A wound in the scientific body: a hypothesis

The social and professional media have had a field day with Sir Tim Hunt’s comments concerning women in the lab. Juxtaposed with that in New Zealand has been a very earnest discussion about the gagging of scientists. The purpose of this post is simply to highlight that the two are not unrelated and how we handle one affects the other.

The reaction to Sir Tim Hunt’s comments has been swift and brutal. It amazes me how 140 characters or a couple of columns in a newspaper cannot only hang, but draw and quarter. It also amazes me how swift such judgment can be without recourse to gathering all the evidence first. The issue of bigotry and bias against women in science are very real and very felt. I do not intend to re-litigate any of those issues. It is the brutal nature of the response that concerns me. Not only has one man been thoroughly lambasted in every corner of the world – something of an overkill – but with him so have vast numbers of others been lambasted as the epithets have spilt over to include whole generations of male scientists. I have also noted a bigoted reaction to those condemning Sir Tim Hunt, equally replete with pithy epithets that do nothing but to wound, raise hackles and expose one’s own prejudices.

What has this to do with gagging of scientists? Simply, that it raises the fear index for anyone thinking of making public comments. I was speaking with a very well accomplished scientist the other day who will not speak to the media about their own work because of the very negative reaction of colleagues when they once did so. I hypothesise that following the response to Sir Tim Hunt’s comments, and the response to that response, that there are scientists who are thinking twice about publically speaking out on their science let alone on a controversial issue – a.k.a. self-gagging. The wound is deep. It must heal, because without those voices then the public debates about such issues as sea level rise, euthanasia, medicinal cannabis, science education etc will be all the poorer for the absence of those voices. The missing ingredient, the only known treatment for the wounds that have appeared, is compassion and forgiveness. Not terms that normally appear in the scientific literature, but universals that can alone heal the wounds and lift people up to where they can empathise with others irrespective of race, sex or creed.

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