I really was not planning to revisit the Tim Hunt debacle. I’ve already written a lengthy post about it (which led to quite a number of online debates and exchanges via Twitter, blog comments, and YouTube — some more ill-tempered than others). But my e-mail inbox filled up again yesterday afternoon with quite a number of messages pointing me to Louise Mensch‘s contributions to the story — of which I was more than aware — and, more importantly, alerting me to the fact that Evan Harris had weighed into the debate. (In case you were wondering about the title of this post, it was inspired by Mensch). Harris’ involvement had, for some reason, passed me by.
Evan Harris is someone for whom I have a great deal of respect. It was a great shame he lost his seat in parliament by such a small margin back in 2010 as he was a dedicated MP, the Lib Dems’ spokesman for science from 2005, and an extremely effective member of the Science and Technology Select Committee from 2003 until 2010. The scientific community in the UK owes him a debt of gratitude for his sterling work during that time. The fact that he’s a patron of the British Humanist Association also doesn’t hurt. (As this post might betray, I’m also a card-carrying member of the BHA).
So I was surprised to see that Evan had called Mensch’s version of the events “forensic” and that he adopted a position on the Hunt furore which was rather counter (to put it mildly) to that of Dorothy Bishop, David Colquhoun, and Sylvia McLain, all of whom Mensch criticises in her blog post (and all of whom I agree with on the matter of Hunt’s comments). Harris’ twitter timeline would also seem to imply that he is of the opinion that Hunt’s comments were merely a harmless/misjudged joke that was taken out of context and that the UCL and Royal Society overreacted:
The bit I find most perplexing and bizarre in all of this is that criticism of Hunt (and the loss of his honorary position at UCL) is interpreted so often in terms of infringement of free speech/academic freedom. I’ve posited the following scenario, which I’ve described in comments threads elsewhere, during various discussions with colleagues. I wonder what Harris’ (or, indeed, Mensch’s) response to the questions at the end might be?
I’m undergraduate admissions tutor for the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Nottingham. A couple of weeks ago I stood up in front of hundreds of potential applicants and their parents for two days running at our open days and gave talks about the teaching and research we do in the School and the various aspects of the physics courses available at Nottingham.
Let’s say that I made the following “gag” at some point during my open day talk (or, indeed, opened up with it):
“Let me tell you about my trouble with girls in physics courses. 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 taking our courses?
Now, seriously, I’m impressed by the strides made by girls in our physics courses over the years I’ve been at Nottingham. Science needs women, and you should do science, despite all the obstacles, and despite monsters like me.”
Then, when asked by a student during the Q&A session at the end of my talk to clarify my comments, I say:
“I’m really sorry if I have caused any offence. I was only being honest.”.
Would my Head of School be justified in calling me into his office, explaining why my comments weren’t entirely appropriate for that audience, and asking me to stand down from the Admissions Tutor aspect of my job?
…or would that be a violation of my academic freedom?