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The Timothy Hunt Witch Hunt (Commentary Sept. 2015)

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What Really Happened in the Tim Hunt Affair and Why It Matters

In 1983, the British biochemist Timothy Hunt discovered cyclins, a family of proteins that help regulate the life of cells. Eighteen years later, in 2001, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine. Between June 8 and June 10 of this year, the 72-year-old Hunt went from being a universally respected and even beloved figure at the top of the scientific establishment to an instant pariah, condemned everywhere for antiquated opinions about women’s role in science that he does not, in fact, hold.

In only 48 hours, he found himself compelled to resign his positions at University College London and at the august Royal Society (where Isaac Newton and Robert Hooke once fought petty battles) after being told that failure to do so would lead to his outright firing.

The Timothy Hunt affair represents more than the gratuitous eye-blink ruination of a great man’s reputation and career. It demonstrates the danger of the extraordinary, almost worshipful deference that academia, government institutions, and above all the mainstream media now accord to social media. It is yet more evidence of the way moral panic and (virtual) mob rule can be accelerated and intensified by the minimalism of Twitter, with its 140-character posts and its apparently inherent tendency to encourage snap judgments, prejudice, and cruelty.

Fortunately, the story did not end on June 10. In the weeks following the initial assault, some of Hunt’s most ardent persecutors have been exposed as liars or blinkered ideologues, abetted by cynical hacks and academic rivals on a quest to bring him down or use him as grist to a political mill. Hunt’s partial rehabilitation has largely come about thanks to the dogged investigations of Louise Mensch, the British novelist and former conservative member of parliament who lives in New York City and is herself a powerful presence on Twitter. Mensch was alarmed by what she calls ‘the ugly combination of bullying and sanctimony” in the reaction to remarks made by “an evidently sweet and kind” older man.

She did some checking on Twitter and soon found that the two main witnesses for the prosecution contradicted each other. Then she began a more thorough investigation of Hunt’s offending comments and the lack of due process involved in his punishment by various academic and media institutions. The results of her exhaustive research, published on her blog,, encouraged an existing groundswell of support for Hunt from scientists around the world but most important from Hunt’s own female colleagues and former students.

As a result, the false picture of Hunt as a misogynist opposed to the equal participation of women in science has mostly been dispelled. Hunt, who is married to a distinguished immunologist named Mary Collins, has ceased being the science academy’s equivalent of George Orwell’s Emmanuel Goldstein—the object of the Two Minutes Hate in 1984—on Twitter. Indeed, one of the Britain’s most respected female scientists, Dame Athene Donald, master of Churchill College, Cambridge, has publicly lamented the wrecking of Hunt’s reputation by “sloppy journalism fueled by self-righteous fervor.”
Nevertheless various senior figures continue to insist that whether or not Hunt’s remarks were jokes or correctly reported, he is deservedly a symbol of the sexism that allegedly pervades science. At the time of this writing, moreover, he has not been restored to the positions from which he was expelled or forced to resign.

On June 8, Hunt was in Seoul to give the opening lecture at the World Conference of Science Journalists. He was also invited to give an informal toast at a luncheon sponsored by the Korea Federation of Women’s Science and Technology Associations. It was this toast—or rather the way it was reported and reacted to—that led to his disgrace.
Speaking for fewer than five minutes, Hunt praised female scientists with whom he has worked, and then he said this:

It’s strange that 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 criticize them, they cry. Perhaps we should make separate labs for boys and girls.

It is not clear whether Hunt had already mentioned that he and his wife met and fell in love when they were working in his lab, or whether he assumed that everyone in the room was aware of this fact and therefore the context of the remark. Hunt continued: “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 the obstacles and despite monsters like me!”

A few hours after the lunch, a British science journalist named Connie St. Louis sent out a tweet to her followers that read:

Nobel scientist Tim Hunt FRS says at Korean women lunch “I’m a chauvinist and keep ‘girls’ single lab.

Beneath the tweet was a photograph of Hunt and more text by St. Louis: “lunch today sponsored by powerful role model Korean female scientists and engineers. Utterly ruined by sexist speaker Tim Hunt FRS.” (The FRS stands for “Fellow of the Royal Society.”) She went on to give an account of the “trouble with girls” speech that left out his “now seriously” verbal transition and praise of women in science and implied that Hunt was seriously advocating sex-segregated labs.

Shared more than 600 times, the St. Louis tweet ignited a combined Internet, social-media, and then print-media firestorm with astonishing speed. Her observations were repeated in news bulletins across the world. But as has happened before when such Twitter posses gather,1 Hunt himself became aware of it only when the BBC called him as he was about to board a plane to London.

While he was on the flight, the dean of life sciences at University College, London, telephoned his wife—herself a full professor at the school—to say that if Hunt did not immediately resign, he would be fired. No one at University College had even tried to get his side of the story or any independent confirmation of the incident described by Connie St. Louis. On the contrary, two of Hunt’s colleagues had started lobbying against him as soon as they saw the tweets. One of them, Dorothy Bishop, sent this message to the Dean on June 9: “Could we ask that he not be on any appointments or promotions committee given his views.” Another, David Colquhoun, started a Twitter hashtag called #Huntgate and called for Hunt to be expelled from the Royal Society as well as University College. And in short order Hunt was indeed made to resign from the Royal Society’s awards committee and the European Research Commission.

Although St. Louis was the primary author of Hunt’s destruction, she had a pair of allies with whom she apparently plotted his takedown while in Seoul.2 They were her friends Deborah Blum and Ivan Oransky. Blum, a professor of journalism at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and occasional New York Times columnist, took to Twitter right away to back up her old friend, insisting that Hunt never praised women in science during his toast, that he was not joking when calling for segregated labs, and that his remarks had caused great offense to his hosts.

The first website stories about Hunt’s alleged faux pas appeared on June 9. All of them were based on St. Louis’s tweets; none included a response from Hunt himself or comments from the organizers of the event. A Google news headline proclaimed: “Nobel prizewinner Tim Hunt says women should be banned from labs.” Some of the most influential stories modified his reported words to make them sound worse. One such piece by Brandy Zadrozny in the Daily Beast was entitled “Nobel Prize-Winning Biologist Calls Women Love-Hungry Crybabies.” It began: “Lady scientists: they’re always falling in love and crying about it. Amiright? So says important man of science, knighted and Nobel Prize–winning biologist Sir Tim Hunt.”
According to Zadrozny, Hunt’s words were symptomatic of a wider problem: “The biologist who called female scientists ‘girls’ who fell in love with him then berated them for crying too much isn’t an outlier. For females in the science world, sexism is the norm.”

Neither Zadrozny nor her editors at the Beast seem to have noticed that Hunt had spoken of male scientists as “boys” in the same passage, rather undermining the notion that his use of the word “girls” was prima facie evidence of sexism.

Buzzfeed ran a story the same day entitled “Nobel prizewinner makes shockingly sexist remarks at journalist meeting.” The writer, Cat Ferguson, reported that Hunt had said that “labs should be segregated by sex.”

Both Ferguson and Zadrozny added a new element to the case against Hunt, claiming that he had also condescendingly thanked women scientists for “making the lunch.” St. Louis later repeated this additional charge in an interview with the BBC. But it was eventually revealed, thanks to the efforts of Louise Mensch, that Hunt never said anything of the kind. In fact the allegedly offensive expression of gratitude had been delivered by a leading Korean—female—politician who stood up before Hunt.

Like most of the science journalists who covered Hunt’s solecism, Zadrozny and Ferguson were content to rely on a handful of tweets as the only evidence in an obviously controversial story. Sadly, the Hunt affair provides ample ammunition for those who believe Internet reporters are a tribe of third-raters with little or no ethical standards or training in Journalism 101.

But there’s another explanation for the fact that reporters such as Zadrozny and Ferguson felt no obligation to verify the facts of the case or do any old-fashioned reporting. In their cases, the temptation to cut journalistic corners may have been overwhelming. That’s because for anyone with an ax to grind about gender equality or sexism in science, this was one of those stories that the tabloids used to label (jestingly for the most part) “too good to check.”

For politically committed editors and reporters, a story that is too good to check is one that perfectly confirms their suspicions and prejudices about those they consider the enemy. It’s a phenomenon that exists on the right as well as the left—as evidenced by the bizarre stories in the 1990s claiming that the Clintons were drug smugglers and murderers. Last year’s invented story in Rolling Stone about a nonexistent gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity was a particularly troubling modern version of it. That’s because in that case the story that editors didn’t want to check had been fabricated by a writer-activist who believed it was OK to collaborate with an obviously unreliable source on a story if that story “proved” the existence of a social ill she believed existed.

It’s possible that similar motivations inspired St. Louis’s misreporting of Hunt’s case. It is very likely that they were behind the subsequent trumpeting of her claims by the New York Times science columnist Deborah Blum and a chorus of committed journalists and academics. Such motivations explain the general refusal by members of that chorus to admit they were wrong even when confronted by the evidence.

Blum actually wrote: “The real point isn’t about individuals, isn’t about Tim Hunt…The real point is that telling a roomful of female scientists that they aren’t really welcome in a male-run laboratory is the sound of a slamming door. The real point is that to pry open that door means change. And change is hard, uncomfortable, and necessary.” Quite apart from Blum’s dishonesty—Hunt didn’t say anything of the sort, and the room was full of science writers not scientists—the ruthlessness of the statement is astonishing. For Blum, Hunt is a necessary sacrifice, an egg that needs to be broken for the cause.

But you still have to wonder, why did so many academics, as well as journalists and activists, believe her? In some cases it may have reflected a kind of confirmation bias. The bien-pensant are convinced that out there are many unenlightened people, the worst of whom are older white men, who brim with appalling reactionary prejudices.

You might have expected St. Louis and Blum, or the online journalists who took up their inflammatory reports, or the Twitterati who went into a frenzy of condemnation to do a bit of research, to dig into Hunt’s history and find more evidence of his supposed misogyny. After all, someone capable of calling for sex-segregated labs had presumably given other hostages to fortune. Apparently none of them did so; a single “sexist” remark being sufficient for conviction in the court of social media. But had they done so, they would have found that Hunt’s actions throughout his career don’t match the profile of a misogynist or even a sexist. Quite the contrary.

It’s not just that Hunt is married to a senior female biologist who is also a leading advocate for more opportunities for women in the sciences. He is also well known in the scientific community as a lifelong supporter and mentor of female scientists.

If that weren’t enough, for the past five years Hunt has actually been helping the European Research Council develop its “gender-equity plan.” He’s been such a devoted and longtime supporter of women in science that, according to Mensch, he had a day-care nursery installed at the Okinawa Institute and tried unsuccessfully to do the same thing at London’s Crick Institute—one of the institutions that quickly distanced itself from his supposedly sexist remarks.

Indeed, by the end of June, Hunt’s lifelong support for women in science was evident from a stream of tweets, blog posts, and letters to the press from female colleagues and former students. Maria Leptin, of the European Molecular Biology Organization, tweeted: “Tim Hunt was in charge as council chair and member of selection board that appointed the first female EMBO director (full disclosure: me).” Oxford’s Dr. Trisha Greenhalgh: “People who know and have worked with Tim are behind him, those who went on hearsay concluded ‘sexist.’”

One of the most powerful defenses came from Professor Hyunsook Lee of Seoul University, who wrote to the Times of London: “I have known Tim Hunt for more than 15 years, ever since he examined my thesis for a PhD. During those years he could not have been more supportive…he never treated me as a ‘female scientist’ but as a ‘scientist.’ In the scientific community…you sometimes get the feeling that you are being treated as a female. I never had this uneasy feeling from him. I learned a great deal from him and his attitude to science and he will continue to be my mentor.”
Some of this might have emerged at the outset if major mainstream news organizations, such as the BBC and the New York Times, had been more professional than the Buzzfeed and Daily Beast reporters. They weren’t.

The report by the Times’s London correspondent Dan Bilefsky repeated, as fact, Connie St. Louis’s claim that Hunt’s remarks were received in “stony silence.” Not only was this disputed very quickly by other guests at the lunch, it was disproved beyond reasonable doubt by a recording of the event that was released in July on Mensch’s website. Bilefsky also stated as fact that Hunt argued that “female scientists should be segregated from male colleagues.”

The BBC played an especially important role in turning Hunt into a hated figure. Anyone who still thinks that the BBC’s reportorial standards have not precipitately declined should read Mensch’s detailed accounting of the various misquotes and falsehoods about Hunt that the network came out with in various radio and television broadcasts across the world. This was especially true and especially damaging in the case of the flagship Radio 4 Today program, the All Things Considered of Great Britain.

It is telling that none of these mainstream organizations reported or seem to have known that, on the day after Hunt’s talk, the president of the European Research Commission (the delightfully named Jean-Pierre Bourguignon) had issued a statement in defense of Hunt and his record as a supporter of gender balance. He would have been an obvious person to ask for a comment.

Any of these organizations, moreover, if they had bothered, could have found convincing evidence on Twitter itself that contradicted St. Louis’s claims. Mensch quickly discovered that someone had actually tweeted about Tim Hunt during the luncheon—a science reporter from the Philippines named Shai Panela. She wrote: “Nobel Laureate Tim Hunt acknowledging the contribution of female science journalists.”

Mensch also turned up a shocked response to St. Louis’s claims by another science writer at the luncheon: Russia’s Nataliya Demina. “Everybody who heard T. Hunt’s speech yesterday knew he was joking,” she tweeted. “For those who not: guys where is u sense of humor?”

A third participant, a female assistant editor from Malaysia named Tan Shiow Chin flatly contradicted claims by St. Louis and Blum that Hunt had advocated single-sex labs. She recalled Hunt’s remarking in his toast that “men would be the worse off for it.”

Eight other Nobel laureates came out in his support. Twenty-nine colleagues wrote a joint letter to the London Times calling for him to be reinstated at both UCL and the European Research Centre; the signatories said they had been “shocked to witness the attacks made by commentators who have never met Tim.” From the United States, Cornell’s David Collum and NYU’s Nicholas Taleb added their voices, prompting Sir Paul Nurse, the president of the Royal Society to come out in defense of Hunt and tell the BBC that he should never have been sacked.

By the end of June, with St. Louis’s claims in tatters but with the refusal of University College, London, to change its stance, the broadcaster Jonathan Dimbleby resigned from his honorary fellowship there, and a well-known author publicly dropped it from his will.

Almost immediately St. Louis protected herself and her dishonesty against investigation by asserting her victimhood. “Women are vulnerable to vicious trolling on Twitter,” she told Scientific American, “and black women doubly so.”

St. Louis also went on the offensive. This included an article for the Guardian entitled “Stop Defending Tim Hunt.” In it she insisted that Hunt never said “now seriously” after his segregated-lab joke. “Nor did he praise the role of women in science and Korean society.” She even repeated the allegation that Hunt thanked the women journalists present for making lunch. Multiple witnesses have now come forward to confirm that St. Louis lied about these just as she lied to the BBC about Hunt’s speech being greeted with “stony silence.”

One of the final nails in the coffin of her credibility came when it turned out that a European Commission official had been at the luncheon and taken notes. His report was suppressed by the commission (in traditional Brussels fashion), but a leaked copy made it clear that Hunt had been joking and that the final words of his toast had been these: “Science needs women, and you should do science despite all the obstacles, and despite monsters like me.”

The unnamed EU official not only says that he did not detect “any awkwardness in the room as reported on social and then mainstream media” but that one of the Korean organizers of the conference spontaneously told him how impressed she was that “Sir Tim could improvise such a warm and funny speech” at such short notice.
Bourguignon confirmed the validity of the leaked report, adding that he himself had spoken to other Korean hosts who confirmed the warm reception given to Hunt’s speech and his praise of female scientists.

As Richard Dawkins, one of Hunt’s early supporters, put it, the leak proved that Hunt’s remark “was lighthearted banter against himself, his irony clearly (not clearly enough, alas) indicating that he is really the reverse of a ‘chauvinist monster.’” Dawkins also expressed the hope that Hunt would receive apologies from UCL, Nature magazine, and “other quarters where they should know better.” At the time of this writing, however, only one of the many publications and science writers who tore into Hunt’s alleged sexism has recanted and apologized: David Kroll of Forbes.

The coup de grâce came in July with Mensch’s release of a short recording from the luncheon. One can clearly hear applause and laughter in the room as Hunt ends his speech. Apparently out of a hundred guests from around the world, most of them women, the only people who were offended by Hunt’s remarks were a handful of British and American science writers, all of whom happen to be diversity obsessives.

The most generous interpretation of Connie St. Louis’s bizarre behavior is that she was too intellectually limited to recognize irony that was somehow obvious to an audience composed mostly of people who spoke English as a second language. A leak of the unedited version of her “Stop Defending Tim Hunt” piece for the Guardian is so garbled and incoherent that this actually seems plausible, though it also makes you wonder how and why she came to be teaching journalism even at a third-rate institution like London’s City University.

That’s a question that began to be asked quite widely a few weeks after St. Louis sent her tweets and became a celebrity on the back of her denunciations of Hunt. The Daily Mail discovered that St. Louis had lied on the curriculum vitae she had supplied for the City University website. The CV claims that she is “an award-winning freelance broadcaster, journalist, writer, and scientist” who “writes for numerous outlets, including the Independent, Daily Mail, the Guardian, the Sunday Times…” But when the Mail’s Guy Adams went through 20 years of digital archives for the Independent, the Sunday Times, and the Mail he could find no articles carrying her byline. Before the current scandal, her work for the Guardian had been limited to a single piece in 2013. Oddly, the BBC and the Guardian have yet to report not only this evidence pertaining to her credibility, but also all the contradictory evidence concerning her claims about Hunt’s speech in Seoul.

Hunt himself was manifestly ill equipped to deal with the onslaught. In an apparent state of confusion and demoralization, he apologized as soon the BBC contacted him, and again in subsequent interviews and statements. But he worded that first apology in such a way that allowed malevolent, dishonest critics to claim that he had admitted to all of St. Louis’s charges. The key phrase in the apology that Deborah Blum and others used against him was “I was trying to be honest.” This was clearly a reference to the fact that he himself had fallen in love with his wife while they were working together. Hunt later explained in a statement to the Guardian, “I certainly did not mean to demean women but rather be honest about my own shortcomings.” Nevertheless the sentence was cited to claim that Hunt really is in favor of sex-segregated labs.

But even if Hunt had been more media-savvy, he still would have faced a heavily stacked deck. After that first apology, one BBC headline read, “Scientist Tim Hunt responds to criticism of ‘girls in labs’ comments,” even though he had never used the phrase “girls in labs.”

In another interview, Hunt regretted his “stupid and ill-judged remarks.” His remarks were indeed ill-judged but mainly because of where and to whom they were delivered. Hunt was presumably used to talking to friendly audiences of scientists, academics, and protégés. His attitude to public speaking and toast-giving was formed in environments where one could assume discretion and the liberty to speak freely. But anyone who speaks to an audience composed largely of journalists, let alone bloggers or “journalism professors,” needs to choose his words carefully lest he fall victim to someone looking for a high-profile scalp.

Still, things might have been even worse if Hunt and his wife had not given an extensive joint interview to the Observer, the Sunday paper now owned by the Guardian. Conducted the weekend after the incident, it gave him the chance to point out the injustice of his situation. He said the UCL had “hung me out to dry” and noted that his accusers at the university “haven’t even asked for my side of affairs.” More important, the interview gave his wife, the less unworldly Professor Collins, an opportunity to rebut the caricature of Hunt as a male chauvinist. “He is certainly not an old dinosaur,” she told the paper. “He just says silly things now and again….I’m a feminist; I would not have put with him if he were a sexist.” She added, for good measure, that he does all the shopping and cooking for the family.

For all his naiveté, and despite the support he was beginning to receive, Hunt knew that his professional life was over. “I’m finished,” he said in the interview. “I had hoped to do a lot more to help promote science…but I cannot see how than can happen. I have become toxic.” Unfortunately, this is indeed the case. Since his comments came to light, Hunt has been disinvited from major scientific and medical conferences. As Dame Athene Donald wrote: “His ability to go and inspire the young has been unnecessarily destroyed.”

At the time of this writing, Hunt has not been reinstated as an honorary professor at University College, London. Nor is he likely to be. Provost Michael Arthur, as if keen to demonstrate the cowardice and lack of intellectual integrity he and so many others confuse with political virtue and good public relations, recently told the press that to reinstate Hunt would send out “entirely the wrong signal.”

It’s worth remembering that University College, London, an institution founded in 1826 by the philosopher Jeremy Bentham, has become notorious in recent years for its craven attitude to Islamic radicalism (the underwear bomber Farouk Abdulmutallab was radicalized while a student there), its toleration of fundamentalist guest speakers who advocate the murder of Jews and homosexuals, and its willingness to let extremist student groups censor free speech.

One of the more depressing aspects of the affair has been the number of clever and influential people, not all of them women, who have stated that even if Hunt was joking, he still deserved to be punished. These people genuinely believe that jokes about alleged differences between the sexes are beyond the pale—the cause of anti-sexism, like that of anti-racism, being simply too important or too fragile to tolerate subversive humor.

Uta Frith, the chair of the Royal Society’s diversity committee, has written that “as the case of Tim Hunt has shown, prejudice is unacceptable even if meant in jest.” She actually celebrated the Twitter lynching of Hunt, even after it was clear that Hunt had been dishonestly maligned for making fun of himself, as “a catalyst for a deep seated bitterness to pour out of people…bitterness about injustice, pure and simple.” As an example of intellectual and moral degradation in an elite institution, you can’t do much better than this.

Hunt experienced in less than two months’ time something similar to the process of denunciation, destruction, and rehabilitation that the main character in Milan Kundera’s autobiographical novel The Joke (1967) endured over a period of many years. Set in Stalinist Czechoslovakia, The Joke tells the story of Ludvik, a student who sends a jesting postcard to his girlfriend that concludes with the words “Long Live Trotsky.” Ludvik is actually an enthusiastic supporter of the relatively new Communist regime, but that doesn’t prevent him from being denounced, expelled from college, expelled from the Party, and then sent off to a labor battalion. Ludvik is too young and naive to understand that totalitarian systems have very limited tolerance for humor and see it as dangerous and subversive. Perhaps Hunt was too old and naive to realize that the worlds of science, education, and “science journalism” are policed by people who are not exactly totalitarians but whose obsession with “correct” language and thought is incompatible with humor and intellectual freedom.

It is a phenomenon that combines modern ideology with quasi-Victorian notions of “respectable” behavior and feminine fragility. For these witch-hunters, there can be no toleration of “inappropriate” speech by the contemporary equivalent of “Society.” The wrong kind of joke, breed of joke-teller, or even the wrong political opinion, moreover, creates a “hostile environment” that supposedly intimidates the sensitive victim to such a degree that she cannot function on an equal level. The Hunt affair shows that this way of thinking doesn’t hold sway on American campuses alone. It has crossed the Atlantic and spread outward and upward.

On the other hand, believers in free inquiry and freedom of speech can perhaps take comfort in one aspect of the Hunt case: Perhaps this brand of intolerance and academic McCarthyism is a specifically Anglo-Saxon or at least Anglophone affliction. Granted, there are signs of it in Scandinavia and other parts of Europe where British and American intellectual fashion is especially strong, but other cultures—perhaps those that have wrestled with or are still wrestling with real misogyny and actual limitations on free expression—might be immune. If Korean, Russian, and Malaysian female scientists like those in Hunt’s audience are able and willing to appreciate the ironic, self-deprecating jokes of an old Brit, there is still hope.


1 Readers may remember the story of Justine Sacco, the public-relations consultant in New York who made an ironic joke about AIDS on Twitter as she boarded a plane to Johannesburg. She was quickly lambasted online as a racist by tens of thousands of people around the world, and her career was over by the time her plane landed. All of it happened with her entirely in ignorance of the mob that had pursued and bagged her.
The writer Jon Ronson, who has taken part in such campaigns, has pointed out “the disconnect between the severity of the crime and the gleeful savagery of the punishment.” His excellent book “So You’ve Been Public Shamed” is very much worth reading on the subject.

2 As St. Louis blogged for Scientific American, “I discussed [Hunt’s comments] with a couple of colleagues I’d been sitting next to. . . . We decided that I should publish the story on Twitter since it had a British angle.” Later, when challenged on her version of Hunt’s words, St. Louis claimed that the trio of them took notes. But in one of his messages sent in her support, Oransky admitted that none of them had written anything down.