Undark: How MIT’s Deborah Blum Misreported “Schroedinger’s” Tim Hunt

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 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

Boom, lays it down

Said journalist Hannah Waters. Deborah Blum replied, with all the righteousness an ignored journalism professor admin* at MIT could muster:

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!

Outrageous!

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:

. Subject came up in next day’s science & sexism panel Q&A. Tim in audience. He did not respond.

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.

winslow

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:

hunt jokes

 

The next day, Mr. Winslow wore a plain blue shirt. This photograph was taken at lunchtime on the 9th:

_MG_0766 (1)

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.

2-A_73

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 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

44 comments

  1. delphinium123 · October 29, 2015

    Breathtakingly good work.

  2. Isaac T. Quill (@TicklishQuill) · October 29, 2015

    So did TimHunt Teleport or not? His second Nobel depends on it!

    • Chris Westwood · October 29, 2015

      That’s not fair. You got that in while I spell checked mine.

  3. Chris Westwood · October 29, 2015

    This is a Nobel Prize for Blum. Quantum Entanglement not observed on this scale before. Blum will be carried shoulder high around MIT campus. With a bit of luck the physics department will fire her through double slits to see if she can go through both at the same time. Now let’s be serious, makes MIT look as dum as UCL
    .

    • Anonymous · October 29, 2015

      I agree. We’ve been quarking up the wrong tree as Hunt invented Tim Travel. (Louise Mensch from non logged in device, jokes ripped off twitter)

    • Chris Westwood · October 29, 2015

      Just realised: MIT was a land grant college, founded under the Merrill Act. That makes them AGGIES. You have to be an English, All American College boy to understand that one. They should make the journalist school wear weenie hats.

  4. If this article was rewritten in an less arch style it would make its case more effectively. Reads like a hasty first draft.

    • Anonymous · October 29, 2015

      Yes the “style” of the article is the important thing to consider here.

      • keikoinboston · October 29, 2015

        Style is very important in writing. It’s the difference between being able to make your case to a wide range of people or preaching to the choir. I’m sure the choice was intentional but it does limit the readership by whom it will be accepted, even if the fact-checking is flawless (which it wasn’t – as I said in my other comment, Deborah Blum is not a “journalism professor at MIT” – she’s an administrator).

    • louisemensch · October 29, 2015

      If this artice were written….

      “If” takes the subjunctive.

    • Richard Jowsey · October 29, 2015

      Never mind the style, feel the BURN.

  5. Tom · October 29, 2015

    Just how does one adequately apologise for destroying a man’s reputation based on nothing more than misidentification, guesswork and lies?

    • Fred Wyropiquet · October 30, 2015

      Profusely, loudly, at length, and, inevitably, inadequately.

  6. Tom Shadowrama · October 29, 2015

    Perhaps Ron Winslow, changed his shirt, swapped his name tag and stood in for Tim at the ERC session, while Tim pretended to be Winslow, incognito, at the “Sexism & Science Writing” session – to see what all the fuss was about – a cunning plan?

    • Hairsplitter · October 30, 2015

      Glad we got that sorted out.

  7. Paul Marker · October 29, 2015

    I have no Idea who Louise Mensch is but she seems to be able to follow a line of fact and logic. Makes this lady someone to be feared. I am glad a pitbull like this is on the case.

    • Chris Westwood · October 30, 2015

      We need her back in the UK as an MP.

  8. Chris · October 29, 2015

    Not your biggest fan Louise but massive kudos for this work.
    Journalism uncovers shoddy journalism – one suspects you have a thick enough skin to ignore the “first draft” fuckwittery.
    Not all the damage can be undone, but you have certainly done your bit.

  9. Tom Shadowrama · October 29, 2015

    I’ve just seen “tim hunt: Before The Witch-Hunt” – really moving and fun, wonderful.

    Tim’s previous critics said: “Wild speculation based on faulty logic”. Hmmm, but that’s quite common, right?

  10. Fred Wyropiquet · October 29, 2015

    I’m not surprised at the sloppiness of this bunch of pretend reporters, not after all that has emerged up to now, but I’m astounded at the brazenness with which they are clinging on to their lies. Perhaps it’s simply that they have gone too far and an apology at this so very late stage would force a career change for them. Despite the present support for them in some quarters there will come a point when their colleagues find it simpler to pretend they don’t exist – less embarrassing that way. If they really are too cowardly to apologise perhaps they need to look for a new career before that happens.

  11. keikoinboston · October 29, 2015

    “Said journalist Hannah Waters. Deborah Blum replied, with all the righteousness an ignored journalism professor at MIT could muster:”

    “And Professor Deborah Blum of MIT,”

    Small quibble: Deborah Blum is NOT a professor at MIT. “Professor” has a very specific meaning in American academia in general and MIT in particular (I used to work there). According to MIT’s directory, her title is listed as “Director, Knight Science Journalism Program”, indicating that is an administrator. She is also listed this way on the KSJ page. If she were actually a professor it would be included in her title. She is not listed as teaching any classes in this year’s course catalogue. http://student.mit.edu/catalog/index.cgi

    The job description does apparently include some teaching, but that is not the same thing as being a professor at MIT. Adjunct faculty are also not professors, they are “lecturers”.
    https://chroniclevitae.com/jobs/0000827476-01

    A friend was asking me about the debacle and I said the bottomline is that men in STEM ought not to crack sexist jokes, even self-depricating ones, that could be misconstrued or misrepresented because with social media your career can be gone in 12 hours while you fly home. Also, be careful what you tweet. You never know when your tweets will go viral and you’ll be responsible for wrecking your own career (see: Justine Sacco) or someone else’s.

    • louisemensch · October 29, 2015

      Well, they “ought not” to crack them because people may lie about them.
      I am with Falstaff; “Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?”
      The Malvolios of this world triumph temporarily, but not permanently. I will resist the humourectomy with all my might, and the “right” to lie about a good man in order to send a virtue signal.

    • Lanre · October 30, 2015

      I’m confused, you said it was a small quibble but it’s all you’ve written about. What about the actual story she’s reported on?

      • keikoinboston · October 30, 2015

        Yes, it’s a small quibble because it’s the only thing I found wrong in the piece. I figured that since she is calling Blum out for errors in reporting that she would appreciate the correction. She is attributing a position to Blum that she doesn’t hold. I wrote about it at length to explain why it’s inaccurate since she’s clearly unfamiliar with what these positions mean at MIT.

      • louisemensch · October 30, 2015

        yes, I will correct later thank you – no need for MIT reputation to be besmirched any further than it need to be

    • Shub Niggurath · October 30, 2015

      Keiko, Blum was a professor of journalism at Wisconsin. She didn’t come to MIT to be a clerk.

      ‘Don’t make jokes about sexism. We will ruin your career’ is the message this Professor of MIT wants to send.

      • keikoinboston · October 30, 2015

        Louise didn’t call Blum a “former professor of journalism at Wisconsin”, she called her a “professor at MIT” which she is not. Did you read the job description? The majority of it is administrative duties, not teaching duties.

      • louisemensch · October 31, 2015

        I think Keiko point perfectly fair and wants to protect reputation of MIT as not giving somebody so sloppy a professorship which is fair enough. The MIT article won’t be a good one and it is coming.

    • louisemensch · October 30, 2015

      Question for you,

      does it make difference if they are professors? I plan to do MIT piece later feat the other MIT protagonists. Thomas Levenson is a prof right? what about the knight science fellows – are they mit academics, or glorified students?

      • keikoinboston · October 30, 2015

        Tom Levenson is a professor in the Comparative Media Studies program. He also has administrative responsibilities as the Director of the Graduate Program in Science Writing.
        http://cmsw.mit.edu/people/faculty/
        http://sciwrite.mit.edu/faculty

        The Knight Science Journalism program offers fellowships to working journalists. https://ksj.mit.edu/ I wouldn’t characterize them as either MIT academics or glorified students. Fellows are a category unto themselves (as they are at any institution). The program is something of an anomaly at MIT and doesn’t fit into the university structure neatly. Blum may consider herself an academic but reading the job description it reads to me as primarily administrative. It’s not all paper pushing since there’s also teaching and mentoring involved but her job is to primarily run the program, not teach the classes. Otherwise, her title would be professor. Of course job descriptions often don’t encompass everything one does in the position but her title makes it clear that she’s an administrator. Does that help?

      • keikoinboston · October 30, 2015

        I forgot to say that Levenson is a full tenured professor (as opposed to associate and assistant professor which are more junior positions).

        As for Blum it only matters because you’ve attributed a position to her that she doesn’t hold. Tenured and tenure-track faculty positions are very prestigious. Once you have tenure in the US, you pretty much can’t be fired. Administrators don’t have the same level of job security.

    • louisemensch · October 31, 2015

      Reply is for Keiko, comments below, it won’t let me nest – thanks re knight science. very helpful because the evidence against them is appalling – against the MIT folks. Levenson has tenure and he will be glad he does by the time I am done

      • keikoinboston · October 31, 2015

        You’re welcome. I forgot to say this earlier – I know it came up on Twitter some time ago from @franklin_e. As far as I can tell from looking at the various titles and department/program websites, Blum & Levenson are colleagues, not in a boss/subordinate relationship. Which may or may not change any conflict of interest issues as you see them.

        “I think Keiko point perfectly fair and wants to protect reputation of MIT as not giving somebody so sloppy a professorship which is fair enough.”

        Well, someone thought enough of her to give her the director position, though I don’t know who that would have been. At that level there was likely a search committee though possibly someone fairly high up may have had the final say. I believe that usually for administrative positions it’s other administrators responsible for the hiring though they may well have had faculty on the search committee but who knows. Search committees for faculty positions (professors and lecturers) are usually comprised of faculty and sometimes an administrator.

        The bar is much higher to get a faculty position at MIT than for an administrator, though it may depend on what type of administrator (obviously the higher up, the higher the bar). I believe for a tenure-track position you must have a doctoral degree. This is not the case for all lecturers and certainly not the case for all administrators. As you could see there was no such requirement in the KSJ director job description since it’s not common for journalists to have a PhD and not really necessary to be a good administrator.

  12. Chris Westwood · October 29, 2015

    Has BBC’s sciencenelson commented on this? I think we can conclude that her team is responsible for maintaining the CSL video clip on the BBC web.

    • louisemensch · October 29, 2015

      I don’t think so, can’t attrivute that to her at all without some proof

  13. benjaminhuish · October 31, 2015

    Hurrah! If this isn’t the final nail, and all the right people don’t fess up to their error’s then I think this is a case for libel action. Someone set up a funding page!

  14. Chris Westwood · October 31, 2015

    Have you seen the clips of Tim Hunt appearing all over the place. Obviously inspired by the work Louise has done here. They are hilarious. Whoever is doing them please also try the following:

    Behind Blum receiving her Pulitzer Price.
    Behind the UCL procter on graduation days
    Behind CSL giving her lecture to an empty audience.
    And just about any embarrassing picture with Frith, Bishop or Colquohoun.

    • Anonymoos · November 1, 2015

      No, can you link to them?

      • Chris Westwood · November 2, 2015

        They were all Twitter postings. I am not on Twitter, but one of the guys in the pub found them. I cannot find them. Perhaps Louise can link one for us. They are hilarious, showing Tim Hunt all over the place at the same time. We need much more of this. The other side have no humour. Just laugh at them.

  15. Pingback: Why should the Tim Hunt saga matter to an everyday Brit? - UK Rants
  16. Henry · November 5, 2015

    I sense a certain slowness from Blum & Nelson in admitting how wrong they were. One wonders if they will ever apologise, or if they care at all..

    This story, unfortunately, doesn’t reflect well on certain people – it is entirely correct that their actions be held up for all to see. They want to join a kind of internet “lynch mob”, and then imagine they are not responsible for anything when Tim Hunt loses jobs & reputation

    I have to say that what you’ve done is brilliant, Louise. You’ve not only done a good thing, you’ve done the research that journalists and twitter-hashtag-fury crowd couldn’t be bothered to do.

    Well done.

  17. zaidun · March 9, 2016

    thanks for information 😀

  18. Andreas Newberry · August 10

    The Pig, if I am not mistaken, Gives us ham and pork and Bacon. Let others think his heart is big, I think it stupid of the Pig.

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