The Shermer-Shrier Interview

The original plan was simple: line up three book reviews against Michael Shermer’s interview of Abigail Shrier, and point out the obvious differences.

Pointing turned out to be more complex than I’d figured, for two reasons. I expected Shermer to be credulous and unquestioning, and on that score I was half right. The only time he pushed back on Shrier’s views was when he mentioned other people had questioned her evidence for the transition-as-social-contagion hypothesis. She gave a three-point rebuttal to her critics.

  1. The researcher behind the rapid onset gender dysphoria study said that transphobic parents who were regularly exposed to the social contagion hypothesis in transphobic spaces found it to be plausible;
  2. (28:43) “when I wrote the book there were 7,000 members … in the subreddit for detransitioners; today there are over 17,000.”
  3. (28:54) “if you just look at YouTube and you see the young women who have given their testimonials … it’s like every week there are more of these young women who come forward and say they regret [transitioning].”

That second point was too much for Shermer, and he questioned how the number of people subscribed to a Reddit thread on detransitioning could be reflective of the total number of people detransitioning. Shrier’s answer was able to satisfy Shermer’s concerns.

(29:55) “If you just look on the number of testimonials coming … every week to YouTube, it’s a lot. … you’re right that we can assume that there are some other people mixed in, but it’s fair to assume based on the posts and whatnot that a substantial portion of the members of that subreddit are detransitioners themselves, based on the questions they’re asking. And just look at YouTube week-to-week and how many new people are coming forward to say that they regretted their transition and and are now trying to go back.” (30:33)

Those are blatant examples of the hasty generalization fallacy, and Shrier only invokes them because the science on the subject doesn’t support her detransition-is-common hypothesis.[1] Because Shermer believes Shrier to be an authority, though, he suspends his skepticism and blindly accepts her rebuttal. That half, I got right.

The half I didn’t is that Shermer is more transphobic than Shrier. Let’s sample a few lowlights.

(51:32) Remember the “scared straight” programs where they bring in ex-drug addicts to scare the crap out of teenagers for drugs? It’s almost like you we need a group of these post-transitioners that show these surgeries and the dramatic changes to people that are thinking about or – just have a school assembly, in case you’re thinking about this. (51:52)

A friend of mine suddenly became diabetic in middle age. The doctors were mystified why it happened, but they did note that he’d had a flu shot recently. Theoretically, the immune reaction to that vaccine could have caused collateral damage to his pancreas, removing his ability to make insulin.

Should he go on a public relations tour to “scare” people away from getting vaccines? Of course not! All medical interventions carry some risk, what matters is how the risk weighs out the reward. Even if there are people who regret transitioning, that has to be weighed against the overwhelming number of people who saw an improvement after transitioning. Take this smaller study, which found a 0% detransition rate.

A total of 55 young transgender adults (22 transwomen and33 transmen) who had received puberty suppression during adolescence were assessed 3 times: before the start of puberty suppression (mean age, 13.6 years), when cross-sex hormones were introduced (mean age, 16.7 years), and at least 1 year after gender reassignment surgery (mean age, 20.7 years). … After gender reassignment, in young adulthood, the GD was alleviated and psychological functioning had steadily improved. Well-being was similar to or better than same-age young adults from the general population. Improvements in psychological functioning were positively correlated with postsurgical subjective well-being.

De Vries, Annelou LC, et al. “Young adult psychological outcome after puberty suppression and gender reassignment.” Pediatrics 134.4 (2014): 696-704.

What Shermer is instead proposing here is a PR campaign to scare transgender children away from seeking psychological and medical care. I don’t think Shrier goes that far.

(55:37) The one reason I never doped [with testosterone] when I was a cyclist was because I was afraid if I tweaked this one thing here I’m going to fuck up the whole system and then 20 years later I’m going to have cancer [or] whatever. This still [has] not been proved, but it could be. It’s a risky thing to do, is what I’m saying. (55:55)

Set aside Shermer’s questionable ethics. Say what you will about Shrier, she at least pretends to respect evidence. Shermer, world-famous skeptic, openly admits he has no evidence that taking testosterone under medical supervision, in doses that are within typical human range, will lead to cancer. Nonetheless, because he feels there’s a chance it could be true, he’s factored it into his decision making and suggests others should do the same. Just… wow.

His lack of empathy is also staggering. Picture yourself as suffering from a rare chronic skin condition, where the pain varies between barely perceptible to excruciating. I, a doctor, know of a treatment that could dramatically reduce the pain you’re suffering, but one of its side effects is an increased risk of cancer in two decades. Would you take this treatment? I probably would, but even if I wouldn’t is it ethical for doctor-me to withhold the treatment and prevent you from having the option of taking it? This is a pretty clear-cut ethical question with an obvious solution to anyone with even a slight bit of empathy.

(59:16) Joe Rogan makes the point [that], in [mixed martial-arts] fighting, if one of these guys enters a women’s division and kills one of these women … that’ll be a game changer. That’ll end this issue. (59:29)

Atheists like to joke about eating babies. Ever wonder where that meme got its start?

The blood libel grew out of an incident that took place in Norwich, England, in 1144. On Good Friday a woodsman discovered the body of a missing child in a forest near his home. The man claimed that young William’s death had to be the work of Jews because no Christian would have murdered a child so brutally. The boy’s distraught family agreed. The authorities did not. They firmly stated that there was no proof that any Jew was involved. No one was punished for the child’s death.

Five years later, a monk named Thomas of Monmouth arrived in Norwich. After hearing the gossip, he decided that the boy’s death was no ordinary murder. It was a ritual murder. He claimed that the Jews were reenacting the crucifixion. He charged that every year they killed an innocent child in much the way they killed Christ. He insisted that in 1144 the country they chose was England. …

Within just 50 years’ time, Christians in eight European cities had accused Jews of ritual murder. In the German town of Fulda in 1255 a new element was added to those charges. It was the strange notion that the Jews murder innocent children for their blood. By the end of the 13th century, the number of known accusations had more than tripled and spread to almost every part of Europe, despite the many rulers and popes who insisted that this charge was false. They insisted that Judaism does not permit ritual murder.

It’s a classic tactic: repeatedly accuse your opponents of doing something absurdly amoral, regardless of the truth, and if you’re loud enough it’ll become the basis for discrimination or worse. Atheists have either heard blood libel accusations made against others, know their history, or heard themselves be accused of blood libel; in any case, they recognize the tactic for what it is and cope with it by joking about it to their peers.

What evidence does Shermer have for transgender people being more violent than their cisgender peers? He provides none. What evidence does he have for them being more likely to commit murder in public? Again, he provides none. And yet he repeats the libel made by others against transgender people as if it was fact. A thousand years of history shows that these sorts of lies lead to bigotry and violence against the targeted groups. Shermer has heard of the Nazis before, so he can’t claim ignorance of the tactic. On some level, he must be comfortable with encouraging violence against transgender people.

Shermer’s transphobia wasn’t the only thing that made me hesitant to cover this interview, though. The second reason was highlighted after Shermer brought up a review of Shrier’s book that he considered laughably absurd, and asked Shrier to chuckle along with him.

(01:10:36) You know, this is what the attackers do. They never actually touch any of the arguments in the book, never any of the facts, never any of the studies – of which there are many, many cited – it’s all just an attack, an ad hominem attack on me. Now, I kept politics out of the book. (1:10:57)

Shrier’s book was published by Regnery Publishing, which for several decades has overwhelmingly published conservative authors to the point of losing contracts over it. They also have a long history of publishing books which distort history and science to further a political agenda. Shrier’s arguments invoke standard conservative talking points, like the US constitution and a desire to return to a mythical past. As I’ve mentioned before, the blurbs for Shier’s book are dominated by right-wing pundits who are only famous for their political stance. Unless you define “political” as “talking about racism and sexism,” you would conclude her book is highly political.

On top of that, even a casual glance at most book reviews reveals they talk about her arguments, bring up contrary studies, and point out the lack of studies cited in the book. Shrier is so contrary to reality here that I find it far more charitable to believe she’s lying rather than clueless.

And that’s a problem, because why would she lie about this? She could have also said her critics misunderstood her, or done the usual deflection to political correctness/uncomfortable truths or some equally nonsensical excuse. I suspect her goal is not an honest engagement in the truth, but a desire to fan the flames of controversy and get these lies repeated over and over again. It’s just another front on the culture war, another attempt to sell an agenda by ginning up controversy… and by blogging about it, I’m doing exactly what she wants.

So why push on? In two words, Michael Shermer. It says something about the state of the skeptic movement that someone as prominent as Shermer would fall hook, line, and sinker for ridiculous transphobic arguments. As I was typing this post, I was listening to a panel discussion hosted by Eiynah, and one of the panelists brought up the rampant transphobia in the atheo-skeptic movement. We’re not gonna get rid of that by sitting on our hands and letting prominent voices off the hook, people have got to start calling out this bullshit out and keep calling it out until it goes away. I, as luck would have it, am a person.

However, I won’t be calling out the part of the interview where Shermer reveals the intimate details of someone else’s sex life and turns it into a joke. I had to take a shower after hearing that, and I only mention it so you know it’s coming if you listen along.


[1] Bustos, Valeria P et al. “Regret after Gender-affirmation Surgery: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis of Prevalence.” Plastic and reconstructive surgery. Global open vol. 9,3 e3477. 19 Mar. 2021, doi:10.1097/GOX.0000000000003477