Monday, August 28, 2017

Scientific American and Gender (and the irrational response)

“The science separates gender and natal sex quite clearly. Yet those who do not like the science always get back to a confusion regarding the two constructs as some sort of amalgamation that does not exist.”
Sometimes it is complex. Charlie prefers clothes and toys
associated with girls but identifies as a boy.
He is pictured here at age 10. Credit: Lindsay Morris
The September issue of Scientific American focuses on gender. The editors penned an editorial which does not require a subscription. It is titled: “The New Science of Sex and Gender — Why the new science of sex & gender matters for everyone.” According to those editors:
As science looks more closely, however, it becomes increasingly clear that a pair of chromosomes do not always suffice to distinguish girl/boy—either from the standpoint of sex (biological traits) or of gender (social identity).
They conclude with an interesting perspective. Something that never occurred to me:
Change will only continue if the institutions that matter stay open to it. The assault on women's health by Republican lawmakers in Washington looms as a formidable obstacle. Women's well-being needs to be seen as an issue for everyone, regardless of political affiliation. The new science of sex and gender holds the prospect of helping shape public perception and policy making to acknowledge this reality.
I am still processing that paragraph. I accept that gender and even natal sex are separate continua. Thus it seems that nature resists binary constructs. Therefore, the non-binary model has significant ramifications with respect to public policy and women's issues. This flies in the face of conservatives who align themselves with some noisy feminists who claim to be offended by transgender women.

Dr. Kristina R. Olson has a particularly insightful article titled: “When Sex and Gender Collide — Studies of transgender kids are revealing fascinating insights about gender in the brain.” A brief preview is available but full access requires a subscription. If this arouses your curiosity then you might consider a single-issue purchase which is just $6.99. None of that goes to me.

I want to be careful with fair use. Dr. Olson begins with a summary:
  • The TransYouth Project is an ongoing research study following more than 300 transgender and gender-nonconforming kids for 20 years to learn how their gender identity develops.
  • Results so far show that trans children have just as firm a sense of their own gender as nontrans kids at very early ages, both when asked directly and when tested. Furthermore, trans kids follow different trajectories than children who simply prefer toys and clothes associated with the opposite gender.
  • In addition to helping uncover the roots of gender, early results of these studies suggest that trans kids who are supported through early social transitions have strong mental health and self-esteem.
Towards the end of the piece Olson writes:
Transgender adults and teens who did not go through the early social transition of kids such as Sarah and who were often rejected by peers and even their own families tend to have highly elevated rates of anxiety and depression. Estimates suggest that more than 40 percent of these largely unsupported trans teens and adults will attempt suicide.
[…]
trans youth who make the social transition at a young age are doing remarkably well. They have depression rates comparable to their peers and only slightly elevated rates of anxiety. They also show very strong self-esteem.
In a civil society that should be the starting point for a constructive conversation. More research is required but, based on what we now know, gender affirmation reduces the suffering of children. It saves lives.

That brings me to the fanatics; the (presumably) religious zealots who insist that this is all the work of unskilled mad scientists. One of these is Julie Kelly who writes at The Federalist: “Scientific American’s Transgenderism Issue Only Delegitimizes Science.”
It represents a wholesale retreat from the principle that science should be apolitical, further jeopardizing the integrity of science and potentially inflicting real harm on people.
Whether or not Kelly is a religious extremist is unknown. Nevertheless her polemic reflects the views of a religious zealot. Kelly employs a hackneyed tactic. She dismisses scientific conclusions that she does not like as “politics.” The editors of Scientific American do make a political argument in what amounts to an editorial; an opinion piece. They clearly identify the argument as political However, there is nothing in Dr. Olson's essay that is, in any way, political. Nevertheless, Kelly will try to delegitimize science that does not conform to her beliefs.
In a special issue entitled “Sex and Gender,” the magazine purloins the progressive political agenda and attempts to give it a scientific mooring even when none exists.
“None exist?” That is preposterous. Progressives do support transgender rights. The science supports the benefits of treating gender dysphoria with gender affirmation. That does not mean that science has an agenda, political or otherwise. That also doesn't support the contention that Scientific American has an agenda.
SA’s opening salvo is an editorial with the headline, “Why the New Science of Sex & Gender Matters for Everyone.” The piece is astonishing not just because it’s poorly written and ill-conceived—one would expect more from such smart people—but also because it offers no evidence to back up its claim there is “new science” on sex and gender …
Whether or not the editorial is poorly written I will leave to the reader. “Ill-conceived” means that Kelly doesn't like the conclusions. Kelly is correct that the editorial piece is light on cites and links. Kelly quotes the following passage:
Sex is supposed to be simple—at least at the molecular level. The biological explanations that appear in textbooks amount to X + X = and X + Y = . Venus or Mars, pink or blue. As science looks more closely, however, it becomes increasingly clear that a pair of chromosomes do not always suffice to distinguish girl/boy—either from the standpoint of sex (biological traits) or of gender (social identity).
She writes:
“Researchers have found XY cells in a 94-year-old woman, and surgeons discovered a womb in a 70-year-old man, a father of four.” There is no link to either case in the magazine or online version; a Google search comes up empty. Pretty thin gruel for a bold proclamation that we are “biological hybrids on a male-female continuum.”
Kelly is correct that the editorial does not provide links. However, Ms. Kelly isn't much of a Googler or she is being dishonest. The case of the 94-year-old woman with XY cells is documented at Baylor College of Medicine. The case of the 70-year-old man requiring a hysterectomy is detailed at NIH. There are numerous cases that I found of men requiring the procedure. The above results were achieved by simply copying the written description and pasting it into a search bar. Kelly is either inept of full of crap. You decide.
Last fall, two scientists at Johns Hopkins University issued a wide-ranging report on sexuality and gender. …
Kelly claims to be a food policy writer which requires some understanding of nutrition which requires familiarity with scientific literature. Surely she knows the difference between a literature review and research. Surely she knows the difference between peer-reviewed articles published to a scholarly journal vs. articles posted to what amounts to a pretentious conservative Christian blog.

For the record, Scientific American does not subject articles to peer review but its policy is to publish material that is the result of peer-reviewed research. Dr. Olson, for example, has an article titled: “Prepubescent Transgender Children: What We Do and Do Not Know” which was published to the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. She is presenting ideas from her original research and she specializes in this area. The authors of the piece that Ms. Kelly likes (McHugh and Mayer) have done no original research in this area, have not published and are not specialists. It is not their area of expertise.

And that brings us back to Dr. Olson. Kelly writes:
The report also concluded that “only a minority of children who experience cross-gender identification will continue to do so into adolescence or adulthood,” which is why another article in SA’s special issue is so alarming. “When Sex and Gender Collide” purports to show insights about gender in the brain of transgender kids.
Except that Dr. Olson's published, peer-reviewed research demonstrates that desistance is actually very rare (I am in the process of writing about that research from the article linked above).  In short, according to the research, children who present atypical gender behavior often grow out of it. However, once they require relief from depression and anxiety with gender affirmation, they are unlikely to desist. In other words, trans kids are pretty much transgender for life.

Kelly describing Dr. Olson's gender project:
It’s based at the University of Washington and is currently recruiting “children aged 3–12 who are transgender and gender non­conforming.” Set aside for a moment the utterly ridiculous idea that a child who is just learning to use the bathroom, spell his name, and the days of the week would qualify for this project, it is far too early to reach any scientific conclusions about transgender children (the project started in 2013).
Perhaps Kelly should respond to Olson's explanation rather than in the abstract:
How could a three-year-old have such a clear sense of gender identity? People frequently compare early-identifying trans children with those who go through phases of believing they are cats or dinosaurs or who have imaginary friends. They use this comparison as evidence that no young child knows his or her identity or what is real or not real. Yet decades of work on gender development suggests these are precisely the ages at which nearly all kids are coming to understand their own and others' gender identities.
Dr. Olson then goes into considerable detail. You should read the full piece.

Kelly gets herself into more trouble:
People’s Feelings Cannot Change Their Genetics

Olson claims that “results so far show that trans children have just as firm a sense of their own gender as non-trans kids at very early ages.” But most of her evidence is purely observational. There is no “insight” into the brains of transgender children; Olson admits there is a dearth of neurological studies into gender identity and that the science is “far from conclusive.”
No one has ever claimed that gender identity facilitates a change in genetics. The science separates gender and natal sex quite clearly. Yet those who do not like the science always get back to a confusion regarding the two constructs as some sort of amalgamation that does not exist. Everyone in this field says that more research is needed. That does not mean that we should disregard, or even discount, the research that we already have.

Kelly continues with this idiotic theme regarding a trans girl:
No, Dr. Olson. He didn’t seem to be a boy at birth. He was, and still is, a boy. His parents and his doctors knew this because he has a penis. Science knows this because he has XY chromosomes, which dictates the sex not only of humans but most mammals. He may have decided he doesn’t want to have a penis and he likes to dress in girl clothes and wants the world to accept him as a girl; fine by me. But this does not change the scientific, biological fact he is a boy, and to present this in a leading scientific journal, as if sex is a state of mind rather than a genetic reality, is irresponsible at best and dishonest at the very worst.
The above is simply demonstrative of someone's inability or unwillingness to accept the most basic scientific principle: Gender and sex are two different and separate constructs. It is neither complicated nor controversial. Furthermore, it is nothing new. That part of the science is settled.

From there Kelly wanders into another article in the same issue of Scientific American. I have not digested it sufficiently to comments. Ultimately Kelly concludes:
I asked the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) for a comment about the Scientific American special issue; they declined. It will be telling to see how the scientific establishment, which unleashes shrieking warnings to the public every day about how science is truth and not a belief system, will handle this collection of pseudoscientific garbage. My guess is it will be met with complicit silence.
The product of peer-reviewed science is dismissed as garbage when it does not conform to that person's belief system. Presumably AAAS will remain silent. Not because they are complicit in some conspiracy to defraud the American public but because the articles in this issue of Scientific American meet the standards of respectable scientific product.

Kelly requires a way to dismiss the science so she sets up an intellectual failure in advance. It is heads-I-win-tails-you-lose.

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