Hopefully the Tim Hunt affair will go down in history as an injustice done to an innocent man. Hopefully, it will be one of the cases that caused us to rethink the use of social media to shame and ridicule people for acts they did not carry out, or views they do not hold. But I'm not sure that the real blame lies with an imperfect medium, or even the people who use it, whether innocently or cynically, to promote social change.
To me, Tim Hunt was a false positive in the "overdiagnosis" of sexism. But overdiagnosis does not result from individual failures to correctly identify an otherwise real ailment. Overdiagnosis is a systemic problem that results from collective pressures and the institutional failure to push back against them.
Jon Ronson has made a compelling case against initiating and participating in social media shaming mobs. In a certain sense, he's trying to instill a sense of shame in the shamers. That certainly seems like a much-needed corrective. But there's an important moment in his TED talk when the victim's "employer got involved". The prospect of firing someone who has said something offensive energized the mob, and made a spectacle of the whole affair.
The employer could have said something more protective of their employee. Something like, "We don't hire racists and we assume that her remark was misunderstood." Perhaps even something courageous like, "We don't fire people at the say-so of an irrational mob." But they didn't. Instead, they participated in the mob.
One of the events that Tim Hunt had to miss this year was the Lindau Meeting of Nobel laureates. At a panel on "Communication Overkill", his case was discussed with some concern (see this video at 1:16:00 to 1:24:00). Torsten Wiesel raised the question of whether the community should not have done more to stand by Hunt in his time of trouble. Brian Schmidt rightly pointed out that the only protections scientists really have against the irrational shaming of the Internet are strong, real-world institutions that "stick by their values".
There is, indeed, nothing one can do about the rage of the mob except to seek shelter from the storm until it blows over. It is our institutions that provide such shelter. At Lindau, Adam Smith pointed out that the Tim Hunt case "highlights the dangerous environment that everyone inhabits". Given what happened, one could forgive scientists if they were "discouraged from getting out in front of the press and saying anything at all." This fear among scientists is not a good outcome.
At the World Conference of Science Journalists, Tim Hunt was in a place where he could not* speak freely. He had stepped into a "dangerous environment" where off-the-cuff remarks are connected directly to the irrationality of the mob. We cannot expect merely responsible journalism and the consciences of individuals on social media to prevent another Tim Hunt debacle. There will always be mobs to incite and hacks to incite them. But we should be able to expect the universities that we associate with to grant us a fair hearing.
I think the solution lies in strengthening our institutions to make social media as harmless as, well, extemporaneous speech. What is really shameful is that an almost 200 year-old institution like UCL took three minutes of improvised remarks and their spread through a 140-character rumor mill so seriously.
*Update 31/12/15: The word "not" had been left out in the original version.