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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