Angry intolerance backfires

Tim Hunt

Tim Hunt made some very stupid remarks about women in science. He says they were intended as a joke, but they certainly weren’t taken that way. According to his wife, he was told to resign immediately or be fired. He was also forced to resign from other posts. Despite this, he continued to be vilified by the Angry Intolerant Left (AIL), with remarks like

This is a moment to savour.

Sympathy for The Devil? My thoughts on the #TimHunt “witch hunt”.

while others completely misrepresented what had happened:

If someone’s going around screaming “I’M A WITCH” and turning people into toads, politely asking him to stop is not a “witch hunt”.

Some people, notably Brian Cox and Richard Dawkins, said there had been an over-reaction. They were in turn attacked, and their statements misrepresented, by the AIL:

Here is my response to @thetimes, and less predictable apologists for sexism. @RichardDawkins and @ProfBrianCox

In the last few days, sympathy for Hunt seems to have increased. Eight Nobel prizewinners spoke out. The Boston globe wrote an article The right to be stupid, and the Guardian/Observer wrote about the support Hunt received from female scientists, saying that support for him has ‘mushroomed’. These pieces in two left-leaning newspapers, who would normally be expected to follow the PC line,  show how badly the behaviour of the AIL has backfired. An editorial in The Week goes further:
“Look at the savagery with which poor Tim Hunt was hounded for his silly comments about women…A key aspect of tolerance is to make allowances for people’s stupidity, for their gaffes, for their psychological hangups. They deserve a fair measure of ridicule, but we seem much happier turning fools into enemies, demanding their excommunication and savouring their despair.”

The General Election

In a previous post I discussed the possible reasons for the surprise Conservative victory and the failure of the pollsters to predict it.
An interesting article by Diana Beech in the Times Higher suggests that the AIL may have played a role here. An academic at Cambridge, she describes how she approached the election as a floating voter without strong political views, but was put off by the attitude of her (mainly academic) friends and colleagues:
“instead of managing to persuade me to put a cross in the box for the Left, the relentless, self-righteous and intolerant nature of the comments I saw from colleagues on my Facebook feed only drove me away from even considering joining their cause.”
“Of course, I want to see fairness, equality and justice prevail in any policies governing my country. But I didn’t appreciate seeing, time and time again, posts from my peers packed full of expletives implying that I was bigoted for even doubting the Labour or the Green economic approach.”

She voted Conservative. Another backfire for the angry intolerant left.

The Climate Debate

There is an analogy in the case of public opinion over climate change. Some people seem to be puzzled that public concern over climate change, and support for climate policy, are not as high as they would like. Well, I’ve written a paper about this. One factor may be the tendency for some at the extreme left of the climate spectrum to denounce anyone who doesn’t share their views as a “climate denier”, or as “oil shills” or paid by the Koch brothers. While some sceptics and lukewarmers get quite cross about this, I don’t, firstly because resorting to such childish name-calling shows that they have no valid arguments, and secondly because this intolerant aggressive behaviour is likely to backfire. A recent paper, The ironic impact of activists, indicates that some social scientists are becoming aware of this point.

10 thoughts on “Angry intolerance backfires

  1. The biggest change is that in the past, these PC-fascist bullies could just do what they wanted and I doubt it would even be reported in the establishment media let alone ordinary people get to air their own views.

    Now, ordinary people bypass the stranglehold the PC-fascists in academia and the press had because we don’t need no establishment newspaper to take up the story because ordinary people can now raise the issue on social media.

    This is people power over PC-fascists!

  2. Just another thought – because academia was an early user of the internet, academic campaigners were much more advanced in their campaigning techniques and used the power of the internet to take a rather boring topic of CO2 and turn it into a major scare.

    I see this as the “greens” bypassing the traditional media which before the internet would repress such scare stories.

    So the internet was both instrumental in creating the global warming scare – but after it became the “establishment consensus”, it was paradoxically responsible for giving us sceptics a way to bypass the establishment stranglehold over what is “science” (in the media).

    So, the role of the internet is not as a result of any bias of the internet to us sceptics, instead as we saw in the general election it favours a wider mix of views. So e.g. all three “minority” parties saw large increases in votes: UKIP, Greens and SNP.

    And much of that campaigning is now individual activists going online and making a case for their party rather than big television adverts or even what major politicians say – and certainly no longer newspapers like the Sun telling their readers how to vote (in the infamous the Sun What won it headline).

  3. It appears that Tim Hunt was referring to his relationship with his current wife. They met in the lab, fell in love got married etc.

  4. A similar incident happened when Benedict Cumberbatch use the word ‘coloured’ instead of ‘black’ or ‘people of colour’ (assuming those words aren’t now on the… err… black list). His intention of highlighting the lack of black actors was lost in the furore.

    While the prof was a bit dumb (and I wasn’t there so I can’t say how dumb) he’d actually be a more understanding tutor now that he’d learnt what it was like to be humiliated enough to make you cry. He’d also know that having trouble with your career because of snap judgements by others is a devastating thing to happen. I think the overreaction was because people and institutions are now terrified of media attention and make wild decisions based on how they think the public opinion is flowing. Twitter gives them a false sense of mood because initially all the comments would have been outraged. Partly by how the incident was reported in the press.

    It’s worth noting that the usual victim of AILs and other attack groups are often not great offenders. The otherwise niceness of the person is part of the attack. Real criminals or seriously bad people don’t get the same treatment. I suppose it’s herd behaviour. Bullying group members into line but treating enemies or dominant figures warily as a threat. Ironically women are particularly vulnerable to this kind of attack. And at the same time, the internet allows the weak of either sex to behave as if they were physically dominant. This effect isn’t just confined to individuals. You’ll see some report that lambastes the UK for minor infringements of human rights while praising other countries, despite appalling behaviour. They bully a nice country but try to appease the real snakes.

    One final thought. We have become a society that has lost sight of where we want to go and why. The crusades become more important that what they were trying to achieve. eg smacking kids in schools was banned because it was deemed barbaric and supposedly taught kids that violence was acceptable. Now we have a situation where kids can be unspeakable to each other or staff and the only serious punishment is excluding the offender (but often the victim) from school. Nobody has seriously asked the question whether smacking is more barbaric and damaging than allowing kids to ruin the education and lives of their own and others. Clearly they need no help deciding if violence is possible and effective.

  5. David Colquhoun (who smeared Cox and Dawkins in the tweet quoted above) unwisely declared at his blog that the Tim Hunt story “Is over at last” on 26th June.
    Well, he was wrong about that.
    The backfiring of the attack on Tim Hunt continues, and gets worse.
    In the Independent, Howard Jacobson suggests that UCL is “an ideological prison camp and indoctrination centre”.
    Rod Liddle describes the UCL “halfwits” as “Ugly, Callous, Lazy”.
    Even the normally PC lefties on the BBC’s Now Show seem to have taken Tim Hunt’s side.

    In a very detailed, forensic, almost McIntyrean blog post, Louise Mensch takes aim at three academics, David Colquhoun, Dorothy Bishop, and Geraint Rees, saying that they pre-judged the issue by lobbying against Hunt on June 9th, before the facts were clear and before Hunt had spoken. She says “they are meant to be evidence-based scientists, not political campaigners”.

    There’s another very detailed account by Debbie Kennett (genetics researcher at UCL) “a call for evidence-based judgement and decision making”.

  6. Here is a partial transcript of the segment on Tim Hunt from the Now Show, Friday July 3:

    ….So Tim Hunt had to go because he may or may not have said something in or out of context. University College London, the no-balls institution that’s forgotten that in science, the first thing you need is evidence, didn’t really investigate it and just knee-jerked to the tune of twitter and fired him via a phone call to his wife. She then said in an interview,
    “Tim sat on the sofa and started crying, then I started crying”.
    Yeah, typical woman, started crying. Sir Tim might be right.
    But support for him of course began to grow and is still growing.
    Radio 4’s Jonathan Dimblelby resigned his own post at UCL this week, to protest against their treatment of Sir Tim. Brian Cox has defended him, nine Nobel Prize winners, Dame Valerie Beral, Director of Oxford Cancer unit has spoken for him, and even that well-known feminist Germaine Greer is on his side. Sorry, not Germaine Greer, Boris Johnson, sorry, I always get them mixed up. And Katie Hopkins – oh actually this is probably doing more harm than good now, isn’t it.
    But the question remains why a big institution like UCL should be rattled in the first place by a handful of complainers on social media, right, demanding the offender’s job on a platter.
    What kind of world are we living in when fewer than 140 characters, using fewer than 140 characters can hold this kind of power, and why the hell is anybody listening to them?

  7. Thanks Alex! That earlier passage where he talks very fast must have been hard work. Are you sure about the audience laughter though? Wasn’t it met with stony silence? 😉

    A few more updates.

    Louise Mensch wrote a second detailed post, this time taking apart the claim of Connie St Louis that there was a “deathly silence”.

    On June 9th the UCL council made a short announcement, that completely fails to address the question of whether/why they forced Hunt to resign on the basis of a tweet from Connie St Louis. It does however admit that “there are lessons to be learned around the communication process”.

    In a letter to the Telegraph on July 13, Paul Nurse wrote that Hunt “should not have been removed from his position as Honorary Professor at UCL”. Former Lib Dem MP Evan Harris has also spoken up for Tim Hunt.

    With these two prominent individuals from the left taking this view, this leaves left-wing academics such as Dorothy Bishop and David Colquhoun in a very small minority, stubbornly refusing to admit their errors.

  8. The Tim Hunt story continues.
    A recording of part of his speech has emerged (a bit mysteriously) a month after the event. Unfortunately it is paywalled in the Times. Apparently it shows that there was indeed laughter at his remarks, confirming the falsity of claims of silence.

    There’s an interesting sequence of blog posts by Thomas Basbøll, for example this one raising serious questions about the failings of St Louis, Blum and Oransky’s journalism.

    The best summary of the story is Debbie Kennett’s one, which she keeps updating.

    The audio recording is now freely available at Louise Mensch’s 21 July blog, The Silence of the Shams. It’s only 13 seconds, but you can hear his self-deprecating joke “monsters like me”, followed by laughter.

    There is another good write-up at

    A very long and detailed account, including a link to almost every mention of the Tim Hunt story in the media, can be found at Hilda Bastian’s blog. This is a useful resource, but rather biased. She claims that Deborah Blum’s disgraceful piece in the ‘Daily Beast’ is the ‘most reliable source’. She also makes unsubstantiated allegations of racism in her attempt to defend Connie St Louis.

    Athene Donald wrote a very strongly worded blog on 28 July, saying that she was “still very angry”, criticising both journalists and scientists who “instantly jumped in”.

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