Hung out to dry

Poor Nobel laureate Timothy Hunt says he feels “hung out to dry” by UCL and the European Research Council, who decided they didn’t want to be associated with a man who makes disparaging remarks when invited as a representative of the science establishment to speak to the Korean Female Scientists and Engineers. For those who missed it, his comment was

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….

I’m in favour of single-sex labs.

Invited later to comment after reflection on his remarks, he offered the classic non-apology: I’m sorry you were offended.

“I’m really really sorry that I caused any offence, that’s awful. I just meant to be honest, actually.”

His wife, Mary Collins, an esteemed immunologist, also at UCL, expresses shock and dismay at the university’s rapid response — pressuring him to resign forthwith from his “honorary researcher” position — and offers a defence that itself seems remarkably old-fashioned: He likes to cook. And besides

he is not sexist. I am a feminist, and I would not have put up with him if he were sexist.

In one sense I think he’s right that it is unfair, just as it is unfair that one person is hit by a cosmic ray and develops cancer, while another is spared. It’s not fair to fire someone for a single spontaneous mistake. But it’s also unfair to hire someone as an “honorary researcher” because he did some good work 25 years ago. For all I know, he’s still doing great science, or plotting out the course that science might take over the next century. But he was speaking in South Korea in a symbolic role, as a genius, and symbols don’t have the same rights that human beings do. I’ve written before about the cult of genius in science that gave us such esteemed figures as James Watson. It’s not that I don’t think that thinking hard about one topic could yield beautiful insights about apparently unrelated topics.

He just blurted out the kind of “jocularity” that was standard bonding behaviour among male scientists of his generation, and the august institutions that no longer find it useful to have his name associated with them are rushing to separate themselves, in part to forestall criticism inspired by many years of ignoring or actively fostering sexism in science. Someone who built a brilliant scientific career in the days when “girls in the lab” were expected to put up with that sort of shit might have interesting things to say about how things have changed, and how they could continue to change, including even the increased distraction of sexual liaisons between labmates — though the way he phrased it suggests that he has the distraction of falling in love even when he’s all by himself — but he may have just destructive self-aggrandisement to offer. And in the latter case, he’s not a useful symbol anymore.

Last refuge

Northern Ireland under pressure after Irish gay marriage referendum win

I’m looking forward to seeing the arguments they will use to resist the pressure. Perhaps Northern Ireland can present itself as a last refuge in Europe for the non-gay-marrying, Christian bakers and florists, antigay clerics. It will help if they can get a high profile asylum case. Maybe the straight son of two North London radical feminists fleeing an arranged marriage to another man.

In all seriousness, I doubt there is anyone who is not astonished at the rapid international progress on same-sex marriage. That includes, most especially, those of us who came of age when acceptance of same-sex relationships was the norm in our student environments and/or recognised the logical force of the argument decades ago. Logical coherence doesn’t usually carry the day in politics nor, I have to admit, should it necessarily. But here we see the power of ideology in political affairs, against those who suppose that politics is merely about balancing competing interests. It’s the ideology of marriage, which had changed enormously in the past two centuries. People like Andrew Sullivan recognised in the 1980s that people’s intuitive understanding of marriage, in Europe and its cultural confrères, had evolved to where it was actually quite hospitable to same-sex marriage. Those of us who felt little emotional attachment to marriage immediately recognised the coherence of this position, but assumed that it would take approximately forever to get over that emotional hurdle, at least everywhere but Holland.

And because I personally attached little weight to marriage, I was definitely among those who thought this an unpromising, because unnecessarily charged, ground to fight on for gay rights. I didn’t see what Sullivan saw, that marriage equality could be the linchpin of a coherent struggle that could overthrow the entire framework of homophobia.

The Nobel prize in mathematics

There was an interesting article in Der Spiegel about Angela Merkel’s visit to a Berlin secondary school as part of the the “EU-Projekttag”, a national day for teaching about the EU and its institutions. (No surprise that nothing like this happens in Britain.) This school has mostly Muslim immigrant children, and she found that instead of asking about the functions of the European Parliament the children wanted to tell her about discrimination in Germany.

Fatma, eine 15-jährige Jugendliche mit Kopftuch, klagt über Schwierigkeiten beim Praktikum im Kindergarten, weil die Eltern keine Erzieherinnen mit Kopftuch wollen. Das habe ihr Chef ihr gesagt. Ja ja, sagt Merkel, die inmitten der Schüler auf der Bühne Platz genommen hat, man kenne das Problem von Bewerbungen junger Menschen mit komplizierten, ausländisch klingenden Namen. “Viele glauben da nicht, dass jetzt gleich ein Nobelpreisträger in Mathematik um die Ecke kommt.”

[Fatma, a 15-year-old with head-scarf, complains about her difficulties in an internship in a kindergarten, because the parents don’t want a teacher with head-scarf. Her boss told her that. Yes, yes, says Merkel, who is sitting on the podium with the students, we know these problems, as with job applications from young people with complicated, foreign-sounding names. “Many people don’t think, this is a future Nobel-prize winner in mathematics coming around the corner.”]

Never mind this bizarre and nearly incomprehensible stream-of-consciousness from a major world leader asked an uncomfortable question by a 15-year-old. What is it about the chimeric Nobel prize in mathematics? Alfred Nobel established prizes in subjects that were related to the kind of practical science that he made his fortune with (chemistry and physics) and to the kind of selfless causes (medicine, literature, peace) that he hoped would blur the association of his name with weapons manufacture. There are lots of subjects that he did not create prizes in. Mathematics. Geology. Engineering. Astronomy. History. Cooking. No one thinks it odd that any of these subjects don’t have a Nobel prize, except mathematics. They think it so odd, that they either imagine that there actually is one, as above, or they invent outlandish stories to explain this lacuna, generally involving some mathematician — Gosta Magnus Mittag-Leffler, when he is given a name — running off with Nobel’s wife. (This story has the advantage of Mittag-Leffler actually having been Swedish, but the fact that Nobel never married is usually counted against its credibility.)

Losing sleep

One thing that surprised me when I moved to the UK was the lack of any significant paternity leave. It seemed peculiar, in this century, for the government to have a policy of making space for new parents to take care of their newborn children without losing their jobs, but to be insisting that the care must be provided by the mother. It seemed even more peculiar that otherwise progressive employers, that go beyond the statutory minimum in providing leave for new mothers, rarely seemed to extend any protection to fathers. (Oxford, in particular, provides on its own initiative leave for fathers who adopt a child, but not when a child is born.)

This has now changed. The government passed a shared parental leave law that now comes into effect. Not everyone is happy about it, though:

The Institute of Directors has previously warned the new law could create a “nightmare” for employers.

I’m not particularly prone to nightmares, but those I have had almost never involved men taking care of their infant children while the mothers returned to work. At least, not primarily. Perhaps a different cliché would have been more appropriate here.

As a sign of how much difficulty journalists have keeping the UK’s constitutional arrangements straight, the article concludes with

Parental leave is a devolved issue in Northern Ireland but the Northern Ireland Assembly passed a bill offering parents the same rights as in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Scotland didn’t even vote to secede, but it’s already forgotten…

Prenatal sex ratio

A paper that I’ve been involved with for a dozen years already has finally been published. We bring together multiple data sets to show that the primary sex ratio — the ratio of boys to girls conceived — is 1, or very close to 1. Consequently, the fact that more boys than girls are born — the ratio is about 1.06 pretty universally, except where selective abortion is involved — implies that there must be a period in the first trimester when female embryos are more likely to miscarry than male.

This is one of those things that is unsurprising if you’re not an expert. The experts had developed something close to a consensus, based on very little evidence, that the sex ratio at conception was much higher, some saying it’s has high as 2 (so that 2/3 of the conceptuses would be male), with excess female mortality throughout gestation. (We know that male mortality is higher in the second half of pregnancy, and after that… forever.)

The paper has its problems, but I think it’s a useful contribution. It’s also the first time I’ve been involved in research that is of any interest to the general public. Several publications have expressed interest, and an article has already appeared in two German magazines online, including the general news magazine Der Spiegel.

Update: Guardian too. This makes it interesting, in retrospect, that we had such a hard time getting a journal even to be willing to review it. One said it was too specialised.

14th Century NIMBYism

In Juliet Barker’s book on the Great Revolt of 1381 I was struck by this comment on the spread of local grammar schools in England in the second half of the 14th century:

Where there was no dedicated room or building available, classes were held in the local church. In 1373 the Bishop of Norwich prohibited this practice in the schools of King’s Lynn, on the grounds that the cries of beaten children interrupted services and distracted worshippers.

Nowadays the bishop and the local residents would have cited the shortage of parking… Continue reading “14th Century NIMBYism”

The government’s glass cliff

Numerous commentators recently have used the term “glass cliff” to describe the phenomenon whereby women finally get promoted to the top of an organisation after the all-male leadership has driven it into a crisis, so that the men get to benefit from the trust generated by such a conspicuous change, and also have a good scapegoat for the nearly inevitable failure.

I naturally thought of this when I read today’s reports on David Cameron’s cabinet reshuffle:

As shellshocked former ministers walked the corridors of Westminster on Monday night, there were the first signs of a backlash as the scale of the cull of middle-aged men became clear. “It’s the night of the long knives and that went really well last time,” one Tory said sarcastically, referring to Harold Macmillan’s* desperate attempt to shore up his government in 1962, when he sacked a third of his cabinet.


Tory sources have made clear that Cameron wants the “old lags” to move on to make way for women and younger men who will be promoted on the second day of the reshuffle on Tuesday. Esther McVey, the employment minister and former breakfast television presenter Truss, Nicky Morgan, the women’s minister, Amber Rudd, the whip, Anna Soubry, the defence minister, Priti Patel and Margot James, members of the No 10 policy board, are all expected to be promoted. This should take Cameron close to his target of ensuring that a third of his ministers are women.

You’d think Cameron had been trying and trying and trying to get women into his cabinet, and now, finally, with less than a year remaining in the parliament, has nearly accomplished the herculean task.

* It’s pretty funny that they explain the origin of this expression without referencing the Nazis. Though, apparently, the deeper origin of the expression is British after all, describing a massacre committed around the year 450 by Saxons against Roman Britons (described here, in German).

The long arm of the gay mafia

I was amused by the intimations that cropped up in reports on Brendan Eich’s dismissal as CEO of Mozilla that he had been (in the words of one comedian) “whacked by the gay mafia”. Now, the “X mafia” is a standard lazy joke, and the more nonviolent the image of the group whose mafia this is supposed to be the better the appeal to those whose livelihood depends on a steady stream of cheap laughs. But my first reaction was that for gay people to be accused of mafia tactics must be a marker of progress — people don’t like the mafia, but they respect its power! Surely the notion that gay people are too powerful would have been a difficult concept to formulate until very recently.

I was wrong, at least as regards the entertainment industry. In Terry Teachout’s fascinating new biography of Duke Ellington, Mercer Ellington is quoted as saying that his father was unconcerned about Billy Strayhorn’s homosexuality.

But Mercer also reports that Ellington believed in the existence of “a Faggot Mafia… He went on to recount how homosexuals hired their own kind whenever they could, and how, when they had achieved executive status, they maneuvred to keep straight guys out of the influential positions.”

“Buyer’s market”

When did the values of the market become a substitute for ethical standards? I found myself wondering this in reading this article in Inside Higher Education about a young philosophy PhD who was offered a tenure-track job at Nazareth College in New York, replied with an enthusiastic email attempting to start a negotiation about starting salary, sabbatical, maternity leave, and limited teaching in her first year. Although she made clear that she didn’t expect all of her requests to be possible, the university responded with a brusque retraction of the job offer. Now, the misogyny of philosophy departments is by now well established, but this smackdown of a young colleague who has just been selected as the best available for a job in your department, merely for making some requests, seemed shocking to me. Not to the commenters on the IHE blog, though, who may be supposed to be mainly higher education professionals. Some sample comments:

She has too many requests and this is always a sign that a person is going to be a pain in the *&*%. Her requests on balance are not unreasonable but she is in no position to ask for all of this — it is a buyer’s market. … Lots of great people to choose from so why saddle yourself with someone who is challenged right off the bat.

several substantial requests, the sum of which went beyond the pale for hat-in-hand applicants.

You just spent a semester narrowing hundreds (or more) candidates and arguing for this ONE person… only to have them forward THAT? Not exactly who I want to spend the rest of my career with (not to mention that the person clearly felt they were ‘playing with house money’ and could afford to lose the job offer… someone who REALLY wants the job wouldn’t risk that message).

(To be fair, some comments are supportive of the candidate, and others take on other issues.) What fascinate me in these responses are these references to a “buyer’s market” to which the presumably arrogant candidate should have meekly submitted, with the clear presumption that the logic of the market is proper and just. If you are in a powerful position, where you can take advantage of those unfortunate enough to have qualifications that are in high supply and low demand, then of course you should, and no one could be surprised if you do. It’s an argument that is rarely applied to those who are robbed at knifepoint by those stronger or more ruthless than themselves, but it does show up in certain comments on rape and on international relations. It’s the belief that power creates its own justification.

I am frequently reminded of Nietzsche’s remarks on markets in Die Fröhliche Wissenschaft (The Gay Science):

Kaufen und verkaufen gilt jetzt als gemein, wie die Kunst des Lesens und Schreibens; Jeder ist jetzt darin eingeübt, selbst wenn er kein Handelsmann ist, und übt sich noch an jedem Tage in dieser Technik: ganz wie ehemals, im Zeitalter der wilderen Menschheit, Jedermann Jäger war und sich Tag für Tag in der Technik der Jagd übte.

Buying and selling are common skills nowadays, like the art of reading and writing: Everyone is accomplished in it, even if he’s not a businessman, and practices every day, just as in earlier times, in the days of primitive man, everyone was a hunter, and practiced that skill every day.

One last point: The largest number of commenters fault the young scholar for her “tone”. Everyone knows, apparently, that you don’t put this sort of thing so baldly in an email, for God’s sake! Obviously they had no choice but to rescind the offer when she attacked them with an EMAIL that clearly laid out what she would like. This is pretty hilarious, given how much philosophers pride themselves on their ruthlessly direct style of academic disputation, with some of them arguing that the would-be philosophers with excessive numbers of X chromosomes can’t hack it.

Incomplete segregation by sex is un-British

There has been a slow-burning scandal around a government-funded Islamic school that seems to be too much Islamic and too little school. The report by the schools inspectorate Ofsted that has just made its way into the press sounds pretty disastrous, if not exactly Lord of the Flies: Inexperienced teachers, overcrowded facilities, low educational attainment. But what I found fascinating was what was considered scandalous, and triggered the inspection:

An Ofsted inspection had been due to take place by the end of the year, but was brought forward by two months after allegations that women teachers were obliged to wear headscarves and that pupils were segregated.


the Ofsted report says that boys and girls eat lunch in separate sittings, although it puts this down to the small size of the canteen. Older boys and girls are seated on either side of classrooms although younger children sit together.

It sounds like segregating boys and girls is a terrible thing, perhaps barely justified at lunchtime if there is not enough space in the canteen.

Unless they are segregated into completely separate school. Most independent schools, and hundreds of state schools, are single-sex.