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.

Author: Philip Moriarty

Physicist. Rush fan. Father of three. (Not Rush fans. Yet.) Rants not restricted to the key of E minor...

24 thoughts on “Witch Hunt? A response to Thomas Basbøll”

  1. Thanks for the response, Phil. Here are few thoughts to keep it going. As I’ve said to you by direct message, let’s agree that the reporting was flawed as to context and accurate as to content (the 39-words). I think you draw inappropriate conclusions from these facts and you think the same of me. That’s the crux of our disagreement, and I’m happy to have it on that basis. I hope that’s agreeable, as it were, to you as well.

    In my post I link to a podcast interview where Hunt explains that the punchline of the joke was a reductio ad absurdum. It’s entirely possible to tell a joke with a punchline that a depends on a particular logic within the broader context of some otherwise candid remarks about men and women in the lab.

    I appreciate your attempt to be logical and reasonable. But logic has to know its limits to be rational. The case against Hunt has deployed a rich rhetoric, with appeal to reasons (logos), passions (pathos) and reputations (ethos).

    My argument is that the original story about Hunt was so counter to his reputation that skepticism was warranted. Once the evidence was tested, the story was revealed to have no legs. Since they now retreated (from “it was no joke” to “it was a bad joke”) and entrenched, the credibility of his accusers became a legitimate issue. In my view, Hunt’s ethos has shown itself to be much more resilient than St Louis and Blum’s, in large part due to their continued nondisclosure (now non-acknowledgement) of their involvement with the conference that Hunt spoke at. They simply lack all credibility in my mind.

    So the conversation (at least for my part) is well beyond the “evidence” about what happened in Seoul and what some individuals think or don’t think of what they’ve been told he said. Even Hunt probably no longer really remembers exactly what he said. He can only assure us that he was trying to say something perfectly sensible in a witty way. I believe him.

    I’m not defying logic to believe him. But I am relying on more than just logic to develop a position on this. As Deleuze and Guattari once wisely said, at the end of the day, there aren’t any contradictions, just degrees of humour. I hope we can keep our good humour as this conversation proceeds.

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    1. “I hope we can keep our good humour as this conversation proceeds.”

      Great sentiment, Thomas. I echo it. Thanks for closing with this important statement.

      As you quite rightly say, we don’t have recourse to logic alone in considering these situations. (Coincidentally, I’ve just re-read a wonderful little book by Simon Blackburn called “Being Good” – http://www.amazon.co.uk/Being-Good-Short-Introduction-Ethics/dp/0192853775 — on ethics). The level of appropriateness of a situation isn’t of course a rigorously-derivable quantitatively-ascertainable variable!

      The interesting thing is that if you assume I’m drawing inappropriate conclusions you then need to explain why Colin Blakemore (to whom I refer in the edit above), referred to Tim’s comments as “appalling” in their silliness. Blakemore clearly was very thoughtful and considered in choosing the words for his resignation and I don’t believe that he would have used a word like “appalling” lightly.

      We agree on those 39 words, We also agree that it was a misplaced joke. We also agree that there were deficiencies in the reporting (but I’ll point you again to Waddell and Higgins’ careful analysis). I disagree, however, that this means the story “has no legs”. Those 39 words, even within the context of a joke, are a problem. (As Dorothy Bishop elucidates here: https://www.timeshighereducation.com/opinion/the-trouble-with-jokes-about-girls )

      I find myself in broad agreement with Blakemore in that although there were clear deficiencies in the reporting (coupled with shameful witchhunting on all sides of the debate), that still doesn’t excuse the fact that Tim Hunt’s joke was “appalling”.

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    2. In my post I link to a podcast interview where Hunt explains that the punchline of the joke was a reductio ad absurdum. It’s entirely possible to tell a joke with a punchline that a depends on a particular logic within the broader context of some otherwise candid remarks about men and women in the lab

      OK, Thomas, thanks for clarifying what you meant by candid. This is what Is suspected was the case. You do know that by suggesting that Tim was speaking candidly about his “true” views on women in science you are flying in the face of the arguments that Tim Hunt, Mary Collins, Louise Mensch, and many others have made about Tim’s joke?

      Are you really suggesting that, in your opinion, Tim meant some aspects of what he said about women in science? If so, which statements do you think were candid?

      Philip

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      1. As he explains in the interview, he was being candid about how romances in the lab interfere with the science. He was not expressing views about women, other than making the (admittedly hetero-normative) assumption that romance is more likely when both sexes are present. As candour goes, it’s pretty ordinary stuff.

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  2. No, we don’t agree that it was a misplaced joke. We just agree that he probably said those 39 words. I can imagine a context in which those 39 words were wholly appropriate. What Hunt missed was the presence, in the room, of a perspective outside of the context he thought he was addressing (that of a Nobel laureate speaking to intelligent, accomplished women in science, with their own similar experiences in labs, and an ability to understand a reductio). I don’t know for sure that he was, largely, in the context he thought was, nor do I know for certain that he even thought so. But the balance of the evidence suggests to me that it is more likely than what we’ve told. It is more likely that he was being pleasant and supportive than that he was being crass and damaging. I simply don’t trust the people who vilify him. Their ethos is shot.

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  3. Great post Philip. Not noticed Blakemore’s choice of words before. They are indeed pertinent.

    Thomas,
    What I have found bewildering in all this is the urge of some of Hunt’s supporters to find nothing absolutely nothing wrong in what he said. Even Hunt does not claim this – or didn’t originally. See his ‘Hung out to dry’ interview with Robin McKie where he described his remarks as ‘inexcusable’ and his wife describes it as ‘an unbelievably stupid thing to say.’ He also very revealingly says, ‘I stood up and went mad…’. How does that tally with the carefully constructed, insightful joke people now claim he cracked?

    The balance of evidence, which includes his own words both in that article and in his Today interview, where he said his words were accurately reported, and outlined clearly in our piece, overwhelmingly supports the fact that he said something crass and and embarrassing. A bunch of people who weren’t there, creating a post-hoc explanation for his words, can’t usurp the testimony of those present. Even supposedly supportive eye witnesses like his the ERC press officer who was there (‘sexist and unacceptable’), or TJ Dimacali (‘what he said was wrong and definitely deserved to be called out ‘) don’t spare him from that criticism.

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    1. Hi Dan, I’ve written about this for months, and certainly within earshot of you. We’ve had numerous opportunities for an engagement like this, but you’ve declined every time. My opinion of your research has been available since you published it. You have not engaged with that either. Until you do, I’m just going to let you have your opinion of my opinion. Be well.

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  4. @Dan Waddell

    “Not noticed Blakemore’s choice of words before. They are indeed pertinent.”

    Mr Waddell I suggest you read Blakemore’s complete resignation letter and then you wont just have to depend on Mr Moriarty’s “choice” of words.

    http://www.absw.org.uk/files/Statement_from_Professor_Sir_Colin_Blakemore.pdf

    Blakemore’s complete sentence that included all the choice words was this:

    “I remain appalled by the silliness of the 37 words of Hunt’s “joke” and the way in which they have energized sexist extremists.”

    But I notice neither Mr Waddell or Mr Moriarty seem interested in choosing to explore beyond these choice words to possibly explore why and understand the reason Blakemore had for resigning from the organisation that Connie St Louis was a representative of.

    I think Blakemore helps make it clear by saying this:

    “What’s the point of the media if journalists can’t be trusted to be accurate, fair and balanced in what they write, and to distinguish between opinion and evidence?”

    And this:

    “I had been shocked to hear Connie report, on the BBC Today programme on 10 June, that Hunt had said he hoped that the women had prepared lunch and that he was a chauvinist pig, that he spoke for 5-7 minutes about the problems caused by women in labs, that he had been told not to tell jokes, that his talk wasn’t intended as a joke and was greeted with “deathly silence””

    “But between 10 and 30 June there had been “a cacophony of conflicting detail” (http://hildabastian.net/index.php/8-secondary/19-a-tim-hunt-timeline), with the release of a fuller account of Hunt’s remarks, including praise and encouragement for women scientists, and an audio recording of such encouragement at the end of his talk, followed by laughter and applause. Most important was a flood of support for Hunt the person, the mentor, the generous champion of young people, male and female, from all his collaborators and students. And there were accusations, ugly in style but worrying in content, about Connie’s previous track record of accuracy.”

    I notice Mr Waddell and Ms Higgins opened their article with a quote from George Orwell about historical revisionism. As can be seen from Blakemore and other critics it is clear that Connie St Louis original tweet and subsequent interviews provided all the support and reason for the further articles and the subsequent summary dismissal of Hunt from various positions. That is why Tim Hunt quite rightly said he was “hung out to dry”, because he was offered no recourse to explain himself directly to these organisations before being removed.

    It is quite clear that depicting the defence of Tim Hunt as this only being a narrow argument about the veracity of the “37 words”, while ignoring the inaccuracy and vehemence of Connies St Louis initial report and campaigning and followed by the claim that Tim Hunt confirmed this misrepresentation merely by juxtaposing out of context his words saying he was “honest”, is the only Orwellian trick being performed today.

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  5. ‘Declined every time’? I don’t want this to degenerate into ‘he said/she said’ and spoil Phil’s blog, but I remember quite a few exchanges back in the summer. That Paula and I thought it best to devote our time to researching and writing an article, rather than endlessly repeating circular arguments, does not mean we ‘declined’. I can’t think of a high level of engagement on this matter than producing a 11,000+ word article that took several months to research and write!! Anyway, I don’t remember reading an adequate answer to the question of why a group of people who weren’t there attribute a meaning and context to a ‘joke’ that isn’t/wasn’t shared by the man himself and those who actually were there, even ones sympathetic to Hunt. My mistake, I’m sure.

    I also invited you and others to post beneath the Medium article, which you (and very few other Hunt ‘supporters’ come to think of it) have not taken me up on. That’s the usual way of doing things, isn’t it (and what happened in the summer when we discussed our blog about Louise misquoting the BBC)? Or are we expected only to respond to your posts?

    Yes, you wrote something in parentheses in the blog you link to, but I didn’t think that was the sum total of your response. It seems you don’t agree with our conclusions, which is fine of course, but forgive me if I think our piece amounts to more than ‘just a few more people (than we already know of) interpreted Hunt to be saying something sexist’, and therefore warrants a bit more of a detailed response than that and an inelegant metaphor about a smoking gun.

    You also say ‘But now I’m more struck by the questions they didn’t ask and the information they left out.’ What questions? What information? You see what I mean? I thought you might get round to letting us know.

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  6. @Dan Waddell

    Perhaps people are not posting below your Medium article because you are not engaging with pertinent questions?

    For instance you haven’t answered mine there. Perhaps Mr Moriarty wont mind you answering it here?

    Given all the developments subsequent to that occasion; for instance there has come forth plenty of testimony from female colleagues of Tim Hunt who say they have never once detected any sexism in him in his professional or personal behaviour, and more importantly Tim Hunt himself has said explicitly that he never intended to propose the idea seriously.

    Do you think Tim Hunt is a serious advocate of single gender labs?

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    1. “Do you think Tim Hunt is a serious advocate of single gender labs?”

      Given Thomas’ comments about the candid nature of some of Tim Hunt’s comments, I’d like to hear his answer to this question.

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      1. Really? You’re in doubt about this, Philip? (After my comment above?) I’ll explain it again: Hunt was being candid about what happens between men and women in the lab. His joke about single gender labs was, again, a “reductio ad absurdum”, an “absolutely ridiculous” conclusion to draw from the ordinary difficulty that romantic relationships pose for scientists who are trying to figure out how nature works.

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      2. @ThomasBasboell

        Thanks, Thomas, for the clarification. I wasn’t being deliberately obtuse or provocative — I promise. (Part of the reason for the terseness of my response to “tlitbl”‘s comment was due to domestic duties! Wrong time of evening to be responding to comments).

        I just wanted to make 100% certain of your stance on the candid nature of Tim Hunt’s comments. The problem I have is that Tim’s stance re his honesty on the relationship issue muddies the waters of his “joke”. I can understand the claim for a reductio ad absurdum in the context you describe re. relationships and segreated labs but how does the statement about women crying when you criticise them work within the reductio ad absurdum scenario?

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      3. Since we know Hunt doesn’t hold women in low regard, and if we assume that he wasn’t trying to belittle the accomplished, intelligent women he thought he was speaking to, we are left with the conclusion that he wasn’t saying that women cry when criticized, but women-you-are-romantically-involved-with cry when criticized. That”s also his own explanation.

        I like to compare it to the brouhaha that didn’t happen over Hawking’s “women are the greatest mystery in the universe” remark on Reddit. Some feminists took offense at being talked about this way, but Hawking was obviously really saying: the opposite sex is the greatest mystery, i.e., the attraction between the sexes, i.e., love is the greatest mystery. Hunt was saying something similar. He was not talking about women but about (heterosexual) love.

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  7. @Dan Waddell

    [Reposting this from 3:48pm without the links to avoid spam filter:]

    “Not noticed Blakemore’s choice of words before. They are indeed pertinent.”

    Mr Waddell I suggest you read Blakemore’s complete resignation letter and then you wont just have to depend on Mr Moriarty’s “choice” of words.

    see ABSW site for Blakemores Statement

    Blakemore’s complete sentence that included all the choice words was this:

    “I remain appalled by the silliness of the 37 words of Hunt’s “joke” and the way in which they have energized sexist extremists.”

    But I notice neither Mr Waddell or Mr Moriarty seem interested in choosing to explore beyond these choice words to possibly explore why and understand the reason Blakemore had for resigning from the organisation that Connie St Louis is a representative of.

    I think Blakemore helps make it clear by saying this:

    “What’s the point of the media if journalists can’t be trusted to be accurate, fair and balanced in what they write, and to distinguish between opinion and evidence?”

    And this:

    “I had been shocked to hear Connie report, on the BBC Today programme on 10 June, that Hunt had said he hoped that the women had prepared lunch and that he was a chauvinist pig, that he spoke for 5-7 minutes about the problems caused by women in labs, that he had been told not to tell jokes, that his talk wasn’t intended as a joke and was greeted with “deathly silence””

    “But between 10 and 30 June there had been “a cacophony of conflicting detail” ([removed link to Hilda Bastain timeline]), with the release of a fuller account of Hunt’s remarks, including praise and encouragement for women scientists, and an audio recording of such encouragement at the end of his talk, followed by laughter and applause. Most important was a flood of support for Hunt the person, the mentor, the generous champion of young people, male and female, from all his collaborators and students. And there were accusations, ugly in style but worrying in content, about Connie’s previous track record of accuracy.”

    I notice Mr Waddell and Ms Higgins opened their article with a quote from George Orwell about historical revisionism. As can be seen from Blakemore and other critics it is clear that Connie St Louis original tweet and subsequent interviews provided all the support and reason for the further articles and the subsequent summary dismissal of Hunt from various positions. That is why Tim Hunt quite rightly said he was “hung out to dry”, because he was offered no recourse to explain himself directly to these organisations before being removed.

    It is quite clear that depicting the defence of Tim Hunt as this only being a narrow argument about the veracity of the “37 words”, while ignoring the inaccuracy and vehemence of Connies St Louis initial report and campaigning and followed by the claim that Tim Hunt confirmed this misrepresentation merely by juxtaposing out of context his words saying he was “honest”, is the only Orwellian trick being performed today.

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    1. This is a remarkable comment. I have said time and again that there have been deficiences in the reporting. I linked to the entirety of Blakemore’s statement so that those, like you, who were interested could go and read it for themselves. I then focussed on a point which was of key relevance to the discussion Thomas and I were having (and particularly pertinent with regard to some of Thomas’ important and perceptive points).

      It’s hugely refreshing to debate this matter with someone like Thomas — someone who takes the time to read and carefully consider the counter-arguments without firing off entirely irrelevant points which have already been addressed a vast number of times previously.

      And, of course, it’s equally refreshing to debate with someone who is willing to put their name to the comments and stand behind their words, instead of cravenly hiding behind anon cover like yourself and “Shub Niggurath”.

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  8. Sorry tlitb, we saw your question. Personally, I couldn’t see the relevance of it to the piece and still can’t.

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  9. “Sorry tlitb, we saw your question. Personally, I couldn’t see the relevance of it to the piece and still can’t.”

    You opened your piece with a quote from Orwell about revising history “as often as was necessary”.

    Connie St Louis is the source of the claim that Tim Hunt seriously advocated segregated labs.

    Anyone can now see that claim doesn’t stand up as a credible statement about the man before, or after, that lunch.

    Thanks for confirming you don’t think it is necessary now to dare risk say anything against that claim.

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