The Tim Hunt Kerfuffle was a public shaming incident in 2015 where a Nobel Laureate was forced to resign his position at University College London at the height of a media storm after a series of journalists and columnists accused him of sexism and misogyny.
The allegations were largely based on science journalist Connie St Louis’ initial extremely critical account of an impromptu speech made by Hunt. She accused him of speaking in favour of single sex laboratories and against female scientists generally. St Louis’ account was eventually found to be grossly inaccurate and misleading, a fact that received significantly less media coverage.
The kerfuffle kicked off a few hours after the award winning cancer research scientist gave a short impromptu speech at the end of a luncheon for female science journalists during a conference in South Korea. The most accurate available transcript of his brief speech is as follows:
‘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 criticise 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 I really, really hope that you do science despite all the obstacles, and despite monsters like me.”
His ill judge joke was picked up by the British media after one of the journalists attending the lunch tweeted her disapproval.
While waiting for his flight home Hunt unreservedly apologized in a hastily arranged interview telephone with Radio 4 Today . He explained that he had intended his comments to be ironic and light hearted and he was ‘really really sorry if he had caused any offence’.
However the interview only caused to compound his problems after he clarified that:
“I did mean the part about having trouble with girls. I mean, it is true: I have fallen in love with people in the lab and people in the lab have fallen in love with me and it’s very disruptive to the science.” “These emotional entanglements can make life very difficult. I’m really, really sorry that I caused any offence. I just meant to be honest, actually.”
Radio 4 interviews with Sir Tim Hunt & Connie St Louis
Connie St Louis, ‘award-winning broadcaster, journalist, writer, scientist and Guardian columnist’ accused Hunt of acting like he was living in Victorian times. She expanded on the ‘shocking incident’ in an television interview with BBC, describing how he stood up and declared that ‘the women had probably made the lunch because that was their role.’ ‘There was a room full of 100 people, everyone was stonyfaced, nobody was laughing‘ and our Korean hosts ‘looked aghast’ as he ‘ploughed on for five to seven minutes’.
The incident sparked a wider debate about perceived sexism in science and was officially declared a full blown ‘social media storm’ after the papers began reporting that female scientists had taken to mocking Hunt’s comments using the twitter hashtag #distractingly sexy.
The Royal Society and University College London quickly distanced themselves from Hunt, with a representative from the latter reportedly contacting his wife to demand his resignation. By the time he returned to England Hunt’s fate was sealed and he duly fell on his sword, his career seemingly in ruins.
After the Guardian gave Hunt the opportunity to talk about his experience the tide of public opinion began to turn in his favour and various crucial and previously unreported aspects of ‘the story’ slowly began to trickle into the public domain.
Hunt and his wife, Mary Collins, described how they both felt they had been hung out to dry by UCL. Collins is herself a Professor and former Dean at UCL and for added context it transpires that the couple met and fell in love with each other while working together.
“Tim sat on the sofa and started crying then I started crying. We just held on to each other.” Professor Mary Collins
High profile names in science, science journalism, and politics began to come out in Hunt’s defence as did many female colleagues that he had worked with over the years. Most expressed support and sympathy for Hunt and Collins, along with concern about the modern multi-media phenomenon of public shaming.
‘When someone is deemed to have said or done something to cause offence to the great and implacable Moloch of Political Correctness, then the priests and priestesses of that religion will sometimes react with a vindictiveness – and a total lack of reason – that is in itself a kind of anthropological marvel.’ Boris Johnston – Mayor of London
Some also expressed concern that the way the incident had been covered might actually damage the positive efforts being made to try and encourage more women to take up science careers and also discourage scientists engaging with the media:
“We’re all of us terrified,. In this media age, when sound bites spread so quickly, an off-the-cuff remark after a lunch in some conference can suddenly result in the fatal destruction of your career.” Ottoline Leyser, Director Sainsbury Laboratory at the University of Cambridge.
As mainstream media coverage of the story began to slow down additional nuggets of information continued to be uncovered, including a more detailed transcript of the now infamous speech (see above). This and previously unreported testimonies of various eye witnesses began throw an entirely different light on proceedings:
Sir Tim Hunt has already apologised and explained that his impromptu comments were meant to be “light-hearted” and “ironic”, and that it was not his intention to demean women. In his main speech he was very supportive towards women in science and he said that he hoped there was nothing that barred women from science. I can also add that during the time I have worked with him on the ERC Scientific Council he has only ever been a supporter of gender balance. Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, President of the European Research Council – June 10
Kudos to twitter heavyweight Louise Mensch for brining that particular quote to a wider audience and for doggedly pulling together a compelling counter narrative to St Louis’ version of events, which included sourcing pictures of a less than stony faced audience and confirming that the Korean Host had been ‘impressed that Sir Tim could improvise such a warm and funny speech’ and hadn’t noticed any disapproval from the audience.
Meanwhile, the Daily Mail had become curious about St Louis’ claims to write for them (she hasn’t) and began to ask more than a few questions about the lofty claims presented in her CV.
For one thing, Connie St Louis does not ‘present and produce’ a range of programmes for Radio 4. For another, it’s demonstrably false to say she ‘writes’ for The Independent, Daily Mail and The Sunday Times [and] her work for The Guardian appears to consist of two online articles: one published in 2013; the other, about the Sir Tim Hunt affair, this week. Guy Adams – Daily Mail
St Louis declined to clarify who awarded her a science degree but perhaps most spectacularly, it was revealed that the most prestigious award this ‘award winning journalist, writer and scientist’ has received to date was a grant for £50,000 ten years ago for a book she has never delivered.
Her employer announced that it would be ‘assisting her to update her profile’ but, even as her credibility crumbled, St Louis quite spectacularly remained resolutely unapologetic, sticking to her version of events, portraying her detractors as sexist and racist ‘trolls’ and even tweeting a link to an incredibly unflattering and one sided cartoon account of events which she described as ‘perfect and correct’.
By then it had been established that Hunt clearly wasn’t being remotely serious about single sex laboratories, hadn’t thanked anyone for making the lunch, had intended his ‘trouble with girls’ comment to be self deprecating and ironic and, although completely ignored in initial reports, had actually spoken very positively about women in science.
Possibly the ultimate nail in the coffin came a few days later in an article for the Times co-authored by Louise Mensch and Natalia Demina arguing that it was clear that Sir Tim’s remarks were both intended and received as a joke by the majority of people attending the lunch.
Demina was one of the journalists present and had recovered a short recording of Hunt’s speech which clearly ends with a peal of laughter from the audience, contradicting St Louis’s claim that it had been met with stoney silence.
Sadly UCL Council decided to stand by their decision to accept Hunt’s resignation on the grounds that ‘the outcome is compatible with our commitment to gender equality‘. This stood in marked contrast from the way they responded to the overtly sexist behaviour of their student’s Diversity Officer weeks earlier and the fact that the University regularly holds prestigious science events at the Garrick Club which has become notorious for it’s ‘men only’ membership stance.
Despite publishing article, after article, after article attacking Hunt, including one claiming ‘Tim Hunt’s findings in lab disproved as stress expert says men cry more at work’, the Guardian failed to cover later developments of a ‘social media firestorm’ sparked by someone claiming to write for them and fanned by one of their regular columnists with a well established vagenda. Fortunately Lady scientist and independent blogger Debbie Kennet has produced an incredibly detailed and balanced analysis of event for future prosperity.