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The firing of Tim Hunt - right or wrong?

Alice          21 June 2015 02:28 PM


As you may know, Tim Hunt is a Nobel Prize winner in Medicine, who was recently forced to resign from his post at the University College at London after his unfortunate remarks about women in science (see more e.g. here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tim_Hunt#Remarks_about_women_in_science). On the one hand, this looks like an over-reaction, and a very unfair treatment of a scientist who has made, and continues to make, huge contribution to science. A one-time remark does not necessarily mean he discriminates against women in practice. On the other hand, he is a head of a lab, with many female students and postdocs whose careers and lives are in his hands. Leaving him in this position may be unfair to these students. What's the right thing to do?



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melian 22 June 2015 07:04 PM
78%

I think we need to decide first whether it is acceptable to fire people just for stating their opinion – no matter how wrong or obnoxious.

I’d say that the answer should be yes for private companies (“right of association”), but not for the institutions like the University College at London which are funded by the government. Allowing government which is the biggest employer in the country to decide what is acceptable for citizens to say is a clear violation of freedom of speech.


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FrameBenignly 23 June 2015 05:35 PM
58%

If government employees can't be fired for making wrong statements, it would become even more difficult to trust information received by government officials. This would make handling a lot of paperwork much harder. What are we paying them for if professors aren't expected to even give correct information? Their job is distributing knowledge.

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melian 23 June 2015 06:13 PM
77%

What are we paying them for if professors aren't expected to even give correct information?


In case of professors like Tim Hunt, we are paying them to make scientific discoveries. Now, if it turned out that he deliberately falsified his results that would be a valid reason to fire him. But refraining from expressing politically incorrect opinions should not be a part of a scientist’s job.


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Alice 21 June 2015 02:36 PM
74%

Several other examples of similar situations:
-Prof. Steven Salaita was fired from UIUC after anti-Israeli (and some say anti-semitic) tweets. This was before his appointment was officially approved though.
-Larry Summers was famously forced to resign as the president of Harvard University after his comments about women in science
-Boston University Professor Saida Grundy was slammed but stayed in her job after anti-white (esp male) tweets.


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ChristianKl 21 June 2015 03:37 PM
73%

A huge problem about the discussion surrounding Tim Hunt is that he get's criticised for a speech he gave that isn't public in it's entirety.

He get's criticized for a tiny 37 word exerpt without anybody knowing the context.
Especially the context that he said "now seriously" after that paragraph to make it clear that it was intended to be a joke.

A intellectual climate where people get fired for the jokes they make instead of the substance of their work is bad.
Nobody made the case that he discriminated against woman in his lab, while female colleages made the case that he was supportive of gender equality.

Decisions shouldn't be made by online mobs.


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Alice 21 June 2015 03:59 PM
61%

I completely agree that decisions shouldn't be made by online mobs - though it's not 100% clear to me if this was the case here. I personally feel very bad for Tim Hunt, and feel that he was treated horribly. I don't want to see people fired for things they say, especially people in academia, because eventually people will be afraid to speak out (and I think some of them already do). This is very bad for the society.

But I feel there must also be exceptions to this rule - when something a person says makes it clear that the person is unsuitable for his or her current job. For example, we don't want to see racists, misogynists, or other kinds of bigots as educators in public institutions. I don't claim that it is clear that Tim Hunt falls into one of these categories - quite likely that he does not. It is a very difficult call to say when the line has been crossed and the person needs to go.

I wish there was more open and rational debate on this, instead of the rush to judgement.

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ChristianKl 21 June 2015 05:49 PM
67%

I think it's very clear that in this case social media drove created public pressure on the university.

I don't believe in the doctrine of thought crime. A professor that makes hiring decisions obviously has a duty to make those decisions without favoring a specific gender or race but apart from that he's free to believe whatever he wants to believe.

It quite cynic to call for thought crime while calling at the same time for open and rational debate. Those two goals aren't compatible. You have to decide which of the two you want.

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VoiceOfRa 26 June 2015 07:50 PM
65%

> For example, we don't want to see racists, misogynists, or other kinds of bigots as educators in public institutions.

What do you mean by "racists, misogynists, or other kinds of bigots"? Is someone who believes that, say, blacks have lower IQ's and are more likely to commit crimes then whites "racist"? Does it matter if he has evidence for this belief? Does it matter if this belief is true?


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Fwiffo 22 June 2015 04:49 PM
64%

In order for people to speak out to keep mattering there needs to be open the option of honest effective responce. While a storm of firing pressure might be excessive there also needs to be the right to reply to things that are being said. It might not be feasible to give any and every line of argument equal support. Therefore there needs to be a way of expressing that a line of argument is rejected or deresourced.

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FrameBenignly 23 June 2015 05:39 PM
68%

I strongly recommend against reasoning from a single incident. There will always be he said/she said disagreements with these sorts of incidents. You're not involved so don't worry about it. If you're interested in the issue more generally, use a bigger data set. Most mainstream news is pretty much useless.


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ChristianKl 24 June 2015 07:37 AM
69%

The problem is that in cases like this public pressure matters. Even a single case like makes people less open when it comes to talking about their beliefs. If you allow people to run online witch hunts and all reasonable people stay silent that's bad.

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FrameBenignly 24 June 2015 12:03 PM
74%

Telling people not involved to stay out of it is a criticism of the online witch hunters too.

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Dahlen 22 June 2015 10:52 AM
65%

1) Stability of employment should not be bound in any way to ideological alignment (unless you're employed in an explicitly ideological or highly political organisation, which is not what most of us want academia or medicine to be). It's hard enough to get and to keep such a job as it is; besides, as a person in charge of hiring/firing/staffing decisions, your primary loyalty is to your institution and to your field as a whole. Even Hitler was denied entry to art school on the basis of uninspired paintings rather than politics. If you've got a wacko in your workplace (which Hunt does not appear to be), the rational way to approach the situation is to exploit him to his full potential as you do everyone else, all the while taking care to minimise the impact of his wackiness. And if word goes out, be boring about it.

2) This kind of power is dangerous. Now, of course that whenever there is a strong value alignment among mob as well as staff, there is the opportunity of wielding it against crimethinkers, but the fact that there is no attempt on self-restraint in the name of higher moral principles on the part of the staff (the mob is a mob, no high expectations there) shows a troubling value shift. As a theme to meditate upon, the people involved in this should be thinking what the world would come to if the other side were to wield this power. Which they may be tempted to, now that they conveniently have been given precedent for it. Just in case freedom of speech is not an impressive argument.

3) He's kinda right, you know. At least for the more attractive of us. And it doesn't always end well... for science. (You have never known real temptation if you had never had some sulfuric acid within throwing range of your romantic rival.)

(Except for the part about crying. Come on now, we're all out of kindergarten here, and perhaps a symmetrical argument could be made that boys are more likely to smash Berzelius beakers when criticised, and labware is more expensive than Kleenex.)


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Alice 22 June 2015 02:05 PM
68%

I agree with (1), but there are exceptions, and they are not necessarily ideological ones. One such example is people working in education. Their views can make them unsuitable for a job. A teacher who believes that blacks/women/whatever other group are bad at physics (or whatever other subject) is not suitable for his or her job. We may find out about him or her being unsuitable in various ways, with the person him/herself letting it slip being one of them.

I also absolutely agree with (2). (3) is kind of disgusting - though I'm guessing it was meant as a joke.



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Dahlen 23 June 2015 10:38 AM
74%

The yardstick for deciding whether teachers deserve their jobs is whether they can make all of their students better at e.g. physics. Presumably the institution knew that upon deciding to hire the teacher. Passing that, another weighty consideration is the students' genuine subjective evaluation of the teacher. Again, like genes, beliefs may be had but not expressed, acted upon, rubbed in other people's faces. The time to start looking for little clues is the time when the complaints start coming in.

I meant to say that he's half-right denotatively, which is part of the reason why the guy deserves to be given a break. Yes, young people spending lots of times together in mixed-gender settings is a recipe for romantic drama, it can involve entire chains of people, and it sometimes goes sour and it sucks and it distracts a lot from actual science and I'm totally not speaking ... read more


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VoiceOfRa 26 June 2015 08:08 PM
66%


A teacher who believes that blacks/women/whatever other group are bad at physics (or whatever other subject) is not suitable for his or her job.


Does it matter if blacks/women/whatever other group really are bad at physics?


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Fwiffo 22 June 2015 03:59 PM
59%

I am wondering what you are including in the definition of ideological organization that is not supposed to apply to universities. There are important sections of universities that are supposed to produce tools that we as a society can deal with ideologies. While that doesn't mean the organization needs to be ideological it makes naive aideology pretty damn hard.

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Dahlen 23 June 2015 09:35 AM
72%

An explicitly ideological organisation is a party or a church. Education is more meta-level on this one -- it's supposed to equip one for handling ideologies, and even that one is relevant only to certain majors in post-secondary education. What you think doesn't have to be what you teach, if what you teach is at least double-checked by people who may not be ideologically similar.

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Fwiffo 22 June 2015 04:37 PM
59%

The reason of points like 3) is the reason to favour being too heavy handed on these matters. It is very easy to take refuge in humour and get crap past the radar if people know what words to subsitute for the ones you didn't say.

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VoiceOfRa 26 June 2015 08:03 PM
59%


Come on now, we're all out of kindergarten here, and perhaps a symmetrical argument could be made that boys are more likely to smash Berzelius beakers when criticised, and labware is more expensive than Kleenex.


Except they're not, at least not any non-negligible extent. And the problem with crying isn't the cost of Kleenex, it's the dynamics it creates in the lab.


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Fwiffo 22 June 2015 04:33 PM
56%

There is far too much prestige being involved for my tastes in the topic area. It seems that the arguments given for keeping him employed are mainly of honor and the type of the offence seems to be of offending which is very honor related. I am torn on what to answer. On one hand I can assume that given the current actual job that he does did he fullfill that? Or on the other hand what the job of scientists ought to be did he fullfill that? Part of being a scientist is managing the whitecoat effect - that people will adopt beliefs less critically if you are in favour of them. You are not supposed to say your personal opinions as if that would be the opinion of the consensus of the scientific community. It means there is an increased burden of attribution when it comes to your area of expertise. But the method of science is everybodys business regardless of subfield. But then on the other hand you are supposed to be aware of the attitudes that are not scientific and be able to bring science into productive dialog with them. Making a clear contrast on how a naive person could think and how scientitic knowledge can give as tools to change our stance can be a good model on how people can start thinking more informedly. There having the mental model of a socially unaccetably sexist research leader is a good counterexample on what to do and a better replacement can then be provided. That way the strategy of communication attempted isn't a faulty one. However it obviously didn't go as planned. It's plausible that extensive rethoric efforts were made to be as clear on the matter as possible. However such high ranker should have gone to pretty long length not to have misunderstandings of that magnitude to happen. In that way having a PR disaster means that somehwere along the line the mitigation work of having the probabiliy of accident be neglible must have been broken and we have good reason to believe the person must have been unaccetably neglient in regards to communication in order for something like this to be possible to happen even if we can't point out the point of failure. If chernobyl blows up don't come to me saying that you did the maintenance correctly even if I don't know what all it includes.


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ChristianKl 23 June 2015 01:57 PM
71%

You are not supposed to say your personal opinions as if that would be the opinion of the consensus of the scientific community.

We are talking about a talk at a scientific conference where a senior research speaks about his person experience with science.

Do you really think that should be forbidden in principle?

However such high ranker should have gone to pretty long length not to have misunderstandings of that magnitude to happen.
I think that scientists should primarily by picked by their ability to do science and not for diplomatic communication abilities.

Otherwise you are left with scientists who are good at talking but bad at science.

we have good reason to believe the person must have been unaccetably neglient in regards to communication in order for something like this to be possible to happen
If you keep with that standard and in general allow people to be publically judged based on short experts of speeches they give that, that's very soon not true enough.

It just takes a person who's good at stirring up controversy to pick the right excerpts.
Anybody who posts on a forum like this has a very strong incentive that our society doesn't move in that direction.

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Fwiffo 24 June 2015 12:51 AM
56%

Nobodys opinion is science. It is okay to talk about and be interested in personal opinions if they are clearly marked as such.

Scientists are often expected to be able to collaberate. That requires communication too. It could be consistent to have the scientists job to be narrow about science but then it is inconsistent to have them give talks (which is not doing science but talking about it). I think currently there is a kind of system where ability to give talks is a kind of reward for reaching a high status. Altering that might need to be compensated elsewhere if the career of a scientists becomes less atractive. I could also see why making a separate profession of a science populariser could make sense.

If we pick our scientist by science narrowly only then they are predictably bad at talking. It could be said that while science as a field requires skill in science a leader ... read more


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