Wednesday, June 17, 2015

what if

If a elderly professor had made a light-hearted comment in an after-dinner speech, and if that comment had been met with a "tsunami of opprobrium" on social media calling for him to lose his job, after which – even though he immediately and unreservedly apologised – his employer had severed his contract without giving him the right to reply, this would be a cause for great concern (and the behaviour of his employer would be illegal). 
  • What if, though, the comments made by Tim Hunt were not made at an off-the-cuff after dinner speech, but at a lunchtime talk specifically for for female journalists and scientists at the 2015 World Conference of Science Journalists in Seoul, entitled "Creative Science—Only a Game?"
  • What if his first public statement afterwards he said that he was "really really sorry that he caused any offence"; after all, he had "just meant to be honest". He, however, "did mean the part about having trouble with girls" because "it's terribly important that in a lab people are sort of on a level playing field, and I found that these emotional entanglements made life very difficult"?
  • What if he was not hounded on Twitter, if there was no hysterical baying for him to lose his job, but instead a very witty and imaginative response that gently revealed how silly his comments were? Why does Boris Johnson think the right to speak "ironically" is reserved for Hunt himself?
  • What if he was not sacked from his job, because his position was honorary and unpaid, and what if the university at which he held an honorary professorship has stated that they "sought on more than one occasion to make contact with Sir Tim to discuss the situation, but his resignation was received before direct contact was established"?
  • What if when, in 2014, Lab Times asked Tim Hunt "why are women still under-represented in senior positions in academia and funding bodies?", his answer (on page 8 of the publication) was as follows:
I'm not sure there is really a problem, actually. People just look at the statistics. I dare [sic], myself, think there is any discrimination, either for or against men or women. I think people are really good at selecting good scientists but I must admit the inequalities in the outcomes, especially at the higher end, are quite staggering. And I have no idea what the reasons are. One should start asking why women being under-represented in senior positions is such a big problem. Is this actually a bad thing? It is not immediately obvious for me... is this bad for women? Or bad for science? Or bad for society? I don't know, it clearly upsets people a lot.
If all those things were the case, and known to be the case, wouldn't we be having a more productive debate?

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