This is an object lesson not only in the pollution of science by ideology, but also in how to make a fool of yourself by not learning about other areas of science before you pronounce on them.
A reader affiliated with a UK earth-sciences department sent me a letter circulated around that department, but it’s also circulating widely. The link goes to the whole letter but I’ll reproduce only part of it:
From an authority figure:
I know that many of us are concerned with the current ‘kicking woke ideology out of science’ rhetoric. An open letter drafted by a number of scientists urges politicians to reject that: ttps://hull.onlinesurveys.ac.uk/edi_in_science. Please do sign and share as you think appropriate.
Note the urging to sign the letter, which, since it comes from a university official, be considered a violation of the Kalven Principle of Institutional Neutrality if it were in Chicago.
Thank you for expressing an interest in signing the letter to the Prime Minister, Secretary of State for Science, Innovation and Technology and Chairman of the Conservative Party, regarding their position on ‘kicking woke ideology out of science’.
The text of the letter is given below. This text has been generated collaboratively by scientists from different disciplines, people with expertise in the relationship between science and Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI), and those with lived experience of marginalisation. Some have signed the letter, while other valued contributers have felt unable to sign publically. A fully referenced PDF version of the text is available at Open Letter to UK Government.
Here’s a bit of the letter. You can see the full text at the link.
Dear Prime Minister and Secretary of State for Science, Innovation and Technology,
We are writing to express our anger and disappointment at the speech given by the Secretary of State for Science, Innovation and Technology at the Conservative Party Conference 2023, and accompanying social media post. These state that government policy will be ‘kicking woke ideology out of science’ and that ‘Conservatives are safeguarding scientific research from the denial of biology and the steady creep of political correctness.’ This was described as a plan “to depoliticise science”.
We are extremely concerned about both the content and possible implications of the speech, and what it says about the government’s views on both science policy and inclusion. We address these directly as follows:
And here’s the invidious bit involving denialism of scientific fact in the name of ideology (it’s apparently in response to the speech discussed above):
- ‘Denial of biology’. From the Secretary of State’s speech it is clear that this refers to the government’s increasing adoption of policies that put the lives and wellbeing of trans people at risk. When it comes to sex determination it is simplistic binary arguments, such as those used by the Prime Minister himself, that deny biology. The biology of human sex is significantly more complex than just XX chromosomes = female and XY = male. There are multiple levels of “biological sex”, including genetic, anatomical, physiological and hormonal, which may not align with each other 11,12. Even within genetic definitions of sex, there are multiple interacting genes involved in complex networks 11,12. Sex determination at birth is on the basis of external genitalia, so does not consider the multiple factors contributing to “biological sex”. Additionally, up to 1.7% of the population have Differences in Sex Development (DSD) or are intersex 11–13. To appeal to “biological sex” as the Secretary of State has done is over-simplistic, unscientific and exclusionary rhetoric under the pretence of objectivity 14. Furthermore, as the Secretary of State acknowledges, biological sex and personal/social gender identity are distinct. At least 0.5% of the UK population identify as a different gender to their sex registered at birth 15. Combining DSD, intersex, non-binary and trans communities, this represents nearly 1.5 million people in the UK that the government implies should be excluded from participating in biomedical, sports science and other research. Research in many contexts does not need to (nor should) restrict itself to a binary definition of sex or gender, and can be inclusive of intersex, non-binary and/or trans participants without losing scientific rigour. The Secretary of State directly criticises initiatives such as the Scottish Chief Statistician’s guidance with respect to sex and gender 16, but such pragmatic advice ensures accuracy in data collection and research design, and alignment with legislation including the Equality Act 2010 and the Data Protection Act 2018. We find it disturbing that over-simplistic or scientifically illiterate arguments about complex biological systems are being used to stoke so-called culture wars and make the UK increasingly hostile towards people identifying as intersex, non-binary and/or trans. Reductive and discredited biological models have been used to underpin historical and contemporary human rights abuses through scientific racism and eugenics 17,18, and have no place in modern scientific inquiry.
Virtually everything in this section is a distortion or outright lie. First, if you’re defining male and female, then you don’t use chromosomal complement, even in humans, but rather determine whether someone has the equipment to make small mobile gametes (males) versus large immobile gametes (females). Determining someone’s sex is as simple as that, though the other stuff, like chromosomes, genitalia, and hormones, are highly correlated with biological sex. It’s a big mistake, but a deliberate one, to conflate the definition of sex, which shows that sex is indeed a binary, with the correlates of sex, which are bimodal and almost binary, but could be called “strongly bimodal.”
The “it’s complicated” argument floated above is made for only one purpose, and that purpose is outlined in the first sentence:
From the Secretary of State’s speech it is clear that this refers to the government’s increasing adoption of policies that put the lives and wellbeing of trans people at risk.
No, the “simplistic binary notion of sex”, which happens to be true, does NOT put the lives and wellbeing of trans people at risk. Biological truth doesn’t have the ability to do that. What would risk the lives and well being of trans people is true transphobia: the fear and hatred of trans people that could translate into mistreatment and denial of their fundamental rights. That’s a question of morality, not biological fact.
And this bit is wrong in three ways:
Additionally, up to 1.7% of the population have Differences in Sex Development (DSD) or are intersex 11–13. To appeal to “biological sex” as the Secretary of State has done is over-simplistic, unscientific and exclusionary rhetoric under the pretence of objectivity 14. Furthermore, as the Secretary of State acknowledges, biological sex and personal/social gender identity are distinct. At least 0.5% of the UK population identify as a different gender to their sex registered at birth 15. Combining DSD, intersex, non-binary and trans communities, this represents nearly 1.5 million people in the UK that the government implies should be excluded from participating in biomedical, sports science and other research.
Once again, we see exaggeration of the proportion of people who don’t fall into the sex binary. It is at most 0.018%, not 1.7%, the latter a frequently-seen and erroneous figure based on wonky data from Anne Fausto-Sterling, a figure that even she retracted later.
Second, trans people are not the same as intersexes. Trans people are, most often, people of one of the two sexes who want to assume the persona of a member of the other sex. The sex binary has nothing to do with invalidating trans people; in fact, trans people, being of one sex but wishing to be of the other, demonstrate the binary nature of sex.
Third, except for participation in sports, I don’t understand how the 0.018% of people who are true intersex, or people of different genders (a social construct) are “excluded from participating in biomedical and other research.” Perhaps the tiny number of true hermaphrodites would be excluded from being in the category “male” or “female”, but they could still be subject to biomedical research. As for sports, well, transwomen should not compete with biological women in athletics, and that’s the one “exclusion” I support.
The people who are circulating this letter are damaging science by denying scientific truth, as well as using outmoded data that we all know is wrong. They also damage the debate over trans people by pretending that their treatment must somehow depend on whether there’s a sex binary. Once again I’ll say it: the binary nature of human sex has no bearing on the debate about the rights and treatment of trans people.
To say that the sex binary is “overly simplistic” or “scientifically illiterate” is to brand oneself an idiot. If this reflects the conventional wisdom of the Labour Party (for the attacks above are on positions apparently espoused by two Tories), then Labour is in trouble. First they got in trouble by being anti-Semitic, now they’ll get into more trouble by being anti-biology.