Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Natural phenomena


Boris Johnson doesn’t like the fact that biologist Tim Hunt has been fired for pointing out the peculiar “natural phenomenon” that he happens to have stumbled upon in his brilliantly insightful way, that “girls in the lab” (his jocular, brilliant designation for what are sometimes referred to in other contexts as “women scientists”, or, more loosely, just as “scientists”) “cry when you criticise them”.

Sir Tim was a “distinguished” scientist who did not deserve to be “pilloried” for pointing out “a natural phenomenon”, he said.

I wonder if “pilloried” is the right word here. There were simply a lot of people pointing out the “natural phenomenon” that elderly male scientists have a tendency to run their mouths on topics they have little understanding of, particularly when they have won a big prize. I’m sorry if anyone was offended by that.

It reminds me of the Larry Summers affair. Like Hunt, Summers was used to being treated like a genius, and so he could pull out any scientific-sounding chestnut, and expect it to be treated like a scintillating original aperçu. Why do feminists hate standard deviations? (Summers downfall also was pushed by his habit of treating other scholars like lazy schoolchildren, who couldn’t possibly understand their own subject as well as the Great Economist. I’m sure he wouldn’t care that his abuse of statistical terminology offends statisticians.)

And like Hunt, Summers found supporters who thought his trite and ill-considered comments were uncomfortable nuggets of wisdom. It’s the oldest logical fallacy: The truth hurts, they reason, so if it hurts it must be true. At least, if it hurts other people.

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