[See also the update at the end of this post.]
I am still working on a post about the journalistic judgment of Connie St. Louis, Deborah Blum, and Ivan Oransky in breaking the Tim Hunt story. But the always informative Louise Mensch has thrown a wrench into my plans by pointing something out to me that I had not noticed, or even suspected. I find it rather shocking and it sets this whole debacle into an entirely new light for me.
It seems that Ivan Oransky and Deborah Blum were on the program committee for the World Conference of Science Journalists, where the infamous luncheon was held. That means that Tim Hunt was speaking at what was essentially their invitation. Moreover, Connie St. Louis had been a keynote speaker at the same conference**, also presumably at the invitation of the program committee. Blum and Oransky, therefore, attended the luncheon, at least implicitly, in a much more "official"* capacity than I had previously thought, and stood in a much more formal relationship to the luncheon's hosts, namely, the Korean Federation of Women’s Science & Technology Associations. They were, properly speaking, representatives of the conference.
This is the sort of information that I do not expect to have to discover for myself. That's what the words "full disclosure" are for. No one reading either Deborah Blum's piece in the Daily Beast or Connie St. Louis's blog post at Scientific American would suspect, as I also did not suspect, that Blum, Oransky and St. Louis were key figures at the conference where Sir Tim's improvised remarks were made. They presented themselves as entirely accidental witnesses, utterly innocent bystanders.
In what now seems to me to be a very disingenuous use of language, Deborah Blum even talked about how "the conference had paired [her] lecture with [Hunt's]" and how "the organizers regarded these parallel talks as a clever way to balance the contributions of science and journalism." Both "the conference" and "the organizers" were, properly speaking, actually self-references. But no one reading this article would know this.
For a reason I simply can't fathom at this point, not only did they do no proper journalism whatsoever in this case, they chose to scandalize their own event. They orchestrated the public humiliation of a man they had themselves* invited to Seoul, after he had agreed to say (what they knew) were a few improvised remarks immediately after having held a lecture. And they did so with the result of ultimately mortifying their host association (KOFWST). It's something you'd expect of Hunter S. Thompson on a bad trip, not an editor of A Field Guide for Science Writers.
Surely, as leading figures within the conference organization itself, their role was not to fan the flames of offence and scandal here, but to work with their speaker and their host organization to mitigate whatever harm may have been done. Instead of collaborating with St. Louis on her hasty "breaking" of the story, they should have talked her out of it. Blum says that their "idea was just to get it on the record". But, if that was really their aim, they could have worked with Sir Tim and KOFWST to issue a joint statement, in which everyone saved face, and the remarks were nonetheless duly retracted.
The fact that they didn't do this suggests, at least to my mind, that there was nothing to retract in the first place. No offence was taken, no harm was done, and the scandal was entirely manufactured after the fact. An important "What If?" here is the question of whether KOFWST would have demanded an apology if they had not been publicly, internationally scandalized by St. Louis's tweet and UCL's overreaction. Indeed, as I see it, they had at that point been browbeaten into thinking some great offence against "all women scientists in Korea and the world" had taken place. If that had really been the case, as members of the programme committee, Oransky and Blum had, if anything, the responsibility to apologize on Sir Tim's (i.e., their chosen speaker's) behalf, who was presumably tired after his lecture and possibly even jet-lagged. They should have assured their hosts that no offence was meant (since none was) and that the whole thing was an unfortunate misunderstanding. Like I say, the way they actually chose to proceed suggests that the impetus for this did not come from KOFWST.
In short, Oransky and Blum here failed, not primarily in their duty as journalists (about which I still have a post coming up), but in their duty as conference organizers and representatives of the World Federation of Science Journalists. I'm really quite shocked at this. It's truly and almost "officially" a stain on the entire profession of science journalism.
[Update 10/11/2015: An anonymous commenter has linked to Waddell and Higgins' "Saving Tim Hunt", implying (I think) that it somehow challenges the issues raised in this post. It does offer a few new details, but leaves the point of this post completely untouched. In fact, they, too, fail to mention that St Louis, Blum and Oransky held key positions in WFSJ/WCSJ and that some of their witnesses (notably Dominique Forget) and commentators (notably Mohammed Yahia) also sit on the WFSJ board with Connie St Louis and therefore not only share interests with her, but have an objective interest in protecting the reputation of their organization. (Indeed, Blum nominated Yahia for his seat on the board. HT Debbie Kennett.)
I was initially impressed with their level of detail and their diligence in contacting witnesses/actors for comment. But now I'm more struck by the questions they didn't ask and the information they left out. In any case, their piece is a bit like making a big deal out of the "smoking gun" long after it has been determined that the bullet didn't come from its barrel. For those of us who think it very unlikely that Tim Hunt is a sexist, and therefore that he intended to say something sexist, it doesn't really change anything to learn that a few more people (than we already know of) interpreted Hunt to be saying something sexist. Clearly, his words could be misconstrued.
I did learn a few things from their piece though. That Dominique Forget (WFSJ treasurer) was in the room is interesting. That Mohammed Yahia (WFSJ vice-president) was promoting the story and talking about how the WCSJ controversy led to Hunt being disinvited from an AAAS webinar is also interesting. The question, now, is whether they think keeping Hunt from talking to AAAS was a positive outcome or "collateral damage".
Reading Waddell and Higgins, leaves the impression that WFSJ conferences are dangerous places for scientists. It's clear that at least two members of WFSJ board were present and that, while one of them chose to attack him on Twitter, the other chose not to defend her guest. If you like to speak freely and frankly, it seems, it's not advisable to accept an invitation to a WFSJ event. Neither the board nor the program committee will stand by you if you find yourself misspeaking or being taken out of context. In fact, if they don't like your contribution, WFSJ board members may come after you in public, rather than taking you aside in private to share their concerns. Even improvised remarks made to what Waddell and Higgins describe as a half-listening room, and mediated through a poorly functioning translation system, can be trouble. If trouble does arise, expect no support from WFSJ addressing controversy. In fact, expect the vice-president of WFSJ to stoke the controversy publicly, even as it begins to have consequences for your engagements elsewhere in the world. The WFSJ board members and WCSJ 2015 program committee members who knew exactly what had happened in the room that day, i.e., were there to see how informally the toast was made and how disinterested the audience was, didn't do any damage control. On the contrary, they gave it maximum spin, ensuring maximum damage to the speaker's reputation.]
*I'm sure they (or someone defending them) will say that I'm exaggerating the power that a "program advisory committee" actually has to determine the speakers at such an event and the "official capacity" that membership in such a committee implies. But even if it is largely an "honorary" function, it is an honour that implies responsibilities. I can only say that if I had been in any way formally associated with this conference, even as a volunteer, I would not have behaved in this unseemly manner.
**[Update: The conference is organized by the World Federation of Science Journalists. When I wrote this post I was not aware that Connie St Louis sits on its executive board. Thanks to Shub Niggurath for the tip.]