On sexism in science

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From Mike the Mad Biologist citing a tweet that makes an unsettling point:

I wonder how many women Tim Hunt has put off from science during his entire career. @laurawheelers https://t.co/Mjil0obtw3 — May Wheeler (@MayWheeler) June 10, 2015

We will never know how many women left science, or didn’t get as far as they should have due to Hunt’s inability to behave like a grown-up around women.


On the whole, I’d say this is a good example why it’s imperative that people are allowed to say whatever they please. No matter how racist or sexist. Because then you know those people think like that and you can avoid them. If there was a list of “things that are not allowed to be said because they are or can be offensive” Mr. Hunt would still have a job and he would still be in a position shoot down dreams of science.


It’s true: sunlight is the best disinfectant.


Aye, one of the big selling points of strong free speech protections is that the right to ruin one’s own reputation is often exercised by people whose reputations deserve ruin.

With kneejerk shaming culture getting out of hand and exacerbated by ubiquitous communications, I no longer think it’s quite as strong a selling point as I once did, but then things like this happen and I remember, yeah, it does still work out for the better sometimes.

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I think this is a bit of a straw man argument. It’s like saying “if there was a list of crimes that people are not allowed to commit then criminals wouldn’t commit them and we wouldn’t know who to lock up.”
If someone was somehow silently putting people off, the evidence would become available through data analysis; women students at universities where they taught having a lower conversion rate to postgraduate studies, for instance. A lot of what is bringing things into the light is not free speech but patient data collection and analysis, coupled with video recording. It’s only recently been realised that the US doesn’t keep statistics on police murders in a lot of States, for instance. That can now be rectified.
A major problem with interpreting speech is that people deliberately say things they do not mean as well as accidentally letting out things they had rather not. Politicians do it to get the most stupid to vote for them and then have to weasel out of it (in the UK Cameron pretended to be anti-EU to get elected, and now is frantically trying to backpedal as the banks and large manufacturers threaten to leave the country.) Twitter in particular seems to encourage people to make fools of themselves. This guy Hunt has managed to come over as totally out of his depth in the modern world, but we don’t know whether this has really affected the past. Only analysis of his students and their careers would do that.
I’m reminded of George Wallace, who as governor of Alabama said the racist things that kept getting him elected, but quietly if slowly dismantled the official racism. Was he pushed by pressure of events or was he being cunning? It hardly matters. As Jesus remarked, by their fruits you will know them.

I would think it’s closer to “criminals would avoid getting caught doing those crimes”. People would still say stupid stuff, but they would be really careful over when and where they say the stuff.

It does, but there is a limit on how much of data can be analysed at the same time, plus the need for clues that there might be something wrong and needing to be analysed. It might take quite a while. There will never be a limit to human stupidity.
Free speech doesn’t prevent data analysis. This isn’t even apples and oranges, more like apples and bicycles. In a best case scenario free speech will call into attention the need for data analysis. To use the example of police murders, people have been allowed to question figures of authority to say there is something fucked up going on. So there has been a drive to see if that is true and to what degree.

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