In the old days, life was probably more straightforward for crusty old academics and scientists. Conferences and conventions would have been a jolly excursion for arcane discussions with (mostly male) peers on the minutiae of your subject and a chance to win plaudits for work done alone in the hidden depths of an academic institution. Conference speaking just a chance for a chat with a high-brow audience. A chat that would probably not go further than their ears (plus perhaps the pages of some academic journal with just a few thousand circulation).
That was, of course, the old days.
Hapless old prof and Nobel Laureate, Tim Hunt, fell heavily into a hole of his own making last week when he voiced his old-fashioned views on “the trouble with girls” in front of an audience at the World Conference of Science Journalists. Once he’d started, he just kept digging. Mr Hunt clearly failed to realise a) just how outmoded were his views and b) how far and how quickly stuff like this spreads in our new media age.
Tim Hunt has certainly paid the price of his misogyny and his insensitivity, resigning from his honorary professorship with the University of London; being shunned by the Royal Society and a large wedge of his peers and of course vilified on Twitter and by the media.
Of course, being a very brainy person does not mean you won’t also hold socially unacceptable views. Regrettably there are frequent cases to remind us that we shouldn’t equate academic brilliance with either virtue or moral leadership. DNA discoverer, James Watson, is another unfortunate example according to Adam Rutherford in The Guardian.
Perhaps the very best thing about the whole Tim Hunt episode (excellent Twitter responses aside) is that it shows the potential value of social media as a breath of fresh air to help blow the cobwebs off the dustier corners of academe. And, Nobel Laurentian or otherwise, clever people shouldn’t be put unreservedly on pedestals.