Crowdfunded Journalism

Saving Tim Hunt

Paula Higgins and Dan Waddell photo
Paula Higgins and Dan Waddell
Saving Tim Hunt
The campaign to exonerate Tim Hunt for his sexist remarks in Seoul is built on myths, misinformation, and spin.

The full, unabridged version of this blog can be found here.

The row over Tim Hunt's now infamous toast at a lunch to honour female scientists in Seoul last June should have been short-lived: the Nobel laureate said something sexist and inappropriate, offending many in his audience. He then confirmed he said what he was reported to have said and apologised twice for causing offence. The matter should have ended there.

Instead, a concerted effort to save his name – which was not disgraced, nor was his reputation as a scientist jeopardised – has rewritten history and the debate continues to rage nearly five months later. It is the story that refuses to die.

The most vocal member of the campaign to save Tim Hunt has been Tory MP-turned-polemicist Louise Mensch. She and her followers police Twitter (examples here and here), attacking anyone who alludes to Hunt in connection with 'sexism'. This is despite Hunt admitting to the Observer that what he said at the World Conference of Science Journalists on 8 June was 'stupid and ill-judged' and 'inexcusable', and, according to his wife Professor Mary Collins, 'unbelievably stupid'.

Were Hunt’s comments sexist? The weight of eyewitness evidence we have collected supports the original reporting by British radio journalist Connie St Louis, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Deborah Blum and respected US journalist Ivan Oransky, as tweeted by St Louis on 8 June:

Here is a sample of the reaction of those present. Many more can be found in the longer version of this blog.

Australian journalist Leigh Dayton said the fact that Hunt considered his comments a joke 'suggests he’s completely out of touch with the 21st century'.

'The room went silent and I confess I hissed in a wry manner,' she added. 'I was sitting beside a male academic from Britain who said something to the effect of, "I never thought I’d hear anything like that again".'

Valeria Román, an Argentinian science journalist, said, 'I did not applaud him. He surprised me.' She added: ‘Other female journalists did not applaud him.’ As to whether she agreed with the accuracy of St Louis’s report: 'Yes. She is free to write about his speech. It was sexist.'

Renata Sanchez, a journalist from Mexico, published an article on the affair on 18 June. She quoted Hunt’s comments about his trouble with girls and segregated labs, adding that it 'ended with an auditorium in silence and some laughs.'

Her reaction: 'I got angry. I can’t understand how this Nobel laureate could say that in a lunch organized by a women science organization!!'

Another eyewitness, Ulla Järvi, Secretary General of The Finnish Association of Science Editors and Journalists, similarly found the comments offensive and sexist. 'I was embarrassed. I thought: "Again, an old fellow tries to be funny, but makes everyone feel ashamed".'

And her assessment of the reaction in the room? 'Hah (short laugh) in a polite way. That is the reaction we polite ladies usually have when facing chauvinistic jokes.'

The Aftermath

When the lunch was over, the conference was abuzz with news of Hunt’s comments. Argentinian journalist Javier Cruz told us:

'As soon as it happened, the Tim Hunt affair basically hijacked most of the rest of the Conference in terms of dominating the conversation during coffee breaks and bus shuttles to and from the venue.'

Given this reaction, Deborah Blum believed she should offer Hunt a chance to explain what he meant. She saw him at breakfast on 9 June, the morning after, and opened by saying 'So, your comments have caused quite a stir,' which Hunt acknowledged.

She then asked him to clarify his comments and reported their conversation in her Storify of 14 June and a Daily Beast article of 16 June. By this time, Hunt had been engaged in 'just a joke' damage control and had 'turn[ed] the issue from the main point — the status of women in science — to a focus on sympathy for himself.'

Blum maintains that on 9 June Hunt did not explain his comments as a joke, but as an attempt to be honest.

On 10 June Hunt appeared on the BBC Radio 4 Today Programme. He apologised for offending anyone with his comments, but said 'I did mean the part about having trouble with girls' and repeated what he told Blum the day before: 'I was just trying to be honest, actually.' 

This interview generated a great deal of noise, along with complaints to the BBC (though not, according to the BBC, by Hunt himself). Louise Mensch claimed the BBC 'put words in Hunt's mouth' and denounced them on Twitter (here, here, here, here, here — all now deleted), in her blog Unfashionista, and in her article of Sunday 5 July in The Sun. Mensch and others have claimed he was selectively edited (which the BBC vehemently denied), and that he wasn't aware of the fuss his words had caused. 

Yet he had been emailed a copy of The Times (above) where his words were splashed across the front page under a banner headline. St Louis' account was reported verbatim therein. When asked by the Today programme, Hunt told them he had been 'quite accurately reported.'

The lunch was sponsored by the 61 thousand-strong Korean Federation of Women's Science and Technology (KOFWST). President Hee Young Paik was sitting at Hunt's table, and several prominent female Korean scientists were also in the room. Within days, KOFWST wrote to demand that Hunt apologise for his comments. He responded with one immediately.

Hee Young Paik told us: 'Our letter to Sir Tim Hunt was based on discussions among KOFWST members, some of whom were also at the lunch, who shared the opinion that the sufferings of women scientists should not be the subject of jokes in any context. We therefore requested that Tim Hunt acknowledge his mistakes and make an apology, which he immediately did following our communication.'

A handful of eyewitnesses believe his words were taken out of context. Reports have cited four of them (far fewer than some 20 we have spoken to who back the St Louis/Blum/Oransky account). Of these, however, the Spanish journalist Pere Estupinyà also described Hunt's comments as 'sexist', but 'in a humorist tone'. Philippino journalist TJ Dimacali wrote on his Facebook page that 'what he (Hunt) said was wrong and definitely deserved to be called out. But it was, more than anything else, a joke gone horribly wrong.'

Perhaps more damning, Marcin Mońko the press adviser for the European Research Council (ERC), the organisation that sent Hunt to Seoul as their 'ambassador', described the scientist's toast as 'sexist and unacceptable' in a Facebook post otherwise defending Hunt.

Two days later he wrote a report, where he modified this description to 'completely inappropriate.'

The ERC Report

We have a copy of the report. It is dated Brussels, 15 June, a week after Hunt spoke at the lunch. It bears the official ERC logo and letterhead and the title ‘Mission Report’. It was transmitted via email to Jean-Pierre Bourguignon on 17 June. Despite its being an internal report, he circulated it to members of the ERC's Scientific Council on 18 June. The ERC Executive Agency also admitted that their Director Pablo Amor also sent it to Hunt as a 'courtesy', even though he had resigned from the Scientific Council by that time. On 19 June, Hunt gave his second interview to The Observer, published the next day, in which he now claimed to have used the words 'Now seriously'.

This report, subsequently leaked to The Times, contained an account of Hunt's toast 'as precise as I can recall it.' Mońko's recollection that Hunt said 'Now seriously' (words not found in his Facebook post) after recounting his 'trouble with girls' was seized upon by Hunt supporters such as Richard Dawkins: 'This phrase [i.e. 'now seriously'], deplorably omitted from all the reports that fed the lynch mob’s appetite, is the final confirmation that Tim Hunt's remark was light-hearted banter against himself...'

The report, written a week after Hunt's speech, is the only account to claim that Hunt used those two words. Yet its author did not use them in his Facebook post supporting Hunt, and many eyewitnesses deny Hunt said them.

Mensch, The Times, and others have also claimed the report's author was a neutral 'EU observer'. That's misleading; he's a press officer whose job it is to deflect criticism away from the ERC and Hunt, who was personally chosen to speak in Seoul by the ERC's President Jean-Pierre Bourguignon.

The same report quoted a female Korean scientist who 'without being asked... said she was impressed that Sir Tim could improvise such a warm and funny speech (her words)'.

But what has not been reported is that this woman is a representative of the ERC, and therefore not at all neutral. She is a representative of the ERC. Her name is Dr Hyong-Ha Kim. She works at the Korean National Research Council of Science and Technology, among other roles, but she is also one of the National Contact Points for the ERC in Korea. Her details are listed on the ERC website.

Sir Paul Nurse

Even friends of Hunt confirmed his words were unacceptable. In early July, Sir Paul Nurse, President of the Royal Society, who won the Nobel Prize along with Hunt and Leland Hartwell in 2001, criticised Hunt in strong terms in The Daily Telegraph.

Nurse later went on BBC Radio Four and said that Hunt did not deserve to lose the honorary role at UCL. Mensch took this as evidence that the Telegraph had misquoted him and that Nurse did not condemn his friend after all.

Sarah Knapton, the author of The Telegraph piece, explained the confusion. She told us Nurse had meant that Hunt deserved to lose his committee position with the Royal Society, not UCL. Given the ambiguity of the headline, it was widely believed – perhaps even by the Telegraph sub who wrote the headline – that Nurse was referring to UCL and not to The Royal Society. Knapton stands behind her reporting of Nurse's words. She added: 'Frankly I was amazed how willing Paul was to talk about it, and how vocal he was in his censure of Hunt.'

Mensch claimed that Nurse's comments to the BBC represented a ‘complete vindication’ of Hunt. When Nurse wrote to the Telegraph to clear up the confusion about the Royal Society and UCL, she seized on the first paragraph in which Nurse says he should not left his position at UCL.

But not for the first time, Mensch did not report the material fully. The rest of the letter reads:

'Regardless of whether his comments on women in science were in jest or not, how they were perceived could put some women off pursuing a career in science and that is not acceptable. Sir Tim has apologised for what he said, and when I spoke to him he felt that he should resign from an awards committee he was on at the Royal Society.'

The Audio

Five weeks after the event, on 15 July, Russian journalist Natalia Demina announced that she had discovered an audio clip of the last 13 seconds of Hunt’s toast. Demina had been the first person to go on the record to dispute St Louis’s version of events and swiftly became the centre of an unfolding story. She videotaped the last nine minutes of Hunt’s formal lecture on the morning of 8 June. She interviewed him immediately thereafter and then went into the lunch. There she took some photographs on her phone which allegedly show Hunt’s entire audience in fits of laughter. She gave her own interview to a Russian journalist from Radio Svoboda in which she introduced a number of factual inaccuracies about the event.

Demina posted a series of tweets about the audio clip. First, she tweeted it was the beginning. Then, after speaking to Louise Mensch, she said it was the end. (It almost certainly is the end.) She then deleted both tweets on orders from Louise Mensch.

Demina said she had forgotten about the audio because of jet lag.

She also told us that she was taking photographs on her phone as Hunt spoke, and decided to record his words; but he had almost finished by the time she hit record. She is clear, though, that she recorded the fragment on purpose, not by accident.

Why did she fail to remember she had a crucial piece of audio that might be of interest? And, if she’s so prone to confusion about details of events, why should we put any faith in her recollection of Hunt’s words at the lunch? She claimed that everyone there knew he was joking when it’s palpably clear they didn’t.

The audio is not a fake (it can be listened to here). Rather, the story behind its appearance is suspicious, as is the serendipitous capture of his entire final sentence — starting at the precise moment he says ‘Congratulations’ and ending with a couple of hand claps. All too conveniently, it leaves us guessing what came before, and prevents independent verification of the alleged ‘sustained applause’.

Is there more audio than this neat, 13-second clip? And if so, why have we not heard it?

Does the audio shed light on the story? It proves Connie St Louis was correct in The Times story, 'Some people laughed nervously', but wrong when she spoke of a 'deathly silence' in her BBC interview of 10 June. To be fair, once Hunt finishes speaking, there is a brief peal of polite laughter, and an awkward pause of fully two seconds before the start of applause (we hear two distinct hand claps) before the audio abruptly cuts out. This also chimes with Leigh Dayton's account and Renata Sanchez's testimony that it 'ended with an auditorium in silence and some laughs.'

Do such self-contradictions invalidate St Louis' entire account of what happened? No. In fact, based on the evidence we have collected, she, Blum and Oransky got the basic facts and exact words Hunt used remarkably straight in the original 8 June tweet. There are by now far too many corroborating eyewitnesses to dispute this: the totality of the evidence backs their account.


What Hunt said in his lunch toast in Seoul was newsworthy. Gender bias and imbalance in science is a serious problem in South Korea. For a powerful Nobel Laureate to be invited to a lunch to honour female scientists, in a country where this a sensitive issue, and launch into a tortuous routine about 'girls' falling in love in the lab is by any journalistic standard, whether a joke or not, a news story.

If Hunt's comments were meant as a joke, does that make it all right? It does not. First of all, not being serious doesn't mean not being sexist. People can believe things to be funny and also think they’re true. There is even an aphorism for this: 'Many a true word spoken in jest.'

There's also a term for sexist jokes: 'disparagement humour', which 'denigrates, belittles, or maligns an individual or social group', as Hilda Bastian explained. The gist of Hunt’s joke is the timeworn stereotype that women in the laboratory are over-emotional. When a powerful, influential male scientist, a Nobel Laureate, tosses off such a 'joke' at the expense of women – at a luncheon honouring female scientists – it's not difficult to see why some might bridle.

There's certainly a debate to be had about the actions of UCL, but let’s not forget that Hunt also resigned from his committee role at the Royal Society. Even more pertinently, the Guardian reported that the 'ERC decided to force him to stand down in view of his resignation from UCL'. We asked the ERC to clarify why Hunt was asked to stand down and received the following reply: 'On 11 June Sir Tim Hunt resigned from his position as member of the ERC Scientific Council, and his resignation was accepted.'

In the end, the parable of Tim Hunt is a simple one. Science is about truth. In this saga we have seen very little of it from Hunt's apologists – merely evasions, half-truths, distortions, errors, and outright falsehoods.

* The full unabridged version of this blog can be found here.

#Tim Hunt Sexism Women in Science Media