Tim Hunt: critics and supporters

The responses to Tim Hunt’s now notorious comments on women in science have been as predictable as Newton’s Third Law of Motion.   In case you missed the furore, the Nobel Prize winning biochemist gave a speech at a conference in Seoul in which he said:

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 criticise them, they cry.

His audience was made up of female scientists and journalists, and there is no doubt the remark was intended as a joke.

However, not surprisingly (nor unreasonably), many found his comments irritating.  The main response I was aware of was a series of mocking tweets from female scientists, linking to photos of themselves at work, and using the hashtag #distractinglysexy.

It seems Hunt then didn’t do a very good job at damage limitation – here it is claimed that he responded to initial criticisms by insisting he was only being honest.

Then it transpired that he had been forced to resign, not just from his post at UCL but from other scientific bodies as well.  At this point a counter-reaction set in.

Hunt’s supporters have grumbled about ‘political correctness’, invoked freedom of speech, or even, as here, compared the ‘twitter mob’ which turned against him to the Maenads who tore Orpheus apart.

Dame Athene Donald was among those who expressed a more modified support for Hunt.  The professor of experimental physics at Cambridge issued this statement:

“During the time I worked with him he was always immensely supportive of the ERC’s work around gender equality. His off-the-cuff remarks in Korea are clearly inappropriate and indefensible, but … he has worked tirelessly in support of young scientists of both genders.”

Here’s a critical – but measured – response from a US scientist.

There seem to have been over-reactions on both sides (rather as with the Rosetta Mission shirt), but I agree with Jeremy Duns, here pushing back against the rhetoric against twitter ‘mobs’.

The fact that criticism can go too far, or have unwelcome results, shouldn’t inhibit, and doesn’t invalidate, all the initial negative responses to Hunt, in particular the satirical #distractinglysexy meme.

Share this article.