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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.