Saturday, 20 June 2015

Lynch mobs, real and imagined

Today, of all days, with the horrible massacre in the Emanuel African Methodist Church in Charleston fresh in our minds, The Times published an article in which the folks who mocked Tim Hunt on the #distractinglysexy hashtag were referred to as a "lynch mob."  (I think; it's not clear who, exactly, the lynch mob is meant to be; perhaps the editors of Nature, who ran an editorial urging that all involved in science condemn Hunt's comments, are to be counted as part of the mob, as well.)

Hunt is a retired scientist who was asked by University College London to resign from an honorary position that carries no salary.   He has also resigned from the Royal Society's awards committee, though he remains a Fellow of the Royal Society, despite what Boris Johnson might think.  And though he claimed "I'm finished," in a plea for pity in The Guardian , it seems to me that, if he chose to, he could continue doing what he has been doing in the five years since his retirement, that is, public outreach for science.  If, tomorrow, he issued a statement announcing that he's seen the error of his ways and offered to partner with some organization promoting the position of women in science (e.g. the WISE campaign), people would eat that up, I think.  Or, if he wanted to do a lecture tour picturing himself as victim of Political Correctness, there are organizations that would eat that up, too.

He has not been lynched.  He hasn't even been sacked, in any serious sense of the word.  Being sacked, for most people, would mean loss of livelihood.  He has been mocked, and UCL has acted to distance himself from his remarks, after Hunt himself made it clear that he wasn't going to do so. And what he's doing these days, as reported in the Guardian today, is relaxing and looking forward to watching Wimbledon.

Shall we recall what lynching is?

Lynch mobs murdered people, mostly African Americans, brutally, and left their bodies hanging on trees as a warming to others that it could happen to them. A few months ago the nonprofit organization Equal Justice Initiative released a report, Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror.   The report documents nearly 4,000 lynchings in the southern United States between 1877 and 1950, and "makes the case that lynching of African Americans was terrorism, a widely supported phenomenon used to enforce racial subordination and segregation."

The massacre in Charleston reminds us that the hatred that fueled lynch mobs is still alive.

Although the title of the Times article is "Eight Nobel scientists condemn ‘lynch mob’," it's not clear which, if any, of the scientists mentioned in it used the phrase "lynch mob."  The phrase doesn't, unless I've missed it, appear in the body of the article.  I hope that the scientists who are quoted in that article will step up to distance themselves from that characterization.


  1. For me, the most interesting part of the Times article occurs at
    the end, well below the preview if you don't have a subscription, in
    which some remarks he made in an interview with Lab Times last year are quoted. You can read the full interview here:

    Here's the relevant part:

    In your opinion, why are women still under-represented in senior positions in academia and funding bodies?

    Hunt: I'm not sure there is really a problem, actually. People just look at the statistics. I dare, myself, think there is any discrimination, either for or against men or women. I think people are really good at selecting good scientists but I must admit the inequalities in the outcomes, especially at the higher end, are
    quite staggering. And I have no idea what the reasons are. One should start asking why women being under-represented in senior positions is such a big problem. Is this actually a bad thing? It is not immediately obvious for me... is this bad for women? Or bad for science? Or bad for society? I don't know, it clearly upsets people a lot.

  2. The headline is actually very seriously misleading. Not only is nobody quoted as describing Hunt's critics as a "lynch mob," only 6 out of 8 of the Nobel laureates they talked to criticized UCL's actions:

    "Six of his fellow Nobel laureates contacted by The Timessaid that UCL had been wrong to demand his resignation, while two defended the college’s summary disciplinary action."

    In the last paragraph we find out who the two were:

    "Edvald and May-Britt Moser, the Norwegian husband and wife who shared last year’s Nobel prize for medicine, said the criticism of Sir Tim was justified. 'Hunt’s statements point to attitudes that contribute to the continuation of inequality between the genders in science,' they said."