It’s enough to make you cry

The hapless Sir Tim Hunt FRS, Nobel laureate and important scientific dude, is currently attracting support from a range of senior scientists. They feel that he has been victimised by a baying Twitter mob following some crass comments about female scientists. No one likes to see somebody hounded, but the fact is that his comments brought him, and the institutions he is associated with, into disrepute. The reaction was understandable and by no means unreasonable.

Sir Tim has said that his remarks about lachrymose, seductive girl-scientists were intended as a joke, but they couldn’t be construed as satire. They don’t seem particularly amusing on repetition, but perhaps you had to be there. Or perhaps not, judging by the eyewitness account. It wasn’t just what he said. It was where he said it. He wasn’t in the lounge bar having a beer with Nigel Farage. He was speaking at a lunch at the World Conference of Science Journalists in South Korea to an audience of women scientists and journalists. Context matters.

The episode caused me a cold shiver. I have cultivated a reputation of enlivening boring meetings with witticisms, or a least, comments that amuse me. Not sexist or racist or homophobic comments. Not offensive comments, at least not by intention, but there’s a catch. To be funny, you have to be quick. It involves a split second decision as to whether a joke is funny or offensive or both. When there are signs that people don’t appreciate your humour, you have to have the presence of mind to stop. If you’re not attentive, you’re liable to make a misjudgement and fall off the edge of the acceptable into the ordure. It has happened to me, and the consequences are unpleasant and embarrassing. This is the risk you take if you use humour in serious professional roles.

As a younger man, violations of good taste didn’t seem to be a big issue. As I have got older, the meaning of lapses of taste has changed, because my relationship with my audience has changed. Whilst I may not feel particularly powerful, objectively I am. It took a few faux pas and some sincere apologies before I came to understand this. I can imagine circumstances where I might disgrace myself in one way or another, and if that happens, I’ll only have myself to blame.

Sexism is rampant in science and a public endorsement of it by a senior scientist to an audience of women is really unhelpful. “I was only joking” is no excuse. I doubt if he would have enjoyed much support if he had playfully slapped a female scientist on the backside on the way from the podium and then excused it in the same way. The actions have a similar quality.

Scientists have a very particular place in society. Although there is a substantial body of opinion that rejects science, in general we look to science to underpin our understanding of the world. The Nazis felt the need to develop a pseudoscientific justification for genocide. Anti-wrinkle potions are endorsed in terms of ‘clinical tests’. Our dismay at the unreliability of the evidence provided by drug companies for their products doesn’t arise from a disdain for science, it arises from a belief that science should be better than that.

I have a strong attachment to science, but evidence is complicated, and scientists are just as fallible as anyone else. Unfortunately, there is a tendency to cast individual scientists as guardians of the truth. Look at the awestruck attitude to Stephen Hawking, who is an important scientist, but works within the scientific method, which generates complex answers with intrinsic uncertainty. Reactions to Sir Tim Hunt’s comments have to be understood in the context of the reification of scientists. Granting an enhanced personal credibility to individual scientists may be misguided, but it is real. As a Nobel laureate, he has a special type of authority. His sexist comments may not have been quite as offensive as the late Bernard Manning’s used to be, but they carried a lot more clout.

Some people in the public eye find political correctness really irritating. It prevents them from expressing themselves in whatever way they want. This is not a matter of free speech. It is a question of whether the powerful have a right to oppress other people in formal settings.

Back in the 1970s, before we had political correctness, casual racism, sexism and homophobia were everywhere. Political correctness is a significant part of the unfinished business of transforming British society into a more civilised and humane place. We can either tolerate public figures using intolerant language, in which case bigotry will again run riot, or we can stick with political correctness, in which case there will be occasional casualties amongst those who are unguarded. I am sorry that Sir Tim Hunt has had an awful humiliation at the end of a distinguished career, but he brought it upon himself, and it is the lesser of two evils.