Skepticism

Correction or Censorship? An Anti-Trans Study Sparks Controversy

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Transcript:

Last year, Lisa Littmann, an assistant professor at Brown University, published a paper in PLOS One claiming to show evidence for the existence of Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria. By the name, you can guess what this disease is: the terrifying chance that one day, out of nowhere, you might suddenly and unexpectedly be robbed of your VERY GENDER. One woman was walking down the street talking to friends and out of nowhere she suddenly started screaming, ripped off her dress, and started doing push-ups. Witnesses say that within five minutes she had sprouted a full beard with a handlebar mustache.

Okay no, it’s not quite that fun. It’s the idea that adolescents may suddenly realize they’re transgender, with no previous warning or desire to be another gender, with the further idea that this happens because they are consuming trans-friendly media and interacting with other trans-curious people. Currently, there are no scientific studies that support this claim — in fact, the writer Zinnia Jones found in a deep dive that the idea comes from three forums for people who are critical of transgender people and science: 4thwavenow.com, transgendertrend.com, and youthtranscriticalprofessionals.org. Remember those sites, as they’re going to be important later.

So Littman took it upon herself to study the phenomenon and published “Rapid-onset gender dysphoria in adolescents and young adults: A study of parental reports,” claiming that her research studied 256 trans-identified adolescents and young adults aged 11 to 27 and found that there were “cluster outbreaks” of trans-ness, with several people in a community coming out as trans around the same time, and that about half of the people “had experienced a traumatic or stressful event prior to the onset of their gender dysphoria.” PLOS One published her results, and thus established the first scientific evidence for gender dysphoria being socially and environmentally-based.

Except…not really. Littman didn’t actually study any trans-identified adolescents and young adults. In reality, she surveyed the parents of trans-identified adolescents and young adults, and never followed up to investigate their responses. So in reality, this entire thing is only what parents perceived, not what trans people actually experienced.

It gets better (worse): where did she find those parents? Well, she found them on three websites: 4thwavenow.com, transgendertrend.com, and youthtranscriticalprofessionals.org.

Yes. The “evidence” for rapid onset gender dysphoria comes ENTIRELY from surveying the people who came up with the term, who hate trans people, who don’t actually believe their kids are trans, and 10% of whom couldn’t even report whether their kids still identified as trans. 50% of them didn’t know whether or not their kids had read anything about transitioning online prior to coming out, but Littman still claims that her research shows the internet is in part to blame.

So yeah, this study is a mess. Of course there are some parents who think that their kids’ trans identity came out of nowhere! The same is true of the homophobic parents of gay kids, who hide their homosexuality by being as butch or as femme as it takes to not get kicked out of the house or beaten to death. And of course they’ll notice that their kid was hanging out with other queer kids — queer kids find each other! Just like any marginalized identity, like being the only black kids in a predominantly white school, or the only women in an engineering school, or just being one of those weird art kids with emo hair. You find your people and you sit with them at lunch and it helps you keep your shit together no matter how shitty your home-life is.

This study came out last year, so why am I talking about it now? Well, because after a very long investigation, PLOS has concluded that the critics are right, and edited the paper to make it clearer that this is actually a study not on trans youths but on a certain segment of parents’ understanding of their trans kids. Which, in that case, it actually is a fair study! “Here’s what transphobic parents think about their trans kids” is a legitimate field of research and I’m happy to see it in print when it’s accurately presented.

PLOS’s conclusion has, of course, angered transphobic people who were excited to think they had a scientific justification for their bigotry. Fox News is on the case, claiming that the edits to Littman’s paper means she was “censored.” This is typical, and it’s exactly what bigots accuse “SJWs” of doing in science — claiming that your feelings are a valid response to good science. They aren’t. Just because you think this means she’s censored doesn’t mean she was — in fact, her data is still available in full. The only thing that changed was to make her headline accurately reflect what that data showed. As Glenn Fleishman pointed out on Twitter, “I can survey 256 people about their pizza preference and title a paper, “How pizza owners order toppings.” When PLOS requires me to correct the paper and it now reads, “Here are pizza toppings people likes,” my survey methods may remain valid for that headline!”

Criticism isn’t censorship, and in fact scientific criticism of published papers is crucial. As many investigations have shown over the years, peer review simply isn’t enough to stop false, misleading, and bad studies from seeing the light of day. To truly make sure that research is rigorous, we need to check it and recheck it. We need to pick it apart and replicate it until we’re sure. And just because you liked the original conclusion of this paper, it doesn’t mean that conclusion was valid. Sorry Fox News fans, but your feelings don’t trump science.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor.

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