Cultivating a British flavor of narrow-mindedness

Trying to figure out why so many TERFs are British, I think this answer hits the nail on the head.

The answer lies in part to the coalescence of a certain set of ideas in a very specific circle of voices in the early 21st century — voices that later went on to hold high profile positions in much of the U.K.’s print and broadcast media.

I’m referring here to the U.K. Skeptics movement of the early 2000s. Despite the fact that it was basically a loose network of people who were far too impressed with themselves for not believing in astrology and homeopathy, they have an outsized legacy. The movement consisted largely of groups meeting in pubs and organising talks promoting a specific brand of scientific skepticism and concerned primarily with the “debunking” of alternative medicine and pseudoscience. So far, so niche, but there is compelling evidence that suggests that both the ideological basis and some of the specific proponents of U.K. skepticism in the noughties are implicated in the spread of transphobic thinking into the mainstream media in this country.

While claiming to be the country’s foremost critical thinkers, the group was riddled with anti-humanities bias and a fetish for a certain kind of “science” that it held to reveal a set of immutable principles upon which the world was built with almost no regard whatsoever for interpretative analysis based on social or historical factors. Part of this mode of thinking was an especially reductivist biologism: the idea that there are immutable realities to be found in our DNA, and if we just paid enough attention to Science and stopped trying to split hairs and discover meaning over in the superfluous disciplines of the humanities, then everything would be much simpler. It’s precisely this kind of biological essentialism — which skirts dangerously close to eugenics — that leads people to think they can “debunk” a person’s claim to their gender identity, or that it should be subjected to rigorous testing by someone in a lab coat before we can believe the subject is who they say they are.

I saw the same thing in US skeptics, of course. But there was something fundamental going on that is also reflected in the British school of evolutionary biology, represented by Maynard Smith and Dawkins, that totally embraced reductive explanations and adaptationism, vs. the American subset led by Lewontin and Gould, who fiercely opposed eugenics and detested the arrogance of thinking biology could be reduced to a catalog of alleles. My experience may also be colored by the fact that there were several prominent UK skeptics (at least, I was told over and over that they were big names) who I had to ban here because they were persistently obnoxious and insistent that there are only two sexes/genders because “biology”.

Then there’s the outcome of all this activity by bigots claiming the mantle of science — some people actually believed them.

Tracey King, a skeptic activist who credits herself with establishing American-style organized skepticism in the U.K., has pointed out that the movement collapsed in the last decade. She attributes this to some good reasons (turns out it was full of sexists, which the rise of social justice concerns helped bring to light.) But these voices did not go away; many of the figures who made up the movement are now prominent voices at one level or another. Helen Lewis, for example, is the deputy editor of the center-left political magazine the New Statesman, and has promoted a barrage of anti-trans articles. Julie Bindel at the Guardian and elsewhere has a well-documented history of transphobia.

Then there’s Graham Linehan, a formerly beloved high-profile comedy writer who has recently been given a warning by police for directly harassing trans women online. Imagine if Larry David or Jerry Seinfeld suddenly started a social media hate campaign against a particular group of people that took up most of their time and you had to accept that was just part of your reality now. It feels a bit like that.

I met Linehan — he came to one of my talks in Dublin. Then, I was quite pleased to see him, but now…oh god what kind of wanker was I inspiring/being inspired by?

By the way, Seinfeld has been a loud voice whining about PC culture on college campuses — if I were him, I’d be wondering why smart young people no longer find him funny, rather than blaming it on a contrived slogan like “political correctness” — but at least he hasn’t carried his obsession as far as Linehan has.


  1. crebit says

    There’s also some political and legal context. Trans activists have been much more successful than those in the US in garnering support for a law that allows people to obtain the legal status of man or woman simply by filing a form, without any preconditions. So feminists in the UK (vs. US) are more concerned about how this will affect all-women short-lists for public office, provision of healthcare related to biological sex, public reporting on healthcare and crime, single-sex spaces and services (like shelters for abused women), and so on. You might think they’re on the wrong side of the issue, but I don’t think we need culture to explain why responses get more strident as legal changes get closer.

  2. says

    I’m reluctant to assign too much importance to the Skeptics movement, particularly since it was always such a boy’s club, TERFs are far less so. I looked at the article, and it also identified mumsnet, but there’s very little explanation of the why of it. It’s a mystery to me how TERFism is so much more popular in the UK, but I guess it gives us something to be grateful for in US politics.

  3. christoph says

    “By the way, Seinfeld has been a loud voice whining about PC culture on college campuses”

    So does Tim Allen, except in stand up routines.

  4. snark33sian says

    @ crebit:Trans women have been using domestic violence shelters alongside cis women literally for decades without issue.
    There is no “provision of healthcare related to biological sex” , there’s provision of healthcare related to health needs: A trans man who hasn’t had genital reassingment surgery needs pap-smears and contaception just like a cis woman. There’s no reason the NHS cannot provide for both – unless, of course, the tories destroy it even further, which is hardly the fault of trans folk…
    Regarding shortlists for public office: There is,I think, one single trans woman MP.Do you think trans folk will line up en masse to run for public office and drive the poor beleaguered cis folk out? Hardly likely, especially considering the harrassment they’d have to put up with…Or are you fantasizing about cis men who can’t get a foot in the door putting on a dress and wig to imrove their chances of success? Because that’s not a realistic prospect, that’s the plot of “Tootsie”. None of the “concerns” of TERFs withstand any kind of intellectual scrutiny.

  5. KG says

    But there was something fundamental going on that is also reflected in the British school of evolutionary biology, represented by Maynard Smith and Dawkins, that totally embraced reductive explanations and adaptationism

    Dawkins maybe, but Maynard Smith?? I assume you’ve read The Major Transitions in Evolution, but how does that fit with your claim?

  6. says

    I never could understand TERFs. Just their very existence seems contradictory to me. They care about these women, but not those women. I know they don’t see trans women as women, I just don’t understand why. It seems so cruel to people who are just trying to live their lives. To make an arbitrary judgement about someone based on their body.

  7. sarah00 says

    I’ve definitely noticed the link between TERFs and the UK skeptics movement, and a number of prominent skeptics have become TERFs in recent years. I think both have a tendency towards scientism rather than an actual understanding of science and appreciation of its complexities. Both also have a tendency to dismiss emotion in favour of “objectivity” and “rationality”. It feels like a lot of the prominent British feminists (who coincidentally seem to be largely middle-class white women) are out of step with the wider feminist movement that is becoming far more intersectional.

  8. says

    @9 I guess it isn’t that surprising, but these TERFs seem especially aggressive against an extremely small and extremely marginalized minority. It strikes me as a dangerously excessive reaction. Like these attitudes get people hurt and killed.

  9. says


    TERFs aren’t on the left. Somebody on Tumblr blocked a bunch of TERFs and then went to check a year later and found that roughly half of them had become full-blown Nazi/white supremacists in that time, and most of the rest had gone on to the tradwife position. (It’s also worth pointing out that TERFs actually circulate a list about “how to identify trans women” which is literally an old Nazi list of “how to identify Jewish women” with two items altered and a new title.)

    The whole point of TERF-ness is to claim that there is a specific, biologically-determined something about women which can never, under any circumstances, be experienced by anybody who doesn’t have that biology. Substitute “aryans” for “women”, or “white people” (or, inverting it, “jews”) and you’ll see how compatible the two positions are.

  10. says

    I guess part of my dissonance with it is I’ve met and been friends with way more trans people than people I would call a TERF. In fact I can’t think of anyone in my life I would call a TERF. Lots of people who just don’t care. No one who is both an active feminist and anti trans. I know a lot of people who are sympathetic to feminism, but refuse to adopt the term, but nobody who openly rejects trans people. Maybe they do but they don’t do it when I’m around.

  11. says

    Yeah, Maynard Smith. He really detested Gould, and I think he, more than Dawkins, was the major cause of the split between the American/UK camps of evolutionary biology (which has borders that are far more poorly defined than those between nations.)

  12. says

    A lot of “atheism” and “secular humanism” seem neither atheistic nor secular but rather a religion, an idolatry even, that elevates an idealized capital-M Man to divine status, complete with holy rituals, sacred texts, a concept of blasphemy (e.g. a lot of them seem to feel that the existence of trans people or exceptions to the gender binary constitute an offense against not any particular person, but holy Man), and an eschatology where Man merges with superintelligent AIs and destroys nature not just on Earth but throughout the universe on a mad quest to climb the “Kardashev scale” and monopolize all matter and energy everywhere. This British movement seems like, alongside the Singularity cultists, a prime example of a Cult of Man hiding behind false atheism, a total denial of our embodiedness, our subjectivity, and our human limitations, as well as any human lives, identities, and experiences that do not conform to the image of Man.

    With apologies to The Last Poets’ “White Man Has a God Complex”–
    “Create a mass extinction–I’m God!
    Subject disabilities to deletion–I’m God!
    Build a Dyson sphere–I’m God!
    Re-engineer the atmosphere–I’m God!
    Go up the Kardashev scale–I’m God!
    Put the universe up for sale–I’m God! I’m God! I’m God!”

  13. bobbrady says

    This may come across a little #notallskeptics but the UK skeptics group nearest me, and the ones I’m most familiar with, are the Merseyside Skeptics. They are very much an inclusive, progressive group who have no time at all for bigotry. I don’t know what the other groups are like these days but I think these folks deserve an honourable mention.

  14. chrislawson says


    Yes, there are no doubt many skeptic groups that have impeccably inclusive cultures, but the point was about the larger skeptic movement, and looking back now it’s hard to find any of the major leaders from the peak of the movement that have not completely blotted their copybook. Shermer, Krauss, Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris…really, who still looks good? Maybe Daniel Dennet, who was always the most abstractly philosophical of them, and even he made a few inadvisable comments before figuring out he was better off staying out of the controversies. It’s not like he actively repudiated the regressive elements in the skeptic movement as PZ and Rebecca Watson and many others did.

    The sad thing is, of course, that most of their mistakes would never have occurred if they’d applied the rules of skepticism to their own values. It was fun to eviscerate Loch Ness Monster sightings and evangelical healers, but not to question regressive beiiefs about gender determinism or pay inequality or sexual boundaries.

  15. KG says


    I didn’t know Maynard Smith detested Gould, but I don’t think that justifies the claim that he “totally embraced reductive explanations and adaptationism”. In addition to the book I mentioned @ there was his acceptance (ahead of most evolutionary biologists) of Kimura’s neutral theory, and his work on developmental constraints. And he was, after all, a geneticist, and so bound to be particularly interested in genes.

    There’s an interesting exchange between Maynard Smith (and Daniel Dennett) and Gould here. Amusingly, Gould refers to Maynard Smith as the “good cop” in contrast to Dennett’s “bad cop” (and also refers to him as his “dear colleague”, without obvious irony). I haven’t read Gould’s review of Helena Cronin’s The Ant and the Peacock, which is the subject of the exchange, as it’s paywalled, but I did come to think, after initially being entranced by his writing when I encountered it in the 1980s, that Gould was (as Dennett says in very astringent terms) prone to strawmanning; and that his ego grew rather oversized, his prose in need of a strict editor, and his constant references to baseball simply tedious, as he grew older.

  16. KG says

    p.s. to #19,

    Having just come across it, I agree with Larry Moran that Maynard Smith’s remark on Gould that Moran quotes was wrong both in content and tone.