How spam science is used against trans child news and research
Advertiser 1: It is the latest battle for transgender rights.
Advertiser 2: Arkansas adopts a bill that blocks gender-confirming care for trans youth.
Advertiser 3: Transgender children in Texas face new barriers to accessing health care.
Tulika Bose: Right now, you’re probably seeing the struggle for gender-neutral care for trans children unfold across the country in your news feeds and across the Internet.
Advertiser 4: In 2022, the power of science and literature will fall apart before the trans lobby.
Jules Gill-Peterson: We only see persistent forms of moral panic and attack on the very idea of transgender people, and so obviously science is armed.
Advertiser 4: A point biologist had to decide what biology was, and there were two: male and female.
Bose: But there is one thing that keeps popping up over and over again in an attempt to discredit transgender people’s rights: junk science. But first, what does junk science do, yes, junk?
First, you must understand the role that science has historically played in understanding gender and gender and how it is armed today.
Advertiser 4: You can not answer “Oh, so men can become women” just by wishing it so. Tell us how it works.
Bose: I spoke with Jules Gill-Peterson, a historian of science and professor at Johns Hopkins, who studied the history of trans children, about the actual history of research that has sought to define gender and gender.
Gill-Peterson: For a long time, that type of research on, you know, gender, sex and transgender people was incredibly poorly conducted. And it was often done with direct prejudice. This was often done with very poor methodology. And it was often done to increase the social control of people in a way, to force them to adapt to a gender binary.
Bose: Let’s go back to the 1940s and 1950s and specifically to the history of the word ‘gender’.
Gill-Peterson: The crisis for both doctors and psychologists in the 1950s was that they had no idea what made people men or women. These were not chromosomes. It was not gonads, right? It was not hormonal composition. It was not genetics.
They could not find any aspect of biology that reliably predicted who would be male or female. And so they met all these people whose bodies did not match how they felt on the inside.
As I had discovered when I read the journals, they would assign intersex children a gender, right, and they would perform surgeries and hormones on them to achieve that gender. But then the child would not identify with that gender. And that would cause so much difficulty. And so gender was created just to make a conceptual difference.
Bose: Peterson says the war on transgender people actually has its roots in the same principles that historically force scientific racism.
Gill-Peterson: We can talk about a kind of history of scientific racism that many people know that was basically a kind of projection of social hierarchies, right, out into the world.
White, northern European scientists only discovered that they were obviously the superior race, right?
And you see this kind of change, after World War II, away from types of biological explanations about race to kinds of cultural explanations that still come to the same conclusions.
Interestingly, gender history in medicine and psychology is actually a very important part of it.
Bose: And the thing is: a lot of outdated misinformation about sex, gender and transgender people is still quoted today.
Gill-Peterson: But I sometimes think that the line between junk science and legitimate science changes over time. So it’s really easy for people to kind of pick cherry ideas that they might want to use in a way out of context. And it’s a big pressure to put on, you know, someone who reads a newspaper article or rolls Twitter.
Bose: And if you want to talk about cherry picking data, the same psychologist who tried to force biological definitions of sex on children was the same psychologist who accidentally discovered something else.
Gill-Peterson: Just that the idea that sex is separate from sex, as separate from the body, that they do not always go together.
It is a concept that we often take for granted that is either associated with or invented by trans people in some way. It was an invention of behavioral psychologists who worked very closely with researchers in endocrinology in the 1940s and 1950s.
But they could not force children to then identify as boys or girls. That was their big problem. The team talks about this in a series of articles in 1955, published on Hopkins. They say that sex is basically just your feeling of being a boy or a girl.
Bose: And science has come a long way. It is increasingly understood now that gender is not a binary subject.
Peterson says there are still many misconceptions that disguise themselves as scientific consensus.
Gill-Peterson: The biggest, right, is that there is scientific consensus on what makes people male or female or what makes people trans. The anti-trans page really invokes outdated scientific concepts.
The idea that “Oh, we know what makes people male or female. It’s either the genitals or our idea of chromosomes.”
Everyone who is worth their salt will tell you that XX and XY are not the only chromosome combinations for humans.
Bose: So how and why should we dismiss junk science?
Gill-Peterson: Before I even decide if I would like to reveal something, I first just want to contextualize: “Where did this data come from?”
Their work may have been approved 20 or 30 years ago, but it would not be today.
Bose: And we do not have to go far to see moral panic. A 2018 study by a researcher from Brown University that suggests that peer pressure can get children to translate led to a journal publishing a corrected version.
But the same study is being used against trans children right now.
Gill-Peterson: So I actually think that the tools that we would bring, or how, to dismiss racial science or other types of not only extremely unscientific but also extremely offensive arming of scientific discourse,
I think we can use the same principles. So if we start from a point of view where we are not afraid to say, like, “Look, I do not like junk science targeting transgender people, because it hurts transgender people, and that’s bad science,” right?