife, from New York University, put the question to the panel and, like Blum, is happy to go on the record about this. He didn’t see Hunt with his own eyes but told me that the person next to him mentioned Hunt was at the back of the room when Seife asked his question. I asked him to double check and a week later got a response. “The journalist sitting next to me got it secondhand.”

I requested direct confirmation from the European Research Council (ERC), who hosted Hunt’s session on June 9th, and both emailed and left a voicemail for the best candidate for a possible case of mistaken identity — the Wall Street Journal’s Ron Winslow. Bizarrely, I was attacked on Twitter for not wanting to publish a blog until after I’d collected the facts.

The ERC confirmed that Tim Hunt opened the session and stayed until the end of it, “which happened at 17:30 at the earliest”. In other words, all of those journalists in the room who ‘saw’ Hunt in the room, including the eye witnesses and those who discussed it afterwards, were mistaken.

I tweeted my findings and re-contacted people to let them know they were wrong.

Some weren’t as surprised as I was, dismissing the finding as it was not pertinent to the main issue from the day before. But I feel it was important because the apparent disinterest a day after the lunch from the man people thought was Hunt, may have affected their judgment of him further. Also, if a roomful of journalists can’t identify someone correctly at the back of the room, no wonder people question the accuracy of the original reporting.

Ron Winslow did not respond to me, or to others about this matter, so I can’t confirm the identity of the man during the science and sexism session. But one thing is sure: unless there’s another unforeseen twist, it wasn’t Hunt.

An inconvenient truth

All journalists should be free to report the facts — no matter how inconvenient they may be. Hunt’s unscripted and thoughtless words dismayed many women in science. If his comments hadn’t been in front of journalists, it would have simply passed the world by.

But that is one of the reasons Hunt’s words mattered and resonated with so many women. Casual sexism, even if unintentional, has a wearing drip, drip, drip effect. The wrong choice of words can undermine women in so many ways.

Whether its ‘calm down dear’ by Prime Minister David Cameron to Labour MP Angela Eagle during a Commons debate in 2011, or the current US presidential candidate, Donald Trump, saying no one would vote for Carly Fiorina because: “Look at that face. Would anyone vote for that?”

Having heard and viewed Hunt speak online, it’s easy to imagine him being unintentionally inappropriate. I can also see from those who know and have defended him that he — like St Louis — is a decent human being. Both are reported as kind and encouraging, above and beyond the call of duty, to people in their appropriate disciplines.

But Hunt must take responsibility for how this all began. They were his words. He may have apologised but even the apologies are being argued over in terms of what he did or didn’t mean. Later reports, via Collins’s Twitter feed, said he didn’t really know what he was apologising for and that his memory of that period only fully returned relatively recently. It is a mess.

However, if ‘Team Hunt’ believes that Mensch will improve matters, they should seriously rethink this association. Rightly or wrongly, it implies complicit support for her methods, which involve regularly attacking people online, usually with foul language or outrageous accusations. And I’ve not even touched on the fallout for women from Gamergate references.

It will not convince people that Hunt cares about women in science. It will certainly not lead to closure.

Changes

The debate continues over what can be done to improve things, and that includes the problems of sexism in science. I have not always agreed with Professor Athene Donald about how this story played out, but she is right in that something positive should come from this. We all need to move on.

Times change. People are unlikely to bring up childcare during interviews nowadays and Hunt’s verbal mistake does not change his scientific achievements. It would be spectacularly unfair if he were to be defined by a few words in South Korea for the rest of his life.

Ironically, the story would have disappeared by now if many of Hunt’s supporters hadn’t tried to defend him by trying to ruin people’s reputations or attack those who were either offended by his words or reported them. Online pro-Hunt trolls are silencing women with abuse, while at the same time screaming that Hunt supports women.

Both Hunt and St Louis are not perfect. None of us are. But despite St Louis’ flaws, she got the main story right and it was extraordinarily brave of her, as a black woman, to call out a white male Nobel Prize winner for his remarks.

Only one in seven people working in science, technology, engineering and maths is female. For progress to continue, those who have the courage to highlight any issues may well step on a few more toes. It will hurt those on the receiving end but the intention should never be to break bones.

This was not, as some believe, a conspiracy of increasingly complex international proportions. It simply showed how even a Nobel Prize winner, who was present to showcase the work of two female researchers, can unintentionally demean women with a few thoughtless words.

As a result of the publicity, people are now more aware about the damaging effect of language. It has resulted in conference sessions across the world to discuss the impact of words within science and beyond alongside more serious issues, such as what is or isn’t acceptable physical contact in the work place, highlighted by the recent resignation of astronomer Geoff Marcy for sexual harassment.

This is not a war of the sexes. Aiming for more equality is a path that men and women from any part of the world, straight or gay, should walk down together. Hand in hand.

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Addendum (7th January 2015)

There is a link to the audio interview mentioned at the top of the piece so that people can hear it for themselves. The anecdote I referred to is from 15'20" onwards. Although best listened to rather than read, here is a transcription of the relevant section leading up to that point.

HUNT: … I loved it especially the physiology because we did lots of experiments on ourselves as well as on those rabbits, which we certainly shouldn’t really talk about. [LAUGHS]
 
HIGHFIELD: So any particular sort of painful memories of burning yourself or?
 
HUNT: Well we did sort of have to test ourselves, our pain thresholds, which is not a very easy thing to do, erm, and there were amazing experiments with people. If you breathe into a paper bag with some sodium hydroxide in it so the CO2 is absorbed you just pass out [LAUGHS] There were these people passing out. They were told to do mental arithmetic and would pass out.
 
HIGHFIELD: Was this a cheap replacement for alcohol?
 
HUNT: [LAUGHS] No, no, no. We did that too you know. One member of the class would have to drink a pint and then he’d have to piss out or you know, measure, find out how long it took to get into his blood and stuff. It was really terrific.

[HIGHFIELD LAUGHS]

HUNT: Again anyone who says you can do this with CD Roms or TV just doesn’t … I mean the most…I’m going to tell you another terrible animal story now.

HIGHFIELD: OK.

HUNT: Really this is going to be sh-. There’s going to be a gasp. So… [HUNT GIVES MILD LAUGH] The physiology course was also very good. So the erm… the demonstrator, the lecturer would stick a needle in his arm, which had a little electrode in it, and then he’d do that and the loudspeaker would go BRRRR. And then he’d relax again and it would go off because you know, and that was pretty impressive. CHONK BRRRR. [HUNT LAUGHS FOR 2 SECONDS]

So one day we came in into this big lecture room like this and there’s a cat with a ruff round its neck on the front desk. And the guy says — he was a rather sadistic New Zealander. [ADOPTS NEW ZEALAND ACCENT] Ladies and gentlemen, he said, I’d like to assure you that this cat is dead. He pulls the head off the cat! [HUNT MIMICS SHARP INTAKE OF BREATH AND LAUGHS FOR 3 SECONDS] And he then proceeds to stimulate the brain stem of the cat, which then sort of, you know, arches its back and hisses and does everything that a cat would do. It’s an absolutely staggering demonstration of the autonomic nervous system. Never, never forget that. Never forget that.

HIGHFIELD: He could have used a frog’s leg or one of the classic, you know, galvanic…

HUNT: [INTERUPTS] Ahhh that’s not the same. The frogs don’t arch their backs and you know, gosh, the way the cats do.

HIGHFIELD: So wh- where- at, at Cambridge … [AFTER SLIGHT STUMBLES HIGHFIELD LAUGHS, HUNT JOINS IN] Before we get any more blood curdling anecdotes….wh, where, where …so you did your doctorate there as well I take it?

INTERVIEW CONTINUES…