Remind me again what you won the Nobel Prize for? Oh wait, you didn’t. But Tim Hunt did for Physiology or Medicine in 2001 for groundbreaking work on cell division. So the 72-year-old Nobel Prize winner wise-cracked a quasi-joke?
“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.”
It fell like a lead balloon, as the room went dead silent. But then, Connie St Louis, the director of the science journalism program at City University London, took to the twitters to spread the outrage of another Brit who tells a bad joke.
Some female scientists responded by using sarcasm:
Prof. Sophie Scott of University College London, who researches the neuroscience of voices, speech and laughter, wrote on Twitter, “I am in the office, but I can’t do my science work as I saw a photograph of #TimHunt and now I’m in love, dammit.”
Kate Devlin, a lecturer at Goldsmiths, University of London, added in a Twitter post of her own, “Dear department: please note l will be unable to chair the 10am meeting this morning because I am too busy swooning and crying. #TimHunt.”
Other women responded to the comments by posting photographs of themselves working as scientists, some in playful poses, with the hashtag #distractinglysexy.
This was pretty funny stuff, and certainly witty and pointed enough to make clear that Tim Hunt’s comments were foolish and out-of-touch, not to mention not very funny. So there you have it, dumb speech met with witty speech, and witty clearly beat the daylights out of dumb speech.
Tim Hunt got the message, apologizing:
He told BBC Radio that he was “really, really sorry” for causing any offense, even as he stood by some of what he had said.
But sorry though he may have been, he went on to explain that his comments weren’t entirely facetious.
“I did mean the part about having trouble with girls,” 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 because it’s terribly important that in a lab people are on a level playing field.”
That’s pretty creepy, but reflects mostly on him, and perhaps his social awkwardness, rather than any women in the lab. The same can’t be said for this:
And he elaborated on his comments that women are prone to cry when criticized.
“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.”
If science is “about nothing but getting at the truth,” is this truth? Are women scientists “prone to cry when criticized”? That’s a question only scientists can answer, since the rest of us aren’t hanging around the lab enough to gather sufficient data points. But then, does anyone really expect a truthful answer to such a sexist assertion?
A Nobel laureate has resigned as honorary professor at University College London after saying that female scientists should be segregated from male colleagues because women cry when criticized and are a romantic distraction in the laboratory.
University College London said in a statement that Mr. Hunt, who was knighted in 2006, had resigned his post in the faculty of life sciences on Wednesday.
Whether one views Tim Hunt’s comments as abhorrently sexist or an abhorrently sexist joke gone bad, he’s gone. A Nobel laureate has been chased out of academia for having expressed unacceptable thoughts about women.
At 72 years of age, it’s not clear how many good teaching years he had ahead of him, but for however long he might have shared the scientific voodoo that swirled around in his head, he won’t. And every student who might have gleaned something from him, every student, regardless of gender, who might have learned some science-y tidbit that would someday garner a Nobel Prize of their own, will never gain that insight.
This is not to excuse, forgive or trivialize what Tim Hunt said, but there was once a time when a bad joke, even one grounded in a sincerely held belief, would be dismissed by groans, a riposte that smacked the jokester hard enough to make sure he realized that his idea of funny was not universally shared, and then everyone would move on to more serious matters.
In other words, an inappropriate statement or joke would get the reception it deserved, but the big boys and girls would get over it, because there were other issues of greater importance that deserved their attention. No longer. Not for Tim Hunt.
Students are denied access to the information that a Nobel Prize winner would impart to them, though they will be given full access to every person who has called for Hunt to be drawn and quartered, emasculated, severed limb from limb, for having uttered such offensiveness.
How many of Tim Hunt’s critics have won Nobel Prizes? How many sensitive to the nuance of gender offense will be able to teach the next generation of scientists about cell division like Tim Hunt could? Is it enough that laboratories around the world will be filled with women working alongside men in a non-sexist environment, though without the insight of great scientists who happen to also be sexist pigs? So who really wins here?