Sunday, June 21, 2015

The trouble with calling critiques of Tim Hunt a witch hunt

How many Nobel laureates does it take to screw up a position? By my current count, nine. I'm sure someone, somewhere, has already observed the rich irony of using the collective privilege and power of the Nobel to try to shut up the less-powerful by claiming that they're going to chill freedom of expression. If not, consider that observed.

The Tim Hunt story is redux redux, as though every time a stone is shifted from the power structure, another one simply takes its place from an infinite supply of the components of existing power. The narrative with each of these episodes never deviates. A white man in a clear position of power in science says or does something sexist. People whom those words and actions harm or diminish recognize the behavior as symptomatic of a longstanding systemic structural problem and call it out, usually on Twitter. Much of the calling out consists of wry humor and snark, genuine social critique, and expressions of anger and frustration. Evidently, this challenge from the proletariat alarms the representatives of the power structure (they get the vapors pretty easily) and elicits a series of reflexive accusations of witch hunts, lynchings, and mob savagery. Meanwhile, those of the less-privileged classes are on the receiving end of threats that span everything from threatened career progress to death.

Just as nine Nobel laureates are evidently incapable of understanding how a man who calls for segregated labs might not be the best fit for an institution with a mission of diversity, many of their ilk also seem incapable of understanding the implications of the terms they select to attack those they wish to shut up. Herein, I offer a useful resource.

Lynch mob: I've written about this before, so I'll just paraphrase me: The phrase 'lynch mob' is a loaded one. Here's what lynch mobs did and do. Charles Blow has written in depth about how indefensible it is to co-opt this term to characterize the by-any-measure relatively mild complaints about ... well, anything. Meanwhile, women of Twitter get this.

Witch hunt: This practice still exists, not metaphorically but as it has always existed historically: Targeting people suspected of practicing witchcraft, usually with assumed nefarious intent, and attempting to harm or kill the suspected witch. Often, the witch is female and being accused of witchery for less-than-magical reasons, including as punishment related to sexual behavior. In some regions of the world, women right now, this minute, are suffering physical pain and death because of witch hunts. The witch, of course, is someone who has done nothing of the sort, as witchcraft is not a thing. Whereas saying and doing sexist things is definitely a thing and one that deserves to be called out. Characterizing critical tweets or blogs as part of a "witch hunt" is melodramatic, at best.

Calling for (someone's) head: People are using this one to characterize what they think are people calling for Tim Hunt to be fired from something. I tweeted a request for examples of such calls. I got none. I asked again. I got none. The implications? If you're gonna use a term, even metaphorically, at least be sure you have some metaphorical examples to support the claim.

Mob: Can relate to organized crime, but in this case, I think those who are using this epithet seek to diminish their targets into howling, pitchfork-wielding brutes attacking their noble, long-suffering selves. If your version of a mob is a lot of smart women and men formulating well-argued critiques of what you've said or done, you've got the fortitude of Mr. Woodhouse and might want to consider retiring from public life.

Coven: Oh, of course, it's a gendered term intended to diminish the women criticizing you to a bunch of cackling hags doling some eye of newt into a pot. A little sleight of hand with words in the hope that no one will notice that what the women are saying is true. Meanwhile, you're just proving their point.

The Spanish Inquisition: In this example, an all-woman panel at a recent science journalism conference was compared to the Spanish Inquisition. The panel was called "Sexism, science writing and solution: A global perspective." Clearly, these women were hell bent on serving as a mobile tribunal to ensure adherence to and maintain the integrity of medieval Catholic orthodoxy because we obviously have no problems whatsoever with sexism in science or science writing.

Finally: Rather than resorting to these facile characterizations of people who find your comments or actions harmful, consider giving them due consideration. If you can't bring yourself to do that because you're stumbling over your own confirmation bias, at the very least, try to come up with something more original and pithy and less racist and sexist to detract attention from the validity of the critiques. Even Nobel prize winners should realize that using this kind of terminology to defend against charges of bias simply contributes to the evidence that the bias is there.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

How you think just like Tim Hunt ... and so do I

At Forbes: Yes, his comments are retrograde, foolish, and demoralizing and his defenders somehow managed to be worse than that. But that great intellectual leveler, confirmation bias, left a lot of us sweeping right by another problem.

What is your dog thinking?

At Forbes: A little puppythink and a correction that was fun to make.