The Dark Ages Were Pretty Cool, I Guess


Note: There's a Game of Thrones spoiler toward the bottom of this post, though this post isn't really about Game of Thrones at all. But if you're going to get all whiny about spoilers, maybe hold off on reading this post until tomorrow.

Sir Tim Hunt is a Nobel laureate who knows more about science than literally anyone reading this blog post right now. The dude loves to science. And since society is about Teh Science now, thanks to Neil deGrasse Tyson, you'd think that Sir Tim would be kind of a hero, right?

Wow, you didn't think to ask if he's ever made a joke that someone found offensive, did you? SMDH.

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Sitting on a sofa with his wife, Hunt tries to explain why he made the remarks that got him into trouble while Collins groans in despair as he outlines his behaviour. Hunt had been invited to the world conference of science journalists in Seoul and had been asked to speak at a meeting about women in science. His brief remarks contained 39 words that have subsequently come to haunt him.

"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," he told delegates. …

Certainly the speed of the dispatch of Hunt – who won the 2001 Nobel prize in physiology for his work on cell division – from his various academic posts is startling. In many cases this was done without him even being asked for his version of events, he says. The story shows, if nothing else, that the world of science can be every bit as brutal as that of politics.

His treatment also demonstrates the innate cruelty of social media, and in particular the savage power of Twitter, which first revealed the scientist’s transgression. The tale also demonstrates how PR departments, in trying to protect the reputation of institutions, often do so at the expense of the individuals who work for or make up those bodies.

I couldn't help but be reminded of Matt Taylor, the awesome scientist who performed a feat that is so difficult—landing a probe on a comet hundreds of millions of miles away—it is practically impossible. Rather than being celebrated for his achievement, he was instead denounced. Why? Because he wore a bad shirt with bad pictures on it. And the puritans who populate social media and our newsrooms thought it was more worthy of their time to shame him to the point of tears than to celebrate a monumental human achievement.

I joked during the climactic scene of last night's Game of Thrones that at least Cersei didn't have to face Twitter. But I have a hard time thinking of a better cinematic metaphor for our debased culture of outrage than a person being stripped bare and paraded through the commons nude while a harridan stands behind her ringing a bell and shouting "SHAME! SHAME!" as the peasants pelt her with rotten fruit.

As a society, we prize mouthing pieties and avoiding heresies and ritually denouncing those who transgress against gods old and new more than we value actual achievement. We sacrifice our heretics and celebrate the pious in a manner little different from religious fundamentalists of old. The Neo Dark Age should be pretty fun, you guys.