In June, British biochemist and Nobel laureate Sir Tim Hunt found himself embroiled in a sexism scandal. The 72-year-old scientist had been a speaker at a conference in Seoul, South Korea, addressing a predominantly female audience and speaking of his own experiences in the world of science.
In the audience was a black, female journalist called Connie St. Louis. Shortly after Hunt had finished she took to Twitter to tell the world about some of the finer details of his speech, most notably his antiquated views on women.
“Why are the British so embarrassing abroad,” she asked, seemingly unaware of the irony of her own stereotype. “[The conference was] Utterly ruined by sexist speaker Tim Hunt,” she continued, before quoting Hunt as having said: “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.”
“Nobody was laughing, everybody was stony-faced,” she would later tell the BBC, insisting that the speech was so shocking that it offended almost everyone present.
The resulting furore saw the eminent professor, who received a knighthood from the Queen in her 2006 birthday honours for his services to science, hounded by the media until he was forced to resign from his job at University College London. For many this was justice served: another ageing, sexist dinosaur driven from his position of privilege, his exit creating another crack in the glass ceiling.
There was just one problem: St. Louis was lying. Her tweets were a gross distortion of the truth. Hunt was in fact making a self-deprecating joke. He went on in his speech to praise women. It’s possible that St. Louis simply wasn’t listening during the speech, but her later statements to the BBC were simply untrue, as a recording of the event later revealed.
Of course, as is customary these days, Hunt’s accusers provided no evidence. They colluded privately about the best way to maximise the impact of the “story,” something they themselves admit, but all they presented were their allegations. All evidence pointed to Hunt’s comments being a joke, with him being the butt of it. And so it turned out to be. A transcript made by a European Commission official in attendance told the full story. It read:
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 criticize them they cry. Perhaps we should make separate labs for boys and girls? 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.
Then a recording of the offending joke emerged. In it, the last sentence of the above transcript is heard to be uttered followed by a round of warm laughter. That’d be the laughter that never happened, according to St. Louis, a lie she repeated in her column in The Guardian.
Of course, the same media that gave a platform to Hunt’s accusers, notably the BBC and The Guardian, didn’t report the existence of the recording despite it completely exonerating the professor and proving beyond any doubt that the feminists that had conspired against him were brazen liars. It was down to the Murdoch-owned Times of London to report the facts.
In the hurry to brand Hunt a sexist, many other facts were glossed over. Typical practice for journalists when someone has a label applied to them is to interview people they have interacted with professionally and personally to either substantiate or disprove those claims. Outside St. Louis and a couple of her colleagues there was not one person to be found that Hunt had interacted with that would brand him a sexist. Quite the opposite, as it happens, as an editorial by female Conservative politician Louise Mensch would reveal, also in the Times.
Hyunsook Lee of Korea wrote that Sir Tim had mentored her for the last 15 years and would continue to do so. Trish Greenhalgh of Oxford said that when she had been ‘a mouthy 17-year-old’ Sir Tim to her she would ‘make a great scientist. He gave me a place at Cambridge.'”
Maria Leptin, the director of the European Molecular Biology Organisation, wrote: “Tim Hunt chaired the selection panel appointing the first female head of the EMBO. Full disclosure: me.”
Sir Tim had even successfully pushed for a crèche at the Okinawa Institute. Sexist? Few in the rarefied world of senior scientists, it turned out, had ever done as much for women.
These key details were conspicuously absent when the press wanted to serve up their sacrificial lamb in exchange for page views from outraged gender warriors.
Yet, thankfully, the story has a happy ending. While it is indeed a loss to Britain to see one of its eminent thinkers head abroad, for Hunt and his wife, professor Mary Collins, this is a resounding victory. Because despite the combined efforts of scheming feminists, dishonest journalists and huge media outlets, he has retained his dignity and will continue with his exceptional career.
It was recently announced that Hunt was reinstated by the Royal Society, a position he was asked to resign from at the height of the furore. His new role at a Japanese university eclipses anything he had at UCL, who admit they regret having to accept his resignation to quell the baying mob.
Collins has also landed a prominent position in Japan as well. For a couple who weathered this terrible storm it is a just reward and it should be reported as such, rather than a testament to the power of lies and the liars who make up stories to collect straight white male scalps.
The only way this victory could be made more complete would be for St. Louis to be forced to stand down from her position as Director of the MA in Science Journalism at City University, London. (Yes, you read that correctly.) Is such a person an appropriate choice to teach students journalistic ethics? Now there’s a social media storm we could all get behind.
For St. Louis, you see, this isn’t just a regrettable lapse. She is a serial fibber, as proven by a Daily Mail investigation. She repeatedly fibbed and exaggerated about details of her career on her City University of London CV page. The description claimed that “She presents and produces a range of programmes for BBC Radio 4 and BBC World Service . . . She writes for numerous outlets, including The Independent, Daily Mail, The Guardian, The Sunday Times, BBC On Air magazine and BBC Online.”
Closer inspection showed that the “range” of programmes she produces had stopped in 2007. A review of digital archives spanning back twenty years showed no bylines for St. Louis at The Independent, Daily Mail or The Sunday Times. These revelations led to her CV page being taken down temporarily. It reads a lot more modestly today.
Despite this dishonest gender warrior’s best efforts, St. Louis hasn’t stripped Tim Hunt of anything, mirabile dictu. He will still work in the academic field he has dedicated his life to. He will still work with EMBO and the Royal Society from Japan. And he will be afforded the opportunity to travel the world and inspire young scientists, just as he always has.
The only reputation that has been damaged in this affair is Connie St. Louis’s. Her name will now be forever synonymous with disreputable, dishonest allegations and sexed-up CVs. That’s what I call social justice.