What the $%&£ is wrong with you people?!

Or: Four reasons why the Tim Hunt debate is total BS

Unless you spent the past 3 weeks under a rock (in which case I envy you for your blissful ignorance and hope you get on with your life), you’ll have heard of Professor Sir Tim Hunt and his sexist remarks/joke/not-a-joke at some conference in Korea. I won’t repeat them here because they have already been repeated ad nauseam all over the Internet.

Let me just summarise: his very unfunny “joke” caused a shitterstorm, he was sackisigned from various positions (including one at my institution UCL), he was then “hung out to dry” because he was wet from crying about it, and then everybody and their grandparents (no need to sexistly single out one gender here) weighed in on whether or not he was joking and treated unfairly for it. It all culminated in a media smear campaign against the person who broke the news originally by a sorry excuse for a newspaper whose name rhymes with Scaly Snail. The fire continues to rage with people arguing about inane details that have no bearing on the real issue. The mudslinging we see now makes any playground fight look like a reasoned, mature debate.

Naturally, I have my own views on this story but I ain’t gonna tell you. Far too many people – many of whose opinions nobody should really care to hear – have already spoken about it. There is no point of me adding my totally irrelevant twopence to this. I will, however, tell you why this debate – which originally might have had an actual point – is now just idiotic beyond repair. I will present them as a list because Neuroconscience tells me all good blog posts should be:

1. Memory is subjective and fallible

A lot of people argue fervently about whether Hunt’s sexist comments (and, joke or not, they were sexist) were followed by a clarification that he was just jesting and whether he was being “self-deprecating” rather than “belittling women”. At some point there was talk of a transcript of his speech. But there is no such thing. His comments were part of an informal toast he was asked to give off the cuff. Thus any recollection of his words is filtered through the very flawed lens of human memory.

Now we have people arguing if he said “the trouble with girls” or “my trouble” and whether he did or didn’t follow his “joke” with “now seriously”. Because this totally matters. People are completely unable to recognise a joke from your hyperbolic statements or from nonverbal cues like the inflection of your voice, gestures, and facial expressions. (In case you missed that: I’m being sarcastic here…).

The problem is that both accounts are likely to be true. The lady with the sainthood in her surname (How cool is that by the way? Only having a definite article in your name is more awesome!) and his many other critics may have no recollection of him saying “now seriously” while others swear he said it.

On the one hand, these people may have been too busy to be offended by his non-joke to remember anything he said after that. It takes a lot less to divert your attention from what a speaker is saying. Add a little jetlag you tend to get at a conference in far-away lands and the slightest distraction can make you miss something.

On the other hand, Hunt’s defenders may also exist in a world of wishful thinking where they are wholly confident that he added that whole clarification when in truth he didn’t. Psychology research has shown it is surprisingly easy to implant completely false memories. And our recollection of things is distorted by context, your mood, and all sorts of other factors. This is why in a court of law people typically do not get convicted because of a single witness testimony. Picking out a criminal from a line-up can be deeply flawed.

Now if there had been an actual, official transcript or, even better, a video recording of his speech things would be a bit different. We would at least not have to rely on inaccurate, distorted recollections of the whole sorry incident.

2. Perception is subjective and fallible

However, even a video wouldn’t fix this. It doesn’t just end at faulty memory. Even more basically we know from over a century of research that our perception of the world is also deeply subjective. The way things appear to us is strongly influenced by our cognitive and perceptual biases. The same piece of evidence can be interpreted in diametrically opposite ways by different people, depending on their political and religious affiliation, their upbringing, their socioeconomic circumstances, or even rather basic physiological differences between individuals. Only a few months ago social and non-social media alike were atwitter about whether a photograph showed a black or white dress – and there the question was about seeing a colour, nothing as complex as the sense of humour or correctly guessing a person’s beliefs and mental state.

Perceptions differ. People are now arguing whether or not the original portrayal of the fateful Tim Hunt event was inaccurate. Now you may argue all you wish but don’t expect there to be any piece of evidence that can resolve this question. Another sorry excuse for a newspaper, which shares the name of a celestial body, published this photo which they purport was taken at the very moment Tim Hunt made his stupid remarks:

What we have here is a photo of a white-and-gold dress

The apparent point of interest about this photo is that it depicts a young woman (in the bottom right corner) who is smiling while Hunt made the sexist joke. Actually she is “chuckling” apparently. This, we are told, could “prove” that the audience wasn’t reacting with “shock and hurt” to his comments but realised that it was a stupid joke. There is just so much wrong with this line of reasoning that I don’t even know where to begin:

  • We have absolutely no idea at what point this photo was taken. If, as the story reports, the photo was taken at the “exact moment” he made that comment then it would have been too early. It’s a snapshot in time. It could well be that this woman was horrified by what Tim Hunt said but this would only be seen in subsequent photos.
  • We also have no idea that she is even laughing about what he’s saying. She may not have really been listening to him. Perhaps someone next to her was telling her a real joke? Or possibly she was laughing about how sexist some old people can be?
  • More relevant to the point of this section, she may not be laughing at all. Perception is subjective and it depends a lot on context. The very same photo could easily be interpreted to show not a laughing person but someone in pain, or embarrassment, or any other reason they may scrunch their face. Who knows, maybe Sir Tim had just farted in her direction? The anatomical positioning seems to work.
  • It is also true that smiling, chuckling, or other emotional reactions do not necessarily mean that you find something funny. What we are seeing here may well be the grin of an awkward cringe. One of the most pervasive problems with sexism, and injustice in general, is that people all too rarely speak out against things they disagree with. I am no different. Of course, sometimes it is just diplomatic and wiser to simply brush off a stupid remark with a disingenuous smirk than to throw an outraged tantrum over it. Unless she comes forward, nobody knows what this woman was thinking in this precise moment.
  • Last but not least, the fact that this picture shows one woman who apparently “gets his joke” isn’t evidence that “everybody” who was there felt the same. Clearly some people did. Clearly some other people did not. You don’t need to look very hard to see that. It yet again illustrates the subjectivity of perception. Whether or not a joke is funny isn’t quantifiable in some scientific measure. It is totally up to the person who hears the joke (although it also depends on the delivery).

The bottom line is that we cannot really infer the mental state and thought processes of the audience from a photo very reliably. We can certainly make guesses but there is no reason to think our judgement is correct.

3. Stereotypes are natural – but we can fight them

While I’m at it, can we please also stop with the incessant stereotyping that rears its ugly head every time a story like this is in the news? I’m not talking about stereotypes of crying women who complicate the lives of rational scientists (who are obviously men) with their “emotional entanglements” (as if only men and women ever get entangled – weren’t there just some referendum in Ireland and a SCOTUS ruling about this or did I hallucinate?). These stereotypes certainly reveal the implicit biases women still face in science and beyond.

But that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the fact that whenever a (usually white and often elderly) male scientist does something offensive and stupid (like wearing a shirt decorated with half naked cartoon women or making an outrageous comment about a disadvantaged group) the news media treat us with endless discussions about the socially inept male scientists “who exist in laboratories.”

This is such a tired old trope. Usually such remarks are penned by journalists or other commentators who I bet have never set foot in a real research lab. If they had, they would know that scientists come from every walk of life and are quite diverse. There are scientists of every gender (although one remains underrepresented) and race (although some remain underrepresented) and from different socioeconomic backgrounds (although the current political climate makes it substantially harder for some) and with different sexual orientations. Sorry to break it to you but we don’t all wear lab coats and safety goggles either.

Sure, there are probably a few traits that people who choose a career in science have in common – on average. But there is substantial variability and, believe me, not all scientists are nerdy, bespectacled, shy geniuses. They aren’t all physically unattractive, weird (not that there is anything wrong with any of these things) clones of Sheldon Cooper or Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Alan Turing (who in reality wasn’t like that either) who can’t read the most basic human emotions. It may be true for some scientists but that is because it is true for some people in general.

Perhaps the stereotype of the bumbling scientist applies more to the elderly generation, as these media commentaries imply in this case. Tim Hunt is in his 70s. He obviously grew up and started out in science in a different era when a lot of things we now find outrageous were considered completely normal. Old male Nobel Prize winners generally are notorious for saying stupid, offensive things.

Sorry, but that’s a tired trope as well. For every Tim Hunt or James Watson making offensive comments (and those two really are in different leagues of offensiveness) there are countless sensible old, white, male scientists (with or without Nobel Prizes) who never offended anyone in their whole life. People’s minds and thoughts and views can change over time. Just because someone grew up in a time when certain gender roles and stereotypes were widespread does not mean that they can’t see things differently now. Just look again at the amazing strides with which public opinion about same-sex marriage has changed over the past decades. And old age is no reason not to have some wisdom about what is or isn’t socially acceptable. (In fact, wisdom is one of the contradictory stereotypes about old people).

Research also tells us that stereotypes are to some extent natural. As human beings we are quite prone to divide others into in-groups and out-groups. This affects our reactions and even our perceptions (see above) of people around us. You may thus carry around implicit biases about people of other races and people of the opposite gender. This is how stereotypes arise and they shape our behaviour and views of the world. It can be quite damaging. So far, so bad.

The good news is that, as I just said already, these views are not set in stone. Our in-group isn’t just determined by biology but by many factors. Experience with a multi-ethnic, diverse, pluralist world can very well widen your horizons and make you treat people in a more egalitarian way. And you can make a conscious effort to fight your implicit biases and stereotypes about other people.

In fact, in my opinion we should make a conscious effort and, while I would be lying if I said I have never discriminated against people or never said offensive things, I have always tried my best not to let stereotypes get the best of me. In some cases this was easy. The thought that men and women are somehow different and must therefore be treated differently seemed utterly alien to me as long as I can remember. I am not a total moron. I know there are differences in biology and appearance and typical behaviour that you might notice when looking at the population at large. However, there are always differences between any two people even within the same gender. And gender isn’t by far the only characteristic about a person. Every human being is unique and we should always treat them as such.

Some stereotypes are harder to shake than others. It doubtless depends on who you are and where you come from (probably both physically and in a figurative sense). However, they can be overcome but to do so we must fight them wherever we encounter them. In my mind our society is far too narrow-minded focusing on specific biases whilst ignoring the true problem: our general tendency to stereotype. We can’t just cherry-pick our fight of stereotypes about women or men, about Jews and Muslims, or about Asian people. We must also fight the stereotype about Essex girls aspiring to be glamour models, about French and Greek people, about gingers, and about scientists all being Aspergers. Or, for that matter, our stereotypes about people with Aspergers. We will never win the fight against sexism and racism if we continue to perpetuate all those idiotic views we have about other people.

4. We like to shut down our intellects

It is amazing how emotional and controversial issues like this can make the most intelligent, reasonable people turn into gibbering buffoons (Actually, is it just a stereotype that buffoons gibber?). As I already mentioned, the “newspaper” whose name rhymes with Greyly Fail published several articles about the Hunt affair. These articles are passed around by people, who would normally never in their right mind use anything published in that rag as evidence for anything, to support their defense of the embattled professor. I’ve even heard it described as “investigative journalism” – two words I would never associate with that publication.

All they really did is a smear campaign against the lady who first broke the story by sifting through her CV and flagging up all sorts of apparently dubious items. Some may or may not be dubious – that’s not for me to say. But what this story shows is that most journalists don’t think like scientists (or, rather, how scientists should think). There is no control condition here. My bet is that most scientists’ CVs probably contain things this “investigative” journalist would find deceptive. Membership in an organisation that requires a membership fee but little vetting, as the reporter insinuates is the case for the Royal Institution, certainly is not uncommonly found on people’s CVs. Perhaps there is a point in discussing what things should or shouldn’t be included on a professional CV in academia but this is not what this “investigation” is about.

Rather it is a vicious and not-at-all underhanded attempt to discredit this person’s opinion on this whole affair. Since she apparently “lied” on her CV, anything she said about Tim Hunt’s comments is therefore called in doubt. Nevermind the fact that whether or not he made the sexist comment is not really called into question by anyone and he even repeated similar views when he was interviewed about it. Now it is my understanding that this interview he gave was apparently on the phone while he was in the airport before travelling home so it may not have been as thoughtful as it perhaps could have been. He may at that point still not have realised just how badly he offended certain people. Perhaps that is revealing because if he was unaware of why he caused offense this may be an indication of his true views. But on the other hand, perhaps the offended parties could have taken a deep breath too. In the world of social media the news, and the outrage about them, spread like wildfire and beat a flight from Incheon to Heathrow by many hours. This doesn’t facilitate calm and rational discussion.

Anyway, I can’t help but be baffled by the irony that these vicious articles questioning the credibility of an academic appear in a newpaper that is notorious for making shit up. It is also somewhat odd to read discussions about gender equality issues on a website where the side bar is constantly filled with images of “bikini bods” and “plunging cleavages” that I can only call distractingly sexist.

Now what should we do?

Stop the effing bickering, for one thing! No, you won’t get him reinstated by claiming it was all a joke. He resigned from an honorary position at UCL. So did another eminent emeritus professor. As a friend of mine said aptly “Who is going to do all the honorary work now?” It’s somewhat tragic that these men resigned from their positions but in all frankness this isn’t a dramatic loss for science. Hunt still holds some actual scientific positions. And it is a bit odd that the calls by certain rabid activists, who aren’t even scientists, to reinstate Tim Hunt’s position at UCL are not hounding the ERC and Royal Society where he lost positions of actual importance.

Now on the other hand, and I know I am not the first to point this out, all the talk about the apparent offense and sexism of his comments isn’t really doing us any good. They don’t advance the feminist cause. Whether or not it was right that Tim Hunt resigned from his posts (and, as I said, I won’t tell you what I think) isn’t really important. What is important is that we continue to fight for equal opportunities, which involves but is not limited to fighting stereotypes, and make the best of this stupid situation. Instead of asking for him to be reinstated we could think about finding someone within the next generation of brilliant scientists and appoint her – or him, as the case may be – to fill the posts he vacated. We could also talk about how we handle the explosive power of social media and how we can learn to react to twitterstorms in a calmer, sensible way. Because the way things are now, we are terrible at it.

Of course I have little hope of such changes happening. When this story finally dies down it will be quiet for a short time until the next stupid scandal. Then we will go through this whole shit cycle again and I will no doubt ask again:

What the fuck is wrong with (you) people?

5 thoughts on “What the $%&£ is wrong with you people?!

  1. I do not know about others, But I am spending efforts to see if there is a way to get UCL to apologize for its fumbling ways. I will not comment on your conclusions as that will cover whole blog but simple idea is to see if his reputation can be restored. I am not concerned with any big story nor interested in fighting for or against.

    Only one answer. What is wrong we people is what is wrong with you. You also cannot keep away and must offer some opinion and so do we.

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    1. You may have a point – except that I didn’t offer an opinion about Sir Tim or about UCL’s treatment of him. I offer an opinion about people offering opinions. It’s my meta-opinion.

      I have no idea about his reputation. I hope he gets some peace of mind and enjoys watching Wimbledon. We’ll see what happens after that and after the council meeting.

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  2. When confronted with the potential that someone may have been wrongly accused of terrorism, should we make the argument that the issue is insignificant compared to the “real issue” of terrorism itself?

    I should hope everyone of sound mind would respond to that with a resounding NO! I ask, therefor, for moral consistency.

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    1. This is a flawed analogy and like most of the discussion that has raged about Sir Tim detracts from the real issues. Were we talking about a criminal investigation I would be completely with you. When accusing an individual of criminal action or intent, the guilt of the accused must be proven beyond reasonable doubt – if not we should go with the presumption of innocence. But this isn’t a criminal case and it isn’t about civil liberties. Thus, as opposed to what some of the rabid commenters are saying, this has nothing to do with ‘due process’ or ‘free speech’ either.

      Sir Tim resigned from an honorary, ambassadorial non-job. Apart from one newspaper interview, that (like most of the quotes in this story) may have been taken wildly out of context, it even sounds like his resignation was entirely voluntary. Even if that is not the case, it is entirely up to UCL to decide whether his behaviour, light-hearted or not (and I am inclined to agree that it was), is compatible with that role as a representative.

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    2. A more suitable analogy would be if he had made jokes about terrorism in front of the survivors of a terror attack. Surely anyone would agree that this is entirely tasteless. It wouldn’t be a reason for him to stop doing science (and he hasn’t stopped doing science now either) but it would certainly not be befitting of somebody in his role as representative.

      But let’s retain some perspective here too. What he did was nowhere near as bad as that. Which is why silly over-the-top analogies aren’t helping this discussion.

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