Sexist scientist "apologizes" for conference remarks, says he was being "honest"

I suspect the poor guy is pretty far out on the autism spectrum, as more than a few good scientists are. I feel very sorry for him, and I don’t think anything anyone’s said here is likely to help him learn how to deal more appropriately and effectively with women in the workplace.

Some people are severely physically challenged and are doing the best they can. I’ve worked with a few! I would rather help people like that learn better coping strategies than force them to resign.

Edit: I see @pjcamp got here first…

I find the remarks of “Oh, it’s just autism, feel sorry for him” pretty awful, when no, a lot of men just think and act this way, autistic or not. It also ends up tarring other autistic people, who are probably no more or less likely to be sexist assholes.

If he’s not being autistic, can we just blame it on him being allistic, and talk about how those people never actually stop to think or consider the feelings of others, and never put any actual effort into interaction?


Also, how come I keep reading the headline of this article as “sexy scientist”? And then being disappointed all over again?


Whether he is or not, it’s not excuse to make sexist comments and I suspect that plenty of people on the spectrum would never dream of saying such things. Stop making excuses for the guy. He said a shitty thing. Period. If he had used a racist term would you just shrug your shoulders and assume he was just autistic? What’s the difference in his comments about women?


Don’t you also feel sorry for the women who were told they simply don’t belong in his workplace, by a prominent speaker at an event that was supposed to celebrate them being there? What is yet one more example of just how much pervasive sexism they can expect, that keeps many women from bothering with science, save only to the extent that people have not accepted it from Hunt?

Because you know, this isn’t all about the personal growth of this one science celebrity. There are other people he chose to spit at here. Painting him as a victim because our century really hates honesty, or that kind of sexism is probably just the result of a condition why not, and forgetting about everyone else is not a fair response at all.

He had a long time to learn to coping strategies beyond blaming a whole gender for how he would criticize people until they cried. His apology suggests he has no interest in learning them now. So now maybe we can worry about how this effects someone other than him, you know, like the all the other people this conference was supposed to be about.

Being a professor involves working with other people, collaborating with them and advancing their interests. If Hunt was really honest about not wanting to stand in the way of women, and yet doesn’t think he can work with them, then his resignation seems an appropriate recognition of his professed inability to do that.


I was thinking we could just go back and see if anyone said something like that in the James Watson thread.

But there the dissent mostly comes from someone suggesting that maybe he had a point.

Via @maggiek


If you keep misreading “sexist” as “sexy”, your life will be perpetually full of disappointment…


Good thing I didn’t say that, then.

Although I personally have empathy and sympathy for the challenges other people face, I wouldn’t presume to tell you how you should feel.

OK. I actually thought I was sharing my own perception of the situation, not making excuses, but I’ll stop anyway.

Yes, very much so. Is it OK for me to feel empathy and compassion towards them, or will I be called out on that now too? The whole situation is sad. I don’t see any winners here.

Look, at some point there has to be consequences for one’s actions and comments. I think this is an example of it. Given that he has apparently had a long, successful career, with many accolades, and a cushy tenured position, I feel much less for him than I do for the women whose careers he might have harmed in one way or another, which could have been in the hundreds. He made shitty comments and has seen reprisals for it.

I do feel by saying “oh, he’s probably just autistic” that you are indeed making excuses for him. He might or might not be, but any sort of public comment along these lines shouldn’t be dismissed as “oh, they’re on the spectrum”, because being on the spectrum isn’t the functional equivalent of being an asshole. I think people in that community might object to that characterization. There seems to be this tendency to assume that men who say shitty things about women in the STEM fields lately are just being written off as “being autistic” as a means of excusing them. While you might not have meant in that manner, that’s how it came off.


Are you kidding me here?! I have friends who are on the spectrum and who are also not SEXIST assholes. Christ. Being a sexist jerk does not mean one is on the spectrum, and being on the spectrum does not mean it’s cool and normal for you to act like a sexist jerk!

And you have no right to assume with NO evidence that he is on the spectrum. And saying sexist shit is not proof that he is on the spectrum. Not even a little bit. That’s not logical or rational. And it’s also bullshit.


Please don’t state the exact opposite of what I said and then respond to it as if I said it.

Okay, I was biting my tongue until someone else said it, WTF is with some British people? I remember my father, who is a licensed, competent engineer of many decades of experience, who was educated in the US and who has speaks perfect English having tons of issues with British engineers. Apparently they were always super condescending to him because he was an Arab, even though he was GM of the company he worked for. This was when he worked in the Middle East. These were issues that he simply did not have with American expats, or even British people who had been educated in America. My own experience dealing with expats was similar, and I can’t shake the feeling that a lot of educated British people never got the memo that it’s not okay to be racist/classist/sexist whatever. Now, I’ve talked to plenty of British people who weren’t assholes, too; but I genuinely feel like this is a Thing.

I’m autistic. I’ve said some awful things in all innocence and had to deal with the fallout, and it sucks. Learning how to navigate the social skills that everyone else takes for granted is a bitch.

But a person who is functional enough to have a successful career is functional enough to take responsibility for their own actions. I have spoken of my autism as an explanation, as an apology, as a plea for understanding, but never as an excuse.


It sounds like you have an excessively simplified understanding of the autistic spectrum.

I am, for example, prone to mild obsessions and hyperfocusing at the expense of the big picture. I have a hard time picking up social cues–things like tone, word choice, body language–that most people take for granted. Social pressure and loud noises can sometimes stress me out to the point that I need to get away and sit quietly in a corner and shake for a few minutes before I can be around people again.

This puts me on the same spectrum as a person who is, for example, obsessed with stacking and unstacking blocks to the exclusion of all other activities, who is incapable of understanding that you should answer when people ask you a question, and who screams and falls down on the floor in agony if somebody drops a plate.

I know a person who, at age 30 or so, read an article about autism and realized that every single trait described her perfectly, suddenly understood why so many things were so hard for her. Her life is measurably better now that she has studied and applied various coping strategies recommends for “high-functioning” autistics. I was lucky enough to be diagnosed young, and have supportive parents and skilled psychiatrists, and I still struggle with a lot of things that most people take for granted. If that social-cues thing sounds like garden-variety awkwardness to you, imagine being an outgoing person who really wants to be friendly and nice to people, and everyone you talk to hates you and you have no idea why.

I’m trying to stay chill and educate rather than attack, but proclaiming that autism is bullshit because you read a few articles and forum posts and didn’t understand them is about as ignorant and insulting as saying “Have you tried just…not being gay?”


Bad parenting? Class?

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What kind of education? In my experience the very worst of the racist/classist/sexist British arseholes had the best education Mummy and Daddy could buy for them, because the one provided by the state just wouldn’t do …


Yes, unfortunately you have misunderstood what I was intending to convey by my post. Specifically, I wasn’t suggesting that autism was bullshit, but that there is a great deal of the stuff written about it. The difference is very significant. For instance, I regard AGW as the cause of the biggest problems my descendants will have to deal with, but there is a great deal of nonsense written about it.
I have a few of the characteristics of people with autism. I am poor at interpreting tone and body language, for instance. I experience mild obsessions. But other symptoms I don’t suffer from at all.
My complaint is that people in IT or programming are often casually labelled as “Aspergers” or autistic by people who don’t recognise that they show only a few traits - or that their apparent traits are a consequence of the demands of the job. If someone is in the middle of a complex bit of thinking and has to have the job done by a certain time, someone coming over for social chitchat is likely to be zoned out. But that isn’t an autism symptom, it is a sign of someone putting the needs of the job before socialising.
Obviously there are people like yourself who have a wide range of symptoms of varying levels of severity, and at that point it is perhaps going to be appropriate to apply a label, if only for convenience. We can, I think, reliably assume that what we call autism is the result of the interaction of a number of genes, possibly environmental and development factors as well, rather than a single point mutation. There are conditions like sickle cell anaemia which are just such single point mutations, while there are others (like hair colour) which are encoded by a large number of genes. The variability of autism suggests the involvement of a number of genes, and as I understand recent research this is indeed the case.
I’m not trying to minimise your experience or that of other people; the point I was trying to make is that we should not “medicalise” minor genetic variation or behavioral oddities, or use them as an explanation. A number of physical scientists have turned out to be far right wingers of Nazi-like views, as well as just casually sexist ones like Hunt. But we shouldn’t put a label on them and excuse them. We should demand that people in public life meet standards of behaviour with which they are perfectly capable of complying. We shouldn’t confuse them with people suffering from a serious range of mental disabilities.
This is clearly a very emotive subject, from your reaction. I guess a more sensible approach might have been simply to delete my post and move on, but I did want to try to explain that I feel that “autism” as a term is being extended beyond its proper use.

[edit -perhaps I should give an actual example.
This is a child living in one of those ultra-competitive trendy parts of East London who starts displaying some unusual behaviour. At the school gate one of the mummies (whose own child is perfect) informs the mother that from a book she has been reading her son is showing signs of autistic spectrum behaviour. The mother is very worried and decides her son needs to see a psychiatrist. But before this can happen they sort out their housing problem, which means their child will be staying at the same school. The odd behaviour promptly stops.
It’s the mother reading a book which may either be bullshit or beyond her comprehension and then thinking she is capable of diagnosing autisitc spectrum behaviour that is an example of what I was talking about.
Of course there is an additional problem in the US with insurance companies that only treat recognised conditions, which means (for instance) that while there are children who genuinely have ADHD, other children are getting diagnosed and prescribed ritalin to cover up family problems. And of course the pharmaceutical companies profit. There is therefore a perverse incentive to “treat an illness or condition” which doesn’t need it. And once a child is labelled, the label sticks.


Exactly. I have heard the headmaster of a (progressive, left wing) North London school remark that when he went to Headmasters’ Conference he often felt he was among the barbarians. And I know of a very highly paid North London lawyer (half Indian) who sends his children to the local State primary school despite being easily able to afford a private school education.
Oddly, a lot of the private schools in the UK are now full of foreign pupils, many from Russia or China. But you may be aware that Russians and Chinese do not always have the most enlightened attitude to people from other cultures, especially Muslims.


She must have developed a tolerance