Wednesday 24 June 2015
How the media spun the Tim Hunt story
I had vowed not to blog about the Tim Hunt affair. I thought everything that could have been said had been said, and I'd made my own position clear in a comment on Athene Donald's blog, and in a comment in the Independent.
But then I came across Stephen Ballentyne's petition to "Bring Back Tim Hunt", and I was transported back five years to my first ever blog post on "Academic Mobbing in Cyberspace," a strange tale about sex, fruitbats and internet twittermobs. I started blogging in 2010 because I wanted to highlight how the internet encourages people to jump in to support causes without really examining the facts of the matter. The Ballentyne petition points to an uncannily similar conclusion.
Let me start out by saying I am not arguing against people's right to take Tim Hunt's side. As many people have noted, he is a well-liked man who has done amazing science and there are many women as well as men who will speak up for him as a supporter of female scientists. Many of those who support him do so in full knowledge of the facts, out of a sense of fairness and, in the case of those who know him personally, loyalty.
My concern is about the number of signatories of Ballentyne's petition who have got themselves worked up into a state of indignation on the basis of wrong information. There are three themes that run through the comments that many people have posted:
a) They think that Tim Hunt has been sacked from his job
b) They think he is 'lost to science'
c) They think University College London (UCL) fired him in response to a 'Twitter mob'.
None of these things is true. (a) Hunt is a retired scientist who was asked to resign from an honorary position. That's shaming and unpleasant, but an order of magnitude different from being sacked and losing your source of income. (b) Hunt continues to have an affiliation to the Crick Institute – a flagship research centre that recently opened in Central London. (c) UCL are explicit that their acceptance of his resignation from an honorary position had nothing to do with the reaction on social media.
So why do people think these things? Quite simply, this is the interpretation that has been put about in many of the mainstream media. The BBC has been particularly culpable. The Today programme on Radio 4 ran a piece which started by saying Hunt had 'lost his job'. This was a couple of days after the UCL resignation, when any self-respecting journalist would have known this to be false. Many newspapers fuelled the flames. An interview with Boris Johnson on the BBC website added the fictitious detail that Hunt had been sacked by the Royal Society. He is in fact still a Fellow – he has simply been asked to step down from a Royal Society committee. It is interesting to ask why the media are so keen to promote the notion of Hunt as victim, cruelly dismissed by a politically correct university.
It's fascinating analysing the comments on the petition. After deleting duplicates, there were 630 comments. Of those commenters where gender could be judged, 71% were male. Rather surprisingly, only 52% of commenters were from the UK, and 12% from the US, with the remainder scattered all over the world.
There were 93 comments that explicitly indicated they thought that Hunt had been sacked from his job, and/or was now 'lost to science' – and many more that called for his 'reinstatement', where it was unclear whether they were aware this was an honorary position. They seemed to think that Hunt was dependent on UCL for his laboratory work, and that he had a teaching position. For instance, "Don't let the world lose a great scientist and teacher over a stupid joke." I would agree with them that if he had been sacked from a regular job, then UCL's action would have been disproportionate. However, he wasn't.
Various commentators drew comparisons with repressive fascist or Marxist states, e.g. "It is reminiscent of the cultural revolution in China where 'revisionist' professors were driven out of their offices by their prospective students, to do farm labour." And there was an awful lot of blaming of women, Twitter and feminism in general, with comments such as "Too much of this feminist ranting going on. Men need to get their spines back and bat it away" and "A respected and competent scientist has been hounded out of his job because of an ignorant baying twitter mob who don't happen to like his views". And my favourite: "What he said was a joke. If lesbian feminist women can't take a joke, then they are the joke." Hmm.
It's unfortunate that the spread of misinformation about Hunt's circumstances have muddied the waters in this discussion. A minority of those commenting on Ballentyne's petition are genuine Hunt supporters who are informed of the circumstances; the bulk seem to be people who are concerned because they have believed the misinformation about what happened to Hunt; a further set are opportunistic misogynists who do Hunt no favours by using his story as a vehicle to support their dislike of women. There is a much more informed debate in the comments section on Athene Donald's blog, which I would recommend to anyone who wants to understand both sides of the story.