Sexism in Science? Deborah Blum’s Storify Falsely Reported Sir Tim Hunt
A key part of the case against Sir Tim Hunt has just fallen apart. The story is no longer sexism in science, but integrity in journalism. Just as Deborah Blum and MIT launch Undark, some sort of science journalism venture (excuse me for not being too excited; I’ve seen Blum’s journalistic standards at work close up) – a backer of hers in the Tim Hunt affair, a BBC producer called Sue Nelson, unwittingly blew Blum’s entire story apart.
On the 14th June, Deborah Blum struck back at poor Sir Tim’s attempts to tell the Observer newspaper he was joking. He’d had plenty of chances to explain himself in Seoul, she said. This was no stitch up. Journalists who were at that lunch had asked him about the incident, gave him a chance to clarify.
Journalists who were at
#timhunt lunch questioned him about his statements, gave him a chance to clarify. I asked him directly myself. 3/5
But after the first reports were proven by data to be false, Blum closed down and stopped answering questions. Which “journalists who were at the Tim Hunt lunch questioned him about his statements”? For Tim Hunt wasn’t a victim – no stitch-up here. Why, the sexist old snob simply refused to answer when the question was discussed! His bad faith, his unpleasant refusal to take responsibilty to journalists – all part and parcel of his victim-blaming mentality, we suppose. And so Deborah Blum, Board, WFSJ, reported that these journalists – at his lunch – had given Sir Tim a chance to clarify
@deborahblum lays it down
Said journalist Hannah Waters. Deborah Blum replied, with all the righteousness an ignored journalism
professor admin* at MIT could muster:
@hannahjwaters Yes, had just had enough. Thanks!
In her Daily Beast article, Deborah Blum referenced her storify, including this tweet, and she alluded to Tim Hunt’s nonanswers:
They also noted that although Hunt belatedly called his remarks an attempt at humor, he had earlier defended them as “trying to be honest.” (That was certainly what he said to me among others.)
Here Blum is not talking about the BBC interview, as she references it earlier (Sir Tim Hunt stated in terms on 10 June to the Guardian that “being honest” referred to his own love life and not to any view he held of women in science). No, she is referencing her linked Storify claim that “Journalists who were at the lunch asked him about the incident, gave him a chance to clarify.”
But when did this happen?
Journalists are meant to speak truth to power, not cover up for each other. With rare, honourable exceptions, that is what the WFSJ/WCSJ did. All those who agreed to dispute Deborah Blum’s account of the lunch were ordinary journalists in attendance – whereas so many of those who backed her, or kept silent, held key positions in the WFSJ (which they never declared when supporting her on Tim Hunt).
Blum went to ground, but obviously kept talking to her anti-Tim Hunt allies in the twittersphere privately. Especially, Deborah Blum would not give any details that could be fact-checked by other journalists. However, this week, the BBC producer Sue Nelson, a long-time defender of Hunt’s persecutors, gave the game away. It was worse than we all thought – Sir Tim Hunt had been asked about the incident at a session focusing on sexism in science!
And this session featured Deborah Blum of MIT, Cristine Russell of MIT, Valeria Roman of the MIT Knight Science programme, and Connie St. Louis! It was sponsored by MIT Knight Science Program!
Yes, even as women journalists discussed sexism in science, including Sir Tim Hunt’s “deadly serious” call for segregated labs, and “gave him a chance to clarify”, he, the sexist old fool, high-handedly ignored them and said nothing. Deborah Blum told this to her ally, Sue Nelson:
I understand he was asked next day at a talk to explain during a Q&A and didn’t respond.
Mary Collins, Sir Tim’s wife, told Nelson this was untrue. But Nelson replied:
A member of the panel he was on told me this. Will get name/time talk to clarify.
Professor Collins checked with Sir Tim:
I will then check with him, he says no.
But Sue Nelson was not having this. She doubled down, placing a decimal point before her tweet to Collins so that all of Twitter would see it, and asserted flatly:
And Professor Deborah Blum of MIT, and the Knight Science Writing program at MIT, organiser of the Sexism in Science session, sponsored by MIT, jumped in to validate this accusation:
That’s correct. Was raised by a journalist also in the audience.
Once again, Professor Collins tells them both they are flat wrong. Sir Tim Hunt was chairing the presentations of two actual female scientists, Drs. Laefer and Gabrys, at a paralell session for the ERC, while the MIT crew talked about ‘sexism in science’ at their session.
Instead of immediately backing down the BBC’s Sue Nelson insists her ‘eyewitnesses’ are right. Back to Deborah Blum:
Deborah was that the right session?
Blum says, again, with no prevarication or caveats:
Yes, that was the one. His appearance discussed by a number of journalists afterwards.
I know myself to be invested in the story of Sir Tim Hunt, and at this point I was almost shaking with adrenaline. Was it possible that Deborah Blum had misreported on Sir Tim Hunt from the very, very start? She left out of her joint CSL tweet, and her own tweets, the praise she later admitted Tim Hunt lavished on women scientists – admitting this only after Hunt had been fired from all his positions. So Deborah Blum’s partial quoting was already established. But had Ms. Blum, who spoke at that “sexism in science” panel – – under MIT auspices – simply reported falsely, on her own, and without checking, that Sir Tim Hunt was “given a chance to clarify” and “asked about it by journalists” when he was not there at all? As the session was on sexism in science, would not Sir Tim have looked aloof, stand-offish and just plain nasty for sitting there and refusing to comment or explain himself? Deborah Blum was angry – as she said herself. ‘Thanks, just had enough.’
Was Tim Hunt not where Deborah Blum said he was? Had she false reported from MIT’s own session?
Nelson said the revelations were a “damp squib” and that Hunt left his session and arrived late at the Sexism session. Deborah Blum favourited that tweet.
So I checked the metadata on competing session photos. The last of the sexism Q&A was timed 5:11. The last of the ERC session was timed at 4:27 – but that was before either Dr. Laefer or Dr. Gabrys began to speak. So, Sir Tim Hunt could have left their session early? I checked: Dr. Laefer told me had remained throughout. There were few questions but afterwards, as she said, spoke to each other and Sir Tim did an interview with a Kenyan journalist, then there was a conference dinner.
I asked the ERC if Sir Tim Hunt had left the session early and what time it finished. They replied in a statement:
The ERC hosted the session with Tim Hunt and two ERC grantees in Seoul on 9 June 2015 from 16:00 to 17:30. The session went according to the programme (https://www.wcsj2015.or.kr:447/wcsj2015/program/program.php#url). Tim Hunt opened this session and stayed until the end of it at 17:30.
I made a follow-up inquiry about the interview:
We can confirm that he had a short interview with a journalist after this session.
This fit exactly with what Sir Tim Hunt and Mary Collins were saying.
This then is the point – before I progress to some speculation. It is a simple fact that Sir Tim Hunt was not at the “Sexism in Science” session as Deborah Blum reported that he was. It is a fact that Deborah Blum inferred a refusal of Sir Tim to explain himself to “journalists”. It is a fact that she both believed and reported based on nothing other than gossip and rumour that Sir Tim Hunt refused to respond at that sexism in science panel. Remember, Deborah Blum replied “that is correct” to the following:
he was asked next day at a talk to explain during a Q&A and didn’t respond. Subject came up in next day’s science & sexism panel Q&A. Tim in audience. He did not respond.
Deborah Blum not only verified this account, which was in her original Storify of 14th of June, as a fact, she embellished it with more detail:
That’s correct. Was raised by a journalist also in the audience.
She also confirmed that it was indeed the “sexism in science” session and she again, as in her Storify of 14th June, went to un-checked, unverified, flat wrong, “witnesses” to prove her accusation:
Yes, that [Sexism in Science] was the one. His appearance discussed by a number of journalists afterwards.
So let us get this straight: Sir Tim Hunt was never there, Deborah Blum accused him falsely, her Storify was false, Hunt was never blanking journalists at a Sexism in Science session with his two persecutors herself and Connie St. Louis.
He. Wasn’t. There.
And there goes all the credibility of Deborah Blum’s Tim Hunt journalism. Positive proof she false reported, didn’t check, passed on rumours, and falsely accused a decent man based on her own confirmation bias. What value to place on any of Deborah Blum’s anonymous “witnesses” and unnamed backers? She didn’t check and published a complete lie.
What do the scientists at MIT think now?
Speculation on a Possible Source of the Tim Hunt Gossip
I can offer some pure speculation as to the source of this sloppiness, this false accusation by a BBC producer and an MIT/ Knight Science journalism professional. If indeed their story was not wholly invented, here is one possibility. I want to emphasise that if this guess is wrong it does not affect the truth of the story here – Deborah Blum falsely reported, without checks, against Sir Tim Hunt – as did Sue Nelson, a producer for the BBC – taking rumour as fact.
But, and again with a note that I label this as mere speculation – the scientist @Shubclimate on Twitter pointed me to some photographs of the WFSJ’s own Ron Winslow, a respected science journalist at the Wall Street Journal.
He appears to have been at the Tim Hunt lunch, where Sir Tim wore a plain blue shirt, and Mr. Winslow an Hawaiian shirt. The next day, Sir Tim wore an Hawaiian shirt all day long, and Mr. Winslow wore a blue one.
Above, Mr. Winslow, it has been suggested, at Sir Tim’s lunch. Sir Tim wore a plain blue shirt to the lunch, as we see below:
The next day, Mr. Winslow wore a plain blue shirt. This photograph was taken at lunchtime on the 9th:
Sir Tim, however, wore an Hawaiian shirt all day. I was looking for this distinctive shirt in photos of the “Sexism in Science” audience. I did not see it. But, at the very back of the “sexism in science” audience – as described by Sue Nelson who had discussed it with Blum – a man in a blue shirt with a hairline that looked like Mr. Winslow’s. Upon enlarging the photo, this man is wearing glasses.
I have emailed Mr. Winslow to ask if he attended the “Sexism in Science” session. He was organising the US/SF bid for WCSJ 2017 with Cristine Russell, of MIT, who was on the panel. And it certainly may not be him – no man may ever have “entered late” at all. Of course, if it is Mr. Winslow, he cannot be blamed for Deborah Blum’s false reporting. Until this week we did not know she referred to the sexism in science panel when she claimed “Journalists who were at #timhunt lunch asked him about his statements, gave him a chance to clarify.”
Whoever the man was – if there was a man – he didn’t answer any questions, or speak up, on the Tim Hunt lunch speech because he was not, in fact, Sir Tim Hunt.
As the debate about the dueling speaker sessions raged on, Deborah Blum finally stepped away from her assertions of fact about this – in late October, five months after she made this accusation against Sir Tim Hunt in her Storify. ‘I was at the front of the room and didnt see him. Lots of buzz at the back about him being there. All I know,’ Blum said to Professor Collins.
But that wasn’t what she said.
And it wasn’t what she reported.
And it wasn’t what she told us was true.
And MIT and the Knight Science Foundation’s staff, at their own session on “sexism in science”, simply misreported, as fact, that Sir Tim Hunt was there – he wasn’t. She reported as fact that “Journalists who were at
#timhunt lunch questioned him about his statements, gave him a chance to clarify.”
This was flat wrong. It was simply invented. And it imputed a terrible lack of engagement to Sir Tim Hunt that he would refuse this at a sexism in science session.
Whereas, the truth was, Sir Tim Hunt was at – you might say – a feminism in science session, where he stayed throughout the session presentations of two female recipients of Europe’s top research grant by two actual female scientists.
Ms. Blum is now involved in an MIT commercial initiative in science journalism called “Undark.” Will she “undark” her rumour-based misreporting about the Nobel prize winning, cancer-fighting biochemist, Sir Tim Hunt, 72, a lifelong ally of women in science?
Undark that one, MIT.
- correction – a commenter below points out that Blum was a Professor of Journalism T Wisconsin but at MIT is only an admin as a Director of the Knight Science Program. I am happy to spare MIT’s blushes in this respect. They have enough bad connections in the Tim Hunt story coming. This blog was first going to be about that, but then when I discovered “Schroedinger’s Tim Hunt” I could not bury the lede, even to examine the conflict of interest