Wednesday, June 17, 2015

A great loss, but not the one you think

Tim Hunt (a Nobel winning chemist) is in the news a lot lately.  He already had a reputation for being a chauvinist (which he admitted openly) and recently he gave a speech where he talked about how labs should be gender segregated.  His reasons were that women were distracting, that them being there was likely to cause them to fall in love with men, that the men would fall in love with them, and that women have a tendency to cry when criticized.

This, to nobody's surprise, generated a massive backlash and Hunt resigned his position after receiving immense pressure.  Prior to actually stepping down though there was an apology that wasn't an apology, as is often the case with these things.  It turns out though that people can tell the difference between "I was wrong" and "I wish you weren't offended."

Most people seem pretty much on board with the idea that Hunt is a sexist jackass who really deserved all the negative attention he got but as always there are those who disagree.  One of the common themes in these disagreements is that Hunt is a Nobel prize winner and thus presumably a brilliant scientist.  There are people out there saying that he shouldn't have been forced out because of the contributions he might still bring.  I think that attitude is a giant load and it is such a problem because it is so often trotted out to defend a singular person in a position of power instead of a huge number of people who are not.

Just because you can't name the women who Hunt pushed out of science by his awful treatment or note the experiments that never happened as a result does not mean they don't exist.  They didn't receive Nobel prizes at least in part because men like Hunt prevented them from doing so.  Those people exist and even though we don't know their names we do know that their contributions were negated by his bigotry.

The reasons for Hunt to exit permanently aren't limited to those women he affected directly. Comments like his are a big contributing factor to other people maintaining the status quo in science, and certainly there are plenty of people who never made it in to science because of that.  Sexist attitudes stop plenty of talented people before they get in the door at all.

Even if somehow Hunt's talents would be more valuable than all the talents of all the women he pushed away it wouldn't matter.  He should be fired or "forced to resign" in any case.  However, we know very well the cost of keeping someone like him around and it is significant.  There is no moral justification for his behaviour and there isn't even any practical reason for him to stay.  What he did in the past is immaterial to the discussion - right now he is a millstone around the neck of science and until he changes drastically there is no place for him.

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