Wake up Little Siouxsie – you’ve got to decide on Connie’s credibility in science sexism row

Alf has been keeping an eye on the harpies who have been hounding Sir Tim Hunt, the eminent scientist who has lost his job for being not too clever when he tried to make a joke.

It’s disappointing to find a Kiwi sheila among their ranks.

Yep. Siouxsie Wiles (the lass with a name that seriously stresses Alf’s spell-checker) chimed in to swell the chorus of condemnation of a bloke who is being judged and found wanting not because of any shortcomings in his scientific accomplishments but for a lapse in his social skills.

Or – as she put it – she has tossed in her 2c worth on the “latest sexism in science debacle”.

Debacle?

This and what she says next  give a measure of how her PC (the one with a keyboard) drips with venom in her eagerness to promote a cause that looks suspiciously as if it has been steeped in a vat of modern-day PC thinking:

If you aren’t aware of it, this week another eminent old white guy (OWG) dug himself into a hole. This time it was Oxbridge-educated Nobel laureate Sir Tim Hunt, also a Fellow of the Royal Society. In other words a privileged old white guy in a position of power and authority.

Alf’s thoughts on a preference for more dispassionate observations from a scientist can be discarded as valueless, of course, on the grounds they have been spluttered by a privileged old white guy (and bloody proud of it) in a position of power and authority.

So – what did she say next?

At the World Conference of Science Journalistsin Seoul he apparently made some rather stunning comments about women in science, saying gender-segregated labs were better for science, because women cause trouble for men by falling in love and crying, or something to that effect. His comments were live-tweeted by Connie St Louis.

Alf’s constituents should take note of the uncertainty about what was actually said when Siouxsie conceded it was “something like that”.

Furthermore, they should note the name of her source – one Connie St Louis.

More of Connie later.

Let’s get on with Siouxsie’s retelling of what Sir Tim has done:

He has since apologised for upsetting people but stands by his comments – he says he was just being honest and humorous. It’s worth noting that according to Wikipedia, Sir Hunt also sits on the Shaw Prize Life Science and Medicine selection committee; just one of the 25 people awarded this Prize has been a woman*. The Royal Society have released a statement distancing themselves from the debacle, saying Sir Hunt was speaking as an individual and adding “Too many talented individuals do not fulfil their scientific potential because of issues such as gender” and that the Society is committed to helping solve the problem.

Siouxsie proceeds to raise two points (and can’t muster the courtesy to give Sir Tim his proper name).

1. That’s not an apology.

Sir Hunt has made the classic mistake of thinking he has apologised when he hasn’t. This is what an apology should look like:

I am sorry that I hold such unsubstantiated biased views. I apologise to all the women I have disadvantaged as a result of holding these views while also holding positions of power and influence. Similarly, I apologise to the men I have advantaged, further perpetuating the endemic bias and privilege in the sciences.

2. The Royal Society (and other such bodies) need to do more to solve the problem.

It is not enough for the Royal Society to just distancing themselves from comments like these by people they have bestowed honours on, and pointing to what they are doing to try to help. Here is another suggestion. Give all your Fellows and Council training to recognise ALL their unconscious biases and to see that they are unjustified. Such a move is crucial to tackle the systemic disadvantage faced by many who aren’t privileged OWGs, or privileged OWGs in training.

It will be fascinating to see if Siouxsie is willing to acknowledge that maybe she should have waited for a bit of the dust to settle – and see if she takes any of the points made by Professor Richard Dawkins.

He wants an apology from those who criticised Sir Tim Hunt. He makes this demand while armed with a leaked EU report which he claims gives vital context to comments the Nobel laureate scientist made about his “trouble with girls” in laboratories.

Let’s look at his justification:

Sir Tim left his position at the Royal Society and University College London (UCL) after telling an audience of female science journalists at the World Conference of Science Journalists in South Korea he found it difficult to work with girls.

He also reportedly said: “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.”

His remarks were condemned as sexist and unhelpful and he resigned shortly after the backlash. He also apologised publicly for his comments.

Now, an account by a European Commission official printed in The Times expands on the comments he made during the conference.

The official quotes Sir Tim as saying: “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 you should do science despite all the obstacles, and despite monsters like me.”

The official also claimed that Sir Tim did not “thank women for making lunch”, as was previously reported.

As Dawkins points out, the phrase “now seriously” was “deplorably omitted” from reports in the media about his remarks.

He is adamant:

“This phrase […] is the final confirmation that Tim Hunt’s remark was light-hearted banter against himself.

“Without wishing to join a reverse witch-hunt to root out the individuals responsible, I can’t help hoping Sir Tim will receive an apology.”

So what is Siouxsie going to get excited about – the banter or the serious stuff about science needing women?

Of course, she is entitled to say she prefers Connie’s account, and Connie has denied Sir Tim said “now seriously”.

But Alf suggests it is somewhat unscientific, when confronted with conflicting evidence, to emphatically declare that one is right and the other wrong.

Anyway, Connie strikes Alf is being a very disagreeable person, because …

Asked yesterday if she regretted Sir Tim losing his job, the lecturer in science journalism replied: ‘I’ve no regrets about breaking a journalistic story. This is about journalism. Secondly it’s about women in science. My intention was not for him to lose anything. But he didn’t lose anything. He resigned.

Yeah. He was pressured to resign and his former employers have shown no urge to take him back.

More important, let’s look at Connie’s credibility as the Daily Mail has done.

The EU report appears to dovetail with Sir Tim’s own version of events. Meanwhile, Connie St Louis’s account is shared by two fellow witnesses: Deborah Blum, an academic from Wisconsin, and Ivan Oransky, co-founder of a science website called Retraction Watch. Although, following the leaked report, Blum and Oransky told The Times that they could not recall enough to confirm or deny the additional quotes from Sir Tim.
Deborah Blum, pictured, said she could not confirm or deny the additional quotes supporting Sir Tim’s story

Strangely, given that there were more than 90 other journalists present at the fateful lunch in Seoul, no other detailed accounts of the toast have emerged.

St Louis did not make a shorthand transcript of it. And, again very strangely, no tape-recording appears to exist.

Perhaps, therefore, we should ask two other related questions: who exactly is Connie St Louis? And why, exactly, should we trust her word over that of a Nobel laureate?

The several matters on Connie’s CV that don’t pass muster with the Daily Mail’s checks are troubling.

It concludes:

In the meantime, those who have condemned the Nobel laureate Sir Tim Hunt may wish to re-examine some of her previous statements about the affair.

Take, by way of a final example, an interview with the BBC on June 10, in which St Louis recalled that toast in Seoul: ‘He just ploughed on for five to seven minutes, actually,’ she said. ‘It was really shocking. It was culturally insensitive and it was very sexist.’

Strangely, the passage from Sir Tim’s speech that St Louis has so far made public is exactly 37 words long. It would take, at most, 20 seconds to recount.

So did Sir Tim really ‘plough on’ for five to seven minutes? And, if so, what did he say?

Why did she selectively quote just one statement from his toast? And how did such a remark end the 50-year career of a Nobel laureate?

Once more, readers must draw their own conclusions.

Alf is interested to hear if Siouxsie is sticking to her conclusions or whether her position might have been budged – just a bit – by what has emerged.

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