Look to the evidence, but don’t gloss over it if you don’t like it

September 30, 2022 • 12:20 pm

I’m not going to dissect this entire article from Nature; I’m too dispirited about how it, its American equivalent Science, and, indeed, nearly all scientific journals I read, are acting, tinting their science for ideology. You can read the article by clicking on the screenshot below, but I want to highlight just one of its assertions.

The author identifies himself, and it’s clear that he’s somewhat of a trans activist:

I am founding co-editor of the journal TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly, and the author of a book on how sex classification is regulated. It’s naive to think that politics and social mores have no place in lawmaking, but seldom has policy been so disconnected from science and data. The rights of trans people, including myself, have been weaponized in a culture war.

There’s nothing wrong with being a “trans activist” if you’re fighting genuine wrongs inflicted on transgender or transsexual people. And to Currah’s credit, he does claim that one must use real data if you’re making assertions. If you claim that having transsexuals use the bathrooms of the sex they identify with” is a harmful act, then you have to show it, defining what “harm” really means.

Now that’s a tough call in many cases, as it involves people’s feelings, philosophy, “fairness”, and morality. But there’s one area where claims can be adjudicated with data, and that’s sports. The issue is, and has always been, whether transsexual females, born as biological males, should compete in athletics against biological women. My own feeling, which is based on data as well as on attendant feelings of fairness, is that such competitions are unfair to biological women who want to do sport. That’s because the data show that trans women, even after hormone treatment, retain athletic advantages that accrue during male puberty, making them more likely to defeat “cis” (non-transgender) women. And of course I reject entirely the view—promulgated by, among others, the Biden Administration, the state of Connecticut, and the ACLU—that men who simply identify as women, and have had no medical intervention, should be allowed to compete on women’s teams.

But here’s the bit of Currah’s article that seems to involve a bit of dissimulation (my emphasis)

The gap between research-informed, reasoned debate and gut-feeling absolutism is just as obvious in sport. In June, Sebastian Coe, president of World Athletics, declared that “biology trumps gender” when hinting at moves to exclude transgender women from track and field sports.

Invoking biology is a rhetorical move, not a data-driven conclusion. It’s also wrong. From a medical perspective, sex is not the uncomplicated either–or proposition that many laypeople imagine it to be.

Those arguing for total bans on trans girls and women competing as girls and women rely on studies comparing the athletic performance of cisgender men with that of cisgender women. But that’s not an apt comparison. A better one would be between transgender and cisgender women. Sports researcher Joanna Harper at Loughborough University, UK, is one of a number of scientists who have found that hormone therapy significantly reduces athletic advantages (J. Harper et alBr. J. Sports Med.55, 865–872; 2021). More research like this could clarify how hormones and other factors affect athletic performance. That understanding should guide policy.

And indeed, it’s true, as you might expect, that hormone treatment of biological men transitioning to women reduces measures of strength and muscle mass related to athletic performance. It would be surprising if it didn’t! But the question is not whether there’s a significant reduction, but whether hormone treatment roughly equalizes the athletic abilities of cisgender and transgender women?  (By the way, it is fair to compare the performance of cisgender men with that of cisgender women if you’re arguing that medically untreated men who identify as women should be allowed to compete in women’s sports.)

And no, hormone treatment never asymptotes at athletic equality.  For the article above, you can see this merely from its abstract (my emphasis)L

Twenty-four studies were identified and reviewed. Transwomen experienced significant decreases in all parameters measured, with different time courses noted. After 4 months of hormone therapy, transwomen have Hgb/HCT levels equivalent to those of cisgender women. After 12 months of hormone therapy, significant decreases in measures of strength, LBM [lean body mass] and muscle area are observed. The effects of longer duration therapy (36 months) in eliciting further decrements in these measures are unclear due to paucity of data. Notwithstanding, values for strength, LBM and muscle area in transwomen remain above those of cisgender women, even after 36 months of hormone therapy.

At the end of the paper one of Harper et al’s conclusion is this:

  • It is possible that transwomen competing in sports may retain strength advantages over cisgender women, even after 3 years of hormone therapy.

So yes, strength, muscle mass, and and muscle area are decreased by hormone therapy. But look at the last sentence in bold: equality is not achieved, even after 3 years of hormone treatment (far longer than the Olympics used to recommend). Why did Currah say that physiological and morphological traits related to athletic ability decline with hormone treatment, but leave out the critical result they never get to the levels seen in cisgender women?

In February I posted about twp related articles not cited by Currah (one study here and the other here), both reaching the same conclusion as the Harper et al. study: changes that occur during male puberty that give biological men athletic advantages over biological women can be reduced by hormone therapy in transitioning biological men, but never decrease (at least not over 2-3 years of observation) to levels seen in biological women.

Of course, more research needs to be done, for sample sizes are small. But the data so far show that changes in male puberty cannot be effaced with hormones, eliminating any athletic advantage of transgender women.

Now what to do about these data is something I won’t discuss at length; my view is that the data already show enough to bar hormonally treated transgender women (and untreated men who identify as women) from competing in women’s sports.  And you can’t gloss over that data by saying, “well, yes, hormone treatment does reduce the athletic ability of transgender women.” That, after all, is not the right question.

If you haven’t read my earlier post, I recommend doing so, as well as looking at the three papers linked above.

14 thoughts on “Look to the evidence, but don’t gloss over it if you don’t like it

  1. It appears that the author is not following his own advice, and is instead cherry picking data that support the outcome he wants.

  2. My advice is to stop playing the game by their rules.

    These people aren’t “trans women.” They’re men. Men trying to play women’s sports. We should call them out for what they are.

    And stop talking about gender. Gender has nothing to do with this. Gender is masculine and feminine. It’s not sex. We use sex as the standard for everything from bathrooms to sports to pronouns.

  3. A charitable reading might be that Currah is unaware that hormone therapy doesn’t erase the athletic advantages entirely. But I doubt that such a reading is valid—after all, he is the co-editor of a major journal on trans-gender issues. Assuming that he knows that hormone therapy doesn’t erase the advantages, perhaps Currah thinks that significant reduction of male advantage is *sufficient* to enable cis- and trans-women to compete fairly on a level playing field. I’m willing to be convinced, but he needs to make the argument. I sincerely hope that Currah didn’t leave facts out in order to make his position more palatable. Knowingly leaving facts out is not a good look.

    1. It is a very simplistic view that there are not multiple advantages involved.
      Ventricular wall thickness, heat generation and dissipation abilities, airway dimensions all have effects on high level performance, and are among the many, many characteristics that differ between the sexes.
      But that is just about athletic advantage. There are some social issues that should not be neglected.
      When you advocate for a male to female trans person to be allowed to change and shower with the regular girls, you are simultaneously advocating for those girls to be pressured or forced into changing and showering with someone they know is not a girl. Some people are unfazed by these sorts of things, but there are a lot of people, preteen girls in particular, that are sometimes really freaked out in such situations.
      Do we just toss those girls to Moloch?

      All of this has no natural and logical end. There are absolutely creepy guys who will take advantage of these rules just to be able to watch little girls undress, and to show them his Johnson.
      There is a movement to pressure men to stop using urinals for diversity.
      The American Political Science Association posts signs in the rest rooms at their functions asking that men so refrain.

      Many of us generally support the idea that most of what other people choose to do is none of our business. But the larger trans issue inevitably has moved past allowing people to live as they will, and on to how the rest of us must change how we act and what we profess to believe.
      Worse, they want improper access to our children.

  4. I saw the article and knew that we’d see it here :).
    That statement that “sex is not the uncomplicated either–or proposition that many laypeople imagine it to be” made me react with some anger, since of course the term “sex” is supposed to be a shorthand for biological sex — to biologists — not just laypeople for cryin’ out loud! And in humans sex pretty much is an either-or proposition as it has to do with gonadal tissue. So even in Science we are (of course) seeing the continued campaign to re-write scientific language in the service of a very specific form of activism.

  5. If I read that paper correctly, those “significant reductions” [in hand grip strength] were 25 per cent or less. Sort of like saying “Mr. A borrowed $1,000 from Ms. B, but he refuses to pay off the loan in full. He says I’ve paid back $250, so so were even, right?” Even if the reduction was 75%, it would still give an unfair advantage to transgender women.

  6. Speaking of dissimulation: “In June, Sebastian Coe, president of World Athletics, declared that “biology trumps gender” when hinting at moves to exclude transgender women from track and field sports.” No, he didn’t. No one — repeat, no one — has suggested that “transgender women” be prohibited from engaging in athletics. The issue is whether men should be permitted to compete in athletics against women, or stated another way, whether women should be “allowed” to have their own athletic events. I think Coe undoubtedly knows this, and if I’m right then I suggest that “dissimulation” is a way-too-charitable characterization.

  7. The sub-title of Currah’s piece gets off on the wrong foot. Politicians cannot be excluded from “guiding” laws. They bear, by definition, the political responsibility for the laws they pass, and only they can pass laws. Politicians are accordingly free to ignore science in making laws, or to give it less weight than other considerations.. If it were shown scientifically that biological men (on gender treatment, say) have no athletic advantage over women, the politicians would still be within their legitimate sphere to ban men from women’s locker rooms just because the women don’t want them there.

    That Currah is misrepresenting the science is egregious but beside the point.

    1. Replying to Leslie Macmillan. The issue of transgender athletes competing with women is an issue of fairness, and is separate from the issue of who should be allowed in women’s locker rooms.

      1. But the politicians still make the laws. No one else does. It is either naive or disingenuous to argue that science somehow will make laws or policy without the decision by politicians, whether they are elected legislators or people who sit on governing boards of sporting organizations.
        Someone who subscribes to the view that ”transwomen are women. Get over it” will not see the issues as separate.

    2. > the politicians would still be within their legitimate sphere to ban men from women’s locker rooms just because the women don’t want them there.

      Some women do, some don’t, and some don’t care. Regardless, there is a third option beyond letting politicians regulate locker rooms, and leaving locker rooms fully unregulated. Allow the owners of locker rooms to decide individually whether and how to segregate. That is my understanding of how pre-1965 segregated facilities operated in parts of the United States. I would prefer they be fully desegregated, but the libertarian in me does appreciate the rights of private property owners.

      I miss the 1990s, where Ally McBeal made it look like desegregated restrooms were the wave of the future, instead of incessant squabbling about who is man enough to use the men’s room. *sigh*

  8. In June, Sebastian Coe, president of World Athletics

    Wasn’t Coe a candidate (possibly an MP) for the Conservative party a couple of decades ago. Not, IIRC, terribly successful, which would explain him moving back to the sports arena. Where I think he had previously won prizes not worth (to me) remembering.

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