When a butterfly flaps its wings in Seoul: UCL and the Tim Hunt affair

In chaos theory the butterfly effect goes something like this: A butterfly flaps its wings in Seoul and venerable scientific institutions in London fall over themselves to end the career of a Nobel laureate scientist.

Sir Tim Hunt made the following remarks at a world 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.’ Hunt claims that what he said was ‘totally jocular [and] ironic’, and that it was uttered while feeling ‘nervous’ about speaking before the conference. The remarks certainly come across as the sort of nervy attempt to get an audience onside and engaged through an insider’s joke, and like many such attempts they are neither obviously funny nor well-considered. They are indeed sexist (which is not the same thing as saying that Hunt is sexist). It seems that Hunt didn’t think much had gone awry, but some of his audience were sufficiently unimpressed to start tweeting his remark. Escalation was rapid: strong condemnation appeared across social media, newspaper columnists quickly began intoning about problems of sexism in science, Hunt was labelled, among other things, ‘a clueless, sexist jerk’ and ‘a misogynist dude scientist’, and before Hunt’s plane had even landed back in England he had been forced to resign his honorary position at University College London. Subsequently he also resigned from the European Research Council and from his role at the Royal Society.

As to Hunt’s remarks themselves, they deserved a clarification and an apology—both of which Hunt provided. But it is a peculiarly modern phenomenon that 37 words can have the consequence of ending a distinguished career. I’m sure that among the many thousands of words I have spoken in lectures there might have been a few which, upon reflection, I might regret having said or would wish to have rephrased; there might also have been a few which, taken out of the specific context of the lecture itself and the tone in which I made them, would appear in isolation to be worthy of condemnation. One of my best jokes in my lectures (and, given it rarely raised a laugh from more than three students, evidence of my limited prospects as a comedian) was: ‘Let’s move from the delights of Balinese cocks to talk about French pussies.’ (The context was a discussion of Clifford Geertz’s essay on ‘Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight’ and Robert Darnton’s ‘The Great Cat Massacre’.) Another of my favourite jokes involved me showing a slide of a bikini-clad Elle ‘The Body’ Macpherson (that one always got more laughs, but as a visual joke it would be difficult to explain it here). There was always a slight risk that such jokes might backfire or take on a life of their own in this age of Twitter and Facebook, and that I could have been caught up in a maelstrom of impassioned discussion about ‘appropriate’ language or the problem with white male historians. (My career would probably have benefited from that sort of thing, so I rather regret that my students were sufficiently sensible to understand or ignore or not laugh at my jokes; I could have done with the occasional hothead in my audience, full of unintelligent righteous indignation and with a massive following on Twitter.)

None of which is to defend Hunt’s ‘joke’. I merely make the point that we live in a time in which a career can easily be pegged onto a single sentence—and a sentence which may be misunderstood or misrepresented, and, even if neither of those, may amount to no more than the sort of ill-considered poorly expressed comment that we all make from time to time.

The really interesting feature of Hunt’s case seems to me less the lynching mentality amid the social media wildfire and more the response of UCL, the ERC and the Royal Society. Imagine you’re an eminent academic with a distinguished career, probably not well-versed in social media and likely with little or no media training; you make a rather crass remark, but one you hadn’t given much thought to at the time; once it has been brought to your attention you issue an apology and a retraction, sincerely admitting your error and folly; nevertheless, you discover that your initial remark is now being discussed with varying degrees of outrage all over the world. What would you expect your college—your employer and the institution which supposedly supports and nurtures your work from which they benefit—to do? It is understandable that they would wish to distance themselves from the remark, but you might reasonably expect that they would also wish to discuss the matter with you, to seek clarification, and not to rush to judgement. You are likely to hope that they would offer support and protection against the media lynch mob, and that they would use their expertise to help find a way through the storm. Sure, you may have to issue yet further apologies, and you are going to have to put up with a battering for a while, but assuming your initial remark was not totally beyond the pale and your subsequent apology is sincere, then you might reasonably expect that your college would stand by you and find ways of repairing your (and their) reputation.

Instead of speaking to Hunt about his comments in Seoul, UCL decided to tell his wife (Mary Collins, also a scientist at the college) that her husband should resign immediately or that he would be sacked. Hunt duly resigned as soon as he returned to England. UCL softened this ultimatum by saying it would be ‘a low-key affair’, but then proceeded to trumpet on their website and Twitter how they had got rid of him. Hunt’s positions at the ERC and the Royal Society became untenable as a result, so he resigned from them too. His long scientific career was over. As he has said: ‘I am finished. 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. I have become toxic. I have been hung to dry by academic institutes who have not even bothered to ask me for my side of affairs.’ Whatever the wrongs of his remarks in Seoul—foolish and crass, but surely not remotely near to being at the most offensive end of the spectrum, and over which he has been genuinely contrite—Hunt appears to be right: he has been hung out to dry by UCL.

Yet perhaps we should not be surprised at this outcome. Collins, who has described her husband’s remarks as ‘unbelievably stupid’ but utterly rejected the idea that he is sexist, has commented: ‘They [UCL] have let Tim and I down badly. They cared only for their reputation and not about the wellbeing of their staff.’ But such is the modern academy. The days when a university was collegiate—when academics were nurtured and supported through both good times and bad—are rapidly fading. The modern academic institution increasingly resembles a brand and a business: any inkling that the brand may be damaged, any indication that an academic’s output may fall short financial targets, then, no matter how dedicated or hard-working or distinguished the academic, the institution is likely to abandon rather than support the individual. Sometimes an entire department, if it has failed to ‘game’ the ridiculous REF exercise, faces the brutal axe; and in their different ways the experiences of Tim Hunt, Stefan Grimm and Marina Warner all point to a dispiritingly corporate and inhuman culture that pervades the academy today.

One way of looking at this is to see it as an example of a wonderful bureaucratic rationalism: as long as you meet all the performance targets and are careful to stay consistently ‘on message’, then you’ll be fine; fail to do either of those, then you’re out. Some would say this is the only way to maintain excellence. But in fact sober reason has nothing to do with this. If, on the basis of a single remark such as that of Tim Hunt, a long career is summarily terminated, then the world we live in is not rational; rather, it is a world of chaos.

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