Month: June 2015

Tim Hunt said the wrong thing at the wrong time

The recent incident about Tim Hunt’s comment on women in science and the viral response of female scientists all over the world was covered by the media in an extent, that was, to my opinion, quite unusual. I think, most surprised by that enormous feedback was Tim Hunt himself, who resigned from his honorary professorship and now claims to have been “hung out and dry”.

Tim Hunt. source: The Daily Beast.

Tim Hunt. source: The Daily Beast.

I also wish to make clear that his comment is not to be justified. Especially the part about crying remembered me of my studies, when it was not uncommon that people did cry after some oral exams which were frequently held over a lab course. Studying was tough. However, the stress put onto the students was hopefully irrespective of the gender, and I think that females and males most often simply have different strategies to deal with that. Even so, it clearly states that something with the critics might be wrong when it causes such emotional reactions. In his comment, Hunt simply assumed that being a male labworker is “normal”, while being a female labworker is a deviation. This is an in insult to all people working in the lab – female and also male.

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 criticise them, they cry.

My impression is, that, in addition, Hunt’s comment on women in science was simply the last straw that broke the camel’s back: Females have to face discrimination since the very beginning of science. And since recently, sexism in science was already in focus of the scientific community and also in the public. I do think that this intense anger and dispute is not harming academia. I think, it is quite healthy. Females are showing their contribution to science and call this kind of harassment what it is: patriarchalic and unfair.

One thing that seems to be not considered in the one thing is that this issue is not only concerning the lab: It applies to all fields of work, where women are a minority. There are a lot.

#distractlinglysexy. source:

#distractlinglysexy. source:

His own defensive reaction after being that harshly treated and criticized seems a bit ironic in that context. Yes, he did something wrong. Yes, he was maybe tired and did not think before speaking. Yes, he was also maybe speaking about his personal experience. And yes, he may have even apologized. But this does not mean that everything is alright now. It seems like Tim Hunt is now the scapegoat of an angry, female Twitter mob, just because he spoke his mind. But speaking your mind does not mean that you cannot be an asshole. The same goes for having a Nobel Prize.

Hunt is 72 years old, having/being resigned from his honorary professorship. I think that this might be not a too great loss for him. I give him, that his feelings might be severely hurt. But so are many others’ feelings, too.

We don’t know (yet)

A few weeks ago, the Royal Society of Chemistry published the results of a survey about the public view on chemistry and chemists. This is the first study of this kind considering chemistry and the results were as interesting as surprising: Most people (84 %) consider chemistry to make a valuable contribution to society. On the other side, only 12 % of the chemists expected the public to say so. In general, the public opinion sees chemistry as something positive and useful, and considers chemists as reliable and to be trusted. Being a chemist, I would also have expected a far more negative view. One other key results is that most people simply don’t understand chemistry and feel emotionally neutral towards it. I think, that these result might be similar for science in general.

There is a “disbelieve” (or mistrust) in science – which, again, puts science along with pseudo-sciences or religious believes; and I think this is due to the inaccessibility of how research works. One argument that I frequently hear, let’s say, from opponents of vaccination, is that “the scientific discourse is not yet finished”. This is true but beside the point, because no scientific discourse is ever finished. Science, by definition, is difficult to understand and often contradicts itself, overthrowing and questioning everything. Studies are published, and later neglected. Phenomena are observed and explained, until something new comes up. And honestly, science is far from truth, but this is still as close as we can get. Of course, this must create a high uncertainty and also discomfort, for the public as well as for scientists.

A problem that arises from that is that pseudo-scientific and religious explanations start to mix into scientific views, as it happens in biology classes where creationism is taught as a theory alternative to the theory of evolution. But here is a big misunderstanding: creationism is no theory at all. To qualify itself, a theory must be based on observations, must be provable and falsifiable, and should therefore allow predictions. It is quite simple: The hypothesis that all species were created by an omnipotent God who tries to test our faith might be based on the observation of our sheer existence. I agree that the fact that we exist is extremely unlikely and totally astonishing. But the existence of God cannot be proved, or disproved (anyone who wants to object here, please send me your comments and consider to contribute to the according wikipedia article). This is maybe why it is called “faith”. The fact that there is an ancient collection of edited and translated reports about talking, burning shrubberies, is no proof. Also, creationism allows no predictions, maybe excluding the Book of Revelation.

source: wikimedia commons

The Platypus. source: wikimedia commons

My point is that the scientific discourse always is not finished, while the religious usually is. There are discussions about how to interpret the holy texts, but the text itself remains rather static. We might learn some day that the first spark of life came from an asteroid, or that our planet is indeed just a gigantic supercomputer operated by extraterrestrial mice in oder to find the question to the answer of “42”. We might also finally encounter that one of all religions was indeed correct. We do not know yet. Until then, we just assume that our current theories are working fine within their limits; until we get a better idea.

Changes and challenges in scientific publishing: 12th of June 2015, Vienna

At 12th of June, the University of Vienna will host a talk by Eva Amsen, the F1000 Community Strategy Manager. She will give a presentation about “Open peer review, open data, negative results: Scientific publishing is changing.”

This talk will look in more detail at the beneftis of these apects of open science, but also discuss some the challenges, such as lack of time or fear of sharing ongoing research.

It is very interesting to see that these aspects are more and more also addressed by publishers. If it becomes more rewarding to publish “the other” results, too, this would clearly be a benefit for all scientists and their work.