Is the Gender Critical Movement Still a Cult?

When sitting down to type up this post, I thought I’d do a little follow-up on an old story. I was surprised when I ran across this:

PinkNews and Julie Bindel are pleased to confirm that they have settled the case over the article PinkNews published on 17 May 2020, which chronicled a young American’s account of their recruitment to and time involved with a ‘gender critical cult’. The article made a number of serious allegations of misconduct and PinkNews accepts that if the allegations were understood to refer to Julie, they would be wholly untrue.

“Julie Bindel accepts that PinkNews published the article without intending to make any such reference to her. PinkNews is sorry for the distress the article caused. It has taken down the article and will not be republishing it. PinkNews has revised its editorial processes.”

What?! Beau Dyess had quite a few screenshots in their corner, so how could the story turn on a dime like that? [Read more…]

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…]

A Good Start

It certainly didn’t seem like that at first blush, though.

Further, we wish to make it clear that Dr. Hall still remains an editor of SBM in good standing. She has worked tirelessly to promote SBM and its principles, contributing over 700 articles to SBM since 2008, all without any compensation or possibility of reward beyond public service. However, at SBM quality matters first, and so we have to remain open to correction when necessary.

Hold on. Harriet Hall has repeatedly shared medical misinformation and lied about the scientific evidence, on a website that claims to promote “the highest standards and traditions of science in health care,” and it hasn’t impacted your view of her at all? Both Steven Novella and David Gorski are not concerned that her flagrant disregard of the science here might spill over to other topics she’s discussed? You’re fine with being used to launder medical misinformation, so long as the actors “remain open to correction?” Yeeesh, I just lost a lot of respect for Science-Based Medicine.

Their response to Hall’s article is also hyper-focused on the scientific literature, with only a few exceptions. That can be quite dangerous, as Allison points out.

Frankly, for a trans person, there’s something surreal and erasing in seeing cis people feuding with cis people over whether we exist. I mean, I am grateful that there are cis people being allies for us … But the fact that people have to come up with logical arguments and “evidence” that our transness is “real,” thus keeping the question alive of whether we do, in fact, exist, keeps giving me the creepy feeling that maybe I’m just a figment of my own imagination. […]

I was just reading HJ Hornbeck’s post about trans athletes, which has all kinds of “scientific,” “objective” evidence that gender dysphoria, gender identity, etc. are real. The problem with going down that path is not only that it concedes the possibility that it could be “disproven,” but also that trans people who don’t fit into the definitions and criteria in those “proofs” are then implicitly left out of the category “real trans.”

When writing about issues at the core of someone’s identity, you need to prioritize humanism over evidence. Hence why I went out of my way to point out the scientific literature is not the final word, that it is not prescriptive. If you doubt me, consider one of the after-effects of ACT UP:

The upshot of all this: “What they were able to revolutionize was really the very way that drugs are identified and tested,” says France. This included scrapping the prevailing practice of testing drugs on a small number of people over a long period of time in favor of testing a huge sample of people over a much shorter period — significantly speeding up the time it took to conduct drug trials.

Similarly, ACT UP insisted that the researchers and pharmaceutical companies that were searching for a cure for AIDS also research treatments for the opportunistic infections that were killing off AIDS patients while they waited for a cure. In the process, says France, “ACT UP created a model for patient advocacy within the research system that never existed before.”

Today it seems natural that people suffering from a disease — whether that’s breast cancer or diabetes — should have a voice in how it is researched and treated. But France says this was decidedly not the norm before ACT UP.

By just reciting the scientific record as if it is a holy book, you roll back the clock to a time when scientists acted as gatekeepers rather than helpers. Instead, start from a patient-centred care perspective where patient rights are placed first. The quality of the science will improve, if anything, and you won’t condescend or impose on the people effected. Novella/Gorski do make some attempts at this, to be fair, but I thought they were easy to miss.

At the same time I was filing away that objection away, though, Novella and Gorski’s follow-up article was really starting to grow on me. It calmly and patiently shoots down a number of arguments made by Shrier and Hall, and the meat of the article doesn’t hold back. They earn their conclusion:

Abigail Shrier’s narrative and, unfortunately, Dr. Hall’s review grossly misrepresent the science and the standard of care, muddying the waters for any meaningful discussion of a science-based approach to transgender care. They mainly rely on anecdotes, outliers, political discussions, and cherry-picked science to make their case, but that case is not valid. […]

At this point there is copious evidence supporting the conclusion that the benefits of gender affirming interventions outweigh the risks; more extensive, high-quality research admittedly is needed. For now, a risk-benefit analysis should be done on an individual basis, as there are many factors to consider. There is enough evidence currently to make a reasonable assessment, and the evidence is also clear that denying gender-affirming care is likely the riskiest option.

I could have used some more citations (shock surprise), but there’s enough there to establish that Novella/Gorski have done their homework. Also, did I mention this is only part one?

Part II of this series will include a far more detailed discussion of the key claims in Abigail Shrier’s book and where she goes wrong by an expert in the care of trans children and adolescents.

Giving a front-line expert a platform to share their insights will do wonders to counter the misinformation. Until that time, we still have a solid takedown of Shrier and Hall’s views on transgender people’s health. Despite my objections, it’s well worth a read.