Are We Really In Control of Our Own Outrage? The Case of Social Media and Tim Hunt.


British scientist Tim Hunt. We all know his story by now, don’t we? Here’s a quick refresher:

  1. In 2001 he won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
  2. In 2015, speaking in Korea, he decided to make a Sheldonian1 joke about women in the lab. “Let me tell you about my trouble with girls … 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.”
  3. Social media immediately erupted into a firestorm. Within days he was fired by University College London and the European Research Council and had essentially been exiled from the scientific community in Britain.

There’s no disagreement about either the inappropriateness of Hunt’s remark or the insufficiency of his “explanation” the next day. What I’m more interested in, however, is the binary nature of the punishment for this kind of thing. As recently as 20 years ago, nothing would have happened because there would have been no real mechanism for reporting Hunt’s joke. At most, some of the women in the audience might have gotten together later for lunch, rolled their eyes, and wondered just how much longer they were going to have to put up with this crap. And that would have been that.

Today, remarks like this end up on social media within minutes and mushroom into a firestorm of outrage within hours. Institutions panic. The hordes must be appeased. Heads are made to roll and careers ended. Then something else happens to engage the outrage centers of our brains and it’s all forgotten.

Neither of these strikes me as the best possible response to something essentially trivial like this. Ignoring it presumes acceptance, while digital torches and pitchforks teach a lesson that’s far too harsh and ruinous, especially for a first-time offense.

The fact that media outlets had limited space and were unlikely to report stuff like this hardly made it right to ignore it in 1995. Likewise, the fact that social media has evolved into an almost tailor-made outrage machine for every offensive remark ever uttered doesn’t make it right to insist on the death penalty every time someone says something obnoxious.

I’m whistling into the wind here, but why do we allow the current state of the art in technology to drive our responses to things like this? Hunt deserved a reprimand. He deserved to be mocked on Twitter. That’s probably about it. He didn’t deserve the guillotine. One of these days we’re going to have to figure out how to properly handle affairs like this based on their actual impact and importance, not their ability to act as clickbait on Facebook. We all have some growing up to do.

1Sheldonian (Shell • doe’ • nee • un) adj. [TVE < OE sheldon, valley with steep sides] 1. awkward, socially inept behavior, esp. among male scientists toward women.