Musings from outside the mainstream.
I keep hearing that Sir Tim Hunt’s joke was a bumbling attempt at humor or outright sexism. But the more I read the text of his comments and the more I read the conversations online that make up the debate, the more the joke holds up. This is, in part, because every joke rests on some form of truth; either the uncomfortable truth or the truth in what we believe.
The underpinning of Hunt’s joke includes both of those; the reality of sexism/emotion and the reality of bias. The inclusion of those elements, however, do not make the joke or Tim Hunt sexist. We can prove this by looking at the structure of the joke. Using the text of the joke as it appears on Tim Hunt’s wikipedia page we will break down Sir Tim’s now infamous ad-lib at the 2015 World Conference of Science Journalists during a lunch for female journalists and scientists.
The set up: It’s strange that such a chauvinist monster like me has been asked to speak to women scientists.
Details: He takes ownership of his trouble with girls and outlines the three things that 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 punch line: Perhaps we should make separate labs for boys and girls?
Closing: To make sure his audience knows it’s a joke he segues quickly, to briefly acknowledge what he’s observed in Korea and closes with: Science needs women, and you should do science, despite all the obstacles, and despite monsters like me.
If this was indeed impromptu, it’s genius. Hunt came up with something on the spot that was concise, self-effacing and on topic. He sets up the joke by making himself the butt of the joke. He acknowledges the messiness of falling in love goes both ways and airs a frustration with emotion (the truth components). Hunt suggests a ridiculous solution; that it might all be easier to have boys and girls in separate labs before pivoting to the real story “science needs women” and encourages women to continue.
This is not sexism. It shouldn’t need to be broken down like this, but scientists with far more education than I will ever have continue to get it wrong. And worse, have committed numerous and repeated errors of omission. They have been blinded by their own bias.
To wit: Madhusudan Katt repeated the joke this way: “(Hunt) told a roomful of journalists and scientists that girls need to be segregated in science labs.”
Girls is in italics to draw attention to it for what? That only girls need to be separate? That he used the word girl and it’s demeaning to women? What is actually attributed to Hunt is “Perhaps we should make separate labs for boys and girls?”
First, you can’t pluck “girls” out and not acknowledge that he said boys as well. Second, Hunt is 72, most of the young men and women doing the grunt lab work are going to be boys and girls from his vantage point; they’re 30 to 40 years younger than he is. Third, and more importantly, when he was serious the word he chose was women.
The STEM Women website is also guilty of attempting to make the same point by using an incomplete quote and then responding thusly: “women have been subject to this kind of dismissive stereotyping for far too long, and because jokes demeaning “girls” (a condescending reference to women professionals) are themselves a sign of everyday sexism.”
Again, Hunt referred to boys and girls. And when he clearly shifted to serious, he said “Science needs women, and you should do science, despite all the obstacles, and despite monsters like me.”
Just to make the omissions pop out, Tim Hunt’s complete quote is below, with the part used by STEM Women on their post Summer of Sexism: Blunders, Blow-ups and Backlash in bold:
“It’s strange that such a chauvinist monster like me has been asked to speak to women scientists. 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 criticize them they cry. Perhaps we should make separate labs for boys and girls? Now, seriously, I’m impressed by the economic development of Korea. And women scientists played, without doubt an important role in it. Science needs women, and you should do science, despite all the obstacles, and despite monsters like me.”
When you don’t include the set up. And you don’t include the closing, it’s true, it’s not much of a joke. But you’re not much of a scientist either if you can’t interpret data correctly and inclusively. You’re also not much of a feminist if you can’t be fair.
But that seems par for the course as I was called out for gaslighting when I commented on the STEM Women analysis. This is ironic as the definition for gaslighting includes when “information is twisted or spun, selectively omitted to favor the abuser, or false information is presented with the intent of making victims doubt their own memory, perception, and sanity.”
I am in no way claiming victimhood. And in general I am loathe to identify “victims” in a discussion of the use of words. But, who was victim here and who is the abuser? Information was and is still being selectively omitted and presented to favor a specific narrative; that Tim Hunt and his joke are sexist.
And to further prop up that narrative, STEM Women argues two sides of credentials, one saying that “While Mensch and Kennett have been outspoken in their defense of Hunt, they do not have significant clout in the scientific field, unlike Dawkins, Cox and the eight Nobelists (all white men) who do.” They then suggest Connie St Louis’ questionable CV is a non-starter.
This is one of the things that bugs me the most about some feminists: simultaneously they will dismiss women they don’t agree with (Mensch and Kennett) for not being credentialed enough, and yet hold up another women (St Louis) who had clearly inflated her credentials; all for the narrative, the wrong narrative.