Monday, July 20, 2015

Striving for excellence versus free speech

How free should our speech be?

In theory, we are all for free speech. In practice, we conform to restrictions and self-restrictions all the time, and impose restrictions on others. All parents I know start to impose restrictions on their children's speech practically from the moment the child starts talking. The process is long, and many of us, despite our efforts, are periodically called to unpleasant meetings with teachers because of our children exercising too much free speech at school.

Every system striving for excellence restricts free speech. An example is the school. Another, even better example is the business. Have you been badmouthed by a waiter? And if you are, will you endure it in silence for the sake of the waiter's right to free speech?

What is true for the waiter or cleaner is equally true for the CEO. Executives do not allow themselves free speech (read: adolescent talk), because it harms the business. It repels customers and gives the entire company a bad name. Personally, I cannot imagine any businessman saying anything of this sort:

"I am inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa because all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours - whereas all the testing says not really... Despite the desire that all human beings should be equal, people who have to deal with black employees find this not true."

These words belong to James Watson, Nobel Prize winner for the discovery of the DNA double helical structure. After the gaffe, he was forced to retire from the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory which he had founded. And I think this was right. While scientific institutions stay apart from the market, they must strive for excellence quite like the companies trying to survive at the market.

Last month, another Nobel Prize winner put his foot in his mouth: Tim Hunt, honored for his important discoveries in regulation of cell division. Talking at a lunch for female journalist and scientists in Seoul, he said:

It's strange that such a chauvinist monster like me has been asked to speak to women scientists. 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. Perhaps we should make separate labs for boys and girls? Now, seriously, I'm impressed by the economic development of Korea. And women scientists played, without doubt an important role in it. Science needs women, and you should do science, despite all the obstacles, and despite monsters like me."

For this, he was forced to resign from the University College London, where he had been Honorary Professor. And I think this was right. If a scientist not only harbors misogynist views but cannot keep them to a private, trusted circle of close friends, he must not hold any honorary position. Prof. Hunt damaged the reputation of his University and his country. I also suspect that, with these views and apparently nobody to criticize him through the years, Prof. Hunt has done a lot of damage to the "girls" to whom he has been superior, so his resignation was too little too late; still, better late than never.

I wasn't going to honor Prof. Hunt with a post, but Charles Steele, who disagrees with me and with whom we had a long discussion, suggested to me to write one. So this text owes its existence to him.


William Moulton said...


I read a post recently discussing freedom of speak versus truth. We all know they we should not yell "Fire" in a crowded theatre, unless of course there is a fire. In your examples the men expressed beliefs that were not politically correct, but more importantly were wrong in the scientific sense of wrong.

The problem is when political correctness tries to bury the truth.


Maya M said...

I admit it is true that males generally have better self-possession than females. I wonder to what degree this is biological (likely hormonal) vs. cultural. All cultures known to me require more self-control from men than from women. This said, when it is culturally acceptable for males to display emotions, they do. Look at Achilles after the death of Patroclus!

Charles N. Steele said...

I am finally getting around to commenting. There's a distinct difference between no putting up with a waiter's rudeness and restricting free speech. One has no obligation to sit and listen to the waiter, and leaving (or saying "shut up" or complaining to the manager) doesn't restrict the waiter's rights.

OTOH, political correctness, enforced by mob action magnified by social media, is a very dangerous thing. I am unsure Hunt's rights were violated, because presumably his employers can show they had cause and didn't violate his employment contract (or maybe not), but as you probably know mob campaigns of this sort can destroy free speech. The tragic and terrible case of Professor Andy Pessin is an example. See here and here.

Maya M said...

While remaining at my opinion that firing Tim Hunt was the right thing to do, I agree that this is a slippery slope, as the case of Prof. Pessin shows.
BTW, after I read Hunt's words in context in Wikipedia, I was surprised to see that he apparently knew what he was doing. He called himself "chauvinist monster". I guess that he was very unhappy with the feminization of modern science. Nobody likes this phenomenon, but some senior male scientists are so terrified by it that resort to stupid acts. The desire to bring to our Department some males at all costs motivated my former boss to appoint two useless, mentally unstable and antisocial individuals, one of whom still "works" with us.