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3 Ways Cancer Scientist Tim Hunt’s Social Media Mob Went Too Far


Sir Richard Timothy Hunt is a British biochemist who won a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for discovering protein molecules that control the division of cells. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1991, was awarded the Royal Medal for his work on cell cycle control and was knighted by the Queen. He’s worked on cancer research for decades.

Last week, he was speaking at the 2015 World Conference of Science Journalists at a lunch for female journalists and scientists. He said something he claims was meant as a joke, but that went over like a lead balloon:

“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 criticize them, they cry.”

We’ll skip to the aftermath. Hunt was forced out of his position at University College London as well as from the Royal Society’s Biological Sciences Awards Committee and forced to step down from the European Research Center. In an interview with The Guardian, we learn:

Hunt is under no illusions about the consequences. “I am finished,” he says. “I had hoped to do a lot more to help promote science in this country and in Europe, but I cannot see how that can happen. I have become toxic. I have been hung to dry by academic institutes who have not even bothered to ask me for my side of affairs.”

I can’t defend Hunt’s comments. They’re odd and tone-deaf and just unbecoming of a man of his stature.

But you’d have to have a very perverted sense of justice to think he should be hounded out of scientific life for making them. The man works in cancer research. Cancer research. As in, he’s one of the world’s best scientists and he’s focused on fighting cancer. Cancer, for those of you who are busy in the social justice warrior mines, is like misogyny — but even worse.

So assuming we all agree that Hunt’s contributions to science shouldn’t be shut off simply because he said something stupid, how do we pull back from this social media hit mob that destroys all in its path?

1) Learn the art of gentle ribbing.

We live in such confusing times. On the one hand, we’re told that bullying is the worst thing that any human can do to another human. On the other, we’re engaged in more and more bullying than ever before, with a speed and ferocity that is chilling.

Did Tim Hunt deserve to get his balls busted for his idiotic comments? Absolutely. But there’s an art to how to do this without actually forcing someone out of a job or physically harming them. Joking and teasing are great, and Al Jazeera’s AJ+, of all outlets, did a good example of that here:

But outrage, condemnation and witch hunts are far less civil and far less fun. With ribbing, you can get all the benefit of letting people know they were a bit misguided without having to deal with being a horrible person who hounded one of the world’s best scientists out of his work.

2) Consider possibility that someone just really messed up.

I studied in a soft science (economics), but I think roughly 100% of my professors and fellow students (and I include myself here) were functional idiots at interpersonal communication. I can’t imagine the situation is significantly better elsewhere. In a world where humans are interacting, we’re going to have a bunch of people putting their feet in their mouth all the time. That’s because human nature is, among other things, prone to doing bad things at various points in a lifetime. With a few billion people on the planet and you better get used to it.

I’m constantly putting my foot in my mouth and I have jokes that fail all the time. But so do you. Hunt and his wife, a well regarded scientist in her own right, both readily admit his comments fell flat and were hurtful. OK. Fine. Again, you’ve said horrible things, too. So maybe a bit of grace is in order.

This doesn’t mean, again, that there should be no repercussions for stupid statements. If you tell an offensive joke, or say something really cruel, you will hear about it. A pattern of bad behavior should very much result in serious repercussions. But when we hear our neighbors say something really stupid that enrages us, we should all remember that we all say stupid stuff all the time. This is a good time to remember what Jesus said about it.

3) Is there anything of value in the argument you deride?

Finally, since we’re being all magnanimous and stuff, another word of caution. Just because you aren’t turned on by working in close proximity with people of the opposite sex doesn’t mean that rule applies generally.

Many of us have libidos that can be activated by, well, anything really. Others have very low-acting libidos or are turned on only by people to whom they’re married. But working in close proximity can lead to complications. The Daily Mail had a silly little story about a silly little survey done by a sex toy company that claimed 46 percent of women and 42 percent of men fantasize about people they’re not having sex with while having sex with their partner. And for women, it’s frequently a colleague. Again, I don’t take surveys from sex toy companies terribly seriously but the fact is, quite simply, that many of us fantasize about colleagues or fall in love with various people we’re working with. Men and women find it easy to be sexually aroused by each other. And while it’s absolutely true that we should keep these feelings in check and avoid fishing off the company dock during work hours, we shouldn’t mock the idea that men and women working together can get messy.