Some (possibly, even, most) men, regardless of their evident educational and professional achievements, simply don’t know when to shut up. Fortunately, daily journalism’s silly season – which starts right about now and endures till Labour Day – is made for such fine, upstanding company.
Consider, for example, Sir Tim Hunt, the eminent British biochemist, Nobel Laureate and Fellow of the Royal Society, on the subject of women. According to published reports, he had this to say at a science journalism conference in Korea last week: “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 criticize them they cry.”
Naturally, having taken it on the chin in the Twitterverse for his “shockingly sexist” remarks, the good doctor quickly reversed himself – sort of. On BBC 4, he declared that he was “really sorry” for his commentary. “It was,” he admitted, “a very stupid thing to do in the presence of all those journalists.”
Still, he insisted, “It is terribly important that you can criticize people’s ideas without criticizing them. If they burst into tears it means that you tend to hold back from getting at the absolute truth. Science is about nothing except getting at the truth and anything that gets in the way of that diminishes the science.”
Especially, it seems, weepy, willowy females.
But if members of the “fairer sex” don’t belong in the lab, can they find a home in the military? Indubitably, says Canada’s top soldier, General Tom Lawson. If, that is, they can negotiate around all the drooling, male Neanderthals in their midst.
Speaking to the CBC’s Peter Mansbridge last week, the Chief of Defence Staff – who retires later this year – decried the presence of sexual harassment and assault in the ranks. It is, he said, a “terrible issue” that “disturbs the great majority of everyone in uniform.”
It is also, he added, more or less inevitable: “It would be a trite answer but it’s because we are biologically wired in a certain way and there will be those who believe it is a reasonable thing to press themselves and their desires on others.”
Once again, the social media was swift to react, forcing the general to effectively revise, if not altogether redact, his observations. In an apology, he called his words an “awkward characterization. . .My reference to biological attraction being a factor in sexual misconduct was by no means intended to excuse anyone from responsibility from their actions.”
What is it about a microphone, a camera, a captive audience, and an opportunity to mouth off that makes ordinarily smart people say dumb things? Of course, situational foot-in-mouth disease is not an affliction exclusive to men, but a disturbing prevalence of tripe in the popular culture attributable to boys seems to be about girls.
There are, of course, consequences – sometimes serious – for issuing such banalities. The new debate du jour is whether Professor Hunt deserved to be forced from his positions at the Royal Society and University College London.
Arguing in a letter to The Times, celebrity biologist Sir Richard Dawkins declared, “Along with many others, I didn’t like Sir Tim Hunt’s joke, but ‘disproportionate’ would be a huge underestimate of the baying witch-hunt that it unleashed among our academic thought police: nothing less than a feeding frenzy of mob-rule self-righteousness.”
One wonders whether the good doctor got it only half-right. Sometimes, the boys in the lab also cry.