Witch Hunt? A response to Thomas Basbøll

I wrote a long comment in response to Thomas Basbøll’s recent post but unfortunately his blog’s commenting system only allows a maximum length of 4096 characters. So I’m responding to Thomas’ comment here.

Thanks for writing this, Thomas, and for the generous (and thoroughly undeserved) kind words — “thoughtful” is certainly not an adjective that I’d use to describe myself too often!

Your post, however, seems to be based on a fundamental misunderstanding of what I meant by “crass and damaging”. Moreover, having read your piece now a number of times (and ruminated on it overnight), your argument appears disjointed, seems to lack self-consistency, and the logic throughout is less than entirely clear to me.

First, you argue that Tim Hunt’s joke was a “reductio ad absurdum” but then go on to say that Tim was “speaking candidly”. Just so I’m certain we’re not talking past each other, I’ll note that the Oxford English Dictionary definition of “candid” is the following:

“Candid (adj.). Truthful and straight-forward; frank

Is this the sense in which you meant to use “candid”? If so, in what sense was Tim being “candid” with his ‘joke’? It’s either a self-deprecating reductio ad absurdum or it’s a candid (and pithy) analysis of what Tim sees as issues with women in science. It can’t be both simultaneously. I’d appreciate it if you could clear this up for me — in what sense do you mean that Tim was speaking “candidly”?

The second false premise at the heart of your post is the idea that I can’t simultaneously consider Tim Hunt to be “a modest, insightful individual who passionately advocates the value of curiosity-driven science…personable, likable, and, indeed, often inspiring” and to find his misplaced ‘joke’ to be crass and damaging. Those two positions are not mutually exclusive so, again, I struggle to follow your logic here.

[Edit 22/11/015 08:44 UK time — Note that in resigning as Honorary President from the Association of British Science Writers, Colin Blakemore stated that he found Tim Hunt’s joke “appalling”. https://twitter.com/Moriarty2112/status/668339294969425920 . Note also Blakemore’s comment about the “silliness” of Hunt’s words “energising sexist extremists”. This was exactly the point I was making in this post.]

In both the post to which you refer, and in very many other tweets/comments/responses, I’ve argued that even if Tim’s comments were a joke, it was an exceptionally misplaced joke. And I stick by my position on this – the ‘joke’ was indeed crass and damaging.

Let’s just take one example of the context in which Tim’s joke was entirely unhelpful. As you’ll recall, Tim was a member of the Royal Society’s Biological Sciences Awards Committee. Do you know what the male/female ratio was for Royal Society Fellowship awards for the year prior to Tim’s comments at that conference in Korea? If not, here’s the appropriate link.

This is part of the context in which Tim, an FRS, made his joke. His joke is crass and misplaced even in the context of his surrounding comments. I know that in your next post you are going to tackle my analogy with the admissions tutor lecture  at length but I’ll note here that you have previously said (via Twitter) that you agree that my Head of School would have been justified in reprimanding me for my comments. This again seems like a position lacking in self-consistency — in one case you agree that the censure is justified and yet in another, much more public and much more influential, case it isn’t? (Note also that your previous (via Twitter) rather patronising dismissal of applicants for university courses as “less than adult” is not a particularly powerful counter-argument, for reasons I’ll explain in my response to your next post).

I have said (to Louise Mensch, among many others) that there have been large deficiencies in the reporting of the context of Tim’s speech. (However, all now agree (including Mary Collins) that those “39 words” were reported accurately — in the sense of the words themselves being quoted correctly). Nonetheless, Dan Waddell and Paula Higgins’ recent forensic examination of the Hunt furore clearly shows that the extent of spin and misinformation was not limited to one side of this debate.

I’ll quote your final paragraph in full:

What I don’t understand, I guess, is how someone like Phil Moriarty could be turned against Hunt so efficiently, so effectively, so viciously. Why didn’t Phil trust his experience-based personal opinion of Hunt and assume that the quote had been taken out of context and distorted? 

I’ll reiterate. You’re working on a false premise here and your logic is faulty. You assume that I have been “turned against” Hunt. First, I find the idea that I was somehow manipulated by nefarious “SJW” forces against my will quite amusing. (I know you don’t use it, but it’s interesting how the appearance of that “SJW” perjorative can be a very effective predictor of the quality of argument/debate that one might expect from a particular commentator. Use of “SJW” generally correlates well with a paucity of intelligent and considered argumentation/debate — it’s a lazy, tired slur that too often betrays a lack of thought.)

Second, I can respect Tim Hunt as a scientist — and, on the basis of a couple of short meetings, highlight his likability and decency — and still find what he said during that meeting to be crass and damaging. You argue that “Tim meant that it was stupid to say something that could be misconstrued that badly in front of an audience that, it seems, has a powerful incentive to thus misconstrue it.”  Where has either Tim Hunt or Mary Collins explicitly said this? Or is that just your interpretation? Mary Collins was quoted in “The Observer” as follows: “It was an unbelievably stupid thing to say”.

Is your interpretation here that Prof. Collins is suggesting “It was an unbelievably stupid thing to say” in front of that audience and that in front of other audiences (or “behind closed doors”) it would be fine? If so, I’d appreciate it if you could point me to evidence that this is indeed what Prof. Collins meant.

Third, even in the context of the surrounding comments, the “joke” is, if I can quote Prof. Collins again, indeed “unbelievably stupid”. It not only does a disservice to the Royal Society’s efforts to counter gender inequality but it does a disservice to Tim’s own efforts to improve the working environment for women in science.

Towards the end of the stripy controversy?

In the reblogged post below, Raphaël Lévy neatly sums up what I very much hope will be our final words on the stripy nanoparticle furore. As we say in our response to Ong and Stellacci’s recent Formal Comment in PLOS ONE (a response to our PLOS ONE paper, published last year):

“We remain firmly of the opinion that the experimental data to date show no evidence for formation of the “highly ordered” striped morphology that has been claimed throughout the work of Stellacci and co-workers, and, for the reasons we have detailed at considerable length previously, do not find the counter-claims in Ong and Stellacci in any way compelling. We have therefore clearly reached an impasse. It is thus now up to the nanoscience community to come to its own judgement regarding the viability of the striped nanoparticle hypothesis.”



Last week saw the publication in PloS One of Quy Khac Ong and Francesco Stellacci’s response to Stirling et al “Critical Assessment of the Evidence for Striped Nanoparticles” published a year earlier (November 2014, I am one of the co-authors).

The controversy had started with our publication of Stripy Nanoparticles Revisited after a three year editorial process (2009-2012) and was followed by a large number of events at this blog, on PubPeer and a few other places.

Here is a short statement in response to Ong and Stellacci. Since theirs  was a response to Stirling et al, Julian Stirling was invited to referee their submission (report).

We are pleased that Ong and Stellacci have responded to our paper, Critical assessment of the evidence for striped nanoparticles, PLoS ONE 9 e108482 (2014). Each of their rebuttals of our critique has, however, already been addressed quite some time…

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