What are the similarities between British biochemist Sir Tim Hunt and American biologist James Watson? Both have made great contributions to their respective fields and both are victims of political correctness – both paid a heavy price for holding and expressing views in areas that are considered sacrosanct by society and in which a different opinion or questioning of the commonly held, politically correct beliefs will not be tolerated. Both had their career ended disgracefully for speaking their minds in an age in which free speech is celebrated as a fundamental right.
Sir Tim Hunt was in the news earlier this week for the comment he made at a conference in South Korea. “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.”, he had said. Clearly, he had only stated his personal opinion. He notes the difficulty he has had with female colleagues and terms it as “his trouble”. It is understandable that many would not agree with his comments and might record their objection to it. But what is painful is that this man has been removed from almost all of his official positions without as much as giving him a chance to explain himself – as if this one comment has erased all the great work he has done and all the contribution he has made towards growth and promotion of science. As if by speaking his mind with absolutely no malice, he had lost the inalienable right to be heard – a right that even felons of the highest degree are entitled to in a civilized society.
I live in a country where there are many single-sex schools and colleges and many parents want to send their wards to such institutions because they think it will help reduce distractions and allow students to focus on education. If this is acceptable, I think we should also allow a person’s opinion that having single-sex labs and research centers would help scientists focus more on their work. The important question here, in my opinion, is not the merit (or lack of it) of a particular point of view, but a person’s right to hold that point of view.
One may agree or disagree with a point of view, but I cannot understand why we shouldn’t be open to accepting that a person who holds a different opinion is not necessarily evil?
To understand this, it is worthwhile to look a little closer at the life of this gentleman and to listen to what women who have known him have to say. If the opinion of his wife, who is also a professor (and former dean) at University College London from where Hunt had to make a rather unceremonious exit after this incident, that her husband is not a misogynist is not sufficient, one can check with female colleagues and students of Hunt before judging him unfit for positions in which he will have a say in selection and funding of students. There are many such women who have come to his defense and have vouched for the support he has given to young scientists of both genders. That his career in science was still brought to an end for no greater crime than going public with his unconventional views is a grim pointer to the intolerance in scientific community (and society at large).
Another victim of such misplaced sense of justice is James Watson who is a co-discoverer of the structure of DNA and a Nobel laureate. In 2007, in an interview to Charlotte Hunt-Grubbe, on being asked on the subject of race and intelligence, Watson said that while social policies are framed on the assumption that all races have same intelligence, this is not the case. Though he maintained that his call was to understand the differences and evolve more effective policies, his comment led to much criticism and he was labelled a racist. This incident brought his distinguished career to an abrupt end, but the work that he had done continued to serve as a foundation for important research in molecular biology and genetics (among other fields) that continue to this day. In 2014, Watson was once again the center of media attention when he put his Nobel prize medal on auction citing his dwindling income and to contribute a part of the fund thus raised to support scientific research.
Lawrence Summers, American economist who had to resign as the president of Harvard University, partly due to his observation that differences in intrinsic aptitude could be a reason for the higher representation of men in high-end science and engineering positions, is yet another example. Sheryl Sandberg, who is now the COO of Facebook, had defended Summers noting that he had been a “true advocate for women throughout his career”. However, that is immaterial and insignificant considering that he had dared to question the unquestionable notion of equality among the genders. After all, it is more important to have faith in equality and silence any who dare to doubt it, than to analyse or understand the differences.
Drawing obnoxious posters or cartoons intended to offend millions of believers of a particular religion is an acts of heroism and liberation, but airing sincere thoughts with a good intention will be considered blasphemous if they are even slightly “politically incorrect”.
Ostracizing or hunting down people who are different, or hold views that challenge the commonly accepted notions which form the very foundation of society is not unique to our age or the modern society. Many great men of art and science have paid with their lives, their contributions to humanity nullified, because they could not conform to the social norms of their day. Oscar Wilde and Alan Turing, having lived in different ages and made timeless contribution to their own fields, met similar ends because they were social misfits in their age. Many societies have murdered thinkers who planted the seeds of ideas that were totally unacceptable at that time, but have later found acceptance. It might have been the flatness of earth that had to be defended then, equality of all humans now; religious dogma might have given way to political correctness. But beyond that how much change do we really see?
The hypocrisy and stupidity of our modern thinkers who celebrate the victims of nonconformity from a different age as heroes and at the same time persecute nonconformists of today as evil incarnate should bring a sad smile to the face of those who care to look.