Why was Tim Hunted?

The legal system back home in India has gone bonkers over the recent furor raised by some lame sexist comments made by a supposedly sexist scientist at a conference in South Korea. Taking cue from the swift judgment in this case, lawmakers are seeking to sign MOUs with the respective CEOs of Facebook, Twitter and Tinder to fast-track the much needed improvement in the justice system of the country. Bright days ahead for the states, won't you say?

As those connected to my Facebook profile and worldwide Twitter feed know, life took a darker turn recently for celebrated biochemistry researcher and failed stand-up comedian, Dr. Tim Hunt. But considering that he has bagged a Knighthood and the Nobel Prize in this lifetime, they say that this dark turn is perhaps only a couple shades darker in the array of all the 50 different shades of Grey. He would now retire and dedicate the rest of his life to growing quince trees in his backyard English garden. Or gingers, for the much-needed piquancy in his Earl Grey, of course.

"Let me tell you about my trouble with girls," the Nobel Laureate reportedly said last Monday at the World Conference of Science Journalists in South Korea. "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." Sadly the report did not further state what the professor was smoking at that time or where can one acquire the same.

On the other side of the world, another British personality John Oliver, fist bumped his HBO producers upon hearing this, for they all have now been spared a horribly morbid experience with bottles of Budweiser Lime served in a chilled Champagne bucket. For them, the news of one sexist bastard (Sepp Blatter) replaced the news of another, as the 72 year old professor misjudged his cue and ended up incurring the greatest professional harm in the history of professional harm (or profession or harm). It all came much to the delight of those snoozing at the back rows of the auditorium. The poor attempt at self-deprecating humor got them to sit up, flare up their nostrils, shake their heads and type the crap out of their piece of mind within 140 characters.

What followed was both bloody hilarious and bone-chillingly scary at the same time. Twitterati went into meltdown, while journalists went into a typing frenzy. One man's poor attempt at humor gave rise to another man's laugh riot as the social media came up with the hashtag #DistractinglySexy and posted some genuinely funny response in photos.

Reportedly, Dr. Hunt was asked to record a statement over a one-sided phone interview with BBC Radio 4's Today program, where he managed to outdo his clumsily made comment at the conference, by issuing another clumsy apology. Clearly, life isn't so fair for the septuagenarian. While he was still on the flight from Seoul, his wife - senior immunologist, professor at UCL herself - received a call from her seniors and was told that if her husband doesn't resign, they'll sack him.

Nightmare for the Hunt family doesn't end there. In the last one week, Hunt was sacked from his post on the European Research Council (ERC)'s Science committee and has hence resigned his fellowship from the Royal Society committee. Back home, the CBSE brainchild NCERT is erasing his name from their textbooks to replace them with achievements of Baba Ramdev and vindictive groups on social media are rallying to omit his scientific contribution from text books, as the world prepares for a rollback of the last 10 years of cancer research.

Dr. Tim Hunt's treatment demonstrates the sadist cruelty and impact of social media, such as Facebook and more importantly in this case, Twitter. Even on Tinder, I overheard someone cursing under their breath, "racist pig" and immediately 'swipe left' when chanced upon a guy named Hunt who liked hunting gators. Hollywood is not too far behind! Speculations are abound that Paramount Pictures have supposedly called back Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation from distribution and are now re-editing the whole movie, replacing Ethan Hunt's name with Caitlyn Jenner.

Personally, as my crosses fail to get set up and blots fail to make sense, I shouldn't give a rats ass to what happened to a seventy year old scientist's transgression and fall from grace. But I do, because one, I had worked in the field of yeast cell cycle - basically, his baby - for a couple of years and have associated myself with his field, only to enjoy it thoroughly. And two, because I really feel that he fucked up big time with his sense of humor and losing one's sense of humor is the worst thing for anyone to happen. (That goes for you too readers, in case you're plotting an intervention of sorts for me, because of all my words of support for Tim Hunt tonight, I say unto you: go screw yourselves). And finally three, Tim Hunt is an absolutely brilliant scientist! If we lose him, we are but scientifically regressing.

It's true. STEM is full of sexists, and society never fails to make an example out of those who violate the set societal standards. So when Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella tells that women in tech-related fields shouldn’t ask for raises and should instead just wait for the money fairy to rain cash on them while they sleep, or when the European Space Agency’s Matt Taylor wears a shirt covered in pin-up girls to announce a major breakthrough with the Rosetta Project space probe, or when Watson & Crick's James Watson declares in his personally explicit book The Double Helix that Rosy (Rosalind Franklin) should be shown her place, the society reacted likewise.

I can't say much about Watson on this front, but the rest of these cases had more to do with obliviousness than malice, as Elizabeth Renzetti at The Globe and Mail suggests. And truly, this is a problem much more contemporary than the purely systemic classical practice of sexism. Whether to demonize someone and make an example out of him or whether to laugh at his faux pas and let it pass with the issuance of a clear admonition, the debate remains open.

I don't want to take a stand on the judgment here, except maybe I'd just laugh my pop-sickles out at the person for saying something so stupid and subsequently get on with my life. But perhaps professionally, I'd still consider his opinion. Because when it comes to a Prof, they should be judged by one thing alone: their depth of knowledge. It shouldn't matter one bit if they are sexist, stupid, unfunny, religious, uncouth, ugly, or whatever. Of course I won't go bar hopping with him if he's any one of those. Can you imagine the terrible wing-man he'll make?! Ugh FML!

But I do take offense at the treatment that was subsequently delivered upon Hunt. UCL asked him to retire without seeking any kind of statement or explanation. He was an honorary professor at the esteemed institution - they used his name for their own honor and dumped him at the first hint of dishonor. Yet another example of how honorary positions are mostly abused to attract funding and investment alone. They gave a middle finger to the esteemed scientist (one, with a regressive sense of humor) and basically said 'adios!' at the first sign of trouble. What does a PR department do anyway? Isn't it their job to protect the department's individuals and not hang them out to dry? Or is it just a tool to prevent an ensuing workplace romance?! Such a load of crap, I say.

Judgments passed on social media are same as the judgments passed in a kangaroo court. And let us not forget that among the many people passing judgments, there are also the ones who think that the humans have evolved from aliens, that vaccines cause autism and that the government is sitting on a cure for cancer for the past 30 years. I roll my eyes, dramatically.

Those protesting the breach of sexism, I'm not saying you're wrong to do so. But you need to realize that if you're all about 'doing the right thing', then do give the victim a fair trial before passing any judgment. Because if what he said was a bit pre-womens' lib, pre-1950s, the response it attracted was even more archaic than that. Hunt was harangued, shunned, mentally tormented and made a mockery of in press, before the doors were closed on him by his own university. The very institutions he let go his labs for and became part of, abandoned him without seeking an explanation. It was the press that rallied for his resignation from the Royal Society. If the swiftness of passing a judgment is to be taken as any kind of a lesson back home, Salman Khan would've been hanged for killing (while DUI) those homeless people on the pavement even before he could spell philanthropy.

So, oh the irony of it all: Hunt was brought down for his old-fashioned sentiment by an even more old-fashioned method. It is terrifying because what we have here is an esteemed university that coming under pressure from an intolerant mob, kicks out one of their own (one of their best), strips him of all his titles and expels him out at the mercy of the mob.

I tried to overlook the rights and wrongs of voicing one's opinion on sexism - that's not a debate, anyway. What I really want to focus on is the importance of adhering to rules that require us to facilitate a formal trial for an accused. Or in this case, hold talks before passing judgments. It always hurts when someone breaks up over email or voicemail, doesn't it? Of course he was wrong in voicing a misjudged joke in bad taste, but I believe that a speedy one-sided judgment also was too inquisitorial to be passed in contemporary times.

But alas, the debate on sexism is too large to overlook and hence I totally expect this post to flow down the river, while we stand forever on this bridge, debating on the virtues and iniquities of social policing.

Photo Courtesy: http://scienceblogs.com/startswithabang/2015/05/14/throwback-thursday-stop-sexism-in-science-synopsis/

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