On criticism

[Note: this post is unendorsed, for multiple reasons that I won’t go into right now. I’d take the post down, but that seems like cheating – I’d rather catalog and learn from my mistakes than hide them. In any case, I do still strongly believe in the last bit I wrote at the bottom: internet mob justice is a huge and growing problem, and we need to find some way of dealing with it.]

So, controversial opinion time I guess? In regards to the whole Tim Hunt/”girls in the lab” thing:

I don’t agree with Tim Hunt (obviously), but I believe in being charitable towards people even when I disagree with them. So what do I think he was trying to say?

Well, let’s look at it from his perspective. He was in charge of a lab for many decades. He probably saw an increase in the number of girls in his lab over that time. He probably also saw an increase in the number of people crying in response to criticisms he offered over that time. From his point of view, you can imagine how that might be a bad thing – he might feel as though he needs to be able to be brutally honest to budding scientists in order for them to properly develop as scientists. After all, science is all about putting your theories out there for criticism, and if you can’t handle that kind of criticism then you probably won’t be a good scientist.

So in general, he would be against people crying in response to criticism. Now, I want to emphasize here that I’ve seen both men and women cry in response to criticism – heck, I’ve cried in response to criticism many times before. But if we’re being honest, it doesn’t seem that unlikely that women cry more in response to criticism than men do, statistically speaking. Does anyone really disagree with that?

Now, does that mean women should be barred from the lab? Of course not! That’s completely ridiculous. But if crying due to criticism is bad, and more women cry than men, you could see how that would be relevant to Tim Hunt’s thought processes.

Personally, I think the lesson here should be that we need to do a much better job, societally speaking, of instilling a growth mindset in people whereby criticisms are not viewed as attacks on the self but rather as descriptions of one’s current (not permanent) set of abilities.

But I do find it more productive to view Tim Hunt’s comments from an “I would like to be able to criticize people” perspective than an “I hate women” perspective.

And as for the whole “girls distract boys in the lab” thing? Total bullshit. Tar and feather him all you want for that.

Edited to add: the above was originally posted as a facebook comment, which drew some critical comments (though fewer than I expected, actually). I responded to one, and I thought I’d on tack that response here as well:

Partly I wrote the above just to be contrarian, I admit. Plus I was bored on a friday. But also: I’m super super against internet mob justice in general. There’s a common pattern today where a) someone will say something offensive or awful, b) the internet will collectively respond by descending on them with the fury of a thousand suns, and then c) said person’s life ends up being ruined. And yes, usually whatever they said *was* really offensive or awful – but not awful enough that they deserve to have their life ruined. I really don’t like the idea of handing over the decision on the kinds of opinions that are acceptable to express in our society to “whoever on the internet can band together enough people to ruin the opinion-expresser’s life”. They may have gotten it right in this case, but they won’t always get it right, and that’s kind of a frightening prospect. This seems like a big problem to me, which will only get worse in the future. And while I have no idea how to stop it, pushing charitable readings of awful statements seems like the only thing I can do right now.


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