On projected veracity and stupid statements

Projected veracity is a fascinating phenomenon that assumes truthfulness of one’s judgment on the basis of a notable prior accomplishment.

Today I came across the following piece, which documents offensive statements made by Dr. Tim Hunt, one of the winners of the 2001 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine. He talks about the need to separate women from men in research labs. I don’t want to retell this story because it is stupid, offensive, and not worth the energy I have to expend typing letters. The Royal Society is distancing itself from Dr. Hunt. He himself is regretting what he had said, and so on:

http://news.nationalpost.com/news/world/british-nobel-laureate-wants-sex-segregated-science-labs-because-women-cry-when-you-criticize-them

But, ladies and gentlemen, I see a bigger problem here. My issue is with something no one ever mentions, namely: it is preposterous that Nobel Laureates are considered oracles. Many of them are allowed to share their wisdom on things they have no expertise in. I am tired when the general public assigns immense value to everything that comes out of their mouths. Just because a small committee in Sweden decided to award a Nobel Prize to someone for a notable and well-deserved scientific accomplishment, does not mean that whatever comes out of his/her mouth is worth listening to or getting worked up about.

But, alas, I suppose this is how it is with our illiterate society: whenever there is an issue, people rush to seek an opinion of a Nobel Laureate as if it is worth anything beyond some fairly narrow domain of knowledge.

Some people would say about Dr. Hunt: “Boy, this is so bad… After all, he is the winner of the Nobel Prize…”. So? Just pause and think about it. There is nothing that tells me that an opinion of a Nobel Laureate other than his/her science is worth listening to. Just consider how many really odd scientists are out there. Scientists are weird: we have awkward social skills that often border on the Aspergers’ syndrome. Just because someone is exceptional in one thing does not mean he/she is a well-rounded, reasonable person. And – make no mistake about it: although the opinion of a Nobel Laureate outside of his/her area of expertise is only marginally interesting, the view that women are somehow less suited for science is unacceptable for any individual to have, whether they are a Nobel Laureate or not.

5 thoughts on “On projected veracity and stupid statements

  1. Yes, I was reading his comments, they were heartfelt if less-than brilliant, and meant to provoke, in which he succeeded.

    First, since he has been a PI and run a research group, I presume he can have a qualified opinion. You don’t have to agree with it, but you may at least consider it. (And privately, everyone is entitled to have whatever bias and prejudice he has).

    Second, I think Dr. Hunt has some good points: Dating within research group creates problems and should be discouraged, and from I did make a female colleague cry at least once (I asked her to leave our synthetic lab and come back only when she wears lab glasses, and she thought I was trying to impose on her or trying to get her fired. She did not realize that standing next to a big glass reactor full of boiling concentrated acid without glasses is a problem, and our biologists who hired her never wear glasses in the lab and she did not understand the difference between chemistry and biology, etc.), This was really unpleasant misunderstanding that almost got out of proportions. I got blamed for being an ogre even though I never raised my voice. This would not have happened with a guy.

    Third, there are issues specific to females of reproductive age working in synthetic labs. My mother used to work in the presidium of Czech academy of sciences, and in 80s they had the problem with maybe dozen of cases of newborns with deformities, born to lab technicians who worked during their pregnancy with unsaturated monomers and organic solvents. The government of course hushed it up, but since then there has been an unwritten rule in Prague against the pregnant chemists doing any synthetic work – they have been always transferred to non-lab assignments for the duration. So I was very surprised when I came to US, to a company where females in their 20s were doing large-volume peptide chemistry, semi-manually, with rudimentary safety protection, and there was no policy about pregnancy related matters. I though in this highly litigative society, it was only a matter of time before someone will have a malformed baby or a miscarriage, and ends up blaming the employer for it.

  2. Thanks a lot. I do think that everyone (you and I included) is entitled to have and voice an opinion. There is no question about that. My main point is actually much broader than the issue at stake and pertains to how opinions of people with significant accomplishment in one area all of a sudden make them experts elsewhere, which is nonsense.

  3. While agreeing with the whole point of separating scientific accomplishments from social skills, I want to point out that it is modern media, who create such “sensations” and paint them in black-white gamma. The craze about “raising awareness” on whatever “-ism” and discrimination is so overwhelming that people forget thinking rationally – they react automatically.
    There’s a good quote from other Nobel laureate, D. Kahneman (based on the actual experimental evidence) stating that “People who are cognitively busy are also more likely to make selfish choices, use sexist language, and make superficial judgments in social situations.”
    But no one would take time to think about Hunt’s words thoroughly, because the most straightforward explanation raising anger and shaming someone is all society needs to keep itself “aware”, right?

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