Hunt and the Hunted - Part Two
If the intervention of the Science Media Centre, and the articles which followed in The Times and The Daily Mail, began the backlash against Connie St Louis and Tim Hunt's critics, then Louise Mensch's rabble rousing turned it into a wave of sound and fury.
In contrast to the initial spontaneous and viral response from female scientists ridiculing Hunt's words, Mensch whipped up a manufactured online storm. She courted the attention of the Gamergate community and harnessed their fury. Where once she had deleted tweets encouraging Gamergaters to share her links and 'spread the word', by the end of her campaign she was openly saluting their contribution.
She tweeted a link to the notorious Reddit Gamergate discussion group, Kotaku in Action, who have been accused of 'doxxing' - maliciously leaking someone's identity or private information on the Internet - and targeting women.
'56k subscribers are as pissed off with all this as you are,' one member told her.
'Give the community my respects,' Mensch replied.
The cocktail of online abuse, racism, sexism and misogyny had a predictable effect on the debate over Hunt's words. Many of those who felt that what Hunt said was unacceptable simply walked away from the unsavoury and increasingly hostile nature of the debate.
Amid this acrimony, many scientists were astonished that gender champion Athene Donald supported Mensch's journalism and even lauded her work, as she did in a blog of July 2015, at a time when Mensch and many of her supporters were attacking and silencing female journalists and scientists.
Several people commented on Donald’s blog, asking how could she implore people to call out the victimisation of women while at the same praising the work of someone who appeared to be encouraging the online abuse of women?
Observing all this, one wrote on a email discussion list: 'A lot of women scientists have contacted me personally about this as they believe Hunt’s words were inappropriate and/or damaged women in science and disagree strongly with (Athene) Donald’s viewpoint. Unfortunately most of them have refused to engage publicly about this for months now, sent into hiding by fear of online abuse.'
The irony was complete. Those who professed to be defending Hunt in the name of free speech were destroying it by silencing and abusing those who disagreed with them.
Meanwhile, Mensch's hectoring extended to her 'journalism'. She emailed Deborah Blum, Ivan Oransky and Kathryn O'Hara, a Canadian journalist who witnessed Blum sit next to Hunt the morning after his toast and confirm the sincerity of his words. Mensch asked a series of questions.
The final question was: 'Can I reiterate that all three of you are a disgrace to journalism?'
Hunt and Collins
In July Paul Nurse, Hunt's fellow Nobel Prize winner, offered some blunt criticism of his friend: 'Tim is a lovely man and I have known him a long time. But there is no question about it, he did say some stupid things which cannot be supported and they had to be condemned.'
He went on to say that it was time to move on. Citing Louise Mensch's increasingly vicious campaign, I emailed Hunt in early that month and asked if agreed with Nurse.
'Enough has been said already,' Hunt replied.
However, it became clear as the summer wore on that Hunt and Professor Collins did not feel that enough had been said. Mary Collins joined Twitter in July and was soon swapping tweets with Mensch and her supporters, though many tweets have been lost since Collins deleted her account in November.
But archived tweets show how Collins and Hunt were assisting Mensch's investigations.
Collins asked Deborah Blum a series of questions about her breakfast interview with Hunt the morning after his toast, during which he tellingly confirmed the sincerity of his words, in the presence of a witness. Collins mentioned an unknown man who had approached them and asked Blum why she was talking to the scientist.
Blum does not reply to Collins' badgering but Mensch interjects to ask Hunt's wife if 'Tim' recognises the man from some photos she supplies. Collins tells her that her husband is away but she will ask him to do an 'identity parade' on his return. As time wore on, it became clear Hunt and Collins were sharing emails and other information with Mensch while refusing interviews to other journalists.
On another occasion, Collins directly accused Blum and Connie St Louis of 'lying.'
Professor Collins also appeared to suggest lines of inquiry for Mensch to follow. Using the hashtag #stitchupinseoul, Collins alleged that his accuser's 'plan was to plant an inaccurate story' about Hunt. 'Wow,' replied Mensch.
Collins then drew attention to some run-of-the-mill publicity for the World Conference of Science Journalists (WCSJ), which promoted Hunt, a Nobel Laureate, and Deborah Blum, a Pulitzer Prize winner. 'Nobel vs Pulitzer. Science vs Science Journalism. Meet 2 Pulitzer Prize Winners and 2 Nobel laureates at #WCSJ2015,' it read.
'Anyone who thinks #timhunt was at a normal meeting in Seoul, look at this bizarre pre-conference publicity,' tweeted Collins. She then retweeted someone saying that it proved the attack on her husband was 'premeditated.'
Collins' tweets became more intemperate as time went on, even retweeting what appeared to be a demand for the BBC to sack the award-winning science journalist and former BBC science correspondent Sue Nelson - even though she is no longer a staff member. Nelson believes Hunt’s comments were an example of casual sexism ‘but it wasn’t a hanging offence’ and had even expressed sympathy for Hunt’s treatment. But by defending St Louis and others from online abuse, she too was targeted by Mensch.
"After learning more about her online history and press spats, I discovered I wasn’t the first to be smeared by Mensch and I won’t be the last,' said Nelson. "Although accusing me and several others of bullying Collins - which anyone online could see was untrue - was particularly nasty. As a result, if you Google my name alongside Tim Hunt people can read a completely false Storify by Mensch saying I abused Collins. That’s unforgiveable. The irony was that many academics had been shocked at how Collins herself behaved on Twitter. One female scientist actually messaged me to say ‘Oh my God, I’m being trolled by Mary Collins.’ And I never once saw Collins censor the online abuse and bullying that was being done in Hunt’s name. That was outrageous. Shortly before she deleted her account, Collins tweeted that she’d been warned about her ‘trolling behaviour’. I don’t doubt it.”
Nelson went on to reveal some inconvenient truths for Mensch and Collins about how the story was being misreported by the British press.
'Yes, you've said your piece, Sir Tim and Mary Collins have both thanked me and Mary Collins has castigated you publicly,' Mensch would later taunt Nelson.
But here weren't just words of thanks for Mensch. Collins and Hunt were so delighted with her contribution that they rewarded her with a congratulatory dinner at their house in Cambridgeshire at an unknown date last Autumn, where Hunt gifted her his lanyard from the WCSJ as a prize.
As with Athene Donald, the sight of a senior female scientist like Collins, with a track record for promoting the advancement of women in science, applauding and rewarding the work of someone like Mensch who had been attacking women scientists and academics, and enlisting the help of a community seemingly dedicated to harassing women, stuck in the craw of many.
As Marnie Dunsmore wrote on Athene Donald's blog: It is a disgrace for a person in your position to be still drumming up this subject. The Korea Federation of Women’s Science and Technology made a public statement over a month ago, stating that they found Hunt’s joke to be inappropriate and that their decision to ask him for a formal apology was decided based on statements heard by Korean women at the lunch themselves (and not provoked by any journalists). Many women in STEM in South Korea work in the semiconductor industry and related areas of research. As this is also my field, a very conservative one that is not particularly accommodating toward women, I feel quite empathetic to the plight of women scientists and engineers in Korea. Hopefully, in the future, if leading English scientists want to download about their personal/professional conflicts, they will chose their own country and immediate working environment to do so. I doubt that Korean women scientists think that their lab environment situation is a joking matter, and their public comments suggest that. They also have stated that they feel there is a lack of regard for their autonomy and integrity in stating that Hunt’s comments were inappropriate. They are quite direct that they are fed up with this issue being recirculated with the intent of brushing it off...
The extraordinary amount of press, twittering, and blogging that has been devoted by prominent English academics defending Tim Hunt, while ignoring many other more pressing issues, including increasing inequality within, is emblematic of a nation that is out of touch with reality. You, Louise Mensch, Richard Dawkins, Jonathan Dimbleby and others making excuses for Tim Hunt, are no friends of the institutions you purport to serve.
Collins eventually deleted her Twitter account. Mensch publicly proclaimed that she had been 'bullied' off Twitter. But Collins confirmed to a journalist, in private, that she was not bullied off Twitter by anyone, yet she said nothing publicly to correct Mensch’s continuous, inaccurate accusations of bullying against several women, both journalists and academics.
As a result of their stance, the standing of Collins and Athene Donald in the eyes of many in the science community has been diminished.
A New Twist
The story developed a new twist in October 2015 when Professor Colin Blakemore, like Hunt a Fellow of the Royal Society, resigned his position as Honorary President of the Association of the British Science Writers (ABSW) in protest, as he saw it, at their support of Connie St Louis' reporting.
Blakemore commented beneath the Fiona Fox's Science Media Centre blog of August 20th about the reasons why he had supported Hunt. In his resignation letter of October 10th he wrote: 'I remain appalled by the silliness of the 37 words of Hunt's "joke" and the way in which they have energized sexist extremists. But I am equally shocked by the injury that this story has inflicted on a man who appears to have been a strong supporter of women, on his wife, Professor Mary Collins, on Connie herself, and on a string of major institutions - UCL, the Royal Society, the ERC, City University.'
Blakemore said in an email to me and Paula Higgins, co-author of this piece, that he had seen 'an indubitably authentic, entire BBC transcript of the conversation between Tim Hunt at Seoul airport and an overnight producer in the Today (sic) at 01:30 in the morning UK time, which runs to more than 2,000 words.'
This was after there had been complaints by Hunt's supporters that his words had been selectively edited or in some way 'spliced' to persecute Hunt, an accusation which turned out to be incorrect.
At Blakemore's suggestion, I contacted the editor of Today to see if we could obtain a copy of that transcript but was told it could not be released for legal reasons. Only Tim Hunt had been sent a copy. Somehow, Blakemore now also had access to this transcript.
In his letter of resignation, Blakemore also revealed that others had submitted written complaints to the ABSW about their stance on St Louis, including Athene Donald and, bizarrely, Fiona Clouder, the British Ambassador to Chile. But when the ABSW asked Donald and Clouder if they wished to submit a formal complaint, neither did.
I asked Clouder, a former Head of International Relations at the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and Head of Science and Innovation at the Foreign Office, why she intervened in this matter, when it appeared the ABSW's position had little to do with her diplomatic remit in Chile. I also asked if she was acting in a personal or a professional capacity.
'Both,' she replied.
'I wrote to the ABSW to ask it they could help move things into a more positive place. Science is a priority in our relationship with Chile, and the Tim Hunt affair has been raised with me here. I do not know either Sir Tim Hunt or Professor Mary Collins in a personal capacity.'
An FOI request to find out the extent of her involvement revealed, though heavily redacted, that she shared a series of emails with the ABSW between September and October, and had also invited Hunt to speak about science in Chile in July, at the height of the row.
During the summer of 2015, there was an edit war over the Tim Hunt Wikipedia entry, in which various anonymous editors deleted anything that strayed from the revisionist position that saw Hunt as the victim of an unfair plot to discredit him.
My piece with Paula Higgins, published in November on Medium with a summary on Byline, featured new evidence which has not been included on the lengthy section on Seoul on Tim Hunt's Wikipedia entry. It is policy not to include references to self-published pieces and blogs, yet there are currently references to Louise Mensch's blogs and Cathy Young's self-published piece
Earlier this year, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales added a link to mine and Higgins' piece for the page editors to consider for inclusion, making it clear that he wasn't endorsing it in any way.
Predictably Louise Mensch responded furiously on Twitter, keen to prevent Wikipedia users from judging the facts for themselves. She accused our piece of being 'fake gibberish' and said, incorrectly, that it had been 'slammed' by Athene Donald. It appeared as if Mensch was keen to control publicly available information about what had really happened in Seoul.
During the summer, blogger and scientist Hilda Bastian made some minor additions to the Hunt page, including a link to a statement by the Korean Federation of Women in Science and Technology (KOFWST), who sponsored the lunch in which Hunt made his comments, welcoming his apology.
History is being rewritten
Her intervention drew wild criticism from Louise Mensch who called her 'massively biased', even though the other contribution Bastian made to the page was to defend Athene Donald. Bastian is also an extremely experienced and respected Wikipedia editor, though she no longer edits the Tim Hunt page. Meanwhile, in her absence, the KOFWST reference has been removed.
Hypocritically, there was not a murmur from Mensch about the fact that a number of zealous pro Tim Hunt supporters, including genealogist Debbie Kennett, also an experienced Wikipedian, made changes and additions to the page.
The result is that Hunt's Wikipedia page gives a skewed version of events in Seoul to those going to the page seeking an independent assessment of what happened, including, staggeringly, a reference to the now debunked ERC 'transcript'.
History is being rewritten.
'I Find That Offensive'
On May 5th this year, Biteback published I Find That Offensive by Claire Fox, the sister of Science Media Centre head Fiona Fox and founder of the Institute of Ideas. As part of a wider polemic arguing for the virtue of being offensive, it features a revisionist and error-strewn version of the Hunt saga.
Embarrassingly, it attributes a quote to Deborah Blum that was actually said by the Korean sponsors of the lunch, KOFWST.
It mistakenly quotes from the ERC report as if it was a transcript of what Hunt said, when even the author of the report has explicitly stated it wasn't verbatim and wasn't a transcript.
She also praises an article on the subject for Commentary Magazine by Jonathan Foreman, yet another who has appeared at the Battle of Ideas, organised by Fox's institute.
Foreman's piece is simply a rehash of Louise Mensch's inaccurate blogs and other newspaper reports, and is yet another which treats the ERC press officer's report as verbatim (and even claims he was taking notes.)
One person misquoted in his piece, Tan Shiow Chin, who was present at the lunch and sympathetic to Hunt, told me: 'As for Jonathan Foreman, I am sad to say that he did not contact me at all. It appears to me that he took my quote from The Times (London) piece which quoted me and put his own spin on it.'
Fox repeats Foreman's error about Hunt working on the ERC's 'gender-equity' (sic) plan. Hunt wasn't a member of the organisation's Gender Balance Working Group, as a cursory glance of the ERC's website would have shown.
Fox also pays tribute to Louise Mensch's 'admirable and painstaking' work on the subject.
At the book's launch, both Claire and her sister Fiona were photographed with a smiling Tim Hunt.
The longevity of the Tim Hunt affair surprised everyone. It should have been a simple story, as Pablo Amor, Director of the European Research Council, admitted in an email to the European Commission in December.
'In the end and like you have often repeated there is not much to this story except that Sir Tim Hunt made some very unfortunate and ill-judged statements back in June and as a result he resigned from his position in the Scientific Council and the Commission accepted this resignation.'
That really should have been it, but the intervention of the Science Media Centre, the machinations of the ERC President of the Scientific Council, the defence of Hunt by Professor Donald and other powerful academics - and a British Ambassador - the obsessive, relentless actions of Louise Mensch, the co-opting of the Gamergate community and its tactics, and the failure of Hunt and Collins to denounce the behaviour of Mensch and others in his name, all meant it rumbled on for the better part of a year.
In December, The Times and The Daily Mail reported that Hunt was back working for The Royal Society, presenting this as a victory for a campaign to clear his name.
'Six months after the row he has resumed official duties,' said The Mail, misleadingly. Hunt had never been sacked from 'official duties' and had remained a member of The Royal Society throughout. In fact, the decision to appoint him to a RS working group was taken in July - only a few weeks after the row erupted.
Hunt's comments forced them to take a stand, and to make it clear that in this day and age casual sexism in the higher echelons of their organisations would not be tolerated.’
Another falsehood spread by Louise Mensch and others was that EC Commissioner Carlos Moedas, the man with ultimate responsibility for the ERC Scientific Council from which Hunt resigned, had in some way apologised to Hunt at a later date for the way the matter was dealt with.
Not only do the EC vehemently deny that Moedas ever apologised to Hunt in any way whatsoever, internal emails released under the EC access to documents system reveal they were appalled at the idea that this had even been suggested.
By Christmas, even Robert-Jan Smits of the European Commission, who had shared that gracious email exchange with Hunt on his resignation, was so exasperated by the tawdry behaviour of some of Hunt's supporters that he other EC staff were referring to the matter as Huntgate.
Despite the heat and the noise, the backlash and the abuse, the misogyny and racism, the aggressive chilling of free speech and the silencing of debate, Dorothy Bishop, professor of developmental neuropsychology at the University of Oxford who has been publicly critical of Hunt's comments, thinks some good has come out of this episode.
'Many women were pleasantly surprised to find that three major institutions (UCL, Royal Society and ERC) came out as stating that Hunt's comments were not acceptable. I realise that those within those organisations were far from unanimous, but many did agree that he had unhelpfully reinforced gender stereotypes in a way that was particularly inappropriate for such a senior and influential figure. Both the Royal Society and ERC have been criticised for the low proportion of grants awarded to women and both claimed to be trying to do something about this. Hunt's comments forced them to take a stand, and to make it clear that in this day and age casual sexism in the higher echelons of their organisations would not be tolerated.’