Doctrinal battles in academia

transgender symbolNew York Times health and science reporter Benedict Carey has had more than a few interesting stories this summer. I particularly liked his write-up about how firstborn children have higher IQs. I’m a last born, for what it’s worth. For years he’s covered the case of one J. Michael Bailey, a pscyhologist at Northwestern University. Yesterday he wrote about the academic dispute involving Bailey, the former head of the psychology department:

The central figure, J. Michael Bailey, a psychologist at Northwestern University, has promoted a theory that his critics think is inaccurate, insulting and potentially damaging to transgender women. In the past few years, several prominent academics who are transgender have made a series of accusations against the psychologist, including that he committed ethics violations. A transgender woman he wrote about has accused him of a sexual impropriety, and Dr. Bailey has become a reviled figure for some in the gay and transgender communities.

To many of Dr. Bailey’s peers, his story is a morality play about the corrosive effects of political correctness on academic freedom. Some scientists say that it has become increasingly treacherous to discuss politically sensitive issues. They point to several recent cases, like that of Helmuth Nyborg, a Danish researcher who was fired in 2006 after he caused a furor in the press by reporting a slight difference in average I.Q. test scores between the sexes.

“What happened to Bailey is important, because the harassment was so extraordinarily bad and because it could happen to any researcher in the field,” said Alice Dreger, an ethics scholar and patients’ rights advocate at Northwestern who, after conducting a lengthy investigation of Dr. Bailey’s actions, has concluded that he is essentially blameless. “If we’re going to have research at all, then we’re going to have people saying unpopular things, and if this is what happens to them, then we’ve got problems not only for science but free expression itself.”

Bailey argued, in his 2003 book The Man Who Would Be Queen, that some men who desire to change their sex are driven by an erotic fascination with being female. Conventional teaching is that most people who desire sex changes are correcting a biological mistake of being born the wrong sex. And as political as most academic fights go, you can imagine how heated this one is.

Let me be clear: this story is not directly about religion at all. It’s about political correctness and academic independence and all sorts of other juicy things. But I think it’s worth considering from a journalism and religion angle. So many of the hottest religion stories are framed as religion vs. science — assuming not only a conflict but a superiority of supposedly objective reason, logic and scientific method.

One of my husband’s best friends is a cell biologist and we were recently discussing how the academic funding system reinforces conventional views and makes it somewhat difficult to deviate or experiment with alternate views. Particularly considering how much scientific research is conducted with federal taxpayer dollars, this funding mechanism is understandable. But it’s worth considering how much pressure is on scientists to follow governmental or big business research goals.

Carey’s story is readable and very balanced, quoting Bailey critics such as one of my favorite economics professors (Deirdre McCloskey). Interestingly, he doesn’t mention that McCloskey is transgendered — someone I began reading as Donald McCloskey. I’m not sure why that information was deemed unimportant, but I can’t help but think more transparency is wise in a story about political correctness and questionable motivations. Carey does mention the transgendered status of Bailey’s other critics.

Anyway, Bailey went through holy hell after the publication of the book. While the Lambda Literary Foundation nominated the book for an award, prominent transgendered activists were alarmed. One compared Bailey’s views to Nazi propoganda. Four men who changed their gender and discussed same with Bailey wrote letters of complaint to Northwestern. One claimed Bailey had sex with her. A transgender advocate downloaded pictures of Bailey’s children and posted them on her website with sexually explicit captions. The university launched an investigation, as did Dreger:

Dr. Dreger is the latest to arrive at the battlefront. She is a longtime advocate for people born with ambiguous sexuality and has been strongly critical of sex researchers in the past. She said she had presumed that Dr. Bailey was guilty and, after meeting him through a mutual friend, had decided to investigate for herself.

But in her just-completed account, due to be published next year in The Archives of Sexual Behavior, the field’s premier journal, she concluded that the accusations against the psychologist were essentially groundless. . . .

The accusation of sexual misconduct came five years after the fact, and was not possible to refute or confirm, Dr. Dreger said. It specified a date in 1998 when Dr. Bailey was at his ex-wife’s house, looking after their children, according to dated e-mail messages between the psychologist and his ex-wife, Dr. Dreger found. . . .

“The bottom line is that they tried to ruin this guy, and they almost succeeded,” Dr. Dreger said.

ulcerBailey’s book was social science — not grounded in hard science — but he was doing what scientists do. He threw out an idea and tested it. It may or may not be worthy, but it’s interesting how vociferously it was fought. It’s also worth noting just how much political pressure scientists face. Consider this quote from Carey’s piece:

Dr. Ben Barres, a neurobiologist at Stanford, said in reference to Dr. Bailey’s thesis in the book, “Bailey seems to make a living by claiming that the things people hold most deeply true are not true.”

Yes, and from Darwin to Freud to Dawkins, this is precisely what scientists do. But challenging science and transgendered activists can be just as — if not more — difficult as challenging religious doctrine. Think about all the myriad of academic debates dealing with cloning, embryonic stem cell research, evolution and global warming. And consider this other bit of reportage from the article:

One collaborator broke with Dr. Bailey over the controversy, Dr. Bailey said. Others who remained loyal said doing so had a cost: two researchers said they were advised by a government grant officer that they should distance themselves from Dr. Bailey to improve their chances of receiving financing.

“He told me it would be better if I played down any association with Bailey,” said Khytam Dawood, a psychologist at Pennsylvania State University.

Next time reporters pit science vs. religion, it’s worthwhile to investigate a bit further on both sides of the equation.

NB: I chose that peptic ulcer image on account of how conventional wisdom held for decades that stress caused ulcers. In 2005, Barry Marshall and Robin Warren won the Nobel in Physiology or Medicine for successfully challenging prevailing dogma in showing that bacteria cause peptic ulcers.

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  • Jerry

    I’m glad you decided to cover this story. I have a valuable exercise – word substitution. What would the people attacking Bailey with everything but literal pitchforks say if a controversial idea about Christianity was published and which was attacked by notable/notorious Christians? You and I both know the answer to that question.

  • Chris

    Thanks for the thoughtful post on this. I do just have one quibble. You write:

    Bailey’s book was social science — not grounded in hard science — but he was doing what scientists do. He threw out an idea and tested it.

    However, according to Dr. Dreger in the same NYT piece you cite:

    Moreover, based on her own reading of federal regulations, Dr. Dreger, whose report can be viewed at http://www.bioethics.northwestern.edu, argued that the book did not qualify as scientific research. The federal definition describes “a systematic investigation, including research development, testing and evaluation.”

    Dr. Bailey used the people in his book as anecdotes, not as the subjects of a systematic investigation, she reported.

    This is not only not hard science, but it also fails to meet the standards of social science.

    I point this out not to excuse the behavior of many of Dr. Bailey’s critics – their quest to personally ruin him is a gross abrogation of academic freedom and is despicable. However, it’s important that the baby of substantive questions about the quality of Dr. Bailey’s research not get thrown out with the bathwater of a politicized vendetta.

  • Brian

    “based on her own reading of federal regulations, Dr. Dreger, whose report can be viewed at http://www.bioethics.northwestern.edu, argued that the book did not qualify as scientific research.”

    Good grief. I have a PhD (in Astronomy) and I am quite certain that the US government does not get to define what is or is not “scientific research” in any meaningful way. Science is, fundamentally, the notion that we can learn about the universe by observation. How exactly observations are interpreted is the real difficulty, and how interpretations by individual scientists become accepted among the wider community is a messy process (recall the old joke about making sausage & legislation–well, making scientific consensus could be added to the list). The people who are opposed to Dr. Bailey (as portrayed in this article, at least) are anti-science where this issue is concerned–they clearly feel that certain interpretations (indeed, certain observations) are impermissible.

  • Chris

    I’d amend your statement to say that “Science is… the notion that we can learn about the universe by systematic and rigorous observation.” Granted, the interpretation process does get messy, but without agreed upon methodologies with which to gather data, we wouldn’t even get to that point.

    As for your contention that the US government doesn’t get to define what scientific research is in any meaningful way, I politely disagree. The fact that government agencies dole out millions of dollars in research funding suggests that they do, in fact, get to decide what qualifies as scientific research, and these decisions do have a meaningful impact.

  • Brian

    Oh, I fully concede that the federal government has overwhelming influence by setting rules about who is eligible to receive money from the NSF and other funding agencies. My point was that if some guy in his garage (or even some woman at Princeton, for that matter) doesn’t dot his i’s and cross his t’s in exact conformity with whatever rules some NSF bureaucrat has written down somewhere, doesn’t mean that what he’s doing isn’t “science.”

    The most ironic part of the article for me was this: “Dr. John Bancroft, then director of the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction, said to Dr. Bailey, “Michael, I have read your book, and I do not think it is science,” according to accounts of the meeting.”
    Well, I tried to watch a PBS hagiography of Kinsey a few years back, and “scientist” isn’t the word that comes to mind when attempting to describe how he operated. “Psychopath” seems more apt, and that has all to do with his methods, not with his particular conclusions.

  • http://home.sandiego.edu/~baber H. E. Baber

    Actually, you can get lots of mileage–and bucks–by publishing books that purport to prove that men and women really are, universally and deeply, different psychologically in exactly the ways we’ve always thought. Witness the roaring success of the Mars/Venus literature and ancilliaries. And if you’re an academic, rather than a “Dr.” with a degree from an unaccredited diploma mill like John Gray, and anyone takes you to task, you can raise a legion in your defense by shouting, as loudly as possible, “political correctness!”

    Maybe I should try it.

  • http://aebrain.blogspot.com Zoe Brain

    The assertion has been made that those who criticise Bailey’s work as both unscientific and a hatchet-job are anti-Science, merely reacting to an unpleasant truth, or possible truth.

    I’ll give some quotes from Bailey’s book.

    “Homosexual transsexuals tend to have a short time horizon, with certain pleasure in the present worth great risks for the future.” p. 184

    “Prostitution is the single most common occupation that homosexual transsexuals in our study admitted to.” p. 184

    “Nearly all the homosexual transsexuals I know work as escorts after they have their surgery.” p. 210

    “In this sense, homosexual transsexuals might be especially well-suited to prostitution.” p. 185

    “Most gender patients lie – - – ” p. 172

    ” – - – autogynephilia seems to be a type of paraphilia. Paraphilias comprise a set of unusual sexual preferences that include autogynephilia, masochism, sadism ,… , frotteurism , … necrophilia, beastiality, and pedophilia.” p. 171

    “If a man has one paraphilia, then his chances of having any other paraphilia seem to be highly elevated. p. 172

    “The best established link is between autogynephilia and masochism.” p. 172

    “Cross-dressing has also been linked to sexual sadism – although most autogynephiles are not sexual sadists, they are more likely to be sadists compared with men who are not autogynephilic” p. 172

    (Bailey’s students are) “especially hesitant to support surgery for nonhomosexual transsexuals – - – When I press them they say – - – ‘But they don’t have the wrong body, they are mentally ill’. ” p. 206

    This book is not a study. There are no numbers, nor citations, merely a number of stories based on fact, but with bits changed or fiction added on to support the narrative. Bit I’m starting to editorialise. The facts and quotes above should speak for themselves. Try substituting the token “black” for “homosexual transsexual”. Or “Jew” for “autogynephile”. See if that would have been deemed offensive, or merely possibly an unpleasant truth.

  • http://wwrtc.blogspot.com Art Deco

    This book is not a study. There are no numbers, nor citations, merely a number of stories based on fact, but with bits changed or fiction added on to support the narrative.

    It is atypical for academic research in disciplines where quantitative methods are the norm to be presented in books. Such research is presented in articles in academic journals which employ two means of peer review: scholarly editors and scholarly referees (of which the former know the identity of the submitter of a paper under review and the latter do not). Dr. Bailey and his co-authors have published some fifty-odd academic papers over the years in venues such as this (including at least one paper on paraphilias).

    The book in question was published by Joseph Henry Press, whose editorial mission is described as follows:

    The Joseph Henry Press (JHP), an imprint of the National Academies Press, was created with the goal of publishing well-crafted, authoritative books on science, technology, and health for the science-interested general public.

    Which is to say they publish popular science books utile for classroom instruction and public educations, which is the purpose that book publishing serves in the natural sciences. The question for interested parties would be if conclusions advanced in the book are supported by his more esoteric research.

    That aside, it is not illegitimate to make use of interviews to advance theses about human behavior if they are supplementary to experimentation and survey or if they are used to formulate hypotheses.

    Try substituting the token “black” for “homosexual transsexual”. Or “Jew” for “autogynephile”. See if that would have been deemed offensive, or merely possibly an unpleasant truth.

    The salient question is whether or not his statements are true, not whether or not they irritate you.

  • Pingback: I’m Just an Angry Transsexual Activist Mafioso : Transadvocate

  • James Fulford

    Carey’s story is readable and very balanced, quoting Bailey critics such as one of my favorite economics professors (Deirdre McCloskey). Interestingly, he doesn’t mention that McCloskey is transgendered — someone I began reading as Donald McCloskey. I’m not sure why that information was deemed unimportant, but I can’t help but think more transparency is wise in a story about political correctness and questionable motivations.

    On the anti-Bailey, pro-transgendered website, TSRoadmap.com, Forbes Writer Dan Seligman is criticized for mentioning this in his article.

    13. Note Seligman’s use of Dr. McCloskey’s male name again and second diagnosis of transvestic fetishism (crossdressing).

    Apparently it’s one of those things you’re not supposed to mention.

  • http://www.intersexualite.org/ Curtis E. Hinkle

    We are starting our own Satire provided to us by Shirley Spammer.

    For information about the Baileyesque figure in the Intersex community
    http://www.intersexualite.org/AliceDreger.html

    I feel that Dreger and Bailey deserve NO serious response from most of us at this point. What Dreger has done in my opinion is use her social status and her normborn privilege to caricature me and in so doing it has been crafted into a genetic definition of me as
    disordered sexually. This is a very dangerous caricature. What Shirley Spammer and Andrew Kerr have done in the following satire is simply mirror back what they are doing; but, of course, there is no real danger there because it is not to be taken seriously as a
    scientific, truthful article. What Dreger and Bailey have done is very serious and even though it is a caricature, a perversion of what I am, it will end the lives of many like me in the future because of having a DSD or more precisely: a genetic birth defect suitable to be eliminated from the gene pool.

    Dreger and Bailey are the only ones with the TRUTH. All others are liars or erroneous. That ends the discussion. Freedom of expression only applies to the ones doing the research and speaking about us and for us – never to us the actual subjects. Like Sophie Siedlberg has so clearly pointed out, when we the subjects object, then the objection is the subject of another clinical study of the squeaks of the labrats. By accident of birth, we have no access to their Ubermensch truth. This is our disclaimer. We don’t pretend to have the truth. Only those who speak for us do.

    The first two in ours series:
    Professor Rike Mengele Fatbastard and Dr M. Alice Doormat De Vile Are Innocent!!
    “When Professors are branded neo Nazi scum and liars”

    Access to the articles in this series
    http://www.intersexualite.org/AliceDreger.html#anchor_68

  • Eli

    Such a thoughtful post Mollie. So true. I wish I knew what to say.

  • Pammie

    Sadly Baileys’s book isn’t even good “social Science” and Dreger has an ax to grind for some reason. The real problem with Baileys’s book besides the made up anecdotes and his “gaydar” business is that if you disagree with either of his “social science” labels for Transsexuals, then you are branded a liar. Based on that example, I can say that Bailey is the south end of a north bound horse and if you disagree wth me you are a liar.
    The REAL danger is that Baileys work of fiction might get used in classrooms and result in therapists that do not understand TS people.
    For the record, I am NOT homosexual, nor am I a prostitute or an “esort”. I AM a post-op Woman

  • http://www.intersexualite.org/ Curtis E. Hinkle

    Some of us in the intersexed community are discussing the following topic. I thought I would share this with you. Please feel free to share this with anyone who might be interested. (This was sent to an intersex support group after some members expressed concerns about Dreger’s recent paper which once again outs Anjelika as intersexed,
    i.e. having a DSD – cryptochordism is very definitely a DSD and Anjelika was born with this DSD and it is revealed once again in Dreger’s article.)
    ——————————————————————————-

    Dear Members,

    I have been very upset by what I consider to be the abuse of an intersex research subject in Bailey’s very small sample of autogynephiles. I was so concerned that I called Anjelika Kieltyka and had a long conversation with her. Here is what I found out from Anjelika herself.

    1) She adamantly opposed being used as a representative of
    autogynephilia herself because she knew she did not fit the category herself.
    2) She formally expressed this opposition and challenged Bailey for using her medical information in a way that she felt was manipulative and inaccurate
    3) She is intersexed but has identified more as trans
    4) She is a femme lesbian (what I had suspected all along)

    She is very angry that Dreger, who is an intersex activist, has perpetuated this false description of her as an autogynephyle in her recent article on the Bailey controversy because she invited Dreger to come to speak to her personally and Dreger refused and would only have a telephone interview.

    She feels totally abused by what Dreger has done and intends to expose her and Bailey for the continued abuse of her when they should have known all along she was intersexed.

    Manipulating medical information about a person who is intersexed to try to prove anything about Male to Female transsexualism is fraudulent because the research subject is not MALE to begin with but intersexed.

    Kind regards,
    Curtis E. Hinkle, Founder of the Organisation Intersex International
    http://tinyurl.com/2kv4dw


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