Harriet Hall Is No Skeptic

Whoops! When I wasn’t looking, Harriet Hall had a peek at what her critics have been saying and created a revised version of her review of Shrier’s book. The last thing I’d like to do is spread misinformation about Hall’s views, so I spent some time going line by line through both her original review and the revised one, to see what changed.

[CONTENT WARNING: Transphobia, skeptics being capital-S Skeptics]

[Read more…]

A Transgender Athlete Reader

Remember this old thing?

Rationality Rules was so confident nobody would take him to task, his “improved” video contains the same arguments as his “flawed” one. And honestly, he was right; I’ve seen this scenario play out often enough within this community to know that we try to bury our skeletons, that we treat our minorities like shit, that we “skeptics” are just as prone to being blind followers as the religious/woo crowds we critique. And just like all those other times, I cope by writing words until I get sick of the topic. Sometimes, that takes a while.

In hindsight, “a while” turned out to be seven months and about seventeen blog posts. Why on Earth would I spend so much time and effort focused on one vlogger? I don’t think I ever explained why in those posts, so let’s fix that: the atheist/skeptic movement has a problem with transphobia. From watching my peers insinuate Ann Coulter was a man, to my participation in l’affair Benson, I gradually went from “something feels off about this” to “wow, some of my peers are transphobes.”

As I picked apart the arguments made by transphobes, I started to see patterns. Much like with religious and alt-Right extremists, there’s a lot of recycling going on. Constantly, apologists are forced to search for new coats of paint to cover up old bigoted arguments. I spotted a shift from bathroom rhetoric to sports rhetoric in early 2019 and figured that approach would have a decent lifespan. So when Rationality Rules stuck to his transphobic guns, I took it as my opportunity to defuse sports-related transphobic arguments in general. If I did a good enough job, most of these posts would still be applicable when the next big-name atheist or skeptic tried to invoke sports.

My last post was a test of that. It was a draft I’d been nursing for months back in 2019, but after a fair bit of research and some drastic revisions I’d gotten Rationality Rules out of my system via other posts. So I set it aside as a test. If I truly was right about this shift to sports among transphobes, it was only a matter of time until someone else in the skeptic/atheist community would make a similar argument and some minor edits would make it relevant again. The upshot is that a handful of my readers were puzzled by this post about Rationality Rules, while the vast majority of you instead saw this post about Shermer and Shrier.

The two arguments aren’t quite the same. Rationality Rules emphasizes that “male puberty” is his dividing line; transgender women who start hormone therapy early enough can compete as women, according to him, and he relies on that to argue he’s not transphobic at all. Shermer is nowhere near as sophisticated, arguing for a new transgender-specific sporting category instead. Shrier takes the same stance as Rationality Rules, but she doesn’t push back on Shermer’s opinions.

But not only are the differences small, I doubt many people had “women are inherently inferior to men in domain X” on their transphobe bingo card. And yet, the same assertion was made at two very different times by three very different people. I consider this test a roaring success.

One consequence is that most of my prior posts on Rationality Rules’ arguments against transgender athletes still hold quite a bit of value, and are worth boosting. First, though, I should share the three relevant posts that got me interested in sports-related apologia:

Trans Athletes, the Existence of Gender Identity, … / … and Ophelia Benson: The first post proposed two high-level arguments in favour of allowing transgender athletes to compete as the gender they identify with. The second is mostly about calling out Benson for blatant misgendering, but I also debunk some irrational arguments made against transgender athletes.

I Think I Get It: My research for the prior two posts led me to flag sport inclusion as the next big thing in transphobic rhetoric. The paragraph claiming “they think of them as the worst of men” was written with Benson in mind, but was eerily predictive of Shermer.

And finally, the relevant Rationality Rules posts:

EssenceOfThought on Trans Athletes: This is mostly focused on EssenceOfThought‘s critique of Rationality Rules, but I slip in some extras relating to hemoglobin and testosterone.

Rationality Rules is an Oblivious Transphobe: My first crack at covering the primary factors of athletic performance (spoiler alert: nobody knows what they are) and the variation present. I also debunk some myths about transgender health care, refute some attempts to shift the burden of proof or argue evidence need not be provided.

Texas Sharpshooter: My second crack at athletic performance and its variance, this time with better analysis.

Rationality Rules is “A Transphobic Hack“: This is mostly commentary specific to Rationality Rules, but I do link to another EssenceOfThought video.

Special Pleading: My second crack at the human rights argument, correcting a mistake I made in another post.

Rationality Rules is a “Lying” Transphobe: I signal boost Rhetoric&Discourse‘s video on transgender athletes.

“Rationality Rules STILL Doesn’t Understand Sports”: A signal boost of Xevaris‘ video on transgender athletes.

Lies of Omission: Why the principle of “fair play” demands that transgender athletes be allowed to compete as their affirmed gender.

Begging the Question: How the term “male puberty” is transphobic.

Rationality Rules Is Delusional: Rob Clark directs me to a study that deflates the muscle fibre argument.

Cherry Picking: If transgender women possess an obvious performance benefit, you’d expect professional and amateur sporting bodies to reach a consensus on that benefit existing and to write their policies accordingly. Instead, they’re all over the place.

Separate and Unequal: I signal boost ‘s comic on transgender athletes.

Rationality Rules DESTROYS Women’s Sport!!1!: I take a deep dive into a dataset on hormone levels in professional athletes, to see what would happen if we segregated sports by testosterone level. The title gives away the conclusion, alas.

That takes care of most of Shermer and Shrier’s arguments relating to transgender athletes, and the remainder should be pretty easy. I find it rather sad that neither are as skilled at transphobic arguments as Rationality Rules was. Is the atheist/skeptic community getting worse on this subject?

The Weaker Sex

There’s an odd asymmetry in how Shermer and Shrier think about transgender athletes. They talk exclusively about transgender women entering women’s sport, but ignore the possibility of transgender men entering men’s sport. A sample:

[1:00:47] SHRIER: Sometimes people look at the numbers and they say there aren’t that many transgender kids, so there’s no reason for the moral panic. Who cares if the number one, two, and three spots go to biological boys? First of all, there’s obviously the incredible unfairness of fixing the race … telling girls “oh, you’ll never ever, no matter what you do, no matter how hard you train, you will never be number one. You will never make regionals.”… That’s a very different prospect for young women … [1:01:19]

So being assigned female doesn’t offer any advantages in any sport? At all? Let’s make a case for a female advantage. I’ll point out the logical and rhetorical flaws I’m deploying via tool-tips. [Read more…]

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. [Read more…]

When Neutrality Isn’t

The details are a bit tough to track, so here’s a timeline.

June 15th, 2021: Harriet Hall publishes a book review of “Irreversible Damage” to Science-Based Medicine.
June 17th: That book review is removed by Steven Novella and David Gorski, as “we felt there were too many issues with the treatment of the relevant science, and leaving the article up would not be appropriate given the standards of SBM [Science-Based Medicine].”
June 17th: The book review is reprinted by Michael Shermer on Skeptic.com, with an editor’s note that reads in part:

While we have long admired the excellent work by the contributors at Science-Based Medicine on issues like vaccines and quack alternative medicine claims, they have long openly displayed a far-left progressive political bias that has compromised their otherwise stellar reputation as a trustworthy source. In science, facts cannot be bent or silenced by politics, however well intentioned, for nature cannot be fooled.

After June 17th: That paragraph of the editor’s note is removed, presumably by Shermer himself.

I’ll have a lot more to say on this, if my drafts are any indication, but first I want to circle back to the editor’s note by Novella and Gorski. Note that while they claim there are many issues with the science Hall presents, they don’t go into detail. In fact, what I quoted is all they have to say on the subject. In contrast, they spend several paragraphs defending their neutrality. A sample:

Already there are false accusations that this move was motivated by pressure from readers. This is not the case. SBM had and never will cave to outside pressure. We have endured a great extent of such pressure, including the threat of lawsuits and actual litigation.

If you’ve been part of the atheist/skeptic movement for a while, this is no surprise. Novella in particular has tried very hard to be politically neutral and “above the drama” when any major controversy comes up. The problem, as I’ve pointed out before, is that neutrality favours the status quo and the status quo is sexist. That a desire to avoid drama is easily exploited, as if bigots deliberately cause drama it grants them more control over the commentary.

We will leave the comments open for now and encourage full, open, and respectful discussion of the topic by anyone interested.

If you haven’t had your head clouded by a neutrality fetish, you know exactly how “respectful” the discussion has been. Transphobes have been recycling all the tired arguments about sports I’ve covered in depth before. They’re receiving a lot of pushback, thankfully, but transgender people and their allies should never be forced to defend their humanity.

Kudos to Novella and Gorski for retracting that book review, which was the right thing to do. But all they’ve done is turn a body blow into a slap in the face. They knew the science behind this review was dodgy, but kept silent on why to avoid stirring up drama, and in the process let the bigots fill the silence with their own spin.

This apologia for censorship is dishonest. Notice that the authors, Novella and Gorski, can’t be bothered to condescend to explain exactly what it is about the book review that made its deletion necessary as a matter of “quality control.” For some reason, it was impossible to allow discussion of the review and the book. The claim that the action had nothing to do with the bleats of the censors urging suppression of the discussion is not plausible.

Turning off comments is just a click of a button, and would have avoided the inevitable transphobic shit-show. Instead, they let it happen in the name of a “full, open, and respectful discussion” they must have known wouldn’t actually occur. Rather than help transgender people, they’ve left them and their allies to mop up the mess while only putting in a token effort to assist.

Guys, don’t do this.

Fundraiser: The Panel of Inexpert Discussion

“I think the people of this country,” sniffed Michael Gove, “have had enough of experts.” Perhaps he was right.

He wasn’t the only Brexit campaigner to identify and capitalise upon public distrust. Arron Banks, the multimillionaire behind Leave.EU, cheerfully attributed his campaign’s success to the mantra “facts don’t work”. Speaking after his referendum triumph, he said: “The Remain campaign featured fact, fact, fact, fact, fact. It doesn’t work. You’ve got to connect with people emotionally. It’s the Trump success.”

A non-trivial number of people in the world don’t care for facts or reason. They want something to be right, so they act like it’s correct. Trump perpetually says voter fraud is rampant, the experts repeatedly point out that isn’t the case, and yet groups of Trump supporters have started showing up to polling places to discourage people from voting. As a blogging network devoted to facts and reason, we turn down our noses at such tactics. And yet by avoiding the feelings-trump-facts crowd, we’re ignoring a significant chunk of the people.

This panel is our attempt at getting comfortable with their worldview. A number of people will lecture you on things of questionable truthhood, and if you walk away feeling something afterward then we’ll have succeeded. You can watch the event live on YouTube, where it will be archived afterwards. So tune in Sunday the 27th at 2PM MDT, and feel something. Don’t forget, this is all happening as part of our legal fundraiser; if you like this concept, chip in a few bucks here. Alternatively, check the fundraiser page for more ways you can contribute.

How Was Your Boycott?

I was planning on signal-boosting the YouTube boycott, thanks to a message by Great American Satan, until everyone else beat me to it. For an awareness campaign like this, it’s more useful to space out your messages than doing one big blast, so I deliberately held back. But what is there to do once the boycott’s done, you ask?

Well, some of you might be tempted back to YouTube. There are alternatives out there, though. For instance, Intransitive posted an animated short about the Le Mans crash of 1955. Problem: it was host on YouTube. Solution: it was also on Vimeo! Rather than blindly follow that YouTube link, do a bit of digging to see if any other site is hosting it. I’d also like to plug the Internet Archive, which hosts everything from Democracy Now! to classic cartoons.

You could also contact Google/YouTube directly. Yeah, Google’s support ranges from byzantine to bad, but did you know they post a mailing address for YouTube? Track down that pen that’s migrated to the back of your desk, fish out a blank sheet of paper from the printer tray, and send them a polite but firm message about their new terms of service.

If that all sounds like too much work, why not hit them in the pocketbook? There are multiple YouTube ad blockers available, all of which can be installed with a single click, and these tools are popular enough to keep up with Google’s countermeasures. Just be sure to uninstall it if or when Google relents! It’s what I’ll be doing, now that I can watch PyData videos again.


[HJH 2019-12-14] With the benefit of hindsight, I can see an objection to my last bit of advice. Yes, blocking ads will hurt Google’s bottom line, but it also might hurt the bottom line of YouTube creators. Aren’t I taking money out of their pockets?

For the most part, people aren’t making money off YouTube ads. Some big channels rely on Patreon to keep afloat, while others use paid sponsorships, and neither is significantly effected by a YouTube ad blocker. In both cases it’s easy to make up for any lost revenue due to your ad block.

The entities who do make genuine money off YouTube ads either have a second revenue stream you can drop money into, were already famous and don’t need the cash, or are gaming the system in some way. This last category is the one most hurt by removing ad revenue, and while that would prevent a Baby Shark it also prevents Elsagate. Ironically, this gamification is also the cause of YouTube’s draconian new Terms of Service, because the old one could not satisfy video creators, advertisers, and viewers at the same time. The new one solves the issue by allowing YouTube to crack down on creators however they see fit, should bad press float their way.

Blocking ads does not prevent quality content creators from surviving on YouTube, but it does harm those hoping to game the system and pocket a quick buck. So long as that remains true, blocking YouTube ads is perfectly moral.