The Crime of Attempted Humour

Speaking to a room of female journalists at the World Conference of Science Journalists in South Korea, Nobel prize-winning scientist Sir Tim Hunt made the single biggest miscalculation of his career. He tried to tell a joke.

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.”

Understandably, many women from both inside and outside of the scientific community took issue with this so-called “joke,” which was not just sexist and unfunny, it was barely a joke at all. Hunt was quick to apologise, but not quick enough to assuage the collective anger of the madding crowd. The damage was done. The cage had been rattled and those inside were not content to sing from their chains. Dozens of articles were published. Thousands of tweets were tweeted. Self-proclaimed Social Justice Warriors demanded they see a head on a plate.

Two days after making the offending remarks, Hunt resigned from his position at University College London (UCL). In statements to the press, he claimed the UCL had forced his hand. So awful were his comments, there was no need to consider his version of events. So egregious was his behaviour, the only suitable punishment was automatic dismissal. The crime of attempted humour is serious. One thoughtless comment made in jest and – just like that – a brilliant scientist can be terminated at the height of his career. The demands of Social Justice have trumped Science.

Hunt, however, has not been without his defenders. Distinguished scientists of both sexes, from all stratas of public life, have extended their support and a petition to have Hunt reinstated is active online (it has yet to reach 5,000 signatures). Gestures in kind, which despite clear and convincing arguments in the name of reason and science have proven ineffectual, drowned out by unceasing appeals to emotion and morality.

This is a matter of ethics in journalism. Too many journalists are willing to forgo their ethical responsibilities if it helps further their favoured causes, engaging in vindictive media campaigns and cementing over gaps in knowledge with baseless assumptions – in other words, telling lies – without appreciation of the wider context or concern for the individual.

At the cost of her credibility, a small price to pay in the name of Social Justice, Connie St Louis (writing for the Guardian) just two days ago tried to discredit Hunt’s claim that his comments were not to be taken seriously, nor were they in fact taken seriously by women at the conference. Here is an excerpt from her article:

The words ‘now seriously’ make it very clear that I was making a joke, albeit a very bad one, but they were not mentioned in the first reports and I was deluged with hate mail,” Hunt said. He did not say this, nor did he praise the role of women in science and in Korean society. I wish he had; things would have been so much better.

Until yesterday, the transcript for Hunt’s speech was unavailable, so there was no way to test the veracity of his claim. Now that we have access to what was actually said, the facts are clear. Context is everything.

I’ll sign-off by doing what so many failed to do and quote Tim Hunt in context.

It’s strange that such a chauvinist monster like me has been asked to speak to women scientists. 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. Perhaps we should make separate labs for boys and girls?

Now seriously, I’m impressed by the economic development of Korea. And women scientists played, without doubt an important role in it. Science needs women and you should do science despite all the obstacles, and despite monsters like me.”

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Vocal Cords v Eardrums

Northern Ireland’s Public Prosecution Service will prosecute firebrand evangelical preacher James McConnell under the Communications Act 2003, it was revealed today.

Pastor McConnell hit headlines last year after he was heard pushing air through his vocal cords to chop up the airflow from his lungs into audible pulses, before using the muscles of his larynx to adjust the length and tension of his vocal cords to “fine-tune” pitch and tone, thus producing the natural phenomena known as speaking.

The incident raised heated questions about how to balance the act of “speaking” with the right not to feel offended, and about when – if ever – the government should intervene.

There are certain exceptions from the right to speak audibly – defamation and the right not to feel offended – said Harold Spritzer, an associate professor of mixology and “law expert” at Bartender’s International at Hicksville.

Offence is caused when someone is particularly sensitive to ideas they disagree with,” Professor Spritzer explained. “In other words, when you say something someone else might disagree with, you should expect an offended reaction from other people.”

Pastor McConnell’s vocal utterances might have crossed the line, Spritzer said. “I don’t think it is unreasonable to expect what he said would incite an offended reaction.”

The science is complicated. Through the medium of air, McConnell used his capacity for speech to create an audible mechanical wave of pressure and displacement that when received by the brain (via the earhole) evokes the auditory sensation known as “sound.”

When exposed to “sound,” some people are said to experience a negative basic feeling or emotion that involves a subjective character of unpleasantness, aversion, harm or threat of harm to body or mind.

Recent studies have shown that emotional harm is equal in intensity to that experienced by the body, said Cat Mendoza, professor of veterinary psychology at Bernadean University (online).

The effects of exposure to disagreeable ideas can be long-lasting,” said Professor Mendoza. “Pain has a shared circuitry in the human brain, and it makes no distinction between being hit in the face and losing face as a result of feeling offended.”

With rates of emotional injury at an all-time high, professor Mendoza says that protecting the right not to feel offended is more important than ever.

The only way to counter bad vibrations is to provide legal redress for the aggrieved. We impose speed limits on driving and regulate food and drugs because we know that the costs of not doing so can lead to accidents and harm. Why should vocal cords be exempt from public welfare concerns when its social costs can be even more injurious?”

Communicating through the use of sign language, Melody Minx, a self-proclaimed Social Justice Warrior and leader of the Dumb Blondes Solidarity Movement, said McConnell’s toxic vocal cords are symptomatic of a wider problem.

This society privileges able-voiced white men,” said Minx. By added virtue of his Christian faith, Mr. McConnell wields an unusual amount of power and influence. When he speaks, his vocal cords actually vibrate with violence. My fear is there is going to be an increase in verbal violence as a result of his unregulated speech, which was heard by literally a number of people.”

She continued, saying: The Dumb Blondes Solidarity Movement believes that speaking breeds more speaking. We are sick and tired, so very tired, of these vocal cord apologists demanding access to our defenceless eardrums. That’s not dialogue. It’s not debate. It’s not free speech. It’s bullying and intimidation. It’s a horror show and it must be stopped.”

McConnell is expected to be found guilty in December.