The journal Science, promoting athletic competition between trans women and biological women, abjures science and distorts data

May 14, 2023 • 11:30 am

Under Science‘s editor-in-chief Holden Thorp, who regularly writes authoritarian “progressive” pieces in his bully pulpit, the entire journal has become woke. (Fortunately, the science articles themselves generally remain untainted by ideology.) But who dares to object to this editorial trend given that every scientist wants their papers published in one of the world’s two premier science journals? (The other is the British journal Nature.).  And, as in Scientific American, the editor tends to display op-ed pieces catering to a woke mentality.

The report at hand is especially bad because author Rodrigo Ortega actually leaves out relevant data and distorts other data—all in the cause of promoting transgender women (most who have transitioned after puberty) being allowed to compete in women’s sports against biological women. The title question, asking whether transgender women should be banned from competing with biological women, refers to this recent ruling (excerpts from article are indented):

World Athletics (WA), the governing body for track and field and other running competitions, announced last month that transgender women who went through male puberty can no longer compete in women’s events at international competitions. The policy took effect on 31 March.

And it’s clear for two reasons that the author (and probably Science magazine itself) thinks that trangender women should not be banned.

a.) The article quotes only critics of the ban, not advocates. More important:

b.) The article quotes only one piece of science, based on a tiny sample size, that long-distance runners who transition from biological male to trans female don’t lose their relative position in competing against either members of the pre-transition versus post-transition sex. But they leave out two pieces of more extensive peer-reviewed data that biological males who transition to the female gender retain substantial advantages in athletic-informed traits retain their athletic advantages despite lowered testosterone. Further, the author distorts one study to make it look like transwomen attain athletic par with biological women, when in fact the study shows the opposite.

The clear answer to the question in the title below is NO. But the real answer is, if you go by the data themselves, is “yes.” I conclude that the Science article below is not only biased (probably by ideology), but also misleading, perhaps deliberately so.

Click the screenshot to read.

Two quotes against the WA ban, one from a grad student, the other from a geneticist. There are no quotes from people like Emma Hilton, who would undoubtedly say that the WA ban is the right decision. (I think it was, too.) They are biasing the article simply by using a subset of relevant people. Here’s one quote:

But Joanna Harper, a Ph.D. student at Loughborough University who studies transgender athletes’ performance, questions whether the WA fully considered the scientific evidence. “I was disappointed with the decision,” says Harper, who is transgender. “The idea that it was necessary to ban trans women to protect the female category seems so far-fetched.”

and, in response to the header, “Is there evidence that transgender women athletes have a physiological advantage?,” they quote a geneticist:

Not according to Eric Vilain, a geneticist at the University of California, Irvine, who specializes in gender-based biology. Very little research has been published on transgender athletes, and what has been published didn’t provide enough results to create evidence-based policies, says Vilain, who does not identify as transgender. “It’s not black and white.”

Then the magazine quotes two papers that supposedly show that becoming a trans woman gives you no biological advantage in sport over biological women. Here’s one quote:

For example, a 2021 review found trans women’s muscle mass remains high after transitioning, but their levels of hemoglobin—the oxygen-carrying protein in blood—were comparable to cisgender women’s. Increased levels of hemoglobin facilitate more oxygen transport to muscles when active, and men tend to have higher hemoglobin than women.

Well, click on the link and go to the paper by Joanna Harper et al. What you will find is that yes, Hb levels were comparable to those of cisgender women, but of course Hb levels are not the only factor involved in sport. The Harper et al. paper also says this: (my bolding):

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.

Conclusion: In transwomen, hormone therapy rapidly reduces Hgb to levels seen in cisgender women. In contrast, hormone therapy decreases strength, LBM and muscle area, yet values remain above that observed in cisgender women, even after 36 months. These findings suggest that strength may be well preserved in transwomen during the first 3 years of hormone therapy.

Note that although author Ortega talks only about Hb levels, he omits the conclusions about strength, lean body mass, and muscle area, which after transitioning are NOT comparable to those of biological women, but HIGHER—even after three years of testosterone therapy. The last sentence of the Harper et al. paper, “These findings suggest that strength may be well preserved in transwomen during the first 3 years of hormone therapy” is not even mentioned by Ortego, but conflicts completely with what he is trying to show with Hb levels.  This cannot be an error—not if Ortega read the paper—but seems to me an example of intellectual dishonesty. The dishonesty is compounded by Ortega’s failure to cite two papers that are far more relevant to judging whether trans women who go through male puberty keep an athletic advantage over biological women.

Here is the other evidence cited in the article.

A rare performance study on trans athletes, a 2015 study by Harper of eight women, found their race times slowed after transitioning from male to female, while their performance relative to sex-matched runners stayed the same. The results suggest they have no advantage over cisgender women.

It’s the same Harper, and in the paper itself (second link), the authors report that using adjusted measures of running ability in trans women relative to biological men before they transitioned, and then to biological women after they had transitioned, there was no significant change. Note that the sample size was eight, that more than half of the data were self-reported times, that these were not elite runners, and that the running abilities were measured via an algorithm rather than by placement in actual races.  The data might be all right, but I’m betting that trans women who actually run at these distances (5K and marathons) would perform much better against biological women than against men.

But what’s really almost duplicitous in this article, which came out last month, is its arrant neglect of much more extensive data that has accumulated in the last several years, in particular two reviews of athletic-connected traits in trans women measured before versus after transitioning after puberty. They’re cited in this thread by Emma Hilton, who was an author of one of the papers:

The reference:

Both of these papers came out after the ones cited by Ortega in Science, and I wrote about both of them in January of last year.  You should look at the original paper, and also read the summary article by Pike et al. But the papers tell the tale, and what’s below is from the summary of both papers quoted in my post (authors’ words). Don’t take my word for it; read the two scientific papers and the summary:

There have been two high-qualityhigh-impact academic reviews, both in leading sports journals, of muscle and skeletal physiology in transwomen who have, post-puberty, suppressed testosterone as part of their transition. The reviews cover longitudinal studies; that is, they contain pre-transition metrics such as thigh muscle area and grip strength, and matched data from at least 12 months, occasionally longer, into transition. All transwomen studied had been successfully suppressing testosterone to less than 10 nmol/l for at least one year, and would therefore qualify for inclusion in female sports categories under the regulations specified by the IOC and most sports federations. Collectively, the studies captured by these reviews cover over 800 transwomen in 10 original studies, with data acquired as a routine aspect of ongoing general health assessments within clinical care teams.

To summarize: In transwomen successfully suppressing testosterone for 12 months, skeletal metrics—height, limb/digit length, and shoulder/pelvic width—do not change, and the extent of muscle/strength loss is approximately -5 percent after 12 months, a modest change that is insufficient to bridge the baseline muscular differences between males and females.

Regarding musculoskeletal parameters, Hilton and Lundberg concluded: “The biological advantage, most notably in terms of muscle mass and strength, conferred by male puberty and thus enjoyed by most transgender women is only minimally reduced when testosterone is suppressed as per current sporting guidelines for transgender athletes.”

This conclusion was subsequently confirmed by Joanna Harper and her fellow researchers, who added: “Hormone therapy decreases strength, lean body mass and muscle area, yet values remain above [those] observed in cisgender women, even after 36 months.”

Note that the “subsequent confirmation” was written in 2021 by the same Harper who’s cited six years earlier as supporting transgender women’s “right” to compete in sports, but the author of the Science piece doesn’t mention that paper!

These results match the increasingly numerous examples of trans women taking top honors in various women’s sports.

So what we see is a very biased and distorted new article in Science that, I’m sad to say, looks as if it deliberately neglected highly relevant data showing that trans women retain significant phenotypic traits that would give them athletic advantages in sports competitions against biological women. Now you can say that perhaps the author didn’t dig deeply into the literature (though there isn’t much), but to me it looks like intellectual dishonesty in the service of the ideology Science has promoted in recent years.

It is negligent and reprehensible for the nation’s premier science journal to spin scientific data this way. The facts remain the facts, and to me they support the decision of the World Athletics that it’s unfair to biological women to be forced to compete in track and field against trans women.  In this article Science concludes otherwise, but can do so only by twisting previous data and neglecting more comprehensive and relevant data. Anybody who knows anything about this area—even a lowly geneticist like me—knows that data contrary to the author’s (and journal’s) apparent ideology is being omitted or distorted.  There is no excuse for this, and you can pass the buck up to the Editor in Chief, Holden Thorp.

28 thoughts on “The journal Science, promoting athletic competition between trans women and biological women, abjures science and distorts data

  1. Here’s how I look at it: There are people with penises and there are people with vaginas. Historically, the people with penises have been in charge, and the people with vaginas were supposed to shut up and do as they were told. That’s still the case, except that now some of the people with penises call themselves women.

    1. There is actually a funny (to me at least) true story along these line. The person who owns the Miss Universe contest has said “Welcome to the new era,” she passionately delivered. “From now on it’s gonna be run by women, owned by a trans woman, for all women around the world”. The new owner is a biological male.

  2. “’I was disappointed with the decision,’ says Harper, who is transgender.”

    This is what Thorp and others mean when they say that it matters who does science. This kind of science is not a search for truth but a search for clout.

    1. And the use of deliberate, conscious dishonesty to achieve it. How shall we have any faith in the papers published in Science until this nonsense stops?

      1. Mike, are those 2021 soccer rules still valid? Men being allowed to play on women’s teams with testosterone up to 10? I grant that your point was to highlight the rules for women taking exogenous testosterone to make themselves as manly as the highest normal female testosterone levels would.

        Pro leagues can do whatever they like. Whatever puts bums in seats.

        1. IDK if those are current. The policy used to be prominent on the NWSL web site but not currently.

    1. I’m not sure what you’re asking. Exogenous testosterone is a banned substance under doping rules that would lead to disqualification. The exception is for male athletes with hypogonadism, who can take physiologic replacement testosterone under a strictly monitored Therapeutic Use Exemption. TUEs for testosterone are not allowed for females.

      So a woman (regardless of whether or not she presented as male) seeking to compete in a men’s division would have to do it without testosterone. There might be a few women at the high school level who could overpower all the local boys especially in the high-skill sports involving balls but eventually they will run up against men with equal skill and greater power who will decisively beat them. A highly skilled female athlete has better career prospects, i.e., earning endorsement money, from beating other women, not getting annihilated by men no matter how we might admire her pluck and willingness to risk serious, career-ending injury.

      Even if the doping rules were changed to allow a TUE for testosterone in women who seek male appearance, the hormone is not by itself sufficiently potent to give her a serious chance at winning against men except at participation levels. It would only disqualify her from competing against women. Testosterone doping by women is a whole other issue threatening the integrity of women’s sport.

      Here’s what WADA has to say about therapeutic testosterone.

      1. We can boil this down to something simple: extra testosterone taken to improve performance is banned. Should not extra testosterone from gonads be seen in the same light?

    2. You’ve all answered my question, which was really rhetorical anyway.
      Trans men, with few exceptions, don’t tend to compete in men’s events because they’re at a biological disadvantage. This might not be true for sports like golf, but in general, succeeding in men’s events requires bone and muscle strength. Plus, from what I’ve seen, the issue of them “invading men’s spaces” is a non-starter – the days of Men Only clubs and the like are largely past.
      On the other hand, women have had to fight to reserve spaces for themselves.

  3. When I think about it, this situation looks like another example of the standard of merit being sublimated to the standard of inclusion.

    Female athletes — particularly at the elite level — train long and hard to improve their performance in order to give themselves an edge over their competition. They may struggle to increase/decrease their times; they may experiment with different ways to put a spin on a ball, or get a little bit more distance with a projectile. They’re striving for excellence by pushing their bodies to be as good as they can be. They want to win on merit.

    And here come competitors whose first major struggle is to handicap their bodies so they’re still good, but not too good. This is because they want to be eligible for inclusion in a less physically demanding category without wiping the women out too easily — but still winning, of course.

    This unprecedented situation turns the entire concept of sport on its head, and insults every woman athlete who works so hard to achieve a fraction of what the DEI candidate is trying to throw away.

    1. “When I think about it, this situation looks like another example of the standard of merit being sublimated to the standard of inclusion.”

      Agreed. Folks like Thorp have no more respect for the merit of an argument than they do for merit in hiring. What matters is the result that they seek. The Noble Lie, distortion of data, intentional omission of contradicting evidence—all are not only accepted but are actively encouraged if they contribute to the righteous cause. We see this increasingly across an array of issues, to the point where much reporting and editorializing has become indistinguishable from propaganda.

      I think Mark was spot on. This is a piece to be cited (I would add: by the foot soldiers in the culture war). Thorp will trade on his credibility because he believes his side will win. His compatriots will applaud him for advancing the cause; none of the “right side of history” crowd will care that the projected losers can see through the charade.

      The Thorps of the world also count on their fellow travelers of the Left who, while maybe disagreeing with much of the Woke agenda, will continue to support politicians who help entrench that agenda through government regulations and law.

    2. I continue to be amazed that people such as male>female gender presenting cyclist Veronica Ivy and MtF swimmer Lia Thomas have so little (no?) embarrassment or shame at their transparently dishonest and unfair strategies in pursuit of personal athletic aggrandizement.

      Any such athlete who is “proud” of, say, having beaten a woman to a pulp in an MMA ring (see: Fallon Fox), or “winning” some competition, really just displays a deep-seated egotism and utter lack of empathy and awareness, IMO.

      It’s sort of like people who “surgically” enhance themselves in one way or another: It’s obvious from the outside that the enhancements are not “real,” so why should anyone be impressed?

  4. I find it strange that people who argue for ‘diversity’ in science to counter the implicit bias of old white guys none the less argue for transgender women being allowed to compete in women’s sports without recognising their own implicit bias of young woke people.

    Of course the implicit bias of young woke people is righteous and therefore unquestionable and beyond reproach. /sarcasm

  5. Holden Thorp has a religion that he is fanatically devoted to. His religion is called ‘woke’. Like any good religion, ‘woke’ has mantras the you must believe. The highest mantra (of his religion) is “transwomen are women” and he believes. Reality (for him) is just an unwelcome distraction. Religious belief comes first.

  6. I just say let it happen for a while and let the results speak for themselves.

    Too be honest as a cis-gender biological man I really don’t get too concerned over this as what cis-gender women do in their sports is not really my business, if they for whatever reason go this direction, that is their problem, not mine.

  7. “So what we see is a very biased and distorted new article in Science that, I’m sad to say, looks as if it deliberately neglected highly relevant data showing that trans women retain significant phenotypic traits that would give them athletic advantages in sports competitions against biological women.”

    It’s much worse than that: the article explicitly says that there hasn’t been much study of the subject! It literally tells the reader that the data just isn’t available (but that, what little data is available says MtF have no advantage over biological women, even though the studies cited don’t say that, and actually say the opposite).

    I’d also note that long-distance running is literally the best possible physically demanding sport to report on if you want to try and show little difference between biological men and women, as it’s the sport in which they are closest. It’s an intentional choice to try and reach the conclusion that there’s no difference. Yet, despite that study’s small and extremely suspect sample, it still concludes that there are differences between MtF and biological women.

  8. Harper is a trans activist so anything she says is tainted. Her so-called study of 8 runners has been ridiculed by sports scientists. Males should never be allowed to compete against women at any level ever!

    1. I don’t think you’re being fair. Discounting her solely on her gender is unwarranted. One must look at her data and conclusions, as apparently others have done. I didn’t mention her trans status in my post.

  9. Readers, please support science, reality, common sense, and basic fairness to Women athletes.

    Biden still wants to eviscerate Title IX, the law that mandates equal opportunities for Women in education and athletics. He wants to add ‘gender identity’ to supersede sex so that trans-identified males can compete in Women’s sports. The proposal never even defines ‘gender identity.’

    Please submit your comments by Monday, May 15, on how awful Biden’s proposal is. Here is the link to submit comments:

    Thank you in advance!

  10. “After 12 months of hormone therapy, significant decreases in measures of strength, LBM [lean body mass] and muscle area are observed.”

    I find it obscene that any human being should be validated in mutilating themselves, especially in the name of ‘sport’. After 12 months on this medication I am now weaker than I was. In what crazy world is this counted as a success? As anything other than unethical?

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