How the WSJ handles the inconvenient facts of “rapid onset gender dysphoria”

Previously: Rapid onset gender dysphoria study misunderstands trans depersonalization; My letter to the Brown Daily Herald, and Lisa Littman’s response

I was recently consulted on an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal about the dispute over Lisa Littman’s study of a supposed new “rapid onset gender dysphoria” condition said to be contagiously spreading among youth. Jillian Kay Melchior describes my involvement in this controversy:

For background, I spoke with Melchior a week before her op-ed was published. She asked me to confirm that the two sentences about me were accurate, and I agreed they were. However, I informed her that the problems with the study are much more substantial:

So, a WSJ writer covering the controversy was made aware of all of these serious issues with the study a week in advance. I don’t see how I could have made it more clear that this is a matter of deeply flawed research and scientific criticism of that research — criticisms that would stand regardless of what any “ideologues” did or didn’t do at any point in time. Yet this engagement with the study’s substance — the very post-publication community review invited by PLOS One — is still reduced to an “effort at suppression” by “ideologues” against science.

Many people have rightly pointed out how the uselessly overbroad and practically meaningless theory of ROGD is based on egregiously biased sampling that selected for anti-trans respondents, as well as an ignorance of psychiatry and well-known transgender history. This theory is so bad, it implicates my articles on depersonalization in trans people — a condition already known to be real — as a causative factor in a (likely illusory) new “contagion”. I explained the many flaws of ROGD at length last month; my publication of that criticism can hardly be said to be an act of “suppression”.

Exactly how are we supposed to engage in critique of this study? We can do everything right — we can take the time to address the substance of the research, we can offer the relevant scientific review solicited by the journal, we can explain all of this quite succinctly to those who invite our comment — and that still won’t keep the Wall Street Journal from reducing us to mere ideologues fighting to suppress science.

Since the study’s publication, several others have elected to cover this controversy using the same framing of suppressive ideologues versus scientific facts. Writing for Quillette, Jeffrey Flier, a former dean at Harvard Medical School, accuses the study’s critics of making spurious and ideologically motivated criticisms intended to suppress science:

To me, what’s most conspicuous in this article is what it leaves out. Flier offers this screenshot of a Twitter exchange between trans woman Hailey Heartless and PLOS One:

He just happened to omit my adjacent tweet that did offer scientific criticism of the study’s misinterpretation of depersonalization in gender dysphoria, and was also acknowledged by PLOS One:

Is this not the very “assessment and scrutiny of published work” that serves as a “core method by which the scientific community correct errors”? Is it not an effort to build upon an imperfect preliminary observation? These contributions were neither spurious nor censorious. But if you choose to ignore the evidence that’s been placed right in front of you, then I’m sure it’s quite easy to say that critics of the theory “have not performed any systematic analysis of her findings” and must therefore be “motivated by ideological opposition to her conclusions”.

When I contacted Flier to let him know about the serious issues with the science of the study, he clarified that he was condemning the actions subsequently taken by PLOS One and Brown University, and was not taking a position on the quality of the study itself. He stated that while we may all have our opinions, this should never be used to influence a study’s publication.

This is an odd assertion. Peer review, corrections, and retractions are all practices that have their places in academic publishing, and these are all instances where certain arguments and opinions do hold influence over the publication status of a given paper. It is the application of human judgment of whether or not the paper in question meets required standards. When I wrote in to PLOS One expressing my concerns with this study’s misuse of my work, I described this as exactly what it should be: a correction. Correcting a scientific article to address its inaccuracies is quite the opposite of censorship — it is a step in the direction of improving the quality of research.

It is curious that someone would take a stance of supporting the study’s publication as well as its promotion by Littman’s university, while consciously withholding judgment of the study’s quality and overall soundness. When you decide to throw your support behind something, wouldn’t you want to be aware of just what it is you’re supporting, and whether that support is deserved? It is not at all outside the realm of possibility that a study can be so deeply flawed, it would in fact be appropriate for a journal to conduct additional review and a university to remove their press release promoting its findings. But when you choose to remain agnostic on the quality of the study, that possibility will not enter into your consideration — you wouldn’t be able to reach such a conclusion even in cases where a study is utterly abysmal and fully deserving of being withdrawn. While Flier accuses others of disregarding the science and acting as mere ideologues, his own choice to disregard the science is somehow above suspicion.

In his 1877 essay “The Ethics of Belief”, mathematician W. K. Clifford highlighted the issue of those who readily adopt a given belief on a subject while wholly dismissing the task of learning about it:

Proponents of the ROGD study have certainly made time to believe it. It is less clear whether they intend to take the time to understand it.

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Zinnia Jones

Trans feminist writer, researcher, and activist. Creator of Gender Analysis. Florida. She/her.