Saving Tim Hunt
The campaign to exonerate Tim Hunt for his sexist remarks in Seoul is built on myths, misinformation, and spin.
By Dan Waddell and Paula Higgins
‘Day by day and almost minute by minute the past was brought up to date . . . . All history was a palimpsest, scraped clean and reinscribed as often as was necessary.’ George Orwell, 1984
Some Nobel Laureates seem to share a penchant for igniting public controversy with inappropriate and offensive remarks. James Watson told the New York Times in 2007 that the intelligence of Africans was inferior to that of caucasians. V. S. Naipaul boasted to the Guardian in 2011 that no woman writer, Jane Austen included, could match him. In the pre-Twitter era, Watson apologised “unreservedly” and resigned as Chancellor and member of the board of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in Long Island. Naipaul endured a brief Twitter storm along with media criticism of his flagrant sexism. A week later, the storm had abated, leaving some to wonder if he had been given a pass.
Given such precedents, the tale of Tim Hunt’s lunch appearance at the World Conference of Science Journalists (WCSJ 2015) in Seoul on 8 June should have been short-lived: Yet another eminent Nobel laureate said something stupid that offended much of his audience; his words were reported accurately; he resigned from a few of his numerous honorary positions, and apologised for what he said. Surely, the world then moved on?
Except it didn’t. Instead, the story spawned a media frenzy that has polarised the Twittersphere and continues to rage nearly five months later. The Tim Hunt saga has become the gift that keeps on giving; the story that refuses to die.
When the initial report of Hunt’s words reached Twitter on 8 June, it predictably unleashed a storm of feminist denunciations. An avalanche of tweets, blogs, and news articles condemned Hunt’s comments as sexist, while mischievous female scientists, bedecked in outlandish lab gear, poked fun at the absurdity of his comments under the #distractinglysexy hashtag. Neuroscientist Professor Uta Frith, speaking to The Times, called it a ‘Watson moment:’ ‘We’re all upset by Tim Hunt’s chauvinist remarks,’ she said on Twitter, before offering him diversity training.’
On 10 June Hunt appeared on the BBC Radio 4 Today Programme. He apologised for offending anyone with his comments, but said ‘I did mean the part about having trouble with girls.’
No sooner had the storm begun to abate then the backlash began, led by Sir Tim himself, together with his wife Professor Mary Collins. They fought back in an ‘exclusive interview’ in The Observer on 13 June with claims of being ‘hung out to dry’ and mistreated by University College of London who had ‘forced’ Hunt’s resignation from an Honorary Professorship ‘before hearing his side of the story.’ This notwithstanding having acknowledged that he had ‘stood up and went mad,’ made ‘stupid and ill-judged’, and ‘inexcusable’ comments. A second Observer article on the same day, quoted his apology.
In the next few days, a phalanx of notable scientists and politicians started lining up in Hunt’s defence: London mayor Boris Johnson (14 June), Professor Brian Cox (16 June), Professor Athene Donald (16 June) and Richard Dawkins (19 June). On 20 June, The Times added to the ranks Eight Nobel scientists who condemned the ‘lynch mob’ against Hunt.
Meanwhile, a Twitter brigade, led by former Tory-MP-turned-polemicist and columnist at The Sun, Louise Mensch, launched a crusade to exculpate Hunt and to accuse the journalists who reported the story of deliberately and maliciously destroying his reputation, as if a powerful man of standing could not be held accountable for his own actions and their consequences, and others must be blamed.
Mensch has tweeted relentlessly and written a number blogs on the affair, harnessing the power of her vocal and persistent followers to support her message. The Times newspaper printed a series of stories defending Hunt that have skewed the story in his defence. The Daily Mail published several articles attacking Connie St Louis who, in the readers’ comments below, was subjected to vicious and often racist character assassination and professional defamation.
Based on evidence culled from multiple new and previously overlooked sources, this article proposes to expose and correct the exculpatory myths, misrepresentations, and spin that continue to fuel the campaign to save Tim Hunt.
Three journalists — Connie St Louis, a journalism lecturer at City University, Deborah Blum, Pulitzer-prize-winning author and Director of Knight Science Journalism at MIT, and Ivan Oransky, an experienced US medical journalist who co-founded the website Retraction Watch — all agreed, after hearing Hunt’s toast at a lunch sponsored by the Korea’s Federation of Women’s Science and Technology (KOFWST), that they should report his shocking remarks.
Immediately after the lunch, the three journalists compared their recollections of what was said to make sure they got it right. Much has been made of this but it is standard journalistic practice to come together to ensure as accurate a record as possible. They have received harsh criticism for not taking notes; but this was an invitation-only lunch, not a press conference, on the opening day of the Conference.
They took the decision for St Louis to tweet the comments because she, like Hunt, was British. Blum and Oransky weren’t to realise that St Louis, by accident of shared nationality, would end up the scapegoat and target of venomous attacks when the furore erupted.
People also seem determined to insinuate that something is untoward because St Louis, Blum and Oransky know each other. Louise Mensch and a chorus of acolytes, drawn from her 95,000 Twitter followers, have accused them of dishonesty, malice, and collusion to destroy Hunt’s reputation.
But most specialist journalists, like academics in various disciplinary specialisms, all know each other. They regularly attend the same conferences and press events. That these three were acquaintances is of little relevance.
Even more significantly, it has further been claimed that these three were the only ones present who did not get the joke or were embarrassed and offended.
Our research shows this is simply untrue. Besides Blum and Oransky, both of whom confirmed the accuracy of St Louis’s account under her Tweet, at least three other conference delegates — all independent of the decision to report — tweeted confirmation of St Louis’s account while still in Seoul.
The first to corroborate was Dr Scott Watkins, an Australian research scientist and business developer. He posted under St Louis’s tweet on 8 June, the day of the lunch:
Charles Seife, an American professor of journalism at NYU posted on 10 June, also from Seoul:
Still another eyewitness, Australian journalist and broadcaster Leigh Dayton, has never been mentioned by anyone reporting on the incident to date, and notwithstanding that her comment appears in direct response to St Louis’s tweet:
(There is conflicting evidence regarding Dayton’s comment that Hunt made similar remarks in his lecture that morning. Sadly no full audio or video seems to be available which might confirm or deny it.)
We followed up with all three. Dr Scott Watkins told us:
‘I don’t think the comments were appropriate. . . I do believe that Sir Tim probably did intend to joke and he doesn’t appear to be a terrible or sexist person. However, I think he missed the mark by quite a long way. He was in a position of power and showed poor judgement.’
We asked Leigh Dayton to describe the reaction in the room after the comments were made. She wrote:
‘The room went silent and I confess I hissed in a wry manner. I was sitting beside a male academic from Britain who said something to the effect of, “I never thought I’d hear anything like that again.’
We asked if she agreed with the accuracy of Connie St Louis’s report. Her response: ‘Absolutely.’
We asked if she thought Hunt intended the remarks as a joke:
‘I found Hunt’s comments to be badly judged remarks from someone who grew up professionally in an old-fashioned, hierarchical, male-dominated world. The fact that he claims it was a joke suggests he’s completely out of touch with the 21st century.’
Charles Seife, an author, journalist, and Professor at New York University told us:
‘My recollection is slightly different in details from Connie St. Louis’ version, but the essence is the same. I remember it as “the problem with girls in the lab” rather than “my problem with girls.” (I didn’t have any idea about his personal history until after the story broke, and I didn’t get any impression that he was referring to a specific experience.) I remember it as a numbered list: 1) The girls fall in love with the boys, 2) you fall in love with them, and 3) they cry when you criticize them.
My recollection is that the end of the speech was basically more thank-you noises, and he thanked the hosts for listening to a monster like him. There was a small smattering of polite applause. But many people sat stonily and didn’t applaud — I, for one, took the affirmative decision not to applaud.’
In addition to these initial six corroborating eyewitnesses, a large number of other respected, credible people were present and have gone on the record to back St Louis’ account.
We asked Valeria Román a science journalist from Argentina, about her personal reaction to Hunt’s comments. She said:
‘I did not applaud him. He surprised me.’
‘Other female journalists did not applaud him.’
As to whether she agreed with the accuracy of St Louis’s report:
‘Yes. She is free to write about his speech. It was sexist.’
Another eyewitness, Finnish journalist Ulla Järvi, Secretary General of The Finnish Association of Science Editors and Journalists, similarly found the comments offensive and sexist.
‘I was embarrassed,’ she said. ‘I thought afterwards: ‘Again, an old fellow tries to be funny, but makes everyone feel ashamed.’
Her assessment of the reaction in the room?
‘Hah (short laugh) in a polite way. That is the reaction we polite ladies usually have when facing chauvinistic jokes.’
This confirms that some did laugh politely; but contrary to what Mensch and others have assumed, this was not necessarily because they found Hunt funny. Some did so out of sheer politeness to a distinguished scientist of international reputation, no matter how foolish he had made himself look and uncomfortable he made them feel. Hunt’s privileged status as a Nobel Laureate shielded him from the criticism and accountability that many a lesser worthy might have been compelled to deal with on the spot.
‘My personal opinion is,that the worst thing in these kind(s) of cases has happened. Sir (Tim) Hunt didn’t apologise. Instead, he started to blame female journalists. Very, very unwise. He said those words in South Korea, in a country where female scientists have an extremely difficult situation in universities. He was in an excellent place and position to give real advice as to how the situation of female scientists could improve in Korean society but did not do so. What a pity!’
Another eyewitness, Federico Kukso, a science journalist from Argentina, told us that those who were listening closely to his comments ‘were in shock’:
‘It was a lunch: people were hungry. Besides, the translation didn’t work very well. Many people in the room didn’t listen to what he had said. And the ones who did were in shock.’
Asked whether he regarded St Louis’s remarks as tweeted to be accurate he said:
‘Yes. What I don’t understand is the “army of trolls” that keep attacking science journalists like Deborah Blum, or Connie St Louis or Thomas Levenson. I don’t get it.’
Kukso raises two points that have yet to be addressed in any written account of the event. First, many at the lunch were hearing Hunt’s remarks via an interpreter — and the system ‘didn’t work very well.’ Second, many people at the lunch ‘didn’t listen to what he said.’ A very good example of one such lunch attendee was Dominique Forget from Canada, who told us:
‘Yes, I was at the lunch. However, I must confess I did not pay much attention to Tim Hunt’s comments, as I was chatting with my neighbour…’
Yet another eyewitness at the lunch was Satu Lipponen from Finland, President of the European Union of Science Journalists Association (EUSJA) and the Managing Editor of Cancer magazine. She has also written about the affair. Because of her physical distance from the speaker, and personal distraction while chatting to a friend, she didn’t hear everything Hunt was saying. But, as she points out, St Louis was sitting near the front by Hunt, where it would have been impolite to talk while he spoke, and therefore would have listened carefully. She added:
‘I sat on the outer ring of tables to chat with my long time colleague from the US. There was cheery but not too loud noise. We politely stopped for a while. I saw Tim Hunt and he gave a very, very short talk. I heard the word “girls” and him explaining his experiences about girls, but not much else. I thought, I would not use the word “girls” in this kind of setting, especially coming from a key-note speaker (sic) and someone training future researchers.
Asked if there was anything else she wished to add, she said:
‘From the ethical point of view: if I had been working and listened carefully, I may have tweeted what Tim Hunt said. If he joked or not is not the issue: his position as a mentor and trainer and his expertise on this issue would have weighed a lot.’
Renata Sanchez, a journalist from Mexico, published an article on the affair on 18 June where she quoted Hunt’s comments about his trouble with girls and segregated labs, adding that it ‘ended with an auditorium in silence and some laughs.’
We asked what her reaction was:
‘I got angry. I can’t understand how this Nobel laureate could say that in a lunch organized by a women science organization!!’
Mexican scientist Rodrigo Pérez Ortega said that he remembers Hunt introducing himself as a ‘chauvinist pig’ and then moving on to discuss his ‘trouble with girls.’
‘I was completely baffled because I could not believe a top scientist would say that IN 2015, IN a Science Journalism Conference, IN a lunch sponsored by the KOFWST. But he did. I would guess my reaction then, and also now, would be of sheer disappointment, being a scientist myself.
‘I would like to believe the comments were a joke, but honestly, in my opinion, they weren’t. Renata (Sanchez) and I did discuss it afterwards and agreed that although it was meant to be a joke (I want to believe), it was bad taste to say it in that lunch specifically.’
Was St Louis report accurate? ‘Yes! 100% yes!’
‘At that very occasion his comments were really inappropriate, not funny at all and made us feel embarrassed sitting there.’
All these men and women were from different countries and work for different publications and broadcast outlets. Some will have known each other. Others will have met at the conference for first time.
But one thing is clear: this was not an international conspiracy of science journalists.
The KOFWST and Other Korean Scientists in Attendance
A number of prominent Korean female scientists were also present. Among them was Professor Hee Young Paik, President of the Korea Federation of Women’s Science and Technology Associations (KOFWST) who sponsored the lunch, and said a few words herself before Hunt. Her name appeared on the cover letter of a statement issued by KOFWST on 16 June, demanding that Hunt apologise:
Dear Sir Tim Hunt,
We, the members of the Korea Federation of Women’s Science and Technology Associations (KOFWST), the sponsoring organization of the WCSJ luncheon on June 8, 2015, have decided to request your official acknowledgement and apology for the remarks made at the luncheon. Attached, please find, our call for apology. We hope to get your response within 24 hours [emboldened in original]. Your prompt and sincere apology is the least we can ask for any future collaboration with Korean scientists.
Hee Young Paik, President
This is an excerpt from the demand for apology:
‘As women scientists we were deeply shocked and saddened by these remarks, but we are comforted by the widespread angered response from international social and news media: we are not alone in seeing these comments as sexist and damaging to science. . . . Although Dr. Hunt is a senior and highly accomplished scientist in his field who has closely collaborated with Korean scientists in the past, his comments have caused great concern and regret in Korea. They show that old prejudices are still well embedded in science cultures. On behalf of Korean female scientists, and all Koreans, we wish to express our great disappointment that these remarks were made at the event hosted by KOFWST.’
Hunt responded with a ‘heartfelt’ apology, albeit one that implicitly blamed the audience for their erroneous ‘interpretation’ and failure to understand his ‘self-deprecating joke’:
‘I am extremely sorry for the remarks made during the recent “Women in science” lunch at the WCSJ in Seoul, Korea. I accept that my attempts at a self-deprecating joke were ill-judged and not in the least bit funny. I am mortified to have upset my hosts, which was the very last thing I intended. I also fully accept that the sentiments as interpreted have no place in modern science and deeply apologize to all those good friends who fear I have undermined their efforts to put these stereotypes behind us.’
Though this was not released widely until 16 June, Hunt had written his apology by 12 June, because excerpts from it ran in The Observer of 14 June, published online the evening before. The author of that article, Robin McKie, has confirmed it was supplied to him by Hunt, not KOFWST.
Initially, Hunt’s champions claimed that the statement was meaningless because no one knew if Hee Young Paik had attended the lunch. She did attend, as she confirmed to us in an email in which she also clarified how the letter to Hunt came about:
‘I can confirm I was at the lunch with some members of KOFWST. Our letter to Sir Tim Hunt was based on discussions among KOFWST members, some of whom were also at the lunch, who shared the opinion that the sufferings of women scientists should not be the subject of jokes in any context. We therefore requested that Tim Hunt acknowledge his mistakes and make an apology, which he immediately did following our communication.’
In her tweets and blogs, Louise Mensch has accused Blum and other Western journalists of coercing the Korean women into writing the letter. She has gone so far as to make the baseless allegation that Blum wrote the apology demand in English before it was translated into Korean. This does Paik a grave insult: she is a Professor at Seoul University, and a successful scientist who also served for two years as the Minister of Gender Equity of South Korea. Hunt certainly believed the communication to be genuine; he sent an apology immediately after receiving it.
Paik’s email testimony disposes of the notion that KOFWST were pressured by a small group of science journalists. The decision to demand an apology came about, as she states, after discussions among their members, ‘some of whom were also at the lunch.’ The letter was issued on behalf of KOFWST’s membership (which numbered 61,000 female scientists from 54 organizations as of 15 May 2015), ‘Korean female scientists, and all Koreans.’
The KOFWST members in attendance besides Paik, as presidential signatory, are not named. While they cannot be neatly quantified, they can hardly be discounted. KOFWST had invested considerable funding as the official sponsor of the luncheon (The WCSJ 2015 sponsorship prospectus sets the price for a luncheon at $15,000) and it is reasonable to assume that a good number of their own members attended.
Another distinguished Korean female scientist in attendance at the lunch has gone almost unnoticed until now: Professor Heisook Lee, President of Korea’s Center for Women in Science, Engineering and Technology (WISET), whose members and their contribution to science Hunt was supposed to be toasting. She is reported as saying:
‘By making these comments, Sir Tim Hunt has overlooked the talents of girls and women in science, but also the fact that sex and gender bias in research is costly and harmful. Sir Hunt’s speech shows that some eminent scientists like him have never been exposed to issues on gender diversity or gendered innovations at all. These discussions should reach all scientists, if not, we risk losing female science talents, and risk having imperfect research outcomes that do not consider both genders.’
In contrast to all these reporters and scientists, Louise Mensch initially named five dissenting eyewitnesses at the lunch who challenged St Louis’s version of events: Russian journalist Natalia Demina, Timothy Dimacali and Shai Panela from the Philippines, Shiow Chin Tan, from Malaysia, and Spanish journalist Pere Estupinyà. She quoted all five in her blog of 7 July, “The Tim Hunt Reporting Was False. Royal Society, Please Give Him Due Process.”
Mensch heralded Shai Panela as the only eyewitness to tweet from the lunch in Seoul on 8 June that Hunt acknowledged women science journalists, but omitted her later tweet stating ‘at least he‘s honest that he was known for being sexist.’ She was later obliged to remove Panela when she said: ‘For the record, I believe that sexism exists in science. Tim Hunt’s reckless remarks triggered the start of the discussions about it.’
Shiow Chin Tan tweeted from Seoul, on 9 June: ‘Sorry to butt in, but I was there, and IMO, he was joking.’ Tan added details in three further tweets not recorded by Mensch:
‘He did add that if single-sex labs were implemented, men would be the worst off for it. And both men and women were to blame for the falling in love bit. But I suppose this is one of those matters of perception.’
To our knowledge, Tan is the only eyewitness who mentioned ‘men would be the worst off for it’. Contrary to claims by Jonathan Foreman in his piece in Commentary magazine that she had asked Hunt about it afterwards, Tan confirmed to us that Hunt had made the comment during his lunch toast.
In an email originally to Natalia Demina, forwarded on to Louise Mensch (Tan passed the text to us, too), she wrote:
‘I remembered, more or less, what Tim Hunt said. He started with saying he was a male chauvinist pig, and then went into the whole “Here’s my problem with girls….” including the bit about falling in love in the lab and girls then crying if they are criticised, as well as the bit about separating the genders in the lab, which Connie St Louis from City University originally posted.’
She believes that Hunt’s comments were said in a light-hearted and joking manner ‘and (he) certainly did not mean them seriously at all.’
We also asked if she believed that St Louis’ report was accurate. She replied:
‘I thought that Ms St Louis was literally accurate in her quotes of Sir Tim, but she certainly failed to include his subsequent comments that provide a different context to what she reported him as saying. That, I felt, was wrong, and definitely contributed to the controversy.’
Demina was next to tweet, on 10 June: ‘Everybody who heard T.Hunt’s speech yesterday [sic: 2 days ago] understood that he was joking. For those who not: guys, there is u sense of humour?’
Pere Estupinyà told us that Mensch had quoted him correctly in her blog but had ‘skipped his references to how inappropriate the joke was.’ He went on to say:
‘Tim Hunt indeed made sexist comments, but in an humorist tone. He was clearly inappropriate and sexist in a very old-fashion way.’
On his Facebook page, Dimacali (misnamed ‘Dincali’ in Mensch’s blog) also criticized Hunt’s comments as ‘misinformed and tactless’ (11 June), and added ‘good for him that he took responsibility for the comment.’
On 18 June, he wrote:
‘As I keep telling people, he said it in a very lighthearted manner with no outward hint of malice, condescension, or derision. I’m not defending him, mind you; what he said was wrong and definitely deserved to be called out (our emphasis). But it was, more than anything else, a joke gone horribly wrong.
The entire thread of 18 June, on which this comment featured, disappeared from the public timeline on his Facebook page on or about 1 November. Here is our screenshot of his comments:
The same comment appears in Mensch’s blog of 7 July, but, as with Estupinyà, shorn of the damning comments: ‘I’m not defending him, mind you; what he said was wrong and definitely deserved to be called out’:
Mensch has in fact conflated two separate comments of Dimacali into one, deleting the unfavourable bits. Here is the second:
Thus, of Mensch’s initial five eyewitnesses, only two — Natalia Demina and Shiow Chin Tan — found Hunt’s comments innocuous and inoffensive. And one of them admitted she hadn’t paid attention. In her blog, Mensch passes over in silence Demina’s comment: ‘I didn’t even pay much notice at what he said’, as well as her remark to Sergei Dobynin of Svoboda: ‘There were also those who did not perceive it as innocent, but all more or less agreed on the fact that Hunt made an unfortunate joke at an unfortunate moment — at a lunch which actually was devoted to women in science.’
Not all eyewitnesses we spoke to spared St Louis from criticism. Estupinyà said ‘the whole thing was an absurd exaggeration.’ Satu Lipponen felt the tweet went too far:
‘Most of this tweet is true but Connie exaggerates, the lunch was not “utterly ruined”… I think the content was fairly accurate but the tone of her tweet too aggressive to describe what went on.’
While many people there did have their lunch ruined by Hunt’s remarks, some did not, either a) because they were not offended or b) didn’t hear properly — whether owing to faulty translation, linguistic barriers, distance from the speaker, or sheer distraction or inattention. To assert, as she did in a later BBC interview — though not in her tweet as has been suggested — that the audience sat in ‘deathly silence’ at the end was clearly a subjective view based on her proximity to Hunt at the front of the room. Many did refuse to clap and some laughed politely; but the silence was not universal.
Nevertheless, the totality of the evidence from eyewitnesses supports the account of St Louis, Blum, and Oransky as tweeted by St Louis.
The Reaction in Seoul
As soon as the lunch was over, the conference was abuzz with news of Hunt’s comments. Argentinian journalist Javier Cruz told us:
‘As soon as it happened, the Tim Hunt affair basically hijacked most of the rest of the Conference in terms of dominating the conversation during coffee breaks and bus shuttles to and from the venue.’
Mohammed Yahia, from Cairo, the executive editor of Nature in the Middle East, tweeted a similar comment from Seoul, two hours prior to the airing of BBC Radio4 Today Show’s interview with Hunt:
‘Everyone I meet today is talking about Tim Hunt’s sexist remarks at #WCSJ2015 yesterday. I missed that session but am still in shock at him!’
Yahia drew attention to an earlier Tweet from Ginger Pinholster, of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), announcing the withdrawal of an invitation for Hunt to speak on a webinar about persevering in science:
‘Tim Hunt will not take part in the webinar. The invitation has been withdrawn.’
We asked Pinholster how this decision came about. She told us:
‘On June 9, we became aware, initially via Twitter, of his remarks at the World Conference of Science Journalists. An e-mail was sent the same day to Dr. Hunt, withdrawing the invitation. The reason given to him was that his remarks would distract from the purpose of the event, which was to encourage early-career scientists and engineers to persevere. Science and its publisher AAAS have a lengthy history of support for women in science. Dr. Hunt responded on June 10 to say that he understood.’
Laura Helmuth, science and health editor at Slate magazine, gave us a similar report:
‘Shortly after the lunch, multiple journalists who had been in the room told me about Tim Hunt’s statements. They spoke to me independently, each of them using the same language in quoting Hunt’ she said. ‘The journalists who recounted his statements to me are some of the most careful, reliable, precise, experienced reporters in all of science writing. They didn’t make it up or exaggerate or misrepresent what happened.’
Deborah Blum’s Interview with Hunt
Given this reaction, Deborah Blum believed she should offer Hunt a chance to explain what he meant. She saw him at breakfast on 9 June, the morning after, and opened by saying “So, your comments have caused quite a stir,” which Hunt acknowledged.
She then asked him to clarify his comments and reported their conversation in her Storify of 14 June and a Daily Beast article of 16 June. By this time, Hunt had been engaged in “just a joke” damage control and had “turn[ed] the issue from the main point — the status of women in science — to a focus on sympathy for himself.”
Blum maintains that on 9 June Hunt did not explain his comments as a joke, but as an attempt to be honest, the same sentiment he would express to the BBC the next day.
Because Hunt used the possessive pronoun ‘my trouble with girls’ rather than ‘the’ (though Charles Seife and others dispute this), and later mentioned in his BBC Radio 4 interview ‘falling in love in the lab’, it has been claimed that he was referring specifically and exclusively to his own turbulent love life. He met his current wife, Mary Collins, in the laboratory. This ‘joke’, Mensch insists, was entirely at his own expense, and has nothing at all to do with his general views of women in science.
Journalist Kathryn O’ Hara, (who took the photograph used in the Storify) witnessed Blum’s breakfast exchange with Hunt and has verified her account. She told us:
‘There was no mention of his meeting his wife in the lab. He did say much the same thing to Deb as he did in this [BBC] interview except for the “really really sorry” part. I did get the impression he stood by what he had said.
‘Was he speaking from his own experience or for a more general view of women in the lab? I would say it was both, one informing the other. But he did not say anything about his wife period…not that he was referring to her, or anything at all about this experience so I can only assume he was speaking about women or “girls” in general. He did talk about men not taking it personally when you are critical of their research results, whereas women cried and that was upsetting.
‘Deb asked him about men crying and he didn’t have a response to that.’
Hunt also told Blum that she would be ok as she didn’t seem to be the ‘crying kind’.
Not a single eyewitness we spoke to was aware of Hunt’s love life and only one thought he was referring to his own romantic imbroglios. Tan Shiow Chin told us:
‘I also got the impression that he was speaking from personal experience that had left an impact on him, although as an acquaintance observed, that does not mean he should have assumed it applied in general.’
In our view, based on the evidence, the idea he was telling a self-deprecating joke solely about his emotional entanglements in the lab to a roomful of strangers simply doesn’t wash.
Following St Louis’ tweet on 8 June, the news of Hunt’s comments started to break hours later.
The Daily Beast and Buzzfeed were the first to report, as word filtered out from Seoul to the world at large. BBC radio producer Tom Feilden set about trying to track down Hunt, as did The Times and other news organisations. The Times spoke to St Louis and obtained some fresh quotes.
They were horrified, really horrified. Some people laughed nervously. Some just sat there and put their head in their hands. It was so awful, and worse he was British.
This story ran in the first edition of The Times of 10 June. Feilden acquired a jpeg or pdf of this late in the evening of the 9th (GMT) and emailed it to Hunt, who had finished his business at WCSJ. He had a enjoyed a night’s sleep and was at Seoul airport about to board the 10.35 a.m. British Airways flight back to London when they made contact.
Mensch and others have claimed that when Hunt gave his interview to the BBC he had no idea of the commotion or fuss his comments had created. This fails to square with Blum’s report of their conversation the day before, confirmed by O’Hara, the previously cited testimony of Cruz, Helmuth, and Yahia, and the testimony of AAAS’s Ginger Pinholster who sent her email to Hunt on 9 June.
Others have said he didn’t know what reports the BBC were referring to when they questioned him about it (whose accuracy he later confirmed). The Times reported that Hunt spoke of ‘the benefit of single-sex laboratories’ and reported his words to the lunch guests as follows:
‘Let me tell you about my trouble with girls.’ He added: ‘Three things happen when they are in the lab: you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticise them they cry.’
The Times quote matches verbatim what St Louis tweeted on 8 June. When Hunt spoke on his mobile phone with Feilden at 1.30 am, 10 June, London time, 9.30 a.m. in Seoul, he confirmed that ‘what I said was quite accurately reported.’ For reasons unknown, Hunt denied it was an interview and told the Observer that he left a voice message. According to the article’s author, Robin McKie, Hunt was ‘insistent’ on this point. When we asked Hunt for clarification, he replied: ‘Sorry, no comment.’
The interview was recorded, edited, and aired some five hours later. In that interview, edited for length but not in a way that changed the sense of what he said, Hunt accepted his comments had been accurately reported, that he was merely being honest and apologised for what he said.
This interview generated a great deal of noise, along with complaints to the BBC (though not, according to the BBC, by Hunt himself). Louise Mensch claimed the BBC ‘put words in Hunt’s mouth’ and denounced them on Twitter (here, here, here, here, here — all have since been deleted), in her blog Unfashionista, and in her article of Sunday 5 July in The Sun. She went so far as to accuse the BBC of lying. In the Times Higher Education she claimed BBC “spliced and distorted his words and misquoted, misreported, and mischaracterized (as I shall shortly report).”
We have critiqued Mensch’s selective editing of the BBC’s comments in our blogpost of 9 July 2015 Don’t Menschn the BBC.
Contrary to everything asserted until now, and as Mensch herself has apparently failed to verify, there were four, not two, different BBCR4 broadcast segments that report Hunt’s remarks. The times and approximate original tape cues of each are given below:
Segment 1: 0.1.08 to 0.1.30 (6.08 am), introduced by Justin Webb
Segment 2: 1.15.46 to 1.16.58 (7.15 am), introduced by Sarah Montague
Segment 3: 2.08.59 to 2.09.45 (8.08 am), introduced by Justin Webb
Segment 4: 2.21.32 to 2.23.16 (8.21 am), introduced by Sarah Montague
Segment 1, broadcast at 6.08 am, featured in the opening ‘Highlights’ segment of the Today Show:
Sir Tim Hunt: I mean I’m really really sorry that I caused any offence — that’s awful. I certainly didn’t mean — I just meant to be honest, actually.
Justin Webb [announcer]: An apology from Sir Tim Hunt who is a Nobel Prize winning biochemist has caused a storm on social media after telling a conference that women are for loving, not for science.
Segment 1 consists only in a two-sentence statement featuring Hunt’s ‘apology’. As we shall see, exactly the same two-sentence statement appears at the ends of both Segments 2 and 4 below.
Segment 2, broadcast at 7.15 am:
Sarah Montague [announcer]: There are three problems with having women in the laboratory — according to the Nobel laureate Sir Tim Hunt — you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticise them, they cry. That’s what he told a conference of senior women scientists and journalists in South Korea. And it didn’t go down well terribly well. We caught up with Sir Tim, a few hours ago, as he was about to board a plane back to the UK. He told us his comments had been intended as a joke, but that he stood by some of what he said.
Sir Tim Hunt: I did mean the part about having — having trouble with girls. I mean, it is true that people — I have fallen in love with people in the lab, and that people in the lab have fallen in love with me, and it’s very disruptive to the science. Um, because it’s terribly important that in the lab, people are, sort of, on a level playing field. And I found that, um, you know, these emotional entanglements made life very difficult. I mean, I’m really, really sorry that I caused any offence — that’s awful. I certainly didn’t mean — I just meant to be honest, actually.
As mentioned previously, Hunt’s words ‘I have fallen in love with people in the lab’ have been construed by Mensch to mean that his remarks referred solely to his personal experience. We do know from other reports that Hunt met his current wife, Professor Mary Collins, in the lab. But this is information extrapolated from external sources. It appears nowhere in the interview.
Segment 3, broadcast at 8.08 am derives verbatim from the more extended Segment 4, later broadcast at 8.21 (see below).
Justin Webb [announcer]: The British Nobel Prize winner Sir Tim Hunt has insisted he was joking when he said that women shouldn’t work with men in the laboratory because they fall in love with male colleagues and cry when criticized. Sir Tim, who was awarded the 2001 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine, made the comments to a group of female scientists in South Korea. But he told this Programme he didn’t mean to offend anyone.
Sir Tim Hunt: I came after three women, who very nicely thanked the organisers for the lunch. And I said it was odd that they — they’d asked a man to make any comments. And I’m really sorry that I said what I said — it was a very stupid thing to do, in the presence of all those journalists. And what was intended as a sort of light-hearted, ironic comment apparently was interpreted deadly seriously by my audience.
The last sentence above appears to be the source of all subsequent commentary that his remarks were intended ‘as a joke’, although his exact words were ‘intended as a sort of light-hearted, ironic comment.’
The announcer’s comments from this segment make clear that BBC was indeed aware of Hunt’s alleged ‘single-sex’ laboratory comment and they had asked him about it.
Segment 4, broadcast at 8.21 am, includes the entire verbatim text of Segment 3 above (highlighted in yellow below) and adds still further details:
Sarah Montague [announcer]: There are three problems with having women in the laboratory — according to the Nobel laureate Sir Tim Hunt — you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticise them, they cry. That’s what he told female science journalists at the World Conference of Science in South Korea. When it didn’t go down terribly well, he admitted that he was a “chauvinist pig”. It’s caused a bit of a storm, online. Sir Tim Hunt told us his comments had been intended to be humorous.
Sir Tim Hunt: This was a lunch for women journalists and particularly women scientists and engineers, actually. And I was asked, at short notice, to say a few words afterwards. And I thought it was ironic that I came after three women, who very nicely thanked the organisers for the lunch. And I said it was odd that they — they’d asked a man to make any comments. And I’m really sorry that I said what I said — it was a very stupid thing to do, in the presence of all those journalists. And what was intended as a sort of light-hearted, ironic comment apparently was interpreted deadly seriously by my audience. But what I said was quite accurately reported.
It’s terribly important that you, um, can criticise people’s ideas without criticising them. And if they burst into tears, it means that you tend to hold back from, you know, getting at the absolute truth — I mean, what — science is about nothing except getting at the truth. And anything that gets in the way of that diminishes, in my experience, the science. I mean, I’m really, really sorry that I caused any offence — that’s awful. I certainly didn’t mean — I just meant to be honest, actually.
The most serious of Mensch’s charges concerns the BBC’s alleged ‘splicing’ of Hunt’s comments which, she claims, was done deliberately to distort the ‘true’ meaning (i.e. her imagined interpretation) of the statement. This alleged ‘putting words in his mouth’, according to Mensch, creates a false impression that Hunt is apologizing for his professional views of women in the science laboratory rather than his ‘personal experience’ of ‘falling in love with his wife’. In her blog of 2 July 2015, Mensch wrote:
This broadcast, however, spliced the words “I was only being honest” [sic] away from where Sir Tim actually said them and put them after comments about crying (where women aren’t mentioned) to make it appear “I was just trying to be honest” [sic] referred to his views on women rather than about his own life. A later BBC audio of Sir Tim shows he clearly refers to his own life (as his joke did) and ends with the same words “I was just trying to be honest”[sic] — that is, about himself, not women in science.
[[sic] above = Mensch’s misquotations of the BBC interview]
Mensch further claimed that the BBC’s alleged splicing of this statement, rendered the entire interview untrustworthy. Mensch tweeted aggressively at The Atlantic, The New York Times, and other media outlets warning them that the story had been ‘falsely reported’ and not to rely on the BBC’s misleading edited audio.
Mensch failed to note it was not just the words ‘I just meant to be honest, actually’ that have been repeated in two places. The entire last two sentences from ‘I mean, I’m really really sorry . . . honest actually,’ recur at the ends of both Segments 2 and 4.
These are precisely the same two sentences broadcast in the Segment 1 ‘highlight’ of the Today programme.
In other words, with reference to the conclusions of Segments 2 and 4 with which Mensch takes issue, Hunt didn’t say the same thing twice in two different places. He said the same thing in THREE different places.
Why does this matter?
The accuracy of Hunt’s BBC comments matters a great deal which is precisely why Mensch early on made them the core issue in her campaign. A great deal is at stake with the R4 interview, because these are Sir Tim Hunt’s own words, spoken in his own voice, just two days after the event. And they corroborate the tweeted testimony of Connie St Louis, as confirmed in tweets and other media by Deborah Blum, Charles Seife, Ivan Oransky, Scott Watkins, Leigh Dayton, Ulla Järvi, Valeria Román Federico Kukso, Satu Lipponen, Renata Sanchez, Rodrigo Pérez Ortega, Milica Momcilovic, Hee Young Paik, Heisook Lee, and other scientists and science journalists who participated in the Korea conference and heard Hunt’s comments made at the luncheon.
So was it spliced? Or not?
It was not. Rather, it appears at the end of Segments 2 and 4, and stands alone in Segment 1, because it was a discrete response to an entirely separate question, posed by the BBC producer, asking if Hunt wished to apologise for his comments. The BBC deemed the apology ‘an important editorial fact’ and one of ‘the most important points of the long pre-recorded interview’ and hence wished to ensure that it was heard by their listeners. In a response to Mensch, shared with those who had raised formal complaints about the interview, the BBC responded:
The key part of you your complaint, …relates to the ordering of the phrases in Tim Hunt’s interview, which was pre-recorded and edited prior to transmission. In particular you have stated that the phrase ‘I was only being honest’ had been deliberately removed from its proper context which referred to Tim Hunt’s personal experience only, in particular meeting his own wife in the lab. As I said to you in earlier correspondence, I have reviewed all the material relating to this interview and I can confirm this was not the case.
The phrase appears in isolation in a later section of the raw interview where Tim Hunt is asked by our producer if he would ‘consider apologising for your comments.’ As such it is not clear at all whether it applies to his personal experiences or to a more general point. It is worth saying that the edit of his remarks played on air at 0715 puts his remark in exactly the context that you say Tim Hunt had wished (‘I have fallen in love with people in the lab…I just meant to be honest actually.’) It is only in the 0820 edit that you say the ordering of the phrase gave rise to unfairness. However, my view is that the context of the original phrase is ambiguous anyway, and that the overwhelming motivation of Today staff was not to misrepresent Tim Hunt, but to include his apology in both the clips we broadcast, as an important editorial fact in the story. In both the individual clips broadcast we have made internal edits but not removed remarks out of the chronological sequence in which they arose. That is why I said to you in our initial correspondence that while the audio had been edited, (with the explicit consent of the interviewee), changes were not made to distort the meaning of Tim Hunt’s words, as you allege, rather to reflect the most important points made in a long pre-recorded interview.
In sum: No ‘words were put in’ Sir Tim Hunt’s mouth. The two-sentence apology statement was not ‘spliced’ from one place and added in where it didn’t belong. As the BBC long ago confirmed, his words were not ‘selectively edited to change their meaning.’
The ERC report
On 10 June, the European Research Council (ERC), of whose Scientific Council Tim Hunt was a member, published a press release from their President (unnamed thereon: he is Jean-Pierre Bourguignon). The report explains that Hunt’s ‘impromptu comments were meant to be “light-hearted” and “ironic”’, quoting the same adjectives Hunt had used in his BBCR4 interview the same day. There are no eyewitnesses quoted.
The ERC, one of the conference sponsors, had sent Hunt as an ‘ERC Ambassador’ to accompany two female scientists, Dr Debra Laefer of University College Dublin, and Dr Jennifer Gabrys of Goldsmiths University of London. It is perhaps no surprise they sought to defend him. In an email to us, Bourguignon confirmed that he personally chose to send Hunt ‘because of his capacity to make himself available to speak about science with many different kinds of people.’
After his defiant interview with The Observer on 13 June, Hunt gave a second interview to Robin McKie, published in The Observer of 20 June, in which Hunt had said he used the two words ‘Now seriously’ which made it clear he was joking. It’s not clear how such a detailed recollection tallies with his insistence in his interview a week earlier that he stood up and ‘went mad.’
The same day, The Times published an inflammatory piece citing eight Nobel laureates ‘who have come to the defence of Sir Tim Hunt’ and condemned the ‘lynch mob’ allegedly responsible for his resignation from UCL. Those readers unable to venture beyond The Times paywall will be unaware that the headline was sensational and inaccurate. In reality, it was only five Nobel laureates who supported Hunt — both Edvard Moser and May-Britt Moser agreed with UCL’s decision to accept Hunt’s resignation, and The Times did not mention that Jack Szostak, from Harvard, condemned Hunt’s sexist remarks.
Four days later, on 24 June, The Times published a story based on a leaked report featuring an alleged ‘transcript’ of Hunt’s words at the lunch, written by a ‘European Commission official.’ The report showed that Hunt had used the words ‘Now seriously…’, thus confirming his words as reported a few days earlier in The Observer. His supporters seized upon this to show he was telling an elaborate joke, and alleged that St Louis, Blum, and Oransky had deliberately omitted the words from their tweet.
Except the leaked report wasn’t a ‘transcript’ at all, as the ERC have admitted. It was a recollection written a week later as part of a wider summary of the conference. It did not stop people reporting and treating it as a verbatim account of Hunt’s toast. Professor Richard Dawkins was one: This phrase [i.e. ‘now seriously’], deplorably omitted from all the reports that fed the lynch mob’s appetite, is the final confirmation that Tim Hunt’s remark was light-hearted banter against himself, his irony clearly (not clearly enough, alas) indicating that he is really the reverse of a ‘chauvinist monster.’
It was not omitted, deplorably or not, because he almost certainly did not say it. Not a single eyewitness, pro or anti, has said that Hunt used those two words.
The Times billed the report’s author as an ‘European Commission official’. Louise Mensch described him as an ‘EU Observer.’
Let’s give him his real name and title: he is Marcin Mońko, an ERC Press Officer.
Mońko is not an independent source. He was sent to Seoul specifically to accompany Hunt and, in his own words, ‘raise the visibility of the ERC outside of Europe and to present the ERC to science journalists as a source of success stories in the area of research.’ The ERC were also one of the conference’s official sponsors and had a booth with ERC publications and multimedia materials.
When the controversy blew up, it was not only in his organization’s interests to defend its ‘ambassador’, it was also Mońko’s job as a press officer to spin the story to deflect criticism from both the ERC and Hunt.
That he was actively doing so can be seen on 12 June, just two days after the ERC press release, and three days before the ERC report was written (see below). Mońko commented on a Facebook post by journalist Andrew Revkin, which shared a link to a New York Times opinion piece. Mońko wrote:
‘I was there in Seoul at this lunch. During a short speech, or rather toast, Tim Hunt indeed made a joke, bad joke, unacceptable and sexist [our emphasis] one, but he then went on to praise Korean women scientists and in general encouraged women in science. He said “we need women in science”. He said women should do science despite all the obstacles. This final remark was not reported and this is also very sad.’
Two things here: firstly, the author of the ‘EU report’, the ‘seismic twist’ that, as Dawkins and others claimed, ‘proved’ Hunt did not say something unacceptable and sexist — had himself described Hunt’s comments as ‘unacceptable and sexist.’
Secondly, Mońko’s Facebook comments in defence of Hunt are similar to those he quotes Hunt as saying in the ‘transcript’ leaked to The Times. Apart from one major omission: the words ‘Now seriously…’ If Hunt did say these words and they exonerate him of all blame, as so many suggest, why did Mońko not include them in his Facebook post?
According to Hunt’s wife, Mary Collins, the Observer account of 13 June is wrong. She tweeted on 14 October saying that Hunt had no memory of what he said until he was sent the ERC report, adding in a further tweet, that anything he said before reading that report was ‘not informed.’
We have a copy of the report. It is dated Brussels, 15 June, a week after Hunt spoke at the lunch, and bears the official ERC logo and letterhead. The title given is ‘Mission Report’. It was transmitted via email to Jean-Pierre Bourguignon on 17 June. Two days later, Hunt gave his second interview to The Observer in which he now claimed to have used the words ‘Now seriously.’
The ERC Executive Agency have admitted to us that their Director Pablo Amor sent the report to Hunt ‘as an act of courtesy,’ even though by then he was no longer a member of their Scientific Council. The ERC have yet to confirm at the time of writing, but the evidence seems clear that he was sent it before the interview with The Observer on 19 June (published in the 20 June edition.)
President Bourguignon has also admitted to us that a copy of the report was circulated to members of the Scientific Council on 18 June, the day after he received it. We asked him why a confidential internal report was shared so widely, but at the time of writing have not received a reply.
Based on this evidence, we suggest that those two words, ‘Now seriously’, mentioned in the second Hunt interview with McKie on 19 June, are derived from the ERC report.
In the report Mońko modified his Facebook comment from ‘unacceptable and sexist‘ to the phrase ‘completely inappropriate,’ two words The Times omitted from their account on 24 June, but included in the 25 June piece: ‘The official also described the first part of the speech as “meant to be light-hearted”, adding, “although completely inappropriate”.’
The Times quoted the following words from the ‘leaked’ report over the course of two days.
‘It’s strange that such a chauvinist monster like me has been asked to speak to women scientists. Let me tell you about my trouble with girls. Three things happen when they are in the lab: you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticise them they cry. Perhaps we should make separate labs for boys and girls? Now seriously, I’m impressed by the economic development of Korea. And women scientists played, without doubt an important role in it. Science needs women and you should do science despite all the obstacles, and despite monsters like me.’
The official added: ‘Sir Tim didn’t ‘thank women for making lunch. I didn’t notice any uncomfortable silence or any awkwardness in the room as reported on social and then mainstream media.’
The official added that his neighbour, a woman from the Korean National Research Council of Science and Technology and an organiser of the conference, responded positively. ‘Without being asked, she said she was impressed that Sir Tim could improvise such a warm and funny speech (her words). Later she told me that all other Korean lunch participants she talked to didn’t notice or hear anything peculiar in Sir Tim’s speech.’
The reaction of Mońko’s ‘neighbour’ was seized upon. The Times reported her words on 25 June (‘Hunt’s ‘chauvinist’ speech praised as warm and funny’). Later Mensch also quoted from email correspondence with Bourguignon about the above mentioned ‘Korean host’ ‘who was present and to whom I could speak later face-to-face (she came later to Brussels) and get explicit confirmation of how the event went.’
This detail, according to Hunt’s supporters, was the icing on the cake. A star Korean witness, a woman to boot, who thought Hunt’s speech was a hoot. A neutral host, not some vindictive hack with an axe to grind and an agenda to serve.
Except the woman referred was not neutral. She is a representative of the ERC. Her name is Dr Hyong-Ha Kim. She works at the Korean National Research Council of Science and Technology, among other roles, but she is also one of the National Contact Points for the ERC in Korea. Her details are listed on the ERC website. She is the public face of the ERC in South Korea; the ‘go to’ person for those seeking funds. As the ERC state on their website:
The mission of the ERC NCPs is to raise awareness, inform and advise on ERC funding opportunities. NCPs can also support in the preparation, submission and follow-up of an ERC grant application.
We do know she was at the conference. As part of their sponsorship package, the ERC had a booth. On 9 June, Dr Kim, Mońko and Hunt were photographed together:
Further photographic evidence from the lunch, shows she was sitting next to Mońko – on the same table as both Connie St Louis and Ivan Oransky as it turns out. Yet in his report Mońko claims not to have witnessed any ‘uncomfortable silence or awkwardness’ in response to Hunt’s speech, despite being sat opposite two people who responded in exactly that manner.
As we know from the report, the Korean ‘host’ was sitting next to Mońko (‘The official added that his neighbour, a woman from the Korean National Research Council of Science and Technology and an organiser of the conference, responded positively’).
It is incorrect to claim Dr Kim was an organiser of the conference or a host. Dr Kim was on the programme advisory committee, whose job it was to suggest speakers and additions to the programme at WCSJ.
The ERC have refused to disclose Dr Kim’s name to us or confirm or deny whether she was involved. They say the report was not written for public consumption and that even though it is now public record, it was leaked without their knowledge and therefore they are not bound to discuss its contents, even though it was also sent by them to Hunt and members of the Scientific Council.
President Bourguignon denied emphatically that any eyewitnesses he spoke to were connected to the ERC. He refuses to name who they are.
But it is clear to us from the evidence we have uncovered that the woman mentioned in the report is Dr Kim. In their blogs, both Louise Mensch and his former colleague on the ERC Scientific Council Athene Donald state with certainty that Bourguignon spoke to the same woman quoted in the report in Brussels, after WCSJ, where she confirmed her impression.
Given her close links to the ERC, it would be no surprise to learn that Dr Kim was in Brussels in mid-June, for a major ERC event to celebrate the award of its 5000th grant, where she could have spoken to Bourguignon.
We asked the ERC if the woman in the report and the woman Bourguignon spoke to in Brussels are the same person, or if Mensch and Donald were mistaken. They refused to answer.
The ERC have gone to great lengths to protect Dr Kim’s identity and we have thought carefully about whether to reveal it here. But as so many others have gone on the record in this contentious story, and her words are already a matter of public record, we believe it is only right to name her and reveal her role with the ERC.
Dr Kim has not responded to our repeated attempts to contact her.
The ERC’s report, leaked by persons unknown to The Times, was the catalyst for the Hunt exoneration campaign. As a result his supporters became more vociferous and ferocious in their condemnation of his accusers.
In her blog of 7 July, Mensch described as a ‘bombshell’ Bourguignon’s revelation that the same ‘Korean host’ (sic) mentioned in the report had confirmed her view of Hunt’s speech to him face-to-face. She placed great emphasis on the report’s claim that Dr Kim had spoken to other Korean women at the lunch and they had not been offended. Yet we know from Hee Young Paik’s email and Heisook Lee’s reported comments that many Korean female scientists present were upset.
The ERC report was not produced by independent eyewitnesses. The report was produced by Mońko, who isn’t independent, and featured testimony from Dr Kim, who is also not independent.
We respect President Bourguignon’s claim that the eyewitnesses he spoke to about the event (on the day of the lunch, according to Louise Mensch, as well as afterwards), and were apparently the basis of his statement of 10 June, were not connected to the ERC and therefore could not be Mońko or Dr Kim.
But as these unnamed eyewitnesses are not on the record, or even quoted anonymously in any ERC literature or press releases, it is only right that their evidence, such as it is, carries less weight than those who have done.
Hunt supporters such as Mensch have made great show of highlighting the connections between Hunt’s accusers, throwing suspicion and casting aspersions upon various journalists’ associations and accusing them of being in cahoots. Yet they have failed to show anything like the same scrutiny to the material upon which their own case relies.
Understandably, given Hunt’s pre-eminence, his links to the ERC, and the fact that it was their idea to send Hunt to Seoul, the report puts a gloss on his actions. We have sympathy with Marcin Mońko: he wasn’t to know when he wrote the report that it would be sent by his bosses to all and sundry, leaked to the media and become the entire basis on which Hunt’s supporters would proclaim his innocence. But it has, and its foundations are flimsy: it is genuinely flawed, misleading, inaccurate and devoid of valuable context –virtually the same accusations have been hurled at St Louis’ widely condemned tweet.
Paul Nurse’s words vindicate Tim Hunt
In early July, Sir Paul Nurse, President of the Royal Society, who won the Nobel Prize along with Hunt and another in 2001, criticised him in strong terms in The Daily Telegraph. We note, for the record, that Nurse was not listed among the eight [sic] Nobel Laureates who rushed to Hunt’s defence as reported in The Times on 20 June, nor were any other of the 20 or so living British Nobel Laureates in science, with the exception of the Soviet-born, Dutch-British national André Geim.
The day after the Telegraph story appeared, Nurse went on BBC Radio Four and said that Hunt did not deserve to lose the honorary role at UCL. This was taken as evidence by Mensch that he had changed his mind, that the Telegraph had misquoted him, and that Nurse did not condemn his friend after all.
We contacted Sarah Knapton, the author of The Telegraph piece. She explained the confusion: Nurse had meant that Hunt deserved to lose his position with the Royal Society (of which Nurse is president), not UCL. By this time, though, the ire of Hunt’s supporters was focussed entirely on UCL. Given the ambiguity of the headline, it was widely believed — perhaps even by the Telegraph sub who wrote the headline — that Nurse was referring to UCL and not to The Royal Society.
Knapton stood behind her reporting of Nurse’s words. In fact she told us:
‘Frankly I was amazed how willing Paul was to talk about it, and how vocal he was in his censure of Hunt.’
Mensch claimed that Nurse’s comments to the BBC represented a ‘complete vindication’ of Hunt. When Nurse wrote to the Telegraph to clear up the confusion about the Royal Society and UCL, she seized on the first paragraph of his letter as justification for her work in a number of tweets (like many, many, others, since deleted).
Not for the first time, Mensch did not report the material fully. The rest of the letter makes for interesting reading:
Regardless of whether his comments on women in science were in jest or not, how they were perceived could put some women off pursuing a career in science and that is not acceptable. Sir Tim has apologised for what he said, and when I spoke to him he felt that he should resign from an awards committee he was on at the Royal Society.
The audio clip
Russian journalist Natalia Demina has played an integral role in the campaign to exonerate Hunt. She attended the lunch and was the first person to go on the record to dispute St Louis’s version of events.
From that point on she swiftly became the centre of an unfolding story.
She engaged directly with Mensch, who quoted her extensively in her blog, published an interview with Hunt, and gave her own interview to a Russian journalist from Radio Svoboda in which she introduced a number of glaring inaccuracies. She claimed Hunt was invited to Seoul as a ‘keynote speaker’ (he was not one of three keynote speakers, but Connie St Louis was) and that ‘precisely this lecture opened the event’ (omitting mention of Deborah Blum’s parallel talk at the same time). She further said that 200 people attended the lunch, that it was organised by KISTER, and their president, Youngah Park, had spoken at the event. None of this is true. In fact, she was speaking about the wrong lunch — the one on 9 June, not 8 June.
Demina regularly posts her videos of talks, lectures and debates on her YouTube channel. She videotaped the last nine minutes of Hunt’s formal lecture on the morning of 8 June. Immediately thereafter she interviewed him for 20 minutes. The interview (in Russian) appears here.
After that, Hunt went into the lunch and made his now infamous ‘joke.’ Demina took some photographs on her phone which Mensch purports to show his entire audience in fits of laughter. In fact, the only faces fully visible are those of Hunt, the Korean translator (standing), and a seated Korean woman. Her downcast eyes and close-lipped ‘smile’ betray body language of embarrassment rather than hilarity. We have identified her as the official interpreter for the President of the Korean Science Journalists Association, Shim Jae Eok, who speaks little English.
More than a month after the lunch, in which she had played a leading role in the biggest story of her career, Demina suddenly discovered she had audio (but not video) of the last 12 seconds of Hunt’s toast. She announced this in a series of tweets on 15 July, which she later deleted on the orders of Louise Mensch.
Demina says she forgot about the audio because of jet lag. Then she said it was the beginning of the speech. Then she changed her mind and said it was the end, again, as she later admitted, on the orders of Mensch. (‘It was Louise who answered that it may be not the beginning but the end! I listened once more and agreed with her’) For what it’s worth, it almost certainly is the end.
We asked Demina how she came to have only 12 seconds of this crucial toast and she gave an explanation by email.
She said that she started off taking photographs on her phone as Hunt spoke, but then decided to record his words. But his toast was so short that by the time she hit ‘record’ he had almost finished, and so she only captured the last few seconds. However, she is clear that she recorded the fragment of his speech on purpose, not by accident.
Why didn’t she remember she had recorded a part of his speech? She had a scoop — a ‘world exclusive’! She was even asked by us on 8 July if she had audio or video of the toast and failed to reply. Her excuse was that she didn’t really know how to use Twitter, which as a reasonably prolific tweeter is odd. Her email to us was written on 18 July, the day the story based on the audio appeared in The Times:
‘Two days (her tweets announcing her discovery of the audio had been posted three days before, not two) ago I looked through my audio Sony files and there were several little files. I began listening them to decide if I should delete them or not. One contained my own counting “1, 2, 3, 4…”, I checked my smartphone recording perhaps. The other file was a surprise to me, I heard Hunt’s voice, laugh and a word “a monster”. I wrote a Twit that I found a file with the beginning. I immediately sent the file to Louse, as I trust her, and to Tim Hunt, as it seemed important for him.’
Demina also told us that her phone was new to her. Perhaps someone could record something, and then forget about it if it isn’t their usual device for recording material?
Why, at no point during writing her article, or her many tweets or Facebook posts, or her emails to Louise Mensch and Tim Hunt, or uploading her video of Hunt’s lecture to YouTube, or while posting beneath The Daily Mail, or being interviewed for Svodoba, did she remember she had a piece of audio that might be of interest?
And, we think it’s fair to ask, if she’s unable to remember something as significant as having audio of such an important story, and is so prone to confusion about dates, times, and details of events, why should we put any faith in her recollection of Hunt’s words at the lunch? She is one of the defence’s star witnesses — she claims that everyone there knew he was joking when it’s palpably clear they didn’t — yet her memory seems particularly fallible.
The audio is not a fake (it can be listened to here.) We are saying the story behind its appearance is suspicious, as is the fact that the impromptu recording captured just one discrete segment: his entire final sentence — starting at the precise moment he says ‘Congratulations’ and ending with a couple of hand claps. All too conveniently, it leaves us guessing what came before, and prevents independent verification of the alleged ‘sustained applause’.
The question remains: is there more audio than this neat, 13-second clip? And if so, why have we not heard it?
Does the audio shed light on the story? It proves Connie St Louis was wrong when she spoke about a deathly silence. To be fair, once Hunt finishes speaking, there is a brief peal of polite laughter, an awkward pause of two seconds, and the very beginning (we hear two hand claps) of applause before the audio abruptly cuts out. This also chimes with Renata Sanchez’s testimony that it ‘ended with an auditorium in silence and some laughs.’
It does not prove that Hunt’s toast was a joke about himself, or that it was about his making his wife cry in a lab, and not women in science in general, or that he was warm and generous in his praise of women scientists. It proves that he can end a toast with a modicum of decency and that some in the room appreciated those final words.
Tim Hunt’s appearance at that lunch on 8 June 2015 has been the subject of much revisionist history. Already by 25 June ‘the spin machine [was] overwriting contemporary accounts from eye-and-ear-witnesses.’ In late July, one prominent tweeter, among others, declared that he had done nothing wrong. By 1 September, the article by Jonathan Foreman in Commentary magazine, almost entirely derivative of Mensch’s blogs, was seized upon by Hunt’s supporters as vindication.
Since then, Mensch and her followers police Twitter calling out anyone who alludes to Hunt in connection with ‘sexism’. (Some examples here and here.) This despite Hunt admitting what he said was ‘stupid and ill-judged’, ‘inexcusable’, and in his wife’s words, ‘unbelievably stupid.’ Even his wife admitted she could see how his words could be offensive to those who didn’t know him. Few had ever heard of him before this incident. Even fewer knew him at the WCSJ conference. And many — many more than have been claimed to date — found it deeply offensive and, above all, sexist, including Hunt’s ERC press adviser for the trip.
It was unfunny, as Hunt admits. So unfunny that a number didn’t even twig on he was joking. That Hunt went on to encourage those present to overcome obstacles and said ‘congratulations’, as later emerged in Demina’s audio clip, is pretty standard fare for someone offering a toast. It in no way alleviates the crassness of his earlier comments. He made a heartfelt ‘apology’ for offending people and this apology was accepted by his hosts.
There is no question that what Hunt said in his lunch toast in Seoul was newsworthy. Gender bias and imbalance in science is widely accepted to be a serious problem in South Korea. For a powerful Nobel Laureate to be invited to a lunch to honour female scientists, in a country where this a sensitive issue, and launch into a tortuous routine about ‘girls’ falling in love in the lab and crying when criticised, suggesting they work in segregated labs, is by any journalistic standard, whether a joke or not, a news story.
There is fair criticism to be made of Connie St Louis’s appearance on Today. She spoke live and contradicted her earlier comment to The Times that there was nervous laughter by referring to a ‘deathly silence.’ The 12-second audio shows her earlier comment to The Times was in fact quite accurate.
As we know, many did refuse to acknowledge the toast in any way, but that did not apply to others. Does that mean St Louis was prone to nervous hyperbole in front of a microphone? Yes. Does it invalidate her entire account of what happened? No. In fact, based on the evidence presented here, she — and Blum and Oransky — got the basic facts and exact words Hunt used remarkably straight. There are by now far too many corroborating eyewitnesses to dispute this.
On the other hand, Natalia Demina, as we have seen, has made as many if not far more egregious errors in the reporting of this story. Connie St Louis, though, has been vilified beyond all reason as “the primary author of Hunt’s destruction”, while Demina is idolised as a media saint and saviour of Tim Hunt.
Were Hunt’s comments appropriate? No. Were they helpful to the cause of women in science, the same people he was there to toast? Not in the slightest. Were they funny? No. Even those who thought it a joke didn’t consider it amusing. A significant number did not even recognise it as a joke.
If it was meant as a joke, does that make it alright? It doesn’t. First of all not being serious doesn’t mean not being sexist. People can believe things to be funny and also think they’re true. The English language even has an aphorism for this: ‘Many a true word spoken in jest.’
There’s also a term for sexist jokes. It’s called ‘disparagement humour’ which ‘denigrates, belittles, or maligns an individual or social group.’ As Hilda Bastian explained, citing empirical studies of Thomas Hunt and Mark Ferguson, the problem with this kind of humour is that ‘joking reinforces existing prejudice. If you joke about women and get away with it, those who are hostile to women will see this as social sanction for their views and behavior.’ The gist of Hunt’s joke is the timeworn stereotype that women in the science laboratory are over emotional. When a powerful, influential male scientist,a Nobel Laureate, tosses off such a ‘joke’ at the expense of women — at a luncheon honouring serious women scientists — it’s not difficult to see why some might bridle.
There’s certainly a debate to be had about the actions of UCL, but let’s not forget that Hunt also resigned from his committee role at the Royal Society. Even more pertinently, the Guardian reported that the ‘ERC decided to force him to stand down in view of his resignation from UCL’. We asked ERC to clarify why Hunt was asked to stand down and received the following reply: ‘On 11 June Sir Tim Hunt resigned from his position as member of the ERC Scientific Council, and his resignation was accepted.’
There is also a debate to be had about the wisdom of Blum, Oransky and St Louis ‘collectively’ tweeting words which were inevitably perceived — tweeted solely from CSL’s account — as an ‘ad hominem’ attack by a single journalist. Would the outcome have been different if Oransky, a white man, had tweeted? Or had they waited to write a report or blog later?
Satu Lipponen said that the Finnish group discussed the issue afterwards and that even though journalistic ethics supported St Louis’ right to tweet, that they ‘maybe would not have tweeted it.’
Deborah Blum told us:
‘I had no idea that this would blow up the way it did. I’m a long-time fairly geeky science writer — at a reception recently I spent some time explaining to a fellow journalist the different molecular bonds of potassium cyanide and sodium cyanide — and my assumption was that Hunt’s remarks would be discussed in the community of science writers and scientists but wouldn’t be so interesting to anyone else.
‘So in hindsight, I wouldn’t be so naive about the potential of a story like this to go viral.
‘I’d still report the story because that’s the job of a science journalist, not only to report on scientific research but on the culture and politics of science. And Hunt’s remarks, of course, are representative of the balance-of-power realities that we still find in the culture and politics of science.’
In the end, the parable of Tim Hunt is indeed a simple one. He said something casually sexist, stupid and inappropriate which offended many of his audience. He then confirmed he said what he was reported to have said and apologised twice. The matter should have stopped there. Instead a concerted effort to save his name — which was not disgraced, nor his reputation as a scientist jeopardized — has rewritten history. Science is about truth. As this article has shown, we have seen very little of it from Hunt’s apologists — merely evasions, half-truths, distortions, errors and outright falsehoods.
Update (12/11/2015): In the article we say of Timothy Dimacali’s posts that ‘The entire thread of 18 June, on which this comment featured, disappeared from the public timeline on his Facebook page on or about 1 November.’ We now accept it did not disappear and can be found here. We apologise to Timothy for the error.
Update (22/3/2016): On request, Professor Athene Donald recently corrected an error in her blogpost of last December which gave the misleading impression that we had spoken to the eyewitnesses quoted above ‘six months’ after Sir Tim’s lunchtime toast. This was incorrect (on several levels, but on a very basic one the piece was published five months after Sir Tim’s speech) and also ignores that many of the eyewitnesses we contacted between late June and early October 2015 had tweeted or written articles contemporaneously. This error came to our attention after a recent tweet from Louise Mensch to Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia, citing Professor Donald’s blog, where she took issue with his suggestion that the editors of the Tim Hunt Wiki page might find this piece useful.
Professor Donald adds: ‘I hope he will likewise correct some inaccuracies in his own report, such as that the ERC Korean National Contact Point — NCP — is a ‘representative’ of the ERC. As the ERC website makes explicitly clear, and as has been spelled out to Mr Waddell also explicitly, ‘NCP’s do not represent the ERC’.
We’re only too happy to clear this up. Our article was entirely correct when published in November 2015. Here is a snapshot of the webpage from late October 2015. And here it is now. The ERC rewrote the webpage after this piece was published.