Sex change on the table

The Dutch research subsidy allocator NWO had its annual Spinoza Prize event, in which science meets journalism. About this annual event I reported critically in 2012.

The event this year carried the theme of “The scientist as activist”. NWO had invited Alice Dreger as keynote speaker to explain about the advantages and pitfalls of mixing research in the morning with social activism in the afternoon.

Thus, all of a sudden we have sex change on the table. Also, when there is controversy, then one is obliged to look into details. Thus I spent Friday morning listening to Dreger and the discussion, and was forced on Saturday “the morning after” to fact-check it all.

NWO Bessensap in Amsterdam

The invitation at the NWO website was:

“On Friday 10 June 2016 the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) will organise the sixteenth edition of Bessensap together with the Dutch Association of Science Journalists (VWN). The event will take place at the Rode Hoed in Amsterdam. Bessensap has been revamped this year to be even more in keeping with current developments, both in science and scientific communication.

The goal of Bessensap is and remains to encourage interaction between researchers, science and mainstream journalists, and other communication professionals. The former title ‘science meets the press’ is being replaced by an annual current theme, however. This year it is ‘the scientist as activist’: professors protesting against cut-price meat and climate scientists warning of the present and future disastrous effects of climate change. What role should scientists play in the public debate? And how should science journalism approach activist researchers?

Keynote speaker this year is the American activist researcher Alice Dreger []. As a historian, she studies the history of science and medicine. At Bessensap, Dreger will discuss what happens when science (the search for truth) and activism (the search for justice) collide. After her keynote address, Dreger will continue her discussion with visitors during a debate on this theme.” (NWO website)

Dreger informed us about her personal experience. She had participated in a social controversy, defending a fellow scientist J. Michael Bailey against harrassment, and had become a target of harrassment herself too. Her own university also hit her work with censorship, after which she eventually resigned as professor of Clinical Medical Humanities and Bioethics at Northwestern. She relates her experiences in the bookGalileo’s Middle Finger: Heretics, Activists, and the Search for Justice in Science“.

Dutch journalist Asha ten Broeke was in the audience and praised Dreger’s book, as a thriller that should become a movie. Google shows a twitter exchange between Ten Broeke and Dreger, and an earlier report in a newspaper, Volkskrant June 4, that opens with the issue of prenatal dexamethasone.

Alice Dreger, 2016-06-10, NWO, "The scientist as an activist"

Alice Dreger about “The scientist as activist”

Developing a hypothesis on the controversy

I only want to develop a hypothesis about what is happening. I have spent a major part of the mornings of Friday and Saturday on this issue, with the only objective to have a fair grasp of the situation. It will not be possible to look into all details, which would require e.g. buying and reading Dreger’s book and all commentary. Dreger observes that books are often not read and still rejected, but I don’t intend to read a full book nor to reject or accept it. Once I have my hypothesis, then it is a later option to test it, but I doubt whether I will ever have time to do so.

The situation is complicated by that Dreger may be right on many aspects, like on the matter of prenatal dexamethasone. Dreger seems also to be right in the protest against censorship at Northwestern, but one can doubt whether resignation was the proper response.

Eliminating noise, it appears that the core issue is relatively simple. This is whether Michael Bailey has a sound scientific approach or only a journalistic report on the “Clarke Institute theory of gender crossing”.

Let me invite you to read these two texts, and for readers of Dutch also a third:

Bailey apparently states that there are only two types of crossing and when McCloskey states that her personal experience doesn’t fit those two categories, then Bailey must either call her a liar or revise his theory. Why not respect personal testimony ? There is no need to concentrate on McCloskey, for there are more people for empirical testing. Thus there is no need for controversy but need for more research, and the research question is already clear too.

We find light in the tunnel by the following approach: (1) Common sense. (2) McCloskey is a brilliant economist, and I am an economist who appreciates her work very much. Her statement is to the point. For example, McCloskey is a world authority on ethical theory, and when she observes that Dreger is shallow on ethics, while Dreger’s chair is on bioethics, then this is very relevant observation. McCloskey agrees with Dreger that Andrea James is an activist and no scientist, and this is actually easy to check.

The Huffington Post article has a curious treatment of McCloskey’s position. Using your thumb to invent that two critics of Dreger “talked many times” and still disagree, and implying that both then are wrong, is bad logic.

“Well, which is it? “Proven wrong” by “almost everyone” (McCloskey) or “unfalsifiable” and without “predictive capabilities” and “untestable” (Conway)? McCloskey and Conway must have talked many times. This discrepancy in how they attacked Blanchard’s theory shows how little they cared about its truth — or that they knew it was true.” (Seth Robert)

Robert also argues: “Deidre McCloskey and Lynn Conway are both powerful persons.” This is a misrepresentation. McCloskey has no power and can only use words. People who read her work tend not to take things for granted. I have no information about Conway.

As a scientist, McCloskey is Dreger’s best ally, and it is curious when these two minds don’t meet. When McCloskey invited Dreger to send a draft text so that she could comment to prevent later confusion, then this was proper science.

A background check on potential sources of bias

Bailey’s website informs us that he originally had a BA in mathematics, and after teaching secondary school for a couple of years went to graduate school in clinical psychology. Mathematicians are trained for abstraction, and it is not impossible that Bailey’s attitude still is rather abstract and theoretical rather than focused on empirical observation, even though he has been an intern in psychiatry. An empirical scientist would be much interested in the evidence that causes a rejection of a theory.

Dreger earned her PhD in History and Philosophy of Science. The topic of the PhD study apparently was on the history of “Hermaphrodites and the Medical Invention of Sex“. This background suggests that she has read about methods of science, but has no training by actually doing so. Dreger’s historical research apparently has alerted her to misconceptions by so-called scientists in the past, but dealing with current science today is a different issue. My impression is that Dreger has misread McCloskey’s accurate criticism of Bailey’s approach, and did not properly distinguish this criticism from social activists.

Adding to confusion and reducing it again

You should read the two or three texts above but let me mention that there are more sources, that contribute to information overload. For example there is Julia Serano, who has this criticism. Or there are withdrawn nominations for lammies. Etcetera, etcetera.

The bottom line is: it would be up to professor Bailey to answer to his critics.

It has been kind of Dreger to want to protect a fellow scientist from abuse by social activists. It is better to avoid the risk of becoming the next target. Best is to provide for a climate in the scientific world itself, so that Bailey indeed provides such answers. For example, Dreger might have translated McCloskey’s criticism into words such that Bailey would have understood better that this is criticism that needs a reply. One should not think that management of controversy is simple.

Insert of Tuesday June 14 2016

Though I really didn’t want to spend more time on this, I now located Dreger’s article at PubMed 2008, in which she clarifies that Bailey’s book, published at a scientific publisher, was not purely science but also intended to express personal opinions and speculations.

“From the start, Bailey intended this book to be very different from anything he had published before. Whereas most of his previous work consisted of peer-reviewed articles for scientific journals, this book would be a popularization—based on certain sexological findings of his lab and others, but replete with vivid stories of people the author had met, stories provided to put a human face on those findings. Along with accessible, abbreviated accounts of key scientific studies, the book would also feature the author’s hunches, speculations, and personal opinions. It would include suggestions for further reading, but no other documentation (Bailey, 2006b). Thus, TMWWBQ was never envisioned as a work of science in any traditional sense; instead, Bailey viewed the book as his chance to expose to the masses what he saw as the often politically incorrect truth about “feminine males”: boys diagnosable with “gender identity disorder” (GID); surgically feminized, genetic male children; male homosexuals; drag queens; heterosexual male crossdressers; and MTF transsexuals. Bailey also saw the book as an opportunity to make some money; when he was ready to sell the book, he engaged an agent, Skip Barker, who negotiated in November 2000 a contract and an advance from Joseph Henry Press (p.e.c., Bailey to Dreger, October 2, 2006). Joseph Henry Press is “an imprint of the National Academies Press […] created with the goal of making books on science, technology, and health more widely available to professionals and the public” (Bailey, 2003, copyright page).” (Dreger’s article at PubMed 2008)

Thus, Bailey was an activist himself, and it looks like Dreger may have defended not a fellow scientist but an activist.

Obviously, there is no objection to personal opinions and speculations, and these actually are an important source of information, as these for example might guide future research. However, the issue is to clearly distinguish those from corroborated findings. For example, I use a science name Colignatus. Apparently Bailey nor Dreger nor the editors of the Joseph Henry Press nor the editors of the journal that published Dreger’s article have been careful enough. Both Bailey’s book and Dreger’s article better be retracted. The abstract of Dreger’s article states:

“Dissatisfied with the option of merely criticizing the book, a small number of transwomen (particularly Lynn Conway, Andrea James, and Deirdre McCloskey) worked to try to ruin Bailey.” (In the abstract of Dreger’s article at PubMed 2008)

This fails as a description of what actually happened. Reading McCloskey’s statement on Dreger, referred to above, shows her position on content. This shouldn’t be misrepresented as being targeted deliberately at ruin. Perhaps others have stated such explicitly but McCloskey (p7-8) even explicitly denies this. Thus retract.

Dreger is right that the case causes some questions. When Bailey’s book is published at a science publisher, then McCloskey is right that research may be needed to have been submitted to the Institutional Review Board (IRB). If the book is “science journalism”, then this IRB is not needed, but then it shouldn’t be at that publisher. One cannot use one argument for the other issue. Dreger may also be right that “oral history” is excluded from IRB rules, but if Bailey uses such reports to put a face on statistical results, then he himself creates a mix that still falls under IRB (because one aspect is). Again you cannot use one argument for the other issue. Also Dreger should ask Bailey to retract and restate his views in a manner that avoids confusion.


Given this hypothesis, some tentative conclusions are:

  • The organisers at NWO should have had the same problem as I had, in needing to understand the situation. They should have been able to reason as above. They didn’t do so. They gave Dreger the floor, as if there all of this was entirely new and nobody had time to look into this. This is misleading to the audience, and generates a wider circle of confusion. It is costly to the audience, like I lost time in recovering what they should have done. The better alternative would have been to present the hypothesis as above, and allow both Dreger and others to comment, so that there would have been an informed discussion, leading to more information and reduced confusion.
  • The organisers at NWO left it there, and after Dreger had reported on the censorship, there was no statement by the board of NWO that they were appalled, and would investigate and potentially write a letter of protest to Northwestern. NWO has a department of science communication and they found it useful to give Dreger the floor for their own reasons of selling NWO, but, apparently, there was no commitment to really defend science against censorship.
  • This framing doesn’t help Dreger much. The newsmedia reported on the Spinoza Prize winners but not on the censorship of science at Northwestern.
  • Journalist Asha ten Broeke already reported on Dreger but should look into above hypothesis, in order to prevent misleading people.

After this discussion on controversy and censorship in the NWO lecture hall, various people in the audience went out onto the street, not to protest with banners, but to enjoy the good weather and the view of Amsterdam’s canals. Dutch people aren’t easily shocked about censorship of science.



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