Is This Progressive College Anti-Science?

How do you know your gender?  At the conservative Weekly Standard last week, Jonathan Last took Smith College to task for leftist anti-science when it came to gender identification.  Are Last’s accusations fair?

First, some background.  Smith College, an historic women-only school in western Massachusetts, has finalized its position on transgender students.  In short, the leaders at Smith decided on what we might call a “past-the-gate” rule.  If a student identifies as a woman when she applies, she may be admitted.  This is true no matter what gender she was assigned at birth.  If, however, someone identifies as a woman as a freshman, but transitions to a man during his time at Smith, he will be permitted to remain, even though Smith maintains its women-only rule.

Make sense?  In other words, the leaders at Smith want to recognize students’ right to identify their own genders.  It is not biological hardware that determines gender, Smith agrees, but rather a person’s identification.

Is this anti-science?  Last thinks so.  As he puts it, this decision

has shown that the left’s allegiance to capital-“S” Science is only a sometimes thing. Progressives believe that science contains the definitive answers to all questions—except when it doesn’t, and we must accept the idea of deep, human truths, which might contradict science.

Of course, anyone who spends time with culture-war issues knows that the Left embraces plenty of anti-science.  There are lots of progressives who oppose vaccines and genetically modified food.  But this transgender case seems trickier.

Last accuses Smith of ignoring the claims of science.  He implies that the scientifically verifiable claims of biology should be given more weight than people’s subjective ideas about their true gender identification.

Deluded?  Or scientific?

Deluded? Or scientific?

Now, maybe I’m blinded by my progressive prejudices here, but isn’t there a scientific reason to believe that gender is something beyond simple biology?  In other words, we may be born with primary and secondary sexual characteristics, but there is a divide between having certain biological characteristics and identifying as a particular gender.

So Last’s accusation raises an interesting question.  If we view gender identification as merely a belief, a feeling, or a choice, then Smith College’s decision seems to place those non-scientific things above scientific proofs.  But if we trust mainstream scientists such as those at the American Psychological Association, gender identity is something more.

So who are the real anti-scientists here?  Conservative intellectuals who deny the internal aspects of gender identity?  Or progressive college leaders who ignore biological verities to respect students’ preferences?

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29 Comments

  1. Um, psychologists aren’t scientists. You know that, don’t you? Psychologists are nearer to astrologers.

    Reply
    • Ha. I’ll look forward to telling that to my colleagues in the psych department. Those silly guys waste all their time studying rat brains, when they could just ask the rats for their Zodiac signs! But seriously, I get your point, but I stand by the idea that there is not the same level of confidence in the mainstream scientific community about the meaning of “gender” as there might be, say, about the meaning of “evolution.”

      Reply
  2. Weird.

    Whether the “female student” requirement is a reference to biology or to personal identification seems to me to be entirely a policy question for the college administration.

    I don’t see that there is any science question at issue, except in the mind of Last.

    Reply
  3. Whatever you opinion on transgenderism, it’s not anti-science.
    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/02/150213112317.htm

    Reply
    • Agellius

       /  May 12, 2015

      “According to the researchers the article does have some limitations due to the small numbers of individuals studied and therefore conclusions should be drawn with caution.”

      Reply
      • True. But the theory is in line with current scientific understanding and therefore not anti-science. The whole point of science is to better understand the inconclusive.

  4. Agellius

     /  May 12, 2015

    What I don’t understand about transgenderism is, what exactly is meant by “gender”? If it’s not determined based on physical characteristics, then what is it? We are often told by feminists that gender roles, such as the way men and women dress and who is the provider and who cares for children, are cultural constructs. We’re also told that it’s sexist to talk about women being more emotional and men being better at math and so forth. So the non-physical traits that we associate with gender are nothing but cultural constructs.

    Well, what’s left to constitute an objective gender identity which is not a mere construct?

    Reply
    • As established if you’re looking for concrete answers they don’t exist. Delving into conjecture we know that language is a social construct, and we know that a child will absorb whatever language(s) they are exposed to and that this will have an effect on how they develop. We know that children will also absorb whatever cultural standards they are exposed to, but for the most part they only absorb the facets of one gender, despite the fact that pretty much everyone is exposed to both. The basis for how a child determines which gender to focus on is the core of the matter at hand, but this mechanism is believed to be neurological, and established in utero. Attempts to alter gender identity have pretty much all failed.

      Reply
      • Agellius

         /  May 12, 2015

        It sounds to me like you’re saying that gender identity is a set of social constructs, but yet the set of social constructs we will “focus on” is physically, i.e. neurologically determined. I don’t mean to be flippant — possibly I’m missing the point — but I can’t help wondering, how do neurons know one social construct from another?

      • You’re trying to establish certainty where none exists, but at least you’re starting to ask the right questions. How does the brain establish gender identity? It was once believed that gender roles were taught by caregivers, though this much has been debunked fairly conclusively. It is known that children will display a solid understanding of gender identity by around the age of three. It’s these two facts have have led to the belief that gender identity is likely to be neurologically based.

  5. Agellius

     /  May 12, 2015

    If gender identity is determined by physical traits — that is, it’s neurologically based, and neurons are physical objects — then wouldn’t you have to say that the feminists are wrong when they insist that there is no difference between men and women other than size and strength (and, obviously, genitalia)?

    Reply
  6. That’s a clever strawman, but I’m not going to bite. The point I’m driving at is that the human machine is incredibly complex, the belief that it is possible for someone to posess the body of one gender and the brain of another is not only scientifically plausible but also in line with current research.

    Reply
    • Agellius

       /  May 12, 2015

      OK. But you’ve just admitted that gender is a matter of brain as well as body.

      My next question would be, if transgenderism is a mismatch between brain and body, why necessarily change the body to match the brain instead of vice versa?

      Reply
      • Admitted? It’s the point I’m trying to make, yes that’s precisely what I’m saying, to split hairs the brain is a part of the body, in fact the nexus of the body, but anyway…

        You’re next question touches on conversion therapy, in short it doesn’t work so well. If you’re at all familiar with the story of Leela Alcorn she specifically cited conversion therapy as primary factor in her suicide. This is probably the most well known example but there is a great deal of evidence that conversion therapy is problematic.

        That’s not to say that solid psychiatric evaluation isn’t important, far from it. Not every person who transitions ends up happy with themselves afterwards, and there are a wide range of factors to consider when dealing with gender dysphoria. My advice to anyone considering gender transition is seek professional help and not commit to anything permanent until after extensive evaluation.

  7. Agellius

     /  May 12, 2015

    I don’t doubt that conversion therapy can be problematic. I do doubt that sex-change surgery is not.

    Reply
    • Certainly not something to be done lightly, it really does help some people though. For me such things are a ways off yet.

      Reply
      • Agellius

         /  May 12, 2015

        So if either one can be problematic, why is one ruled out categorically and not the other?

        By the way, when I asked “why necessarily change the body to match the brain instead of vice versa”, I wasn’t necessarily referring to conversion therapy. What I had in mind was that if gender dysphoria has a neurological basis, then why not explore the possibility of neurological treatment? In other words, why not pursue a medical treatment that deals with the brain rather than the genitals?

      • Sorry, I should pay more attention. Brain altering treatments… really? You feel that’s preferable to body alteration. Hey more power to you, but I’d choose body altering over brain altering without question. Also currently such therapies don’t exist, though there was one intersting study involving mice in which they were able to change their sexual behavior post utero
        http://www.psypost.org/2015/03/researchers-unravel-mechanism-that-plays-key-role-in-sexual-differentiation-of-brain-32986

      • I should also point out that only a small percentage of trans people go through with the surgery, that’s one of the major public misconceptions about us. In fact many trans people don’t even take hormones or otherwise attempt to physically alter themselves, every story is a little different.

  8. Agellius

     /  May 12, 2015

    Not brain altering. I’m not talking about a lobotomy or something. I’m just saying that if an illness originates in the brain, it seems like that’s the place you would want to go for the cure.

    For example they apparently figured out recently that Lou Gehrig’s disease originates in the brain (http://www.cedars-sinai.edu/About-Us/News/News-Releases-2014/Cedars-Sinai-Study-of-Lou-Gehrigs-Disease-Shifts-Origin-Focus-to-Brains-Motor-Neurons.aspx). Wouldn’t you think that now that they know this, the obvious next step will be to figure out how to treat the area of the brain that causes the disease?

    They might continue prescribing physical therapy, and medications that help support breathing. But these apparently only treat symptoms, not the cause. Likewise, it seems to me that if gender dysphoria originates in the brain, then treatment ought to focus there, and that sex-change therapy, rather than being a cure, would only be treating a symptom.

    Reply
  9. As I mentioned such treatments don’t exist, there have been efforts to develop such treatments and some day it may happen. Going back to the original problem the cause has yet to be fully established, so treatment really isn’t an option until there is a better understanding.

    Also, and I may be opening a can of worms here, but being transgender isn’t an impairment. The problems we encounter entirely systemic, calling it an illness is not an accurate assessment. My honest opinion is that the ideal solution is to teach people to get over themselves and learn to respect those who are different, rather than expect us to fundamentally change who we are.

    Reply
  10. Agellius

     /  May 12, 2015

    You know what, I thought that “transgender” referred to people who had TRANSitioned from one GENDER to another, and that “gender dysphoria” was the name given to the condition that causes them to seek the surgery . From what you say, I now realize that “transgender” refers to anyone suffering from gender dysphoria. So there’s one thing I’ve learned. : )

    Reply
  11. Agellius

     /  May 12, 2015

    I’m surprised that you say being transgender is not an impairment. I understood that people sought sex-change surgery to relieve mental and emotional suffering, and that this was the justification for lobbying to have it covered by insurance. For example, “In June 2008, the American Medical Association (AMA) House of Delegates stated that the denial to patients with gender dysphoria or otherwise covered benefits represents discrimination, and that the AMA supports “public and private health insurance coverage for treatment for gender dysphoria as recommended by the patient’s physician”. [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sex_reassignment_surgery]

    In fact, gender dysphoria is apparently also known as Gender Identity Disorder. [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gender_identity_disorder]

    Of course it does make sense that some transgendered people could suffer from it more than others, and maybe some don’t suffer from it at all. But if it’s a diagnosed condition that causes suffering and requires treatment, that sounds like a disorder to me.

    Reply
  12. Like I said, can of worms, and we’re dealing with some fairly complex politics here. Perhaps I should have stated that with *proper treatment it’s not an impairment (*bear in mind proper means something different for each individual). For me my stress levels are definitely down since starting my transition and HRT. To be honest I can’t fully explain it, I don’t believe there’s anyone that can.

    There’s certainly a lot more information available now that when I was a kid dealing with these feelings. At the time I thought I could change myself, at least I tried very hard to. I was convinced there was something wrong with me, what I’m learning now is that many of my biggest problems stemmed from trying to be someone I wasn’t.

    Another thing to note is that the term Gender Identity Disorder was changed to Gender Dysphoria in the 5th edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) because of the negative connotation, though as with all language the old terminology still lingers.

    Reply
  13. Agellius

     /  May 12, 2015

    I appreciate your patience with my questions. It’s much easier to gain mutual understanding when people can discuss these things frankly, yet civilly.

    “Another thing to note is that the term Gender Identity Disorder was changed to Gender Dysphoria…”

    I understand. But “dysphoria” means “discontent”, so it still doesn’t sound like something completely benign.

    An observation: If you’re saying that there’s nothing wrong or disordered about being transgendered, if it’s a natural condition with natural causes, and nothing to be ashamed of, then why not just be who you were born to be, man with feminine inclinations or mannerisms or what have you, and do your best to be content and proud of it? Why try to change yourself physically through chemicals and surgery (realizing that not all trans people go that route)?

    Reply
  14. Right now I’m trying to figure those things out. I find the hormones help, and there’s an element of the subconscious, I definitely want to appear more feminine, but I never wanted to want this, if that makes any sense. Imagine it’s 3 am, and you know there is cake in the fridge. You don’t want to get out of bed because it will be a lot of effort, you don’t want to eat the cake because you know people will judge you. But you really really want to get out of bed and have some cake.

    Reply
    • Agellius

       /  May 13, 2015

      That’s a helpful analogy. Thanks again for patiently fielding my questions. God bless.

      Reply
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