Patterico's Pontifications


The Nobel Laureate Scientist Is Not So Noble. But He’s Not Alone.

Filed under: General — Dana @ 6:02 pm

[guest post by Dana]

Recently, biochemist and Nobel Laureate Tim Hunt did the unimaginable: he accused girls of crying. In science labs, no less.

Hunt, who believes mixed gender labs are “disruptive”, had the unmitigated gall that is oh-so-typical of the patriarchy to claim this about females in the lab:

“Let me tell you about my trouble with girls,” Mr. Hunt said Monday at the World Conference of Science Journalists in South Korea. “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.”

Seriously?? Quick! Squish the man into a Petri dish because that seriously messed up chunk of bacteria needs to be cultured!

As you can imagine, outrage ensued. Misogynist, f***ing piece of garbage, and jackass sums up the criticism aimed at Hunt after the comments were made public. (Some women were more clever and wittier in their protest: “I am in the office, but I can’t do my science work as I saw a photograph of Tim Hunt and now I’m in love, dammit.”.)

But this is about way more than just an old man referring to “girls” in the lab as crybabies, or wanting segregated labs because sex.

As a result of the backlash, Hunt apologized, and said that:

he was just trying to be humorous. He told BBC radio on Wednesday that he was “really, really sorry I caused any offense”.

Then he added: “I did mean the part about having trouble with girls. … I have fallen in love with people in the lab and people in the lab have fallen in love with me and it’s very disruptive to the science because it’s terribly important that in a lab people are on a level playing field.”

“It’s terribly important that you can criticize people’s ideas without criticizing them and if they burst into tears, it means that you tend to hold back from getting at the absolute truth,” he said. “Science is about nothing but getting at the truth, and anything that gets in the way of that diminishes, in my experience, the science.”

It would appear that in this case, it was Hunt and his weakness for female colleagues that got in the way of science.

Hunt does acknowledge his weakness for falling in love with workplace colleagues, causing hurt and pain, and disrupting the work at hand. He also freely owns being a full-partaker and initiator of unwise relationships. Relationships that get in the way of science. Further, he is not saying “girls” are weak and inferior. He is not blaming them for the messy aftermaths per se. He is, however, using their emotional response to criticism from one they are (or were) romantically involved with as an excuse for his own inability to remain professional.

Which leads me to this: If Hunt was responsible for reviewing and assessing the professional performances of women he had been romantically involved with at the lab, he should have recused himself and handed the task over to someone else with equal professional stature. Human nature being the frail thing that it is, it seems foolish to expect a woman to be able to dispassionately and professionally receive criticism from the man that she she is either currently romantically involved with or who may have broken her heart. And equally, it seems foolish to expect a man to be able to objectively and and dispassionately assess the woman that he is currently romantically involved with or who may have broken his heart – and bruised his ego. People in situations like this are not typically models of self-discipline and emotional restraint. (Also, if I were another female scientist in the same lab and Hunt was both romantically involved with and reviewing a fellow scientist, I would not be quiet about it. She cries at criticism, so he holds back? Wrong!)

At this point, we can assume that all parties went into these relationships with eyes wide open. And if these relationships took place in the last 30 years or so, it would be ironic that women raised and educated on feminist theory, or at least influenced by it, did not know or care about the risk they were taking by getting involved with a man who was not only their superior, but who possessed a superior intellect and thus very likely also possessed a considerable ego. What did they think would happen?

(As an aside: I believe men and women are hardwired differently. As such, I don’t believe most women are able to compartmentalize in the way men can. Especially concerning matters of the heart. Because women aren’t men. And so what if the sexes are different and do not see things through the same lens, do not perceive things in the same light, do not react to stimuli in the same way, or do not think through an issue in like manner?)

So, yes, men and women do foolish and unwise things at work. What’s new? After all is said, the inevitable messy aftermath is left to contend with. Science labs are clearly no different than any other work place. So how to stop, or at least slow down, the Tim Hunts of the world from calling “girl” scientists crybabies and all that that infers in the bigger picture? Well, for starters, how about those “girl” scientists stop choosing to become romantically entangled with the Tim Hunts of the workplace who can make or break a young woman’s career? That just doesn’t seem like rocket science to me.

At the end of the day, Hunt’s apology simply wasn’t enough:

The Royal Society said it did not share Hunt’s views. It said in a statement that “too many talented individuals do not fulfil (sic) their scientific potential because of issues such as gender and the society is committed to helping to put this right.”

And he has since resigned his position as Honorary Professor with the UCL Faculty of Life Sciences.


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