science

With great power comes great responsibility.

Whilst we mostly associate these words with Spider-Man, the notion that power is necessarily bound to responsibility goes back hundreds, if not thousands, of years and it is no less true today.

A less well-known quote, spoken by Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society, is also true:

No matter what people tell you, words and ideas can change the world.

Taken together, these quotes tell us that if you are in a position of influence, you have a responsibility to choose your words carefully, because words themselves have great power.

And this is why I’m so fundamentally disappointed by those in British academia who are coming to Sir Tim Hunt’s defence without considering either the responsibilities inherent in their positions of influence, or how his and their words can damage others.

Much has been written about Sir Tim’s comments about women in Korea, and if you’re unfamiliar with the story then Google is your friend at this point. There is a lot of debate about whether Sir Tim’s comments were meant as a joke, and thus whether they carry as much weight as if they were made seriously.

But the “just a joke” excuse is problematic in and of itself: When we tell people that they shouldn’t be offended by offensive words, we’re both normalising the offensive opinions contained in the “joke”, and belittling the people harmed by the promulgation of those opinions.

For the record, I don’t believe that this was either a joke or a mistake. According to those who were there, such as Deborah Blum or Connie St Louis, his was not some off-the-cuff comment. St Louis tells us (2:21:29, available until around 8 July) that he was told “not to go down this ‘Ha, ha’ route” before he made his comments, and that he talked for “five to seven minutes”, rather than just making a single aside. Blum tells us that she and others challenged him the next day. And this was, as far as I can tell, before his ill-advised comments to the Today programme.

However, whether or not Sir Tim was joking is ultimately irrelevant. He should never have spoken those words in the first place. As a Nobel Laureate, a professor and a Knight of the British Empire, Sir Tim definitely has power, influence and authority. He therefore has a responsibility to think very carefully about the words he uses in his public and professional lives.

People in Sir Tim’s position have an obligation to use their power to help, support and inspire others, not to denigrate a group of people — in this case, women — who are already at a disadvantage. Sir Tim failed in that obligation. He did not take his responsibilities seriously. Instead, he abused his position of power and has either refused to or been incapable of understanding the impact his words have had, or how he is supporting the institutional sexism rife in academia, and particularly in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and maths).

Even when his failure was pointed out to him, instead of reflecting on what he’d said, he doubled down and, as far as I am aware, is yet to produce a full and proper apology.

And worse, we’ve now seen a raft of people, men and women alike, in positions of significant influence and power in academia and public life have come out to defend Sir Tim and in the process belittle the concerns that women, and many men, have about sexism in science.

Ottoline Leyser and Dame Athene Donald, both senior figures at Cambridge University, supported Sir Tim in The Times, in a paywalled article that cannot be widely read.

UPDATE 22 June: The letter below is actually from Lord Winston, not Leyser & Dame Athene, so apologies for the misattribution.

Their Lord Winston’s letter begins (my bold):

Sir, Whether or not University College London pressurised Sir Tim Hunt to resign after his remarks about women in laboratories, it acted utterly wrongly. A quiet phone call followed by a gentle face-to-face conversation with the Provost should have decided a joint statement on this trivial matter.

Apart from being a brilliant scientist with a Nobel Prize for his outstanding work, Professor Hunt is a gentle, unassuming and warm individual. Indeed, he is a scientific role model not only because of his lack of arrogance but also for his concern to support more women in science.

Sir Tim Times letter

I find it frustrating that they Lord Winston would decide to characterise Sir Tim’s comments as a “trivial matter”. Discrimination is never a trivial matter, nor are public comments disparaging women. It is especially disappointing that Donald, who has a reputation as someone very supportive of women in STEM, should decide that sexism is trivial when it is one of her friends who is criticised.

The Telegraph reports Leyser & Dame Athene as saying:

Fear and anger are natural responses that we all feel when challenged both individually and institutionally.

They have an important role to play in bringing issues to the fore, but they get in the way of finding solutions to complex problems.

It’s time for all of us to stop cowering and shouting, buck-passing and fingerpointing and start listening and talking.

This command to ‘move on’ is just as disappointing, bringing with it as it does the implication that somehow our concerns are no longer valid, now that so many people have weighed in on the issue. That is simply not true. Problems do not just go away because lots of people have opinions, and telling people to move on is condescending and inappropriate for anyone with the influence and power these women wield.

Then another eight senior figures, Nobel Laureates all, chipped in with their opinions. Unsurprisingly, they too wrote in The Times, behind a paywall, and they too come out on Sir Tim’s side. Again, The Telegraph gives us hints as to the contents of the letter.

(If anyone has a link to these letters which is available without a subscription, please leave a comment.)

Sir Andre Geim, of the University of Manchester, wrote:

The saddest part is probably the reaction by the UCL top brass who forced Tim to resign. So much for the freedom of expression by the very people who should be guardians of academic freedom.

Sir Andre completely misses the mark here, because this is not about academic freedom at all. Sir Tim did not release research about the relative successes of male-only labs vs female-only labs, so this is not about preventing him from publishing a paper that makes us feel uncomfortable. This is about a personal opinion, which many have found derogatory, expressed in a professional context where such opinions are very likely to be robustly challenged. Sir Andre forgets that freedom of expression is not freedom from the consequences of expression, and the science elite should be held responsible for their mistakes the same as everyone else.

And then there are the comments of Boris Johnson, Professor Brian Cox and Professor Richard Dawkins, also in support of Sir Tim, and also failing to adequately address the serious issue of sexism in science.

What really disturbs me about this is that the British academic (and political) elite appear to be closing ranks around a man who has made sexist comments and who is refusing to deal with the repercussions of those comments. Sir Tim’s words are indefensible. Describing oneself, apparently quite comfortably, as chauvinist, making demeaning comments about women, and then refusing to properly apologise for those remarks is not a slip of the tongue and it is not acceptable. It is not something that senior scientists should be supporting.

The message this sends to women is that British academe is still sexist, still does not know how to recognise sexist behaviour, has no desire to tackle sexism, and, indeed, will even support men who make sexist comments.

The message this sends is that it’s still too risky for women to call out sexist behaviour, because even other women will not censure sexism.

This is incredibly damaging, and the damage only gets worse as more and more academics decide to support Sir Tim, instead of recognising the seriousness of his error and encouraging him to make a full and sincere apology. Maybe if that happened, maybe if we saw clear signals that sexism will not be tolerated, we might be able do that moving on that Donald and Leyser are so keen on.

If academia needs an example to follow, they should take a serious look at how the Australian Chief of Army Lieutenant General David Morrison dealt with much more serious accusations of sexism made in 2013.

Lieutenant General Morrison does not mince his words:

Those who think that it is OK to behave in a way that demeans or exploits their colleagues have no place in this Army.

[…]

On all operations, female soldiers and officers have proven themselves worthy of the best traditions of the Australian Army. They are vital to us maintaining our capability, now and into the future. If that does not suit you, then get out. You may find another employer where your attitude and behaviour is acceptable, but I doubt it.

[…]

The standard you walk past is the standard you accept. That goes for all of us, but especially those who, by their rank, have a leadership role.

If Lieutenant General Morrison can be so very clear, to very emphatic when dealing with a much, much worse situation, why can academia’s leaders not be so clear that sexism of any degree is unacceptable, in any situation, from any member of faculty in any position?

Is there not one senior academic, one Nobel Laureate, who will stand up and in unflinching language decry sexism and the support of sexism that we are currently seeing from so many leading figures? This isn’t about Sir Tim anymore. This is about an inability amongst senior scientists to understand and take seriously the responsibilities that their power has bestowed upon them.

UPDATE 22 June: Here’s a fantastic post by Hilda Bastian about the problems with the “it’s just a joke” defence, complete with references. Well worth a read.

Sexist and other discriminatory disparaging humor takes a code for granted: its funniness relies on people recognizing the stereotypes that are the basis for the joke. It asks us to not take discriminatory stereotyping seriously. That’s not going to take the sting out of it.

Ford and Ferguson concluded that jokes don’t create hostility to the outgroup where it doesn’t already exist. But the evidence, they said, showed that joking reinforces existing prejudice. If you joke about women and get away with it, those who are hostile to women will see this as social sanction for their views and behavior. The joke tellers don’t themselves have to be actively misogynist to end up encouraging others to be.

And according to the Daily Mail (sorry!), two Nobel scientists have come out against Sir Tim’s comments, so that’s something to applaud:

However, 2014 shared Nobel prize winners for medicine, husband and wife Edvald and May-Britt Moser, from Norway, said Sir Tim’s speech was in no way beneficial to women.

‘Hunt’s statements point to attitudes that contribute to the continuation of inequality between the genders in science,’ they were reported as saying.

It’s a shame, though, that their comments were buried at the bottom of the article and haven’t been as widely discussed as those defending Sir Tim’s words.

Finally, @JennyRohn tweeted this, which made me sad, but underlines why we need to keep talking about sexism and calling out sexist comments and behaviour:

A woman scientist I know just said, “I’m afraid to tweet this”: http://t.co/KiLvyhlWZN by @suw – I think that speaks for itself

Please note that comments are moderated, and I will not be publishing any comments that are abusive. 

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Eyjafjallajokull

by Suw on March 22, 2010

A couple of days ago a volcano called Eyjafjallajokull in Iceland erupted in a classic ‘curtain of fire’. The photos and video of the event are pretty, as well as pretty impressive.

There are some fab photos on Flickr too, and more footage on the BBC.

It’s times like this I really wish I was still a geologist. Over the years I’ve had crises of confidence about whether I should have stayed in geology or not. Those don’t happen any more, mainly because of Kevin. Had I gone back to academia I would never have met him and I would be infinitely worse off. But yet, I do still yearn for science. I think sometimes that I try to take a scientific, evidence-based approach to social media precisely because my scientific side is not being satisfied.

I’ve always struggled to balance my creative and my scientific sides. At university, there wasn’t enough room for me to be creative. In fact, being creative felt like a burden. I remember sitting in paleo lab sessions and so very carefully drawing my specimens to an artistic standard that was unnecessarily high. I’d get three or four specimens done, when I should have finished 10.

My first job out of uni was in science publishing. I was an ‘editorial assistant’, which meant I did lots of admin. That didn’t satisfy any of my intellectual or creative needs at all. When there was talk that the company was going to open a geology title, I lobbied in favour and put myself forward as a candidate for the editor’s position. They didn’t encourage such behaviour and, realising that I had nowhere to go, I left.

That was the last time that I’ve been in an even vaguely scientific environment. These days I think I’m making headway on satisfying my creative needs. My writing and bookbinding fills me with excitement and happiness. Perhaps the changes that Kevin and I are making right now will allow me to start to satisfy my scientific side too.

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Richard Dawkins is a bit of a divisive figure, in my opinion. As an atheist, I sometimes get frustrated with the rabid way he attacks religion. But he’s now losing all credibility as he becomes a parody of himself. This, from The Telegraph:

The prominent atheist [Dawkins] is stepping down from his post at Oxford University to write a book aimed at youngsters in which he will warn them against believing in “anti-scientific” fairytales.

Prof Hawkins said: “The book I write next year will be a children’s book on how to think about the world, science thinking contrasted with mythical thinking.

“I haven’t read Harry Potter, I have read Pullman who is the other leading children’s author that one might mention and I love his books. I don’t know what to think about magic and fairy tales.”

Prof Dawkins said he wanted to look at the effects of “bringing children up to believe in spells and wizards”.

“I think it is anti-scientific – whether that has a pernicious effect, I don’t know,” he told More4 News.

“I think looking back to my own childhood, the fact that so many of the stories I read allowed the possibility of frogs turning into princes, whether that has a sort of insidious affect on rationality, I’m not sure. Perhaps it’s something for research.”

I find it really quite hard to understand where Dawkins is coming from. Children are very good at sifting truth from fiction – they often seem to see more truth than us adults do – and I have yet to come across an adult who still believes in Santa, gingerbread houses or Baba Yaga. I can’t see that there is a problem to be solved, other than one created in Dawkin’s head.

Now, I’m all for a book that teaches kids about science and scientific thinking, and which helps parents understand how to explain things in terms that children will understand. (I still remember my Dad answering my question “Why is the sky blue?” with a detailed and scientifically correct explanation that went right over my head. It was some time before I got that question answered satisfactorily.) And if that’s all this book is, then it will be a valuable addition to my bookshelf.

But the idea that fairytales affect children’s ability to be rational seems absurd. Does an appreciation of fiction affect our ability to examine the world scientifically? Do scientists eschew the novel? I don’t think so. Children hold various beliefs at various times in their childhood, and the details vary from child to child. Some kids learn quite young that the Tooth Fairy isn’t real, others use impeccable logic to prove that it is their best friends’ father. In my case, whilst other children were out with their ponies or watching TV, I was reading Heinlein, Asimov, EE Doc Smith, and watching the Space Shuttle take off. I very distinctly remember the moment that I realised that there wasn’t, in fact, a Moon Base.

Treating children as miniature adults is a mistake. Children are little learning machines, as far as I can work out, and they absorb information in a variety of ways. Sometimes they are little scientists: “Oh, look, if I let go of this ball, it always falls to the floor. Note how it never falls upwards! Gosh, later in life I’ll learn that this is called Gravity.” But they don’t just learn through experience and experimentation. They also learn through listening to stories.

Fairytales are about morality, ethics, and the consequences of our actions. How else can you illustrate to a child that if she disobeys and strays from the path, she may be eaten by a big bad wolf? Or that if you lie to get attention, one day you’ll be in real need of help and no one will come. Or that the world is sometimes inscrutable, not at all amenable to explanation, and possibly even terrifying? You could her find out the hard way, or you could tell her stories.

Science has no morals. It’s only the way we use it that is moral or not. And it’s not that great for teaching us about the consequences of our actions. “If you put this little chunk of metal into that tub of water it will explode” doesn’t quite teach the same lesson as “If you do bad things you will be punished.”

But fairytales also teach us to use our imagination, a skill sorely under-appreciated. It’s not just useful for making up more stories, but also in day-to-day life, for picturing how things might be if we take certain actions. Imaginations are very helpful, and they need food to grow: Fairytales. I cannot imagine how dull life would be without fairytales. Several of my friends would be out of a job, for starters, and I would be one ambition poorer.

There are many things that Dawkins could do to make the world a better place, and to help communicate scientific principles to both children and adults alike. Having a pop at fairytales is not one of them.

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I'm not going to die

by Suw on March 21, 2006

Phew! (thanks Neil!)

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Until they stop selling endangered fish. Really, there is no need to sell fish that are going to become extinct if we keep eating them. No one, but no one, should have a problem with this. If I can't eat swordfish because there isn't a sustainable fish stock, well, that's just how it goes. The supermarkets should be wet-fish-slapped until they all operate a sustainable fish only policy.

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Dumb, dumber, dumberer and dumberest

by Suw on September 16, 2005

Wonderful article by Ben Goldacre on how writing his equally wonderful Bad Science column has “increased his suspicion of the media by, ooh, a lot of per cents”. I'll resist the urge to quote the entire thing, although its general brilliance makes it hard to pick out a single quote.

Once journalists get their teeth into what they think is a scare story, trivial increases in risk are presented, often out of context, but always using one single way of expressing risk, the “relative risk increase”, that makes the danger appear disproportionately large (www.badscience.net/?p=8). This is before we mention the times, such as last week's Seroxat story, or the ibuprofen and heart attack story last month, when in their eagerness to find a scandal, half the papers got the figures wrong. This error, you can't help noticing, is always in the same direction.

As a science graduate (and I'm not sure that one really stops being a scientist, to be honest), I frequently find myself gurgling in despair at the news, declaiming something like “Well, it's clear they've never studied statistics!” whilst trying not to let my blood pressure rise too much. I really do think that some of the bollocks that gets passed off as 'science' in the media could be countered by simply teaching journalists about stats, particularly about what makes a study statistically significant (or not).
Oh, that and giving them a massive electric shock every time they sensationalise. That might work.

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Psychologists/Sociologists studying blogging?

by Suw on September 15, 2005

Anyone know of any? Or are you one yourself? Please email me if you are (pref UK-based).
Thanks.

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Gondwanaland in all its glory

by Suw on August 30, 2005

I really wish that we'd had animations like these when I was at university, studying Geology. It would have made our dynamic stratigraphy lectures a lot more comprehensible, not to mention entertaining. As it was, I used to struggle remembering which weird new continents came when, and what the sloppy wet bits inbetween were called, which is probably why I never harboured a desire to become a dynamic stratigrapher.

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Will we ever reach 11?

by Suw on August 2, 2005

Another 10th planet has been found. I wonder how many 10th planets we will have to go through before we find an 11th. Although I very much approve of calling it Xena. About time we had a cute warrior princess tearing up the skies.

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Party trick!

by Suw on December 27, 2004

Ok, so this is not a party trick you can do at home, but it's still worth pointing out. Given the right equipment, you can shrink coins. Unfortunately, shrinking the coins also means blowing up the gear, but hell, it's a price worth paying! If only they'd done this sort of thing at school…
(Via Maciej, from ages ago. Ok, so I'm slow sometimes.)

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No robot should be this cute. It's against Asimov's laws

December 24, 2004

Asimov's three Laws of Robotics are frequently quoted thusly: A robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law. A robot must protect its own [...]

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Groundbreaking vodka experiment is huge success

November 12, 2004

The guys over at Oh My God It Burns! have done the world a great service today with the publication of their scientific paper, Practical Applications of the Philosopher's Stone. For Drunks. The theory is that cheap vodka sucks because impurities result in excessive burning, a 'repugnant aftertaste' and a 'bouquet reminiscent of rubbing alcohol'. [...]

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Ducks quack with regional accents

June 4, 2004

I knew that French cows can't understand English*, but a new study shows that English ducks quack with regional accents: “Cockney” ducks from London make a rougher sound, not unlike their human counterparts, so their fellow quackers can hear them above the city's hubbub. But their country cousins communicate with a softer, more relaxed sound, [...]

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British scientific research policies are not dictated by a film

May 18, 2004

I’m getting increasingly cross with the media here as we approach the release of The Day After Tomorrow, the latest disaster-laden SFX-fest by Independence Day‘s Roland Emmerich. Exploring the effects of rapid and extreme climate change, The Day After Tomorrow will probably be nominated for a new category of Oscar, Best Dramatic Weather. By all [...]

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The great chocolate vodka experiment

March 17, 2004

I’ve never been one for novelty vodkas. You can keep your spicy vodkas or your citrus vodkas – I’m not really interested. I like my vodka like I like my men – in a glass. Er, I mean, smooth, Polish and intoxicating. I have been aware of the existence of chocolate vodka for some time [...]

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