The outrage toward Tim Hunt built like a tsunami.
On Tuesday, the Nobel Prize-winning scientist climbed on a conference stage and delivered an undeniably sexist joke, less than 40 words in length. “Let me tell you about my trouble with girls,” he said. “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.”
The tides of indignation began rising instantaneously. Several women in the audience tweeted about the offensive comments. The Internet did the rest.
By the time he woke up the next morning, Hunt had been branded a “sexist jerk” thousands of times over. Journalists were hounding him for interviews. By the end of the day, University College London announced that Hunt had resigned from his prestigious post. His storied scientific career was in pieces.
For many critics, Hunt’s resignation was proof that he accepted his punishment.
“While I think the outcry is a bit much, he does deserve to be criticized,” one woman commented. “Women aren’t in the lab to cry and love. This mentality is archaic, and in his own words, chauvinistic.
“That being said, he chose to resign,” she added. “No one forced him.”
But now Hunt says that’s exactly what happened.
In an interview with the Observer published on Sunday, Hunt said he was effectively fired by University College London.
“I have been hung to dry by academic institutes who have not even bothered to ask me for my side of affairs,” he said. “I have become toxic.”
That claim was echoed by his wife, Mary Collins, a leading immunologist who is a professor and former dean at University College. She was called by a university official shortly after the news broke about Hunt’s comments.
“I was told by a senior that Tim had to resign immediately or be sacked – though I was told it would be treated as a low-key affair,” she said.
Collins also said that she and Hunt felt betrayed by the university.
“Tim duly e-mailed his resignation when he got home,” Collins said. “The university promptly announced his resignation on its Web site and started tweeting that they had got rid of him. Essentially, they had hung both of us out to dry. They certainly did not treat it as a low-key affair. I got no warning about the announcement and no offer of help, even though I have worked there for nearly 20 years. It has done me lasting damage. What they did was unacceptable.”
“My relations with University College have been badly tarnished,” Collins added. “They have let Tim and I down badly. They cared only for their reputation and not about well-being of their staff.”
University College wasn’t the only academic institution to drop Hunt. The European Research Council (ERC) also forced Hunt to resign from its science committee, the couple said. “That really hurt,” Hunt said. “I had spent years helping to set it up. I gave up working in the lab to help promote European science for the ERC.”
The couple’s comments come amid a backlash to the backlash to Hunt’s comments. After an initial flurry of fury toward the 2001 Nobel Prize recipient, female co-workers came to Hunt’s defense.
“Tim taught me as an undergraduate, and I have known him for years,” plant biologist professor Ottoline Leyser told the Observer. “It is quite clear to me that he is not a sexist in any way. I don’t know why he said those silly things, but the way his remarks have been taken up implies that women in science are having a horrible time. That is not the case. I, for one, am having a wonderful time.”
“During the time I worked with him he was always immensely supportive of the ERC’s work around gender equality,” added another female former co-worker, Dame Athene Donald, a physics professor at Cambridge. “His off-the-cuff remarks in Korea are clearly inappropriate and indefensible, but … he has worked tirelessly in support of young scientists of both genders.”
Perhaps more predictably, Collins also said her husband was no sexist.
“It was an unbelievably stupid thing to say,” she told the Observer. “You can see why it could be taken as offensive if you didn’t know Tim. But really it was just part of his upbringing. He went to a single-sex school in the 1960s. Nevertheless he is not sexist. I am a feminist, and I would not have put up with him if he were sexist.”
“When Tim is not traveling for work, he does all the shopping and the cooking,” she added. “He is actually a great cook. Our daughters both prefer his meals to mine. And he is certainly not an old dinosaur. He just says silly things now and again.”
Beyond those directly defending Hunt, many more said that the reaction — a social media firestorm followed by his (apparently forced) resignation — was over the top.
In an article titled “Are We Really In Control of Our Own Outrage? The Case of Social Media and Tim Hunt,” Kevin Drum criticized the “binary nature of the punishment for this kind of thing” that has sprouted in the era of social media:
As recently as 20 years ago, nothing would have happened because there would have been no real mechanism for reporting Hunt’s joke. At most, some of the women in the audience might have gotten together later for lunch, rolled their eyes, and wondered just how much longer they were going to have to put up with this crap. And that would have been that.
Today, remarks like this end up on social media within minutes and mushroom into a firestorm of outrage within hours. Institutions panic. The hordes must be appeased. Heads are made to roll and careers ended. Then something else happens to engage the outrage centers of our brains and it’s all forgotten.
Neither of these strikes me as the best possible response to something essentially trivial like this. Ignoring it presumes acceptance, while digital torches and pitchforks teach a lesson that’s far too harsh and ruinous, especially for a first-time offense.
When the Guardian called Hunt’s public shaming a “a moment to savour,” evolutionary biologist and avid atheist Richard Dawkins took to Twitter to defend his fellow scientist:
Dawkins himself has been accused of making sexist comments but has reacted defiantly. “I feel muzzled, and a lot of other people do as well,” he said last year. “There is a climate of bullying, a climate of intransigent thought police which is highly influential in the sense that it suppresses people like me.”
London Mayor Boris Johnson also said Hunt should be forgiven and restored to his posts. “Sir Tim Hunt was doing what he has done all his life – pointing out a natural phenomenon he had observed,” Johnson wrote in the Telegraph. “He did not deserve to be pilloried, and should be reinstated forthwith to his academic positions.”
Hunt, however, is apologetic.
“I stood up and went mad,” he said of his comments at the World Conference of Science Journalists in South Korea. “I was very nervous and a bit confused but, yes, I made those remarks – which were inexcusable – but I made them in a totally jocular, ironic way. There was some polite applause and that was it, I thought. I thought everything was okay. No one accused me of being a sexist pig.”
Then came the tsunami of outrage, the fumbled apology and the resignation that wasn’t really a resignation. Within hours, a man who had been knighted for his genius was mired in the pig pen of public disgust.
“I am finished,” Hunt told the Observer. “I had hoped to do a lot more to help promote science in this country and in Europe, but I cannot see how that can happen.”