The site Science-Based Medicine (SBM), renowned for debunking quackery and insisting on a firm evidential basis for medical treatments, has put its foot into it, and by “it” I mean the controversy about Abigail Shrier’s new book dealing with “rapid onset gender dysphoria”.
It started, as I’ve described before, with a favorable review on the site by physician (and SBM editor) Harriet Hall, assessing Abigail Shrier’s recent book Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing our Daughters. Shrier’s book, which I’ve now read, describes a phenomenon that she and others call “Rapid onset gender dyphoria” (ROGD). This is a phenomenon of recent origin in which young pre-puberty women (almost never boys) suddenly decide that they are really males, and, often with minimal advice and supervision, take hormone blockers to stave off puberty, followed by hormone treatment (and often surgery) to remove breasts and (rarely) construct surgical penises.
Shrier’s thesis was that these transitions are often motivated more by social pressure than innate feelings that one’s body doesn’t match one’s gender, and by transitioning, many of these girls gain affirmation and approbation from their peers, often on socia media. Further, Shrier maintains that these transitions are often poorly supervised and, if the girls weren’t given medical treatment but therapy, most would not transition but develop into adult women. Her book is largely a series of stories, largely because the ROGD is so recent that its origins—and whether medical treatment should be used (as well as the psychological and physiological outcomes)—haven’t been subject to rigorous scientific study. We know very little about how to deal with those who manifest ROGD.
Thus, rather than proving her thesis, which wasn’t Shrier’s intent, she wanted to raise red flags about a phenomenon that could have its origin in social pressure and lead to irreversible harm in adolescents who are often psychologically disturbed. The upshot is that we clearly need more research on this phenomenon before we start giving hormones to girls who, in their teens, decide that they’re actually boys. Hormonal and surgical treatment is, after all, irreversible.
Shrier doesn’t deal with the kind of gender dysphoria that manifests itself in early childhood and continues for a long period, or that is taken care of long after puberty in people like Caitlyn Jenner. She’s concerned with adolescent girls who suddenly declare that they’re boys and take immediate action to fix the situation. Their numbers have increased rapidly, raising the question about the origin of the phenomenon. Shrier’s book is neither shrill nor unempathic: she has deep sympathy for transsexual people who are heavily invested in being a member of their non-natal sex. Rather, she wants to call attention to the phenomenon of ROGD and to question whether surgery and hormones are the right answers for a temporary affliction, exacerbated by the climate of social media and physicians and parents who are told to do “the right thing” (facilitate transition), and who don’t hesitate before “affirming” gender change and supporting medical treatment.
I thought Shrier’s book, while not definitive, was well worth reading, and certainly not worthy of banning, a ban for which ACLU staff lawyer Chase Strangio has argued. It should start a conversations about the phenomenon and inspire the collection of data that don’t yet exist. But of course Shrier has been called a transphobe and has been widely demonized by the transsexual communty. One simply can’t question the Received Wisdom in this area.
Under the leadership of Steve Novella and David Gorski, SBM removed Hall’s review from their site, claiming that its egress was due not to social pressure but to Hall’s review (and Shrier’s book) being full of bad science and poor scientific judgment (you can still read Hall’s review at Skeptic Magazine). Novella and Gorski then posted a defense of the removal (replacing Hall’s review with three articles opposing Shrier’s view), citing several papers that I hadn’t read. Summarizing their defense, I listed six assertions by Gorski and Novella about why Shrier’s claims (and their defense by Hall) were bogus. Unable to evaluate them, as I wasn’t familiar with the literature, I just asked readers to judge for themselves.
Now, however, someone more qualified than myself, and more qualified than Gorski or Novella, has evaluated the data and their own claims. That person is Jesse Singal, who has read all the relevant literature cited by Shrier, Novella, and Gorski, and has published widely in respectable venues about transsexualism. He concludes that not only should Hall’s review have been allowed to stay on the site, but that Gorski and Novella have behaved badly—indeed, unscientifically—in rushing to damn Shrier’s book and Hall’s review. One can conclude, if Singal be right, that Gorski and Novella are behaving in a woke-ish fashion, mis-citing data as well as accepting results that confirm their views and rejecting those that don’t—for no good reason. In fact, Singal’s indictment of Gorski and Novella’s reading of the literature is pretty damning, implying cherry-picking, confirmation bias, and distortion of the existing data, which is not about ROGD, which Gorski and Novella imply, but dysphoria that starts early in childhood or comes to fruition in adulthood.
Singal’s piece was 40 pages long when I printed it out in 12-point type, so it’s a long read. I’d still recommend it, especially if you’re interested in transgender issues or SBM in general. You can read Singal’s article for free by clicking on the screenshot below, though he would appreciate a donation for his work.
To my own credit, which isn’t substantial, I did pick out some of the same problems as Singal does with the Novella and Gorski piece—for example my asking, despite their claim that medical organizations had very high standards for facilitatating transition, whether those standards were actually used very often (it seems that they’re often flouted). And I questioned whether the change of gender dysphoria from a “disorder” in the DSM-IV to “not a disorder” in the DSM-V was meaningful. Singal shows that it’s not.
But Singal’s analysis, or rather destruction, of Novella and Gorski’s defense is pretty damning. I urge you to read it for yourself. All I’ll do in this post is highlight, in Singal’s own words, the major problem with their claims. His words are in bold and indented, any comments I have are flush left.
First, Singal’s disclaimer:
I should re-emphasize that I’ve said repeatedly I think banning youth gender medicine is a terribly bad idea. The evidence for those “positive outcomes of early medical interventions” come from research that, as we’ll see, leaves a lot to be desired. But it does suggest that for kids with intense, persistent dysphoria who have been well-evaluated, who have any other mental-health problems under control, and who have have good family support, puberty blockers and hormones are likely to lead to the amelioration of what would have been a great deal of suffering. (I include these conditions because we simply can’t say much about the effectiveness of these treatments under different circumstances.) I do not trust legislators to override doctors’ and psychologists’ decisions in a context like this. But again, the evidence here is thin and low-quality, so at the very least it is imperative that any truly ‘science-based’ outlet communicate this uncertainty to readers. Science-Based Medicine has failed to do so.
Having mental health problems “under control” is key here, for it could have significant bearing on the claim that transitioning by adolescents reduces suicide and suicidal ideation. This is frequent claim for which there appears to be almost no evidence. The correlation could work the other way around: only those adolescents who have had therapy and thus low suicidal ideation are the ones who are allowed to transition.
But let’s proceed to Singal’s beef against Gorski and Novella. Again, if you have the time, I’d urge you to read his piece for yourself. He cites a lot of data, something Gorski and Novella don’t do.
Below I summarize Singal’s paragraph headers; each of which is followed by a substantial explanation in the article.
Problems in “The Science of Transgender Treatment” by Steven Novella and David Gorski
1). Novella and Gorski misinform readers about the difference between the DSM-IV and the DSM-5 entries for “gender identity disorder” and “gender dysphoria,” respectively.
2) Novella and Gorski argue that there is widespread adherence to the standards of care for youth gender medicine without providing any evidence that this is the case, other than referencing ‘countless’ interviews they neither quote from nor link to. They also misrepresent the World Professional Association of Transgender Health’s Standards of Care for the administration of hormones to adolescents.
3) Novella and Gorski badly misunderstand the nature of the desistance debate [JAC: “desistance occurs when adolescents grow out of their transgender identity as they age] and communicate a great deal of misinformation and undue skepticism about the desistance literature to their readers.
4) Novella and Gorski badly misunderstand Hall’s concern about regret.
What they mean is that the data on whether transgender people regret transitioning comes from a different group from the one that Shrier and Hall consider (adolescent girls).
5) Novella and Gorski write off Lisa Littman’s study of rapid onset gender dysphoria as “bad science” without explaining why or engaging with Littman’s own rather credible defense of her work, and they engage in some methodological cherrypicking in order to do so.
6) Novella and Gorski falsely report the result of one study and ignore the fatal weaknesses in another.
These problems involve citing studies of gender-affirming outcomes in adults as if they had anything to say about gender affirming outcomes in adolescents with ROGD.
7) Novella and Gorski conclude their article with a profound exaggeration of the available evidence for youth gender medicine that is completely out of step with what the evidentiary reviews conducted by major medical institutions in multiple countries have found, and make no attempt to explain how they came to such a different, more optimistic conclusion.
So, according to Singal, who gives a lot of the data that contradict Gorski and Novella’s claims, there are problems with their analysis of data, with selective citation, and even with ignoring data they don’t like. Singal makes a compelling case, and he ends with these words:
When it comes to hormones for gender dysphoric youth, it’s pretty remarkable to compare the assessments of Steven Novella and David Gorski with those of NICE.
Novella and Gorski: “[T]here is copious evidence supporting the conclusion that the benefits of gender affirming interventions outweigh the risks.”
NICE [the NHS’s National Institute for Health and Care Excellence]: “Any potential benefits of gender-affirming hormones must be weighed against the largely unknown long-term safety profile of these treatments in children and adolescents with gender dysphoria.”
What evidence are Novella and Gorski drawing upon that NICE missed? They should explain this striking discrepancy. And they should transparently correct their article where corrections are warranted, as well as add numerous points of elaboration and clarification. If they don’t, they will mortgage even more of their site’s long-term credibility than they already have.
This, of course, is not the end of the issue. Neither Gorski nor Novella are shrinking violets, and I’m sure they’ll defend themselves vigorously. But what they can’t do is produce data that don’t exist.