A British Uproar over ‘Girls in the Lab’

It was a shocking story that seemed to confirm the worst suspicions about sexism in science: a Nobel laureate asked to speak at a luncheon honoring female scientists announces that he’s a male chauvinist, then tells a stunned audience that “girls” in the lab are trouble because “you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticize them they cry,” and finally suggests sex-segregated labs.

After the uproar, the Case of the Misogynist Scientist quickly fell apart, with new evidence that the offending remarks were an ill-advised but well-intentioned joke taken out of context. Yet, nearly five months later, the international scandal around British biochemist Sir Tim Hunt still continues, both in the social media and in the press—only now, it’s less about sexism than about honesty, integrity, and ideology among academics and science writers on both sides of the Atlantic.

It all started at the World Congress of Science Journalists in Seoul last June when Connie St. Louis, a science writer and head of a postgraduate science journalism program at City University London sent out an angry tweet complaining that the women in science luncheon at the conference had been “utterly ruined” by Hunt’s sexist remarks. It touched off a Twitter storm, followed by sensational news stories about the scientist who thinks women “should be banned from male labs.” An apology from Hunt was widely mocked as inadequate. Inevitably, Hunt was professionally defenestrated: he resigned from several prestigious positions.

Then, the turnaround began. Several people who attended the luncheon, including female science journalists, confirmed Hunt’s claim that in his brief improvised remarks, he had been trying to make a lighthearted, self-deprecating joke and finished on a serious note, praising the work of female scientists and expressing hope for their success.

In late June, a leaked report by a European Commission—an affiliate of which, the European Research Council, sponsored Hunt’s trip to Seoul—confirmed the same, with notes taken shortly afterward by an EC official who was present. In these notes, Hunt’s comments were summarized as:

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 criticize 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.

Both the EC report and the new eyewitnesses also noted that, contrary to St. Louis’s claim of “deathly silence” after Hunt’s words, most of the audience reacted positively with laughter and applause.

Related: Science quotas for Women: A White House Goal

Finally, more than a month after Hunt’s downfall, a 12-second audio recording surfaced that caught the tail end of his fateful mini-speech. (Russian science journalist Natalia Demina belatedly discovered it among her materials and gave it to the Times with the help of Louise Mensch, a journalist and former Member of Parliament who has been one of Hunt’s staunchest champions.) In the audio, Hunt says, “Congratulations, everybody, because I hope—I hope—I really hope that there won’t be anything holding you back, especially not monsters like me.” The warmth and enthusiasm in his tone are in stark contrast to St. Louis’s retelling, which has Hunt capping a string of insults to female scientists by saying that he “doesn’t want to stand in the way of women.” And one can hear audience laughter and the start of applause before the audio is cut off.

These revelations were compounded by the fact that from the start, numerous women who had worked or studied with Hunt—including distinguished scientists such as Cambridge physicist Athene Donald—insisted that he always unfailingly supportive of female scientists and never treated women as anything other than equals.

ECR president Jean-Pierre Bourguignon also credited him as an active supporter of initiatives to help the advancement of women in science; ironically, it was partly because of his record in this area that Hunt had been sent to the Seoul conference to chair a session at which two female scientists presented their work.

Related: Shaky Studies on Women and STEM

Meanwhile, serious questions arose about the credibility of St. Louis. An investigation by The Daily Mail found what appeared to be considerable résumé-padding on St. Louis’s curriculum vitae on the City University website. (St. Louis claimed that her online CV was simply an “out-of-date version,” and the university undertook to help her “update” it.) There is also at least one past instance in which she was alleged to have misquoted people to advance an agenda—in that case, the claim that the science press in the UK was too cozy with industry.

Earlier this month, the controversy was revived by the resignation of eminent scientist Sir Colin Blakemore as honorary president of the Association of British Science Writers. Blakemore said he had been frustrated by the group’s decision to continue unconditional support for Connie St Louis (a past ABSW president) and referred to her report on Hunt’s remarks as “unbalanced, exaggerated, and selective.”

“In the face of a controversy that’s dominated science journalism for four months, the board of the ABSW has simply brushed away serious complaints and refused to implement its own procedures,” Blakemore told The Guardian.

While the ABSW’s stance is disappointing, it should be noted that after the first days of the scandal, the British press overall did a good job of accurate, balanced reporting on the later developments. Even The Guardian, a paper sometimes viewed as the Pravda of the British left, published a semi-apology for its tendentious early coverage of the story in mid-July; more recently, its report on Blakemore’s resignation implicitly acknowledged the vindication of Hunt. The London Times ran a scathing editorial in July deploring the destruction of Hunt’s reputation by “kneejerk outrage” based on “thirty-nine words [that] were lifted wholesale from their context by a partisan witness of questionable credentials.” The BBC has defended its reporting but, in a letter last month in response to complaints, acknowledged that “our understanding of Tim Hunt’s remarks in Seoul, and the involvement of some of those who reported them, has evolved considerably.”

Unfortunately, the U.S. media have been considerably less conscientious. Thus, The Washington Post, which had covered the initial firestorm, dropped the story completely after a June 15 article on Hunt’s first full-length interview after the controversy, in which he complained of being “hung out to dry” over “jocular” remarks. Since then, the only reference to Tim Hunt on the newspaper’s website is in a column by oceanographer Julia O’Hern, who laments allegedly still-rampant sexism in science and points to Hunt as an example of “unfortunate” attitudes holding back female scientists (“Nobel Prize-winning scientist Tim Hunt suggested in June that women working in laboratories would only fall in love with their male colleagues and cry when criticized”). Likewise, the New York Times completely ignored the reports challenging the initial portrayal of Hunt’s talk.

On July 1, Slate science columnist Phil Plait responded to the pro-Hunt backlash by portraying it as a typical reaction to critiques of “institutionalized sexism” and decrying the attacks on St. Louis’s credentials. Plait made no mention of the leaked EC report and dismissed Hunt’s “Now, seriously…” segue by invoking a single witness, New York University journalism professor Charles Seife, who strongly disputed it. (As it happens, Seife immediately had to backpedal on his simultaneous claim that Hunt said “the trouble with girls,” not “my trouble with girls”—which contradicted even St. Louis’s reporting.)

But the most egregious spin was offered in an August 29 Boston Globe article by Tom Levenson, professor of science writing and director of the graduate program in science writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. After summarizing the original account of Hunt’s offense, Levenson wrote:

The backlash that followed was probably predictable, driven by the impulse to protect a powerful man from the minor embarrassment of being exposed as an antiquated fool. Some prominent British scientists rallied to Hunt’s defense… A sustained and deeply misleading set of posts and articles soon followed, seeking to rewrite the record of that fateful lunch in Seoul, asserting that Hunt had been joking; that his remarks were misrepresented to bring a great man down.

Levenson made no mention of what those “misleading” posts and articles actually said; nor did he disclose the existence of an audio corroborating the revisionists’ claims. Instead, he stressed that Hunt “truly did say what he said, and subsequently affirmed that he meant it.” Of course, no one has ever disputed the accuracy of the words attributed to Hunt, only their context. As for the subsequent “affirmation,” Hunt did initially tell the BBC—in a hasty call from the airport, in response to a message that for the first time informed him his remarks had caused a scandal—that he was “trying to be honest.”

But, once again, context is crucial: Hunt explained that he “meant the part about having trouble with girls” and that he was referring to his own experience of “emotional entanglements” with female co-workers in the laboratory. (Hunt is married to Mary Collins, a distinguished scientist in her own right, whom he met when she was married to another man.)

When challenged on Twitter, Levenson dismissed his critics as “flying monkeys” and “apparatchiks.” When I asked how his insistence that Hunt is a male chauvinist squared with the testimonies of numerous women who said otherwise, Levenson replied that he never said Hunt was a chauvinist—only that Hunt’s words showed the prevalence of implicit, often unconscious bias. But that’s not what his Globe article said: Levenson explicitly castigated Hunt for his “antediluvian attitudes.”

More recently, after Blakemore’s resignation, Levenson went on the warpath again, proclaiming that no one “outside the Tim Hunt Brit-friends bubble” believed Hunt had been unfairly maligned.

This blatant dishonesty is compounded by conflict of interest. Since July, the Knight Center for Science Journalism at MIT has been headed by Deborah Blum, who was, from the start, a key figure in the anti-Hunt campaign. (While Levenson denied any conflict, Twitter user James Mershon unearthed a January 2014 blogpost in which Levenson says that Blum “is a good friend as well as a professional colleague.”)

At the time of the initial controversy, Blum immediately corroborated St. Louis’s account, as they had agreed in advance; since then, she has staunchly and vocally defended  the anti-Hunt narrative. Her own conduct raises some troubling ethical questions. For instance, at first, Blum strongly insisted that Hunt had confirmed to her he was serious about segregated labs—and even said that she “was hoping he’d say it had been a joke” when she spoke to him the next day. Later, she changed her tune, tweeting and endorsing the view that even if jocular, Hunt’s remarks were unacceptable and “awful.”

Why the witch-hunt? It is clear that, from the start, Hunt was a sacrificial lamb in a feminist crusade against sexism in science. Today’s feminists are heavily invested in downplaying progress and insisting that the situation is nearly as dire as a century ago when women often had to fight just for access to labs. When the Hunt story first broke, Ann Perkins, an editorialist for The Guardian, called it “a moment to savor”—not, as some thought, because of Hunt’s downfall, but because he had supposedly exposed still-rampant misogyny in the scientific world:

“The mask has not so much slipped as crashed to the floor.” On a similar note, Levenson wrote in The Globe, “To suggest Hunt had to have been joking is to say the practice of science has changed, that no longer is it as hostile to women as everyone concedes it was until not that long ago. … Hunt’s real accomplishment in Korea—amplified by the backlash in his defense—was to blow up such self-congratulation, reminding everyone a dishonorable history isn’t actually past.”

Of course, such a narrative has to ignore and suppress not only the evidence that Hunt’s words were a self-deprecating joke, but the numerous facts indicating his history of support for female scientists.

Disgracefully, this ongoing propagandist smear campaign is being supported by a number of academics—including Blum and Levenson, professors of science journalism at a leading institution. It is no less appalling that most of the American press has allowed the casual vilification of Hunt to continue. Earlier this month, National Geographic included Hunt in a “rogues’ gallery” of ignoble Nobel laureates including HIV/AIDS denialist Kary Mullis, white supremacist William Shockley, and chemical weapons inventor Fritz Haber.

A full accounting of the facts indisputably shows that Tim Hunt has been vindicated. It’s time for the academy and the media to step up and set the record straight.

2 thoughts on “A British Uproar over ‘Girls in the Lab’”

  1. Congrats on a principled rebuttal of the dreadful and dishonest stand taken by these feminist crusaders – the truth is out.

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