Saturday, 20 June 2015

Thinking about Professor Tim Hunt

I don’t have a Twitter account. It would bring out the worst in me. Seems to do that to lots of people. Nor do I publish anything under a pseudonym except in one case where I am expected  to do so by the conventions – so at The Guardian I publish my Comments as “Sixty Plus”. But I don’t like that. This nickname system encourages a genre of writing well-satirised in Private Eye.

A British Nobel Prize winning scientist, Professor Tim Hunt, is currently in deep shit with the Twitterati and the Nickname Mob for these words, uttered at a lunch held alongside a conference of Science Journalists in Seoul:

“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”

I have let these words roll round my head. Is it a joke? - but very far off Nobel standards of funniness – it’s surely going to fall flat (especially to the invited lunch audience of female journalists and scientists!). Or does it tell you what he feels about women in the laboratory – well, his laboratory I suppose. In which case, you might laugh at him rather than the supposed joke. The old dinosaur! Just possibly, you might laugh with him because (secretly) you think it’s all true. Just possibly, you might think that faced with an all-female audience in a foreign land this is his idea of flirting.

[The more I think about it, the more I incline to the flirting interpretation. He's a 72 year old man addressing a lunch of female scientists and science journalists, most of whom will be younger than him and prettier. He's a long way from home. His opening gambit is confessional: he's the kind of guy who falls in love with female scientists. It follows: If you want to fall in love with me, feel free. But there are risks ... ]

Imagine a female Professor, Nobel Prize winning if you like, saying to an all-male audience:

“The trouble with boys in the laboratory is that they are always phoning in with manflu - and when they return to work, they look to you for the Kleenex”

I can’t do better. But the idea is to get the same ambiguity: Is this a joke? Or is she telling you how she feels about men in the laboratory – her laboratory? If it’s about how she feels, then we laugh at her for having such a stereotyping view of her male colleagues. Just possibly, we laugh with her because (secretly) we think it’s true. Just possibly, you might think that faced with an all-male audience that this is an attempt at flirting.

In neither case would I want to force an apology, a retraction, a resignation or whatever other punishment the mob demands. I would do nothing except say that the joke was in poor taste or the sentiments probably immature.

The world is full of people whose jokes are unfunny. And it’s full of people with minor or major resentments against the opposite sex, some of them partly founded in experience (of things like divorces, when aggrieved hetereosexual spouses are allowed to indulge in as much sex-stereotyped invective as they can spit out to anyone of the same sex willing to listen).

But there is one hesitation I have about doing nothing. There used to be lots of male-dominated institutions where women were either excluded or made to jump more admission hurdles than their male counterparts. Universities – which historically have been backwater places, providing sinecures and sheltered accommodation for men - probably once contained as many or more men prejudiced against women as did the Church and Parliament. Whether both straight and gay men were equally prejudiced I don’t know, though it would be interesting to know. But it meant that they were able to stack the odds against women when it came to offering  employment, if indeed they offered employment to women at all. The worry you then have about someone like Professor Hunt is that he is going to keep out the girls from his laboratory (though, of course, his words could not have been spoken unless he had admitted them …)

Well, it’s normally the case that an interviewing panel comprises more than one person. It’s unlikely that Professor Hunt picks staff single-handedly. Nor should he – or anyone in publicly-funded employment.

We then hit a new big problem. Interviewing panels for public-sector jobs are now so cowed and restricted by ideological pressures – just as if the Party was monitoring their every question – that the chances of them picking the best person for the job have been much reduced. They pick the most politically correct person and, failing that, the most colourless. Gone are the days when interviewing panels would give a job to someone knowing that he or she would be a complete pain in the arse but really very very good at their core role. Perhaps Nobel-Prize winning Professor Hunt is someone in that category

Postscript 20 June: It is now being reported that Professor Hunt followed the words which I quoted above and introduced his next subject matter with the words, "Now seriously". So he labelled what he had just said as non-serious. But, of course, that doesn't resolve the problems of interpretation - he may still have thought that he was speaking a true word in jest

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