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Surprise! The Internet Mob Was Dead Wrong About Tim Hunt’s ‘Sexist’ Comments

Tim Hunt doesn’t seem to be all that sexist. Perhaps the Internet outrage mob could learn a lesson or two from this before its next witch hunt.


As it turns out, the Internet outrage mob was wrong, and Tim Hunt isn’t actually a sexist monster. Apparently his comments about female scientists in labs were grossly taken out of context, and now everyone wants him back.

Sir Richard Timothy Hunt, a Nobel Prize-winning cancer research scientist, caused the internet to go totally berserk earlier this month when he said:

It’s strange that such a chauvinist monster like me has been asked to speak to women scientists. 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 criticise them they cry. Perhaps we should make separate labs for boys and girls?

BURN THE WITCH, right? However, his comments–which a full transcript show were clearly tongue-in-cheek–were directly followed by sincere praise for female scientists:

Now seriously, I’m impressed by the economic development of Korea. And women scientists played, without doubt an important role in it. Science needs women and you should do science despite all the obstacles, and despite monsters like me.

After his initial comments were reported, throngs of people turned his comments into a hashtag, #distractinglysexy, spurring many into mocking him online and calling for his resignation, which is eventually what happened.

Much to the chagrin of people who hate cancer more than they love online witch trials, Hunt was promptly let go from his positions at University College London, the Royal Society’s Biological Sciences Awards Committee, and the European Research Center. As happens all too often, the Internet outrage mob got what it wanted. In this case, they got an award-winning cancer scientist fired. Congratulations, Internet. You showed that dumb cancer doctor who was boss.

But as it turns out, his comments were grossly taken out of context, and now many are calling for him to be brought back:

I’d hate to say “we told you so,” but last week, my colleague Mollie Hemmingway wrote about the implications of everyone ganging up on Hunt:

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. . . 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.

While there’s something to be said for taking a stand against sexism, perhaps the collective Internet could take a lesson from all of this hullabaloo. Joining in a visceral, mob-like attack online can result in serious trouble for someone in real-life. And sometimes, the Internet can be wrong.