4 Times Our Best Scientific Minds Have Said Sexist, Racist Things


Tim Hunt, a biochemist who won the Nobel Prize in 2001, is stepping down from his post at University College London after he suggested that science labs might do well to divide the sexes. The reasons, Hunt noted while speaking at the World Conference of Science Journalists earlier this week, is because of the “trouble with girls.” In what appears to have been an attempt at a bit of joke, Hunt said, "Three things happen when they are in the lab: you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticize them, they cry."

Hunt, who seemed surprised no one laughed, and who really should consider hitting the road with Jerry Seinfeld, isn’t the first scientist to say a dumb thing and he won’t be the last. (It wasn’t even the last dumb thing he said; just yesterday, in a terribly misguided effort to help himself out, he stated he was “just trying to be honest" and that he "did mean the part about having trouble with girls.")

Studies show gender and other forms of bias are real things in science, and even big-brained scientists succumb to them. Here’s a quick look at a few other scientists who said and/or did some really dumb things. (For the record, I’m keeping this relatively recent, because if I started quoting “scientists” from early last century, we’d be here all day.)

1. Richard Feynman: The late theoretical physicist and winner of the 1965 Nobel Prize in Physics, Feynman also managed to find time to write a book titled Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! In it, Feynman says his first lesson was to never approach girls in bars until he was absolutely sure they would sleep with him. “I adopted the attitude that those bar girls are all bitches, that they aren’t worth anything, and all they’re in there for is to get you to buy them a drink, and they’re not going to give you a goddamn thing; I’m not going to be a gentleman to such worthless bitches, and so on. I learned it till it was automatic.”

When, after buying a woman a sandwich, Feynman realized he wasn’t going to get laid, he basically lost it, calling her a whore. In his own words:

“I stop suddenly and I say to her, You… are worse than a WHORE!"

“Whaddya mean?”

‘“You got me to buy these sandwiches, and what am I going to get for it? Nothing!”

Richard Feynman: Early Pickup Artist and negger extraordinaire.

2. James Watson: A co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, and the winner of the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, James Watson is a bit of a slot machine of racism, sexism and homophobia. Per Wikipedia, here are just a few quotes:

  • 1997: "If you could find the gene which determines sexuality and a woman decides she doesn't want a homosexual child, well, let her."
  • 2000: "Whenever you interview fat people, you feel bad, because you know you're not going to hire them."
  • 2000: "People say it would be terrible if we made all girls pretty. I think it would be great."
  • 2007: "[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." And on the issue of equality, "people who have to deal with black employees find this not true.”

Later, Watson complained that his remarks over the years had resulted in him going broke and being treated as an “unperson.” (Not every scientist is also a master of irony, apparently.) He put his Nobel Prize on the market, and a Russian billionaire bought it for $4.1 million, though he allowed Watson to keep the prize.

3. Matt Taylor: An astrophysicist who was the project scientist for the Rosetta probe, Taylor was tasked with speaking on television about the space craft’s progress late last year. So far, all good. The problem arose when people got a gander at Taylor’s shirt, a bowling style button-down decorated with scantily clad pinup girls carrying machine guns. Was it typical of the sort of thing you’d see on a guy who loves Cannibal Corpse and has full tattoo sleeves; a guy like Taylor, who literally fits the description I just gave? Yes, yes it was. Was it probably not the wisest thing to wear on television? Nope. Did Taylor really not help matters by apparently saying about the spacecraft, “She’s sexy, but I never said she was easy”? Uh, yeah, not helping. Does this give you a sense of the kind of annoying microaggressions women in science deal with all the time? Absolutely. Do I think that Taylor, who literally broke down in tears during his apology for the shirt, and who said, “I made a big mistake and I offended many people and I am very sorry about this,” and who actually seemed to take the whole thing very seriously and mean it, deserves a thousand times more credit than so many people on this list and seems to be at least paying attention and learning and that counts for something? I do, actually.

4. Lawrence Summers: Okay, so I know Summers isn’t actually a scientist, he's an economist, former Clinton Treasury Secretary, and at the time of the remarks that ensured he’ll always ends up on lists like this, president of Harvard University. (Though his remarks do say a tremendous amount about the biases women face in the sciences.) At the 2005 Conference on Diversifying the Science & Engineering Workforce, Summers presented a few hypotheses on why there were so few women in STEM fields. These were, basically, in order of what Summers considered relative importance: 1) women can’t put in the hours because they have babies and husbands to take care of; 2) genetics makes math harder for girls; and 3) maybe gender bias as a dissuading factor?

Summers not only went over like a lead balloon with the women in the audience, but once his remarks got out, rightly was taken to task in the press. He resigned from Harvard in 2006, got into hedge fund management not long after, and is now reportedly worth several tens of millions of dollars.

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