Tribal Scepticism

On Scepticism in the Age of Gender Ideology

This post has been adapted from a twitter thread.

So, Rebecca Watson of @skepchicks has produced a video calling JK Rowling a ‘bigoted fuckface’. She comes to this conclusion because the Harry Potter author defended Maya Forstater after Maya lost an employment tribunal over her beliefs that sex is binary and immutable. 

Rebecca is quite happy to use slurs to demonise Rowling & Maya because they disagree with her on science. (The mispronunciation is also unforgivable.) But let’s play Rebecca with a straight bat & address her thoughts on the science of sex to see if her views are justified.

She claims, “People like Rowling and Forstater fervently believe that the “science” is on their side in the same way that many pseudoscientists do”. Yes, we all believe science is on our side, but what does the science actually say and is Rebecca correct?

The Skeptical Chick starts off with an obvious straw-man argument: “Saying “xx=woman and xy=man and you can’t change that” has as much scientific knowledge behind it as saying “If we evolved from monkeys than[sic] why are there still monkeys?”

The claim is that this is ‘middle school science’ and that if ‘the fervent believers’ are challenged they ‘will throw their hands in the air, claim it’s too complicated or the data is lying or whatever other excuse they can think of, and continue believing what they believe. And in a statement that we shall come back to, “They came to their belief first, for other reasons, and then attempted to build up science and reason in a way that makes it look like it supports their belief.”

This is a straw man argument because biologists do not define your sex by the chromosomes XX and XY. These chromosome combinations are part of a *sex determining mechanism* in organisms like humans. This mechanism is not universal in life. Birds, for example, have a different chromosomal sex determining mechanism – ZZ/ZW. Birds still have quite distinct males and females though.

 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9354761

In the XX/XY system found in humans, the actual determination mechanism is the SRY gene that is usually, but not always found on the Y chromosome. This gene switches between one of two evolved developmental pathways.

Sex is not defined by these chromosomes. Sex arises from the fact that we are evolved sexually reproducing organisms. Sex evolved deep in life’s history and has remained remarkably conserved – although there are many *sex determination mechanisms* in organisms.

Sex is near universal in eukaryotes and is the ‘the mixing of genomes via meiosis and fusion of gametes’. In multicellular organisms it is almost always done through the joining of unequal size gametes (anisogamy).

It is this fundamental and ancient asymmetry in gametes and the joining together of one of each type that gives rise to the sexes. The small, mobile gamete we class as male and the larger, and immobile one we class as female.

In multicellular organisms like us where anisogamy rules, the *sex determining mechanism* (the SRY gene) is used to switch between two sets of genes that develop different phenotypes to support each gamete type – males and females.

To suggest that there are more than two sexes, or even more extreme, that somehow sex forms a continuum, a distribution or a spectrum is completely incompatible with this view of life and sexual reproduction. (The idea that ‘sex is a spectrum’ is a core part of the credo of gender ideology.)

So, how does Rebecca attempt this?

In short, she does not. She nods her head to the *complexity* of sex development, but makes no attempt to suggest there is anything other than two sexes. It is almost as if she does not want you to see lack of rebuttal after just complaining the XX/XY mechanism is ‘too simplistic’.

There is a referenced blog post though on why we should “Stop Using Phony Science to Justify Transphobia.” Like many blog posts in this genre, it makes a number of basic errors.

Yes, XX and XY are not the only sex determining chromosome configurations in humans. There are a few other combinations that result in viable development. Some people have a trisomy of XXX. However, such people are still very much female. There is no new sex here and the woman can still be fertile.

See  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Triple_X_syndrome …

Another example, is XXY. Such individuals again develop along the male pathway and end up as unequivocal males, but may be infertile. This is known as Klinefelter syndrome.
 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Klinefelter_syndrome …

Rebecca goes on to a rhetorical trick though to appeal to the ‘diversity of humanity’. She claims that “male” or “female” are just a “shorthand” and that it “simply isn’t enough to account for the diverse array of beautiful human bodies in the world, and it’s anti-scientific to pretend as though it is.”

No justification is given for this & it is another straw-man, since no one is claiming there is not a wide range of variation within people. Even sex characteristics can exist on a wide distribution of scale. Size can vary.

The truth is rather banal – your sex is just one fact about you. An immutable fact. And there are many facts about you that make up the Whole You and “the diverse array of beautiful human bodies in the world”.

What a male body looks like varies enormously and what a female body does too. But to insinuate that there is some ‘ideal’ male and female body and most of us exist on some scale between the two is both unscientific and offensive.

The core of Maya Forstater’s beliefs in her court case were that sex was a binary and sex was immutable. Despite lots of angry words and invective The @skepchicks have failed to show that this is not true and have instead invoked straw man arguments and thinking errors.

Why?

“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool.”

This was the defining message of Richard Feynman’s address to graduating students of CalTech in 1974.

Feynman was describing the difference between having a scientific outlook in life and being fooled by false beliefs – no matter how much those beliefs were shared by those around you and how much effort you put into living by those beliefs.

Feynman was comparing the South Seas Cargo Cult in WWII with pseudoscience. Islanders would set up their own airports in the hope that troops would send aircraft laden with supplies. They built runways and their own ‘control towers’ but no planes would land.

As Feynman said, “So I call these things Cargo Cult Science, because they follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they’re missing something essential, because the planes don’t land.”

I can’t help thinking we are seeing a lot of Cargo Cult Scepticism too right now about how we understand the nature of sex and gender. Worse, I think we are seeing Cargo Cult Progressiveness.

People are displaying the precepts of scepticism and displays of progressiveness but are missing something essential.

The essential missing ingredient is not taught in science classes – but he called it ‘an integrity – utter honesty”. In his own words…

“It’s a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty—a kind of leaning over backwards.

“For example, if you’re doing an experiment, you should report everything that you think might make it invalid—not only what you think is right about it”

“Details that could throw doubt on your interpretation must be given, if you know them. You must do the best you can—if you know anything at all wrong, or possibly wrong—to explain it”

“When you have put a lot of ideas together to make an elaborate theory, you want to make sure, when explaining what it fits, that those things it fits are not just the things that gave you the idea for the theory; but that the finished theory makes something else come out right”

This last point sounds remarkably like Rebecca’s own point above.

But Rebecca did not do so.

The ideology of gender is one massive ‘just so’ story.

It starts off with the required conclusions such as ‘transwomen are women’ and then works backwards. What must be true for this to be true? One thing that must be true is that our conceptualisation of biological sex must be wrong.

Women cannot be female. Males and females must be mutable and blurred in distinction. All scientific facts must then be shoehorned into this outcome.

But @skepchicks are part of a noble movement that questions authority and relies completely on science to get to the bottom of society’s core beliefs!

The problem is that this is easy when it comes to homeopathy and ghosts and gods and vaccine injuries.

But there is a Cargo Cult Progressiveness now that insists you accept without question the New Progressive Movement of Gender. To question any aspect of this will result in instant excommunication. The social cost is high.

And it would like like the (almost) entire US skeptical movement has decided to fool itself rather than be on the wrong side of this social movement. The cost to anyone is too high to question it.

We see defenders of evolution such as @pzmyers reacting like the worst frothing mouth evangelical preacher when asked to defend the idea that women can have penises.

 https://thoughtfreeblogs.com/pharyngula/2018/10/13/why-i-banned-andy-lewis-maria-maclachlan-and-alan-henness/ …

One would have thought that Myers would have taken the opportunity to use this as a quirky way to explain how evolution works and ends up with counterintuitive results. But no. Shouting and screaming instead.

And @oracknows screaming ‘TERF’ because I suggested the biggest sceptical issue that should be covered right now is the denial of the material reality of sex among gender ideologists. (now appears to be deleted.)

We appear to have ended up with Cargo Cult Scepticism where all that is left is just the precepts and forms of debate but none of the challenging, debate, evidence gathering and – most importantly – thought.

Blocking is the tool of the Cargo Cult Scepticism crowd. Blog posts the sources of evidence – not the primary literature. Denouncing heretics is the cry rather than questioning and discussion.

We are now at a place where scepticism is an Identity and not a set of tools. It is about belonging to the right crowd – ‘on the right side of history’. It is no longer about informing policy and social ideas with well founded science based on robust evidence.

Maybe it was always like this. Maybe it was always just about screaming at homeopaths. But this is not good enough.

We are all going to be a lot worse off because of this.

19 Comments on Tribal Scepticism

  1. This article is interesting as it gets to the bottom of what happened in the hearing

    https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/dec/22/maya-forstater-case-about-protected-beliefs-not-trans-rights

    In particular

    This ruling was purely about whether Forstater’s views count as a so-called protected belief, like religious faith, which employers can’t discriminate against someone for holding. And while she met four of five legal tests for that, the sticking point was her insistence that a trans woman is still a man even if she holds a GRC confirming her legal status as a woman.

    That’s what Forstater thinks. It might be what a number of other people think. But it’s not what the law says and the judge ruled that Forstater’s desire to be able to refer to someone by the sex she felt appropriate, even if that created an “intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment”, failed the fifth test – that a protected belief can’t violate human dignity or conflict with fundamental rights. Put simply, those seeking the protection of the law can’t ignore the protection it affords others. Even the vulnerable must acknowledge that others can be vulnerable too.

    • If a transperson is allowed to claim that failure to use their choice of pronouns creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating oroffensive environment.

      Then surely the person forced against their will to use such pronouns can make the same claim.

  2. If more than one person does something, and it is reported in the press using the pronoun “they”, this is acceptable. If more than one person causes a problem to another, and the aggrieved person describes them as “they”, that person is branded as paranoid. Can someone explain the distinction?

    • ‘If more than one person does something, and it is reported in the press using the pronoun “they”, this is acceptable.’
      ?: to whom ? them? (that is the public at large, the editor, yourself, other…)
      ‘ If more than one person causes a problem to another, and the aggrieved person describes them
      as “they”, that person is branded as paranoid.’
      ?: by whom ? see above.
      ‘Can someone explain the distinction?’
      a part view in part answer:
      the difference comes about because ‘we’ do not confront each instant of obfuscation, including our own internal, verbal and written expositions, i can personally say that psychiatry / psychology will not use ‘paranoid’ – the diagnosis – this easily.
      the difference comes about because we do not listen with our automatic defences down, open to the ‘paranoid”s story and efforts at understanding and explaining.

  3. I described sex denialism at ScienceBasedMedicine (and suggested it as a topic) in comments before Harriet Hall’s two articles on sex and gender. Those two articles had what must be one of the largest set of comments on that site and in them I was taken aback by virtually all regular commenters supporting gender identity ideology. Links to the NIH, CDC and FDA as well as scholarly articles seemed to be denied again and again.

    I am stunned to hear that Orac used the word ‘TERF’. I’d like him to concatenate the ‘sex’ column in the participant table of every clinical trial he can find and tell me what the factor levels he sees with their relative frequencies.

    There hasn’t been a sex/gender article on SBM since. It is so distributing, but perhaps not surprising, to see popular skepticism exhibit this kind of reality denial. No one has any trouble being ‘mean’ (i.e. telling the truth) to various believers in deities, quacks etc. but somehow the rules are different for ‘gender’.

    It is just so distributing to see this kind of denialism across Science The Institution, here we see Rebecca Helm (a biologist!) describe sex and gender in the same obfuscated way. Yes sex development, like each and every other aspect of biology, is complicated at the molecular level; essentially all of us are still either male or female though – and that’s ok-. None of this says anything derisive about those of us who are distressed at our sex, desire to be another sex or are truly in that ~0.02% of people that we can’t seem to sensibly classify as either male or female.

    https://twitter.com/RebeccaRHelm/status/1207834357639139328

    • Yes, that is a very confused twitter thread from someone who ought to know better – conflating the characteristics with sex with the defining nature of sex. I mean height is a sex characteristic in humans – it is distributed differently for males and females. Your height does not make you more or less male or female though.

  4. This post is so stupid it feels like shooting fish in a barrel to even respond to it, but just for laughs:

    Andy writes:

    The Skeptical Chick starts off with an obvious straw-man argument: “Saying ‘xx=woman and xy=man and you can’t change that’ has as much scientific knowledge behind it as saying ‘If we evolved from monkeys than[sic] why are there still monkeys?”

    This is a straw man argument because biologists do not define your sex by the chromosomes XX and XY.

    It is, in fact, absolutely bog-standard for transphobes to claim “sex” is defined by chromosomes. Of course “biologists” don’t, because biologists aren’t transphobic idiots – they overwhelmingly agree with Watson.

    Andy writes:

    To suggest that there are more than two sexes, or even more extreme, that somehow sex forms a continuum, a distribution or a spectrum is completely incompatible with this view of life and sexual reproduction. (The idea that ‘sex is a spectrum’ is a core part of the credo of gender ideology.)

    Lol. It’s actually the perspective of modern science. See for example this article in “Nature” – one of the most prestigious science journals – which I will quote at some length:

    The idea of two sexes is simplistic. Biologists now think there is a wider spectrum than that.
    [… ]
    Sex can be much more complicated than it at first seems. According to the simple scenario, the presence or absence of a Y chromosome is what counts: with it, you are male, and without it, you are female. But doctors have long known that some people straddle the boundary – their sex chromosomes say one thing, but their gonads (ovaries or testes) or sexual anatomy say another. Parents of children with these kinds of conditions – known as intersex conditions, or differences or disorders of sex development (DSDs) – often face difficult decisions about whether to bring up their child as a boy or a girl. Some researchers now say that as many as 1 person in 100 has some form of DSD2
    [… ]
    So if the law requires that a person is male or female, should that sex be assigned by anatomy, hormones, cells or chromosomes, and what should be done if they clash? “My feeling is that since there is not one biological parameter that takes over every other parameter, at the end of the day, gender identity seems to be the most reasonable parameter,” says Vilain. In other words, if you want to know whether someone is male or female, it may be best just to ask.

    But perhaps Andy has some qualifications that override these experts? Let’s check. According to his “about” page:

    A common response to my posts has been to question my qualifications for writing. This is known as an ad hominem attack and I will always try not to engage. The truth of whether homeopathy is better than a placebo has nothing to with what exams I have sat, and how many hours I have studied homeopathy texts. Either it works or it doesn’t.

    Hahahahaha. Okay, we get it dude. You’re some unqualified know-nothing but you don’t see that as any impediment to contradicting actual biologists. Lol.

    The core of Maya Forstater’s beliefs in her court case were that sex was a binary and sex was immutable. Despite lots of angry words and invective The @skepchicks have failed to show that this is not true and have instead invoked straw man arguments and thinking errors.

    It starts off with the required conclusions such as ‘transwomen are women’ and then works backwards. What must be true for this to be true? One thing that must be true is that our conceptualisation of biological sex must be wrong.

    This here, is what psychologists call “projection”.

    The claim that “trans women are women” has ever been a starting point is obvious baloney. Society started with, “Trans people are mentally ill weirdos”, and treated them accordingly. As with gay people, clinical practice demonstrated that trying to “fix” trans people was futile – they were not, in fact, broken. The modern scientific consensus is that being gay, or trans, is a natural part of human diversity, and all these people need is acceptance. That a society should accept transgender people (“trans women are women”) was the end-point of decades of evidence-based clinical experience and ethical reasoning.

    It is, in fact, transphobia that starts with its conclusion. No-one in their right mind would ever start with “there are two types of gametes”, and end up with, “we must insist of misgendering trans people”. The only way people ever get there is working backwards. Bigots start with, “I don’t want trans people to exist / be accepted”, and then work backwards. They ask, “what argument can I come up with to reach my conclusion?”. So they ask themselves what’s different about trans people, observe that by definition trans people live in a social category not defined by their anatomy, and so insist, for no obvious reason, that science demands everyone must be defined by their anatomy. It’s as idiotic as insisting that we shouldn’t accept gay people because of reproductive biology. But Andy doesn’t care about reason. He cares about making up excuses to marginalise trans people. As Watson said:

    They came to their belief first, for other reasons, and then attempted to build up science and reason in a way that makes it look like it supports their belief.

    Yep. That’s Andy in a nutshell.

    More Andy:

    We see defenders of evolution such as @pzmyers reacting like the worst frothing mouth evangelical preacher when asked to defend the idea that women can have penises.

    Haha, what a baby. Mate, you got banned from a blog. The blogger wasn’t the least bit “frothing at the mouth”, he swatted you away like an annoying flea. Get over it. PZ Myers is used to dealing with hordes of creationists and other assorted ratbags. Numpties like you have gotten short-shrift at Pharyngula since forever. You’re not special. I find it amusing you’re such a cry-baby.

    ****************************************

    So anyway, since Andy claims to be Mr Science Guy; what does science actually say about trans people?

    Well first, the consensus is that trans people are not mentally ill or delusional or pretending, but that being trans has a biological basis:

    The medical consensus in the late 20th century was that transgender and gender incongruent individuals suffered a mental health disorder termed “gender identity disorder.” Gender identity was considered malleable and subject to external influences. Today, however, this attitude is no longer considered valid. Considerable scientific evidence has emerged demonstrating a durable biological element underlying gender identity.1,2 Individuals may make choices due to other factors in their lives, but there do not seem to be external forces that genuinely cause individuals to change gender identity.

    Secondly, the consensus is overwhelmingly – based on decades of evidence – that trans people are happier and healthier when allowed to transistion, and accepted as their experienced gender:

    We conducted a systematic literature review of all peer-reviewed articles published in English between 1991 and June 2017 that assess the effect of gender transition on transgender well-being. We identified 55 studies that consist of primary research on this topic, of which 51 (93%) found that gender transition improves the overall well-being of transgender people, while 4 (7%) report mixed or null findings. We found no studies concluding that gender transition causes overall harm.

    So any skeptic worth their salt would conclude that a healthy society is one which accepts trans (and gay) people because such a society is placing human wellbeing above stupid ideology like, “we must force people into social categories on the basis of gametes even though we don’t actually have any idea what gametes a person produces without invasive testing”.

    Make no mistake; when Andy bangs on and on about gametes he is doing so with the explicit intention of rationalizing the ostracism of trans people. He has no other motive. It’s bigotry folks. Nothing more.

    • SilentBob. You write lots of stuff – but let try to keep this short. In the first half, you appear to rely ion the Claire Ainsworth article in Nature. This is an opinion piece inthe News Section of the magazine. It is not a peer reviewed article. Her sources do not say sex is a spectrum – they stick to the binary. Ainsworth adds that interpretation as part of her ‘opinion’.And it is am opinion she later withdrew.

      You will note this is the exact same conclusion I come to in my above article.

      The mistake Ainsworth made – as do so many here is to conflate disorders of development and chromosome abnormalities with sexes. These are two classes of concepts. Sex is defined as above in my article. As with any biological process, it will be subject to the usual development conditions and issues. This does not make a ‘spectrum’ of sexes any more than cancers make a ‘spectrum of organs’.

      You will not find any peer-reviewed biology paper by biologists that characterise sex as a spectrum. This is pure ideology and a shameful state that ‘sceptics’ cannot dismantle this stupid idea.

      I make no claims in my article about the nature of Trans experiences. But you do appear to contradict your self. Gender dysphoria is not a psychological condition you say, but the symptoms can be alleviated though medical intervention. I see.

      The flapdoodle surrounding gender identity is vast. It is at best an incoherent concept in desperate need of Ockham’s Razor. It is a shame sceptics are not prepared to use this tool.

      One last point, you say “It is, in fact, transphobia that starts with its conclusion. No-one in their right mind would ever start with “there are two types of gametes”, and end up with, “we must insist of misgendering trans people”.”

      Understanding what it means to be trans cannot avoid tackling the biology of sex. Sex is real and material and it is a fact about them. It is a . fact that there are two gamete types and two corresponding sexes. It is a fact that trans identified people will have a sex. It may well be that they wish to deny this or want to be another sex, but it is still a fact. This is not ‘misgendering’. We are not talking about ‘gender’ – whatever that is. And As the Forstater case makes clear, Maya had no intention of being rude to people she met by not addressing them as they wished. Forstater wanted to reserve the right to be able to speak about facts. Because the facts of someone’s sex are vital when we talk about the sex-based rights and protections that women have rightly accrued in society. To deny women these facts is an injustice and misogyny.

    • From the article:

      Many people never discover their condition unless they seek help for infertility, or discover it through some other brush with medicine. Last year, for example, surgeons reported that they had been operating on a hernia in a man, when they discovered that he had a womb11. The man was 70, and had fathered four children.

      So he didn’t identify as a woman. Indeed, what do such conditions have to do with gender identity?

    • I am nut sure what you think is being ‘exactly contradicted’ in that article? It goes into more detail but does not contradict the central role of the SRY gene in determining sex. And the article does not make any headway into suggesting there are not two evolved pathways – male and female – which may be subject to rare development disorders.

  5. ‘Gender’ (originally just a grammatical term) is now used to refer to a psychological and social state. Sex is fairly immutable, barring intersex, but intersex is not what this discussion is about. So we have immutable karyotypes, variations in phenotype (which is not what this is about), and gender on a spectrum.

    Let’s move discussion forward.

  6. A Biologist who has worked as a molecular geneticist writes:

    Actually Sry doesn’t switch anything on. All Sry does in point of fact is bend DNA. This is often in gene activation necessary to bring a distant enhancer in contact with the transcriptional machinery poised on the TATA box and activate it.

    It is necessary for male sex determination but by itself it is not sufficient.* Your article would have been better if you had just stuck to chromosomes and gamete sizes which would have been sufficient to your article.

    Something else has opened the chromatin of the genes being activated and recruited the transcriptional machinery and of course the transcription factors have been made and gathered on the enhancers. These things don’t just happen you know.

    What the fact that activating SRY in XX embryos makes male offspring tells us is that female is not actually the default state. Instead its the state the embryo defaults into when SRY is not activated. Because SRY by itself is necessary but not sufficient so all the machinery and all the open chromatin to make males is present in female mammalian embryos just not used, the vast majority of the time. Some intersex conditions might just be due to leaks from all that poised machinery.

    In a dim distant past I sat in seminars by Robin Lovell-Badge who discovered SRY or members of his group. I suppose it must show 😉

  7. Are skeptics supposed to be skeptical about everything EXCEPT the dogmas of social justice?

    If you’re going to go at things totally scientifically (which would precllude such tactics of calling one’s opponent a “bigoted fuckface”), then one would want to inquire into just what all the steps of reasoning are in between “biological sex is more complex than what you learned in middle school” and “Therefore, all of the incoherent and contradictory things transgender activists argue ideologically about sex and gender must be accepted totally without reservation.”

  8. Hey Andy,

    I don’t do twitter, but I noticed you displaying some characteristic cluelessness here:

    https://twitter.com/lecanardnoir/status/1247573907139440642

    and thought I’d help you out.

    This question has been researched in the peer-reviewed literature and Surprise! your transphobic speculation holds no water:

    These findings suggest that the recently observed exponential increase in referrals might reflect that seeking help for gender dysphoria has become more common rather than that adolescents are referred to gender identity services with lower intensities of gender dysphoria or more psychological difficulties.
    [… ]
    Our study assured that adolescents referred to a long existing specialized transgender service did not show critical changes in key demographic, psychological, diagnostic, and treatment characteristics over 16 years with the exception of a shift in sex ratio. This may suggest that in the early years, only the tip of the iceberg of the actual number of transgender youth was presented to a transgender clinic and this iceberg has come to surface in recent years. In other words, it seems to be that the increase in the number of referrals is probably due to the fact that feelings of GD are more common than originally expected, rather than that the threshold to register at a transgender clinic has decreased in such extent, that a group of other adolescents is seen nowadays. This finding suggests that a larger group of adolescents who experience GD is able to profit from gender affirming treatment, including puberty suppression.

    Maybe in future, form you opinions of the basis of reason and evidence, not idle speculation, or what you want to be true. You know… like an actual skeptic.

    • It is rather depressing to have to say this, but have you actually thought about this paper? It compared adolescent cohorts – so the part of my tweet that suggested a shift to younger presentation that the study I was talking about is not addressed in this study. Your citation also acknowledges the shift from boys to girls in presentation – a big shift in demographic. As I said in my tweet. And as always, I would take with a pinch of salt any study that used the ideological language of ‘assigned males and females’. You then know the authors have their gender goggles on. Their analysis is clearly in favour of there being a pool of ‘closet’ young ‘trans kids’ rather than the much more plausible social and peer models for this. Ideological flim flam.

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