For a quick lesson in how to sabotage your own credibility see Sir Tim Hunt.
Speaking to a gathering of senior female scientists last week, the British biochemist 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.”
The response from female scientists was swift and sarcastic, most notably on Twitter.
Amy Remeikis tweeted a photo of Marie Curie with the caption: “I’m really glad that Curie managed to take a break from crying to discover radium and polonium.”
Sonja Vernes tweeted, “I made it through these brain dissections without falling in love or crying. Phew!”
Sir Tim Hunt, a Nobel Prize winner, has since resigned from his position at University College London. British commentators are now arguing about how unfairly he has been treated. London Mayor Boris Johnson has stepped in to defend him
Sir Hunt says he intended for his comments to be received in a light-hearted way. Perhaps, but it appears he still meant sincerely what he said lightly. His apology that followed in an interview on BBC Radio 4 was more of the “I’m sorry I got caught” variety: “I’m very sorry I said what I said. It was a very stupid thing to do in the presence of all those journalists.”
He then tried to explain his position by reaffirming his original statements in a slightly different way.
“It’s terribly important that you criticise people’s ideas without criticising them and if they burst into tears it means you tend to hold back from getting at the absolute truth. Science is about nothing except getting at the truth and anything that gets in the way of that diminishes, in my experience, the science.”
I think we should agree to criticise the idea rather than the person. Let’s do that with Sir Hunt’s own ideas.
He said, “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.”
One of Sir Hunt’s central ideas here is that it is easy to fall in love with other people. That idea seems reasonable. I’m not going to challenge it.
Another idea offered by Sir Hunt is that it is easy to fall in love with Sir Hunt. Lacking any reliable data, let’s overlook that one for now.
The idea that really demands scrutiny is his implication that if there is ever an inappropriate romance in the workplace, it is the woman’s fault for being in the room. Sir Hunt apparently lives in a world where the sole function of a woman is to wander around swooning over every man she bumps into.
If we dig deeper into that idea we start to unearth more than just one man’s ego-driven assumptions. We find an entire society that is constructed by men, for men.
Sir Hunt might learn something from Adam Savage, the Mythbusters presenter. In talking to his teenage son about pornography, Savage said, “the thing you’ve got to understand, bud, is the Internet hates women.”
It may seem heavy-handed to bring porn into this discussion but I see it as symptomatic of the same male-centric worldview that Sir Hunt’s ideas are entrenched in.
Savage explains, “If you could look into someone’s brain the way you search the Internet, and the Internet was a dude, that dude has a problem with women.”
I think Sir Hunt’s comments reveal the gentlemanly face of that same fundamental misogyny. It’s a man’s world. Light-hearted or not, that view deserves to be challenged.
First published in Bay of Plenty Times 19 June 2015. Reproduced with permission.