It seems like only yesterday we were reporting on Dr. Matt Taylor, the brilliant British scientist who was instrumental in landing a probe on a comet hundreds of millions of miles away, who became the target of social media wrath.

His crime: Wearing a shirt that was deemed “anti-woman” by hyper-feminists.

More recently, Dr. Tim Hunt, a Nobel-prizing winning physiologist, a British knight, and a leading advocate for science education that is usually promoted by women’s rights activists, made a lame joke about single-sex labs.

‘Let me tell you about my trouble with girls” is an opening sentence that, when declared in public, rarely ends well — fair or not.

And it certainly didn’t for Nobel Prize winning scientist Tim Hunt, who was talking about the challenges of women in labs recently at the World Conference of Science Journalists in Seoul, South Korea.

He followed up that intro with: “You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticize them, they cry!”

The ensuing nuclear-scale social media reaction led his forced resignation from key posts.

A week ago, Tim Hunt was a well-known Nobel Prize winner who was promoting science education throughout Europe and the world.

Today he’s widely perceived as a sexist who has been stripped of most of his positions because of inappropriate comments about women in science.

Gone is his position with the European Research Council science committee, his role at the Royal Society, and his honorary post at University College London. He said Sunday he was fired from the latter, while the university has said only that his resignation was accepted.

…The comments caused an instant Twitter storm that quickly led to Hunt, 72, leaving his posts even as he apologized. He has said he had been trying to make a joke, but nevertheless stood by his comment that love affairs in the lab are disruptive to science.

He was vilified by many, including The Guardian’s Anne Perkins, who wrote that his comments were “the educated man’s version” of blaming rape victims because they were wearing short skirts before they were attacked.

I would argue that instead of playing the “rape” card, the better response was to counter a stupid attempt at humor with something far wittier…along the lines of this video:

How bad was the Twitter targeting? So bad that a noted feminist and novelist Van Badham was repelled at his treatment.

I’m not trying to excuse or exonerate Hunt, but rather to criticise his selection as an individual scapegoat, in this case for the broader and ongoing cultural problem of sexism and gender misrepresentation that remains unchallenged. Shoving him off his social platform with a forced resignation is tokenism.

BBC radio commenter and fellow scientist Brian Cox also protested the vitriolic response to Hunt’s quip.

“Is it appropriate to hound someone out of their position at a university or indeed, is it appropriate for the university to react in the way that UCL [University College London] in this case did and ask someone to resign or else threaten to sack them?” Prof Cox said.

“We do have a problem about these mobs – you call them Twitter mobs, descending on people who use language ill-advisedly and cause great professional ruin. I don’t think that is the case although he felt that.

“To have a Nobel prize winner and by all accounts a great scientist and a good person being hounded out of a position at UCL, after all those years of good work in science, I think that’s wrong and disproportionate.”

According to his wife, Professor Mary Collins (one of Britain’s most senior immunologists), Hunt does the shopping and cooking, so the man is hardly the poster child for male chauvinist pigs. During an interview with her husband, Collins shares what happened in the wake of the “joke.”

“I was told by a senior that Tim had to resign immediately or be sacked – though I was told it would be treated as a low-key affair. Tim duly emailed his resignation when he got home. The university promptly announced his resignation on its website and started tweeting that they had got rid of him. Essentially, they had hung both of us out to dry. They certainly did not treat it as a low-key affair. I got no warning about the announcement and no offer of help, even though I have worked there for nearly 20 years. It has done me lasting damage. What they did was unacceptable.”

In the past, I may have noted that perhaps jokes should be left to professional comedians. However, even they are afraid to do comedy on campus in today’s politically correct environment.

Based on my calculation, data indicate that the climate for men on campus will continue to be quite hostile for some time to come. This hurts both men and women.


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