jordan b peterson

Truths About Gender: Why Science Denialism Became “Rational”

Marius Thienenkamp Culture, Politics

(CW: Transphobia, Misogyny, Racism, Sex Reassignment Surgery)

When I first learned about the scientific consensus on non-binary genders – months before identifying as non-binary myself – I was shocked beyond belief. Not because consensus opinion among psychologists posits gender as a “non-binary construct.” But because of the unambiguous phrasing with which it did so. I had never heard it cited in any discussion. Here we had the American Psychological Association, the biggest professional organization representing United States psychologists. And it was saying in no uncertain terms that it acknowledges the existence of genders beyond men and women. How was this not a popular talking point for online left-wingers in debates on the science behind gender and sex?

gender men and women bathroom sign
Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

I would soon find out. The reason it must have been so puzzling to me at the time was that the conversation on gender, identities, and politics revolved largely around a very simplistic characterization. The sceptic, rational anti-SJW’s (anti-“Social Justice Warriors”) as defenders of evidence and reason are debunking a lunatic social justice movement. The overly sensitive and irrational feminists can’t deal with reality. And some notions about this prejudice remain prominent in online discourse to this very day. This is especially true with the prevalence of the “Intellectual Dark Web.” Its members portray themselves as dangerous, free-thinking men of science. Moreover, millions of people celebrate them for it. We’ll get to some of them later.

The Rejection of Scientific Findings

The reactions to a number of scientific findings on the topic of gender by many online right-wing figures paint a pretty different picture. In their recent, very first official “Guidelines for Psychological Practice with Boys and Men,” the APA “draw[s] on more than 40 years of research showing that traditional masculinity is psychologically harmful and that socializing boys to suppress their emotions causes damage that echoes both inwardly and outwardly.” For instance, men socialized as traditionally masculine – stoic, competitive, dominant and aggressive – are found to be “less likely to engage in healthy behaviors” such as seeking out preventive health care.

masculinity male sign
Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Imagine the shock of numerous conservative advocates of traditional gender roles. Christina Hoff Sommers, conservative-leaning academic and self-professed “Factual Feminist” commented the following on Twitter: “40 years of agenda-driven pseudo scholarship – and voilà: Masculinity becomes a pathology in need of a cure.” For one thing, this is a common misrepresentation of the guideline paper. The APA never implies masculinity or manhood to be inherently “toxic” or pathological. Indeed, it restricts its criticism to traditional notions of masculinity. For another thing, for an academic to instantly dismiss scientific consensus outside of her field of study as “agenda-driven” because of political disagreements seems unprofessional at best.

Scientific research, especially in psychology, of course doesn’t exist outside of the context of researcher’s biases. The field of psychology finds itself in the complicated position as interface between the humanities and the natural sciences. But to automatically assume political biases behind findings one disagrees with is not sensible. Ask yourself: “what are the odds that exactly the results I dislike are biased?” The instant, almost reflexive rejection of these findings is incompatible with being a level-headed, science-minded person who follows the facts.

Conspiracy Theories

It is ultimately an ideological rejection. Moreover, it highlights the fact that the “rational” online right is susceptible to confirmation bias – just like everybody else. When organizations are accused of perpetuating propaganda for something as nebulous as the “mainstream PC agenda,” the dismissal borders on unfalsifiable conspiracy theory. And we all know there’s nothing more scientific or rational than that.

Two good examples of such possible conspiracy theorists are Vincent James and Nick Fuentes. James is a political writer for “The Red Elephants.” In a debate with left-leaning Twitch streamer Destiny, he implies that the scientific community cannot be trusted because it “props up gender dysphoria as something cool to be.” In another debate with Destiny, white nationalist show host Fuentes elaborates on his reaction to empirical data that contradicts his opinions on gender dynamics. Fuentes states, “you can show me a study […] and I’ll tell you that it’s politically motivated.”

Image Courtesy of the APA

These two exemplify the idea that distrust against the entire scientific community is justified. Especially if its findings are “too left-wing.” It implies that some force is responsible for the scientific consensus on issues related to gender. Be it a manipulator behind the curtains or just general institutional pressure on researchers. James, Fuentes and others no longer consider whether progressive-sounding conclusions might just sometimes be, well, where the evidence leads.

It could be argued that, while the right is selective in their approach to science, so is the left. If transgender activists protest the medicalization of trans identities by medical professionals, aren’t they picking and choosing just as much? It is of course true that biased attitudes toward evidence exists all over the political spectrum. However, the unjust and inaccurate pathologizing of queer identities is historically demonstrable, homosexuality being one of the best examples.

Backlash Against Non-Binary Genders

The APA has recently described trans identities as “not inherently pathological.” Furthermore, psychologists have become aware of the problematic history of mistrust between themselves and their trans clients and now favor approaches that stress the individual’s autonomy.

gay pride flag
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Let’s return to our initial example for a bit. The few instances in which I’ve seen the APA’s “Guidelines for Psychological Practice With Transgender and Gender Nonconforming People” mentioned or have mentioned them myself, the responses from the “rational right” have been reserved at best and outright comical at worst. In her masterpiece of a video “NONBINARY / ALTERNATIVE GENDERS DON’T EXIST (get over it),” trans YouTuber Miss London elaborates on why she doesn’t think the APA is a source worth trusting. And by that, I mean she goes on a long, unhinged, nonsensical and completely counterfactual rant:

“Some people like to cite the American… what is that? The American… Pediatric… Association or something like that. I don’t know, I’ll put it up. […] They’re not actual doctors. […] A lot of them couldn’t even get college degrees. […] Actual scientists who actually did look up and look into an experiment and do the research and perform all kinds of experiments on finding out things about transgenderism and if it’s medically diagnosable and all this kind of stuff have been performed by professional doctors, professional psychologists – they are 100% professional. They went to college for years!

People at the American Psychedelic Psychiatric Association, whatever the fuck you wanna call it, they’re not actual real doctors. Like, I will pray to god, I will get down on my knees and suck god’s dick […] hoping you didn’t cite them as your main source on anything that you research that has to do with non-binary or alternative genders.”

Cherry-Picking Science

It is of course easy to make fun of the fact that she didn’t even manage to remember the name of the organization that she’s dismissing as entirely unscientific. Or the fact that she’s claiming that the largest American organization of psychologists are “not actual real doctors.” But I think there is something deeply revealing about her statement beyond the superficial observation that she is completely clueless. The vague posturing about experiments, doctors and professionals comes across as absolutely speculative and vacant. Ironically, it almost seems like its own form of virtue signaling. A list of empty buzzwords just to flex with how “scientific” you are. With all the vagueness present here, notice also the focus on individual psychologists and experiments that have supposedly taken place.

Maybe part of why scientific consensus does not play too big a role in online discourses is that commenters prefer taking a look at individual studies. The dangers of influential laymen doing this are of course manifold. Especially if meta-analyses and reviews are readily available for heavily researched topics. What if they misunderstand or misrepresent the study? Or if the study’s methodology has serious shortcomings that limit the conclusions that can reasonably be drawn? What if the broader scientific context in which the study exists puts its result in a different light? The idea that a single layperson can come to some independent conclusion that somehow has more authority than scientific consensus in any given field reeks of naïveté. Especially if that person uses out-of-context graphs and sentences from studies they found on Google.

Trans Issues: The Misrepresention of Results

A very good example of a study often given this treatment is “Long-Term Follow-Up of Transsexual Persons Undergoing Sex Reassignment Surgery: Cohort Study in Sweden.” Often cited by conservative commentators (for instance in this Heritage Foundation article), this study allegedly demonstrates that trans people undergoing gender-confirming surgeries experience worse mental health outcomes after the respective surgery. This is just flat-out wrong. A sentence from the studies’ conclusion describes “higher risks for mortality, suicidal behavior, and psychiatric morbidity” – but not as compared to pre-op trans people, but to the “general population.”

sex reassignment scar
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In the discussion segment of the study, the researchers elaborate:

“The caveat with this design is that transsexual persons before sex reassignment might differ from healthy controls […]. It is therefore important to note that the current study is only informative with respect to transsexuals persons health after sex reassignment; no inferences can be drawn as to the effectiveness of sex reassignment as a treatment for transsexualism. In other words, the results should not be interpreted such as sex reassignment per se increases morbidity and mortality.”

The studies’ conclusion even goes on to admit that sex reassignment “alleviat[es] gender dysphoria,” completely discrediting the notion that this study can be cited as an argument against SRS or trans acceptance in general. But even if it could be, this would be no excuse to ignore the broader scientific consensus among psychologists indicating that SRS and trans-affirmative care are often vital.

“Rapid-Onset Gender Dysphoria” and the Scientific Community

Another controversial and often-cited piece of research is a study by Lisa Littman on “rapid onset of gender dysphoria.” It surveyed parents active on different websites “where parents had reported sudden or rapid onsets of gender dysphoria occurring in their teen or young adult children.” There are several claims some online right-wing commentators espouse regarding this study, its implications and its reception. Firstly, they sometimes cite Littman’s study as definitive proof that some trans identities only come about later in life due to social contagion and deserve their own diagnostic criterion. Secondly, it’s stated – for instance by the aforementioned Vincent James – that Brown University “deleted” the study based on “hurt […] feelings.”

Both of these claims are false. Brown University had decided to delete an article about the study conducted by assistant professor Littman. This had happened in response to questions raised to PLOS ONE, the journal that had originally published the study. PLOS ONE had decided to “seek further expert assessment on the study’s methodology and analyses” after leading academics in the field had criticized the study’s research design and methodology. Experts holding each other accountable. This is an example of the system working as it should, not one of science surrendering to the easily offended.

Science Denialism from Academics

PLOS ONE later re-published the study with changes in the majority of its sections. The note of republication and a formal comment on PLOS ONE mention limitations in the study’s methodology: due to the decision to survey parents who were already active on certain websites concerning the topic, “limitations associated with selection bias” point to the necessity of further research. Furthermore, previous research indicates that “involving young people in studies of their health” has significant importance. The WHO supports this view. Accounts of children’s mental health also seem to vary vastly between the respective evaluations of children themselves and their parents. Ultimately, the “level of evidence produced by Dr. Littman’s study cannot generate a new diagnostic criterion relative to the time of presentation of the demands of medical and social gender affirmation.”

jordan peterson
Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The reason this particular example is so damning is that misrepresentation of Littman’s study occurs not only amongst the right’s laypeople. Clinical psychologist and “Intellectual Dark Web” member Jordan B. Peterson was famously coined “the most influential public intellectual in the Western world” by the NYT. He claims his work as a public figure to be “not political” but rather based in psychology. This January, he retweeted an op-ed in the WSJ about rapid-onset gender dysphoria. The article incorrectly implies Littman’s study proves that “rapid onset gender dysphoria” is “social contagion” and “differs from traditional gender dysphoria.” Peterson calls ROGD a “new psychogenic plague, brought to you by the social justice world.”

Science Denialism and Dishonest Actors

So the problem of cherry-picking and misrepresentation seems extremely apparent in online coverage of gender and trans topics. It almost comes across as indifference to where the evidence leads in favor of picking what fits one’s bigoted opinions. Whether this characterization is actually fair is not a question I can definitively answer. And the lines get incredibly blurry. How do we distinguish between biased commentators with good intentions and those with ulterior motives?

One right-wing commentator who exemplifies this ambiguity is Stephen Crowder. His debate format “Change My Mind” is often criticized for not actually including any genuine attempts at, well, having one’s mind changed. In it, Crowder converses with trespassers at a public debate booth about specific topics. The entire setting arguably aims at “destroying” low-hanging fruits. It sometimes reads as disinterest in challenging one’s own opinions under the pretense of rational discourse. In his second edition of “There are only 2 Genders,” Crowder makes the incorrect claim that hormone replacement therapy and sex reassignment surgeries barely reduce trans suicide rates as supposed evidence against trans acceptance. In his video “DEBUNKED: The Dark History of ‘Gender Theory,’” he conflates the idea that sex and gender are worth considering as two distinct concepts with the idea that the development of gender identity is 100% explainable through social constructivism.

stephen crowder change my mind meme
Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

He then goes on to claim that trans acceptance is “all based on a lie.” None of this follows logically, of course. Just because gender identity doesn’t come about exclusively through social construction and one can not forcefully alter every person’s gender identity societally, that doesn’t mean that a person’s gender identity can’t be different from their assigned sex. Or that an affirmative notion towards that identity is not recommendable.

Rejecting the Scientific Worldview

Differentiating in the “nature versus nurture” debate is not only a possibility, but a responsibility. This includes taking into account biological, psychological and social factors. After this complete bastardization of “science,” Crowder and his co-hosts ironically spend some more time raging about how Democrats “are the party of pseudo scientists.”

For everyone even vaguely familiar with scientific work on the subject, this is a farce. And it becomes hard to imagine that Crowder makes these claims based on his sincere belief. The eye-catching, vastly simplified nature of his content clearly is a big part of his appeal as an online speaker. There is ample financial incentive for him to be disingenuous. And speculations like this don’t entirely come out of left field. Conservative trans woman Blaire White recounts incidents where hosts of right-leaning shows privately admitted to her that a lot of their hostility regarding trans topics was not entirely authentic and instead primarily served the popularity of their respective shows. Ultimately however, there is no way of knowing with certainty whether Crowder is aware of the deceptive nature of his content. To claim so would be irresponsible.

So far, we’ve seen the dismissal of scientific consensus, the cherry-picking and misrepresentation of individual studies and potentially disingenuous examples of science denialism. Unfortunately, it gets worse. In their most extreme form of science denialism on gender, some right-wingers resort to outright rejection of the scientific principle. Nick Fuentes, for instance, claims to “basically reject the validity of empiricism” in favor of “common sense” truths about the nature of gender relations.

Science Denialism and “Common Sense”

Another “intellectual dark web” member Ben Shapiro does the same thing when he claims to “know bullshit when [he] hear[s] it” even without engaging expertly in the respective field. Although he is a more eloquent speaker, his argument is the same appeal to what he perceives as “common sense.”

But the best example must be the PragerU video “Sex Matters,” featuring Associate Professor of Theology and Philosophy Sean McDowell. The video mainly focusses on supposed differences between men and women. It does so in a decidedly unscientific manner, citing individual anecdotes of single children playing with toy trucks. McDowell explains how he perceives essential truths about gender to be obvious even if entire fields of research disagree with him. He concludes: “Between great-granny and a gender studies PhD, I’m going with granny and her common sense.” Unsurprisingly, but ironically, the PragerU channel also frequently features videos about how leftists ignore science in favor of their feelings.

Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps the reason why outright science denialism by the online right so often revolves around questions of gender has a lot to do with the centrality of traditional gender norms both in our lives and in conservative ideology. We grow up learning what men and women are. What they should be like. Why they’re inherently different from one another. And why there can’t be another gender or sex is beyond them.

Why Science Doesn’t Seem to Matter

“Common sense” feels natural to us after being exposed to these discourses for our entire lives. That’s why it puzzles us when researchers problematize traditional masculinity or conceptualize gender as non-binary. It seems unintuitive – and maybe, to a certain extent, uncomfortable. Gender is a prevalent topic in our daily lives and upbringing. As a result, it might not be too surprising that some would rather refer to their great-grandmother’s wisdom than face the more complicated realities empirical science has to offer.

There is something to be said about the problems with giving into a too simplistic view of empirical science. One should not view it as always objective, never biased and an entirely reliable path to truth. And achievements in the philosophy of science can help us make sense of these problems. Publishing a scientific paper is itself a social act in which one party attempts to convince another of their findings. And scientific findings exist in the larger context of paradigms – and paradigm shifts can occur over time. Still, there are healthy and productive ways to celebrate empiricism. Unfortunately, those who often propagate it sometimes aren’t doing a good job at them.

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Facts versus Feelings

There is a reason the APA’s unambiguous statement about non-binary genders doesn’t seem to matter much in discourse.  Scientific endeavors themselves seemingly don’t seem to matter much to a portion of the online right. Be it a doubt about the validity of scientific consensus, the scientific worldview itself or just science that happens to disagree with one’s political narrative. Common sense is simply stronger. This problem seems to be demonstrable on the extreme political right. But commentators who describe their views along the lines of “classically liberal” such as Sommers are also guilty of it. Many of the listed examples exist in a particular online bubble and might not represent the political right entirely. But their content still influences hundreds of thousands, if not millions.

support transgender rights sign trans people protest
Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Confirmation bias is a phenomenon that exists all over the political spectrum. We should not oversimplify and characterize the entire political left as a bastion of reason and evidence. Or portray the entire political right as scientifically illiterate. Still, there is an undeniable irony in the fact that scientific illiteracy and the denial of scientific findings, consensus or entire fields are common among many prominent right-wing creators in the conversation on gender. Especially since many of them have spent years convincing their online following that “the left doesn’t care about facts; they only care about feelings!” Along those lines; to the Stephen Crowders of the world I say: facts don’t care about your feelings!