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Hunt and the Hunted - Part One

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Dan WaddellLondon
Hunt and the Hunted - Part One
The first part of an in-depth account of how the Tim Hunt saga developed into a furious online backlash against his critics, and escalated from casual sexism into a dangerous mix of racism, misogyny and political and cultural warfare.

After a year of research, including a series of Freedom of Information and Access to Documents request, Dan Waddell describes the anatomy of  the Tim Hunt affair on the anniversary of his now infamous comments, and how it became so toxic that it silenced debate and chilled free speech.

Emails obtained via the European Commission's Access to Documents system show that, three days after his 'trouble with girls' comments on June 8th last year, Sir Tim Hunt offered his resignation 'with immediate effect' from the Scientific Council of the European Research Council (ERC), the organisation that had sent him to South Korea.

By then the Nobel Laureate’s words, at a lunch to honour female scientists at a science journalism conference in Seoul, had created an online furore and made headlines worldwide. 

In a gracious email exchange, Hunt and Robert-Jan Smits, the Director-General of the European Commission’s Research and Innovation Department, with ultimate jurisdiction over the ERC and its Scientific Council, swapped warm reminiscences of their time working together. Smits accepted the resignation with 'pain in his heart'.


Hunt had already resigned from his honorary position at UCL. He had stepped down from an awards committee at the Royal Society, and issued several other apologies. A previously unreported email reveals that Hunt had also written to ERC staff calling himself: 'Idiot!'

All this was in response to a tweeted report of his toast by British journalist Connie St Louis, after consultation with two highly respected American journalists also present, Deborah Blum and Ivan Oransky. Eyewitness statements made at the time and afterwards would prove St Louis' initial report to be accurate. On June 10th the BBC’s Today programme aired a recorded interview with Hunt where he confirmed that his words had been accurately reported and offered another apology. 

The photo that accompanied Connie St Louis' original tweet on the story

After the Today interview the story went viral on social media. Female scientists posted photos of themselves at work with the hashtag #distractinglysexy to ridicule the Nobel Laureate for his words. Though it had clearly been a humiliating and chastening experience, attracting some abusive ageist comments online and attention by British tabloids rifling through his private life, by the time Hunt resigned from the ERC on June 11th the story should have died down. The carnival would have moved on.

But on June 11th Hunt was called by Fiona Fox of the Science Media Centre (SMC), a powerful and often controversial charitable organisation whose aim is to promote informed reporting of science in the media. That phone call triggered a concerted defence of Hunt that would later evolve into a furious backlash.

As the story developed over the following months, many people who had criticised Hunt were silenced by online abuse. The facts were ignored as an unholy band of men's right activists, 'cultural libertarians', the 'alt right', anti-feminists and followers of Gamergate, all seized the chance to turn Hunt into the poster boy for the libertarian right and cast St Louis, a black feminist, as their hate figure.

Rather than giving Hunt a chance to offer a final apology and move on, the interview lit a fire under the story that burn for months to come.

The Science Media Centre had given a briefing on the story on June 10th. Fiona Fox then wrote a blog defending Hunt on June 12th, in which she said, 'Nobody has yet secured an interview with Tim’s highly regarded scientist wife, so we are none the wiser as to whether she wants to kill him or defend him.'

She was to remedy that by helping facilitate an interview between Hunt, his wife Professor Mary Collins, and Robin McKie of the Observer, where the scientist claimed that he had been 'hung out to dry.'

The interview was a pivotal point in the story. Rather than giving Hunt a chance to offer a final apology and move on, it lit a fire under the story that would burn for months to come. Hunt cast himself as the victim, and the result flushed out a number of powerful supporters such as Richard Dawkins, like Hunt a Fellow of the Royal Society, escalating the story further. 

Fox's intention might have been to help Hunt handle the media storm, but it had backfired.

Connie St Louis has been a vocal critic of the Science Media Centre. A senior science journalist, who did not wish to be named, said: 'There is no love lost between them. Fiona has never forgotten the criticism Connie has made of her and the SMC in the past.'

In an article in 2014, St Louis was quoted as saying, “I would close down the Science Media Centre.” For her, and some other critics, it acts as a PR agency for its funders, which include Pfizer, Monsanto, and the UK Government. For its defenders, the SMC promotes fair and accurate reports of scientific matters and performs an invaluable service for journalists.

I asked Fox whether her previously difficult relationship with Connie St Louis had affected her decision to offer advice to Hunt or whether she had the full backing of Science Media Centre before her intervention.

She declined to answer and pointed me towards her two written blogs on the subject instead.

Bob Ward, board member of the Association of British Science Writers and formerly a member of the advisory committee of the Science Media Centre, said: 'Although I think Fiona Fox has been too sympathetic to Tim Hunt about his stupid actions, I think it was entirely appropriate for her to offer help to him.'

Professor David Miller, Professor of Sociology at Bath University, and Director of the website Spinwatch, said: 'It is striking that in the Hunt case what is being defended is not science or even a particular side in a debate within science. Instead it looks very much like the defence of favoured elite scientists, no matter what they say. Unless it is suggested that Tim Hunt has ‘proven expertise’ on gender relations in science, it is hard to see how this fits with the mission of the SMC.'

Fox's sister Claire, founder of the right-wing think-tank Institute of Ideas and a regular on Radio 4's Moral Maze, was another champion of Hunt. Around the same time Fiona Fox wrote her first supportive blog, she tweeted: 'Tarring & feathering Tim Hunt 4 ill-judged joke sets back women in science cause. Who'd B inspired 2 join such a humourless bunch of bullies?'

Like her sister she is a former writer for Living Marxism magazine, which evolved into libertarian magazine 'Spiked' (Brendan O'Neil, Spiked's editor, wrote a typically provocative blog defending Hunt the day after Fiona Fox published hers.) Spiked remains closely linked to the Institute of Ideas.

ERC President Jean-Pierre Bourguignon

In the days that followed the toast, other powerful forces were seeking to defend Hunt. Even though Hunt had resigned from the ERC Scientific Council without protest, as emails and other documents reveal, its President, Belgian Professor Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, a fellow member of the exclusive science association Academia Europea with Hunt, was actively seeking his reinstatement.

The ERC's press officer Marcin Monko had accompanied Hunt in Seoul and sent several panicked emails to Brussels in Hunt's defence after the story broke. In one he claimed Hunt had 'wanted to be sarcastic and perhaps went too far, but people in the audience laughed and had a relaxed lunch.' On June 13th, Monko would write a Facebook post in which he said 'Hunt indeed made a joke, bad joke, unacceptable and sexist one, but he then went on to praise Korean women scientists and in general encouraged women in science.'

ERC board minutes of June 22nd revealed their initial press strategy, stating '...all the actions it undertook or proposed until 11 June were dictated by the need to preserve the image and reputation of Sir Tim Hunt.'

But after Hunt resigned, the strategy changed. On his return to Brussels, a week after Hunt's toast, Monko wrote a report for the ERC executive and Bourguignon, recounting what he remembered of the speech. The ERC would stress this was not a verbatim account of Hunt's words and not a transcript, just a recollection.

Bourguignon was unaware, it seems, that both men had already read Monko's emails from Seoul before accepting Hunt's resignation and their decision had been made with the full facts at their disposal.

Bourguignon, in his own words, 'pressed' for this report to be entered into the European Commission's document system, apparently to put pressure on Smits and Commissioner Carlos Moedas to reverse their decision. 

Bourguignon was unaware, it seems, that both men had already read Monko's emails from Seoul before accepting Hunt's resignation and their decision had been made with the full facts at their disposal.

On June 18th I can reveal that Bourguignon emailed members of the Scientific Council twice, using a private email address, attaching Monko's internal report, to formulate a three-point plan for Hunt's reinstatement before putting it to the Commissioner the following day. That plan was rejected.

Within days of those emails, only released after an appeal to the EU Ombudsman, Monko's report, written from memory, was leaked to The Times. It featured in two stories written by Science Editor Tom Whipple on June 24th and 25th and was labelled incorrectly by a sub-editor in one of the titles as a transcript.

These stories were seized on by Hunt's supporters, in particular the claim that Hunt said 'Now seriously...' during his speech, proving, it was claimed, his comments were a joke and that St Louis' report was inaccurate.

However, in none of his emails from Seoul did Monko mention these words, or in his Facebook post seeking to defend Hunt .

The EC refused to comment when asked on whether they were satisfied with Professor Bourguignon's conduct in this matter, while Bourguignon did not respond to my recent attempts to contact him.

'Don't Leave Women to be Victimised'

Cambridge University's Professor Athene Donald, like Hunt a Fellow of the Royal Society and also a member of Academia Europea, and a highly respected physicist and a prominent campaigner for the cause of women in science, is a member of the Scientific Council who, like the others, received Bourguignon’s emails about Huntgate.

Athene Donald

She had already written to Bourguignon on the morning of June 10th 'with a heavy heart' to inform him of the gathering storm in the UK over Hunt's comments. Later that day she emailed to say it was her intention not to intervene: 'I find this situation very difficult ...I can condemn what Tim said for being stupid; I find it hard to condemn the man when he's never struck me as sexist. If I have to change my position and 'come out' I'll let you know.'

Five days later Donald wrote a blog in defence of Hunt  in which she also called for people to 'call out bad behaviour whenever and wherever you see it – in committees or in the street. Don’t leave women to be victimised.' This seemed at odds with her defence of Hunt, repeated that same day in an article for the Time magazine website.

I... just said to begin with, 'You may notice there is something different between me and the three previous speakers' and 'You may think I'm a male chauvinist sexist pig' or something like that. Then this sort of devilment got in me and I said 'Let me tell you my trouble with girls...'

Hunt's words, their meaning and intent have been pored over endlessly. There will never be agreement so there seems little point in rehashing them here. But it is interesting to note that in a previously unknown YouTube interview (from about 1:45.00 onwards) in July, shortly after the speech, Hunt said that he was in a bad mood at the lunch because his lecture beforehand had experienced technical difficulties. 

'There were four speakers and the three before me were women...and I was still sort of irritated by having to do this so, I... just said to begin with, 'You may notice there is something different between me and the three previous speakers' and 'You may think I'm a male chauvinist sexist pig' or something like that. Then this sort of devilment got in me and I said 'Let me tell you my trouble with girls...'

This corroborates his press officer's claim that Hunt wanted to be 'sarcastic' and went too far, as well as a contemporaneous account by American author and journalism professor Charles Seife, which has also gone unnoticed, who was five feet away from Hunt when he spoke:

'My read was definitely that it wasn't a joke -- I saw a mischievous look in his eyes...' he wrote. 'I honestly think he went in meaning to cause a bit of a stir. And everyone tried as hard as they could to take his sexist comments as a joke at first... as a bad attempt at humor. But as he went on and on -- and we all shifted uncomfortably in our seats -- it became obvious to everybody that it was definitely not a joke.'

But as a result of the Mail piece, St Louis became the focus of hatred. The criticism of Hunt had died down; the monstering of St Louis had just begun.

The effect of the leaked ERC report in The Times was significant. The story had switched from being about Hunt to St Louis. Now she was the hunted, as newspapers raked over her past and career.

Two days later, The Daily Mail described the ERC report as 'seismic' in a highly critical piece about St Louis. It pointed out inaccuracies in her CV, boosting the growing defence of Hunt and intensifying the backlash against her.

St Louis had made some errors after her initial tweet. In particular, on the Today programme, she wrongly described reaction of the audience as a ''deathly silence'. Later a brief audio clip emerged of Hunt backpedalling at the end of his speech, followed by some individual laughter and a few handclaps, before it cut out.

But as a result of the Mail piece, St Louis became the focus of hatred. The criticism of Hunt had died down; the monstering of St Louis had just begun.

The day after the the article was published, Hunt received an email: 'Thanks for this,' it read. 'I read the article with a smile on my face ‐ what a fraud this woman is. Why would she have any moral hesitations of doing what she did considering this new info?! For once Daily Mail (sic) seems to have done a decent job.'

Shortly after the article appeared, St Louis was sent faeces in the post, while racist comments and abuse appeared beneath the article. The attacks were noticeably more personal than those directed at Hunt.

By now the outspoken former Conservative MP, Louise Mensch, had entered the debate. She wrote a series of inaccurate blogs and columns defending Hunt and attacking Blum, Oransky and St Louis. But it was on Twitter where she dished out most of her abuse, frequently smearing all three journalists as liars and 'serial liars', as well as those who had criticised Hunt's words.

Journalist and scientist Hilda Bastian, who had been critical of Hunt, was referred to as a 'disgusting persecutor'. While Mensch defended Hunt as a ‘sweet old man’ she labelled David Colquhoun, a 79-year-old British pharmacologist, a 'filthy liar'; Dr Marianne Baker (@noodlemaz), a woman with a PhD in cancer research was told 'fuck off with your lies', while Nature magazine was labelled 'those anti-Tim Hunt bastards.'

To @drskyskull, a professor of optical physics, she wrote: 'Fucking lol you tool #timhunt we need a microscope to measure your contribution to science.' To David K Smith, a scientist who tried to reason with her, she tweeted: 'You have been abusive of an old man based on fuck all. Now sod off.'

'Tim Hunt was a great sacrificial lamb. Perfect liberal boy. Still gets lied about by SJW c*nt journalist.'

This aggression was more than matched by some of her followers who would continue her onslaught on St Louis or those who defended her or criticised Hunt. Mike Cernovich, an aggressive 'free speech activist' and anti-feminist with more than 50,000 followers, tweeted: 'Tim Hunt was a great sacrificial lamb. Perfect liberal boy. Still gets lied about by SJW cunt journalist. No one is safe. Get radicalized.' Conservative activist 'Betsey Ross' referred to St Louis as a 'black fraud.'

Richard Jowsey is a New Zealand software consultant who was part of Mensch's investigative 'Team Hunt', and was later revealed to host pages of sexist and misogynist jokes in a 'funzone' on his website (which he claimed was research for an academic paper) mocked Connie St Louis for having had cancer.

Racist images were posted on the Internet, including one where St Louis face was photoshopped onto the body of an ape. Meanwhile Hunt became the poster boy of the libertarian right, a man falsely accused by a woman: in their eyes, St Louis was the embodiment of 'social justice warrior’ or ‘SJW' political correctness.

Predictably, Milo Yiannopoulos, of the far right-wing, libertarian website Breitbart inserted himself in the story. He wrote an article saying St Louis had been protected because of her 'black privilege'. The comments beneath the article were openly racist, heaping derision on St Louis for her skin colour, her sex and her appearance. Yiannopoulos would continue to bait St Louis for months to follow.

By now many in the Gamergate community, notorious for the online harassment of women under the auspices of upholding ethics in games journalism, were involved as the storm escalated. Many of them, mainly men, parroted Milo's misogynistic vitriol about how Hunt had been 'destroyed' by a lying black feminist and 'fired' from his job.

Despite styling herself as a feminist, Mensch did nothing to discourage such attacks. She frequently declared her support for Gamergate, 'I'm #notyourshield on #gamergate. Gamers good example of men being smeared over nothing,' she tweeted. 'I fully support #gamergate although I don't game.'

Cathy Young has written for Spiked and appeared at last Autumn's Battle of Ideas, organised by the Institute of Ideas. She was another prominent journalist who backed Hunt vociferously. She is also a Gamergate supporter. 'Me too,' added Mensch, when this was pointed out.

Mensch has also retweeted one tweet that read: 'Feminism is Cancer #gamergate.'

Once she had the Gamergate community's attention, Mensch was happy to tap into their anger and use their digital fluency to signal boost her work on Tim Hunt. 'Can you get the crew to read, RT and traffic this,' she asked one Gamergater about an apology to Hunt written by Forbes journalist David Kroll. The Gamergater then tweeted: 'Wow, #gamergate! Another victory for ethical journalism @davidkroll deserves praise...'

It was then tweeted by an account called 'Gamergate news' and shared widely. Meanwhile, Mensch had deleted her original tweet to the gamer asking for the news to be spread.

The result of all this was toxic: a mob of predominantly angry men flooded the debate, eager to malign, harass and abuse St Louis as well as any one who chose to defend her or criticise Hunt.

At the start of the story, Hunt had been ridiculed by female scientists in lab coats and goggles; St Louis was now being savaged by an online community which was expert in harassment and abuse.

In part two, I reveal more about how Mensch and the Gamergate link developed and yet more behind the scenes collusion to try and exonerate the Nobel Laureate and castigate St Louis, and a bizarre twist.

#timhunt, #gamergate, #culturewars, #sexism, #Huntgate


Roland Paterson-Jones

3 years ago

Incidentally, here is what I feel is the definitive examination of this topic. Crucially, it examines the critical scientific notions of the 'null hypothesis' and evidence oriented scientific method. Unfortunately I suspect that these concepts are above the intellectual reach of Dan Waddell's "he said she said" audience.

Roland Paterson-Jones

3 years ago

So, lots of he-said she-said, but no punch line. Let's have it Dan:

1. Do you believe that Tim Hunt is a misogynist?
2. Do you believe that Tim Hunt has had a negative effect on women in science?
3. Do you believe that Tim Hunt's removal from various associations was in the best interest of scientists?
4. Do you believe that this fiasco was instigated by the anti-Hunt brigade (in social media and in the real media), or by the anti-anti-Hunt brigade? (Hint, without one, there can't be the other).
5. Is it of benefit to humanity that journalists spend a year investigating a 2 minute off-the-cuff speech?
6. Is it of benefit to humanity that scientists research cancer biochemistry?

Many questions - at heart I wonder what your intention is. Personally I found Louise Mench's articles more compelling, since they were fact focused rather than your relationship-oriented approach. Really, that is the core distinction between science and sociology, and perhaps explains why there is such polarisation on this topic. Non-scientists really don't appreciate the world that science has provided - it's more important to make people feel good, rather than to be right for some people. In science though, it's more important to be right - in fact it's absolutely critical.

Me, I'll stick with science, thanks. I quite like getting to type these words on a little machine half a world away from you.

And really, a fantastically productive scientist uttered a couple of innocuous sentences more than a year ago somewhere across the world. And you are still banging on about it? Who cares? Somewhere, some people will be suffering the ravages of cancer, and benefiting from Tim Hunt's research, which really makes whatever he said seem rather irrelevant. No?



3 years ago

Dan Waddell
I thought I remembered Seife tweeting something to the effect that he also remembered Hunt thanking the women for making the lunch but I could well be wrong. Either way as one of those "errors" she made, St. Louis repeated the accusation at least once in an interview or possibly an online article.

Roland Paterson-Jones

3 years ago

The most damning evidence against C St L was her insistence that there was a shocked silence after the speech - apart from her very clear misrepresentation of Tim Hunt's tone, against clear evidence from the audio snippet.

" Sarah Montague: Connie St. Louis, when he said this – I mean, you heard him, you were there – what was the reaction in the room?

Connie St. Louis: Well, there was a deathly silence, it was – who stands up and says “I hope the women have prepared the lunch”? “I’m a male chauvinist pig”. And at that point, you’d think he would get some social cues to say “Stop”, because nobody was laughing…these guys had been incredibly generous and thoughtful and inclusive by asking him to make comments at their lunch. …And I kept thinking… this is just too awful and these guys are incredibly upset.

And so this – after he’d finished, there was this deathly, deathly silence."

You can probably settle the Seife tweet question in Louise Mensch's very thorough investigative pieces.


3 years ago

Dan Waddell,
I realize that the original tweet came from Watkins. I thought Seife repeated it but as I said I could be wrong. However you agree that St. Louis repeated it, making her an unreliable eye witness. I remember now Seife was the eye witness who doubled down on insisting that Hunt said "the trouble" rather than "my trouble with girls" which no one else remembers. So either every one else who's commented is an unreliable eye witness or he is. Who does that leave?

Dan Waddell

3 years ago

Here's Watkins' tweet to St Louis.
She said it on the Today programme on June 10..


3 years ago

As far as I can tell, having followed this story almost from the very beginning, no one including Tim Hunt or any of the various eye witnesses has any idea what he actually said or the overall impression his speech left since there were no complete recordings or verbatim transcripts. Charles Seife, one of the eye witnesses that you quote, was as I recall the first person to initially claim that Hunt had made a remark about thanking the women for making the lunch. That claim was later retracted as it turned out to be based on a misinterpretation of a tweet by another of your eye witnesses. Seife didn't 'hear' it, in spite of being right there, he read it. Is he a completely reliable witness? Probably no more or less so than any of the witnesses that Mensch has dragged up. I suspect based on reading some of the original tweets that a lot of what people who were there claimed to have heard was based on what they latter read.

In any case, what I find interesting about your article is that while one group (notably led by Mensch) chose to defend Hunt based on attacking St. Louis (and to a lesser extent Blum), you've apparently chosen to defend St. Louis (and attack Hunt) based on attacking Mensch. I'll be interested to see where you take this.

Dan Waddell

3 years ago

It was Scott Watkins who made the mistake over thanking women for lunch, not Seife.

Hermann Steinpilz

3 years ago

@Christopher Delozier,

Does the term 'quote-mining' mean anything to you? It's what creationists and SJWs do.

Christopher Delozier

3 years ago

"... no one including Tim Hunt or any of the various eye witnesses has any idea what he actually said..."

Wow, not even the guy who said the stuff, then later acknowledged the quote, knows what he said. Interesting take.

Jeremy Fine

3 years ago

>The facts were ignored as an unholy band of men's right activists, 'cultural libertarians', the 'alt right', anti-feminists and followers of Gamergate, all seized the chance to turn Hunt into the poster boy for the libertarian right and cast St Louis, a black feminist, as their hate figure.

No, it was feminists who turned Hunt into a poster boy for misogyny in the sciences, like they had done to Matt Taylor half a year before. Utterly amazing how this now-well-established pattern of cause and effect is constantly reversed, and the people who create the shi(r)tstorm turn the situation around and manage to paint themselves as the victims. Those "unholy" men's right activists have a word for that too: DARVO. Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim and Offender. You should look it up, it's a feminist favorite.

Instead of spinning a few isolated tweets into a narrative, you may also want to read Chris von Cselvalvay's network analysis about the hashtag, which shows it to be a decentralized phenomenon, and that didn't even factor in the myriad of discussions elsewhere on the web:

He was harassed by notorious "anti-harassment activist" Randi Harper for publishing it... Strange how that works, no? Almost as if... the facts were ignored in favor of near-lethal doses of projection.

Roland Paterson-Jones

3 years ago

Awesome anaysis. I also found it strange that Dan resorted to vilifying #Gamergate, which amounts to little more than opportunistic bandwagonning of very poorly connected SJW cause celebre's (Hunt and #Gamergate). Great attempt at guilt by association, albeit the rather tenuous association that Louse Mensch might have received help from Gamergate(no real evidence provided), and, of course, Mensch is pro-Hunt. Gamergate bad. Mensch like Gamergate. Mensch bad. Mensch like Hunt. Hunt bad.

There, that's much more concise.

Christopher Delozier

3 years ago

@Hermann - You're so cute when you're blaming everyone else for the backlash of bigotry.

Hermann Steinpilz

3 years ago

@Christopher Delozier,

The call-out culture is the widespread problem, not the fact that an eminent scientist accidentally steps on some sensitive toes. Calling someone like Tim Hunt a "poster boy for misogyny" is simply vile. It's this Red Guard behaviour that has helped create the current climate that gives oxygen to dangerous demagogues like Donald Trump.

Christopher Delozier

3 years ago

Yeah bro! I'm totally with you dude! It must really suck to be a poster boy for misogyny after saying some misogynistic things! All those feminists were asking for it by calling out behavior indicative of a widespread problem!