Tim Hunt's Witch Hunt

Nobel Prizewinning scientist Tim Hunt joked that men and women in the same lab tend to fall in love, and that tends to get in the way of their work. He also said that when female lab workers get criticized, they tend to cry.

As a result of this criticism, women cried, and Mr. Hunt resigned within days.


Was Mr. Hunt wrong? I once told a female friend about a program I created called Equations of Peace, aimed at helping girls in conflict areas study math. My friend thought that I didn't know enough to create such a program. When I defended my decision, she started to cry. I've never personally seen a man cry who wasn't cradling his dead son.

Women do cry. Feminist role-model Sheryl Sandberg herself said, "I've cried at work." But it was Mr. Hunt who was Bunsen-burned at the stake.


By contrast, the Globe and Mail newspaper recently published an essay espousing the "Male Idiot Theory," stating that men are more likely than women to risk life and limb. No men cried as a result, to my knowledge, nor did they call for the female author's head.

(Incidentally, one could formulate another "MIT" theory: When I was a visiting associate professor of applied mathematics at MIT, I recall only one female professor compared to dozens of male ones. Moreover, the Male Idiot Theory ignores the men who, on the same impulse, rush into burning buildings to save women; who mine, like my co-author's grandfathers, the coal that makes our civilization run; and who drop out of college to create the computer companies whose software feminist writers use to call men idiots.)

Feminists also lambasted Mr. Hunt for using the word "girls," but the feminists who scoff at that term worship at the altar of Lena Dunham, whose hit television show is called "Girls." This hypocrisy reminds us of the uproar over the European Union's attempt to attract more girls to science, a program called "Science: It's a Girl Thing!" Its promotional video "featured sexist cliches including high heels and lipsticks," according to The Guardian newspaper — as if women don't wear high heels or lipstick.

Mr. Hunt's joke finished with his suggesting sex-segregated scientific spaces, which everyone had to pretend was outrageous; but how does one then explain that the "Denver Museum of Nature & Science [is] excited to host a Girls and Science event … where girls will meet women scientists"?

There was a related furor last year when Mattel pulled the book, Barbie: I Can Be a Computer Engineer, because, in it, Barbie asks two boys for help. (Gasp!) Never mind that only 15 percent of techies in Silicon Valley are female, so the probability that Barbie would randomly meet two women in tech is less than 3 percent. (Trust me: I'm a mathematician.) It seems as if feminists want Barbie to exist in a sex-segregated space.

Those leading the witch hunt twisted what Mr. Hunt was saying into "girls can't do science," and cited Marie Curie to prove him wrong. But if that Nobel laureate in physics and chemistry thought the way today's feminists think, there would have been no Marie Curie, because Marie Sk¿odowska would have sued Pierre Curie for sexual harassment the first time he asked her out for coffee in an elevator.

Even if what Mr. Hunt said was wrong, there must be room for redemption. James Watson, another Nobel Prize winning scientist, became an "unperson" after making comments about inherent intelligence that some called "racist." But after having lunch with Professor Watson and his wife, I concluded that whatever he is, there should be more like him. Give the man back his job. (Full disclosure: He paid for lunch. And I'm black.)

In conclusion, Mr. Hunt spoke lightheartedly about an age-old problem: How can the sexes work together without romance occasionally blossoming? When it does, problems can arise, as emotions collide with professional ideals. The suggestion about segregation was not meant seriously, it seemed. He was just saying there is no solution to this difficulty, except to try to be sensible and mature about it, not to rush into ill-considered "solutions," like penalizing all such romances.


As if it heard the uproar on Earth, the probe a team of British scientists led by Matt Taylor — widely lambasted for wearing a shirt with scantily clad women on it — landed on a comet came back to life this month. Its message? Science doesn't care about your social politics.

The critics of Messrs. Hunt, Taylor and Watson should consider what advances they're derailing along with their targets' careers. We should not have to choose between women's liberation and the liberation of all mankind.

Baltimore resident Jonathan David Farley is the co-founder of Girls Equal Math. His email is Professor Colin McGinn contributed to this article; he is the subject of the New York Times article, "A Star Philosopher Falls, and a Debate Over Sexism Is Set Off."