Robyn Blumner of CFI discusses trans women athletes

November 15, 2023 • 11:15 am

The Center for Inquiry (CFI), founded in 1976 by luminaries like James Randi, Martin Gardner, Isaac Asimov, Paul Kurtz, and Carl Sagan, has this mission:

The Center for Inquiry (CFI) is a 501(c)(3) charitable nonprofit organization dedicated to defending science and critical thinking in examining religion. CFI’s vision is a world in which evidence, science, and compassion—rather than superstition, pseudoscience, or prejudice—guide public policy.

To make a better world, we need to use our heads and our hearts. To confront the challenges that face us as a planetary civilization, we need to use the tools of science and reason guided by compassion and respect for the dignity of every individual.

To move forward, we need to discard old superstitions, prejudices, and magical thinking and embrace facts, evidence, and critical thinking.

It’s about more than whether or not God exists. It’s about more than whether ghosts roam among us, aliens hover above us, or psychics can see within us.

And now there’s a new brand of pseudoscience: that deriving from wokeness. Like the other forms of pseudoscience like psychics and homeopathic medicine, the distortion of science to conform to so-called “progressive” ideologies is damaging to society, largely by injuring our organs of reason, making us see in nature what we want to see rather than what is.

Robyn Blumner is the current President and CEO of the CFI as well as the executive director of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science.  As part of the CFI’s mission, she’s now written two articles decrying the ideological distortion of reality. The first, “The truth matters and secular humanists should defend it,” was published in Free Inquiry, one of the organs for CFI. I discussed that piece on this site, quoting her criticisms of science distorted by the “social justice police”, including touting indigenous ways of knowing as coequal to science, the opprobrium attending any studies of behavioral genetics, and the unwise rush to use of puberty blockers to treat gender dyphoria. (She also went after older forms of religious distortion of science, namely creationism, as well as right-wing attempts to interfere in issues of sexuality and gender transition.)

Although attacking both woke and right-wing distortions of science was a bit of a departure from the normal fare of the CFI, it adhered strictly to the organization’s mission of showing the “the truth matters.” To that end, Robyn also helped Luana Maroja and I publish our paper “The ideological subversion of biology,” dealing largely with left-wing distortions of evolutionary biology, in Skeptical Inquirer, another organ of the CFI. And of course a few disgruntled skeptics wrote in saying that our piece was a wrongheaded departure from the normal fare of the magazine. Why discuss how many sexes there are in animals when the magazine should be attacking psychics and homeopaths?. But our piece was attacking the equivalent of psychics in biology: those who make claims about reality that are not only false, but harmful to society.

At any rate, Robyn’s now published a new piece in Skeptical inquirer that you can access by clicking below. The topic, of course, is a hot potato, but also ripe for scientific discussion. Robyn’s discussion is one of the most fair-minded takes on the issue in print, and is a good piece to show to ideologues who argue that, on the basis of fairness to transgender women (biological men), they should be allowed to compete in athletics against biological women.  Robyn concludes that no, this shouldn’t be allowed because trans women (even under hormone treatment) have, as we’ve discussed before, athletic advantages over biological women in strength, musculature and other traits that give them an unfair advantage in competition.

Click to read:

First the question is raised, and although in the end it’s a moral issue, it also depends heavily on scientific data. If by suppressing testosterone, trans women lose all athletic advantages over biological women, there would not be an issue. Is this in fact the case?

But an issue has arisen that requires us to look more carefully at something we took for granted: Is it truly necessary to segregate sports by sex? The issue arises because transgender women athletes who have undergone male puberty are seeking to compete with natal women athletes. In the name of transgender rights should this be permitted, or does it inherently undermine the fair playing field that sports demand?

The question is a legitimate one, and people who ask it shouldn’t be maligned as transphobes and bigots. We need to lower the temperature on these discussions. There are competing interests at stake. For transgender women, it’s a way to be treated as women—full stop. For natal women, it’s a question of fairness. There are incontrovertible biological differences between biological males and females that puts the question of transgender women in sports into the realm of science in addition to public policy.

Robyn goes through the advantages of male over female athletes, true in nearly all sports, and then asks if a biological male suppresses testosterone, one step in becoming a trans female, are these sex-based advantages eliminated? Increasingly, data show that they’re not:

If we eliminated sex categories for most sports, there would rarely be female winners. For natal women to be able to compete in a way that gives them a fair chance at victories, there have to be sex segregated sports.

The question then becomes whether that advantage can be mitigated through testosterone suppression. That is a matter of scientific inquiry, and the longitudinal biomedical findings to date suggest that “the effects of testosterone suppression in male adulthood have very little impact” on physiological outcomes such as muscle strength, muscle mass, or lean body mass, according to a paper titled “When Ideology Trumps Science” by six international leading researchers (Devine et al. 2022). They cite a cross-sectional study from 2022 that measured the performance of transgender women and found the “advantage may be maintained after 14 years of testosterone suppression.” (For a thorough vetting of the subject, read “Transgender Women in the Female Category of Sport: Perspectives on Testosterone Suppression and Performance Advantage” by researchers Emma Hilton and Tommy Lundberg, published in the journal Sports Medicine [Hilton and Lundberg 2021].)

Certainly that does not mean that every transgender woman athlete will win against all natal women, just as many natal male athletes would lose against better women athletes. In Serena Williams’s case, all but perhaps the top 100 men tennis players would lose in a match with her. [JAC: Actually, the #203-ranked male player beat both Venus and Serena.] It’s just that the innate advantages conferred by male puberty are not significantly dissipated through hormone adjustments. So the initial reason we sex segregate sports remains valid: to ensure a fair opportunity for women to compete and potentially win championships.

The counterargument that it’s a non-problem because there so few transgender women want to compete with biological women doesn’t stand up because although trans women athletes are relatively few, they’re not absent, and they tend to win a lion’s share of the prizes.  To keep things fair to biological women, there had to be a ban. It happened in cycling, swimming, and now, as I recall, rugby.

Reportedly there are now dozens of transgender women competing in women’s cycling, and they are starting to take top honors and cash prizes—including American transgender woman cyclist Austin Killips, who won a women’s stage race at the Tour of Gila.

So, what happened?

Soon thereafter, the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), the governing body of cycling, decided in July to ban transgender women who had gone through male puberty from women’s competition. They can compete in a “men/other” category instead. This follows on the heels of a decision in May by British Cycling that banned transgender women from women’s competitive events.

Previously, the rules for international cycling had included limits on testosterone levels. But that didn’t suffice to make the playing field level. In fact, some top women cyclists, such as Hannah Arensmen, a thirty-five-time winner on the national cyclocross circuit, announced they were quitting the sport due to this unfairness. Arensmen was repeatedly beaten by transgender women cyclists, including one nearly double her twenty-four years, and she had had enough.

The international governing body for swimming, World Aquatics, announced in July that it would establish an “open” category that would be open to all transgender athletes, thereby giving natal women their own category for competition.

For now the solution appears to be either an “open” category for all transgender athletes (but what about the transgender men, who have an athletic disadvantage against transgender women?), or to allow all transgender athletes to compete in the “men’s” category.  That’s not optimal, but at least allows trans athletes who do want to compete the chance to do so.

In the end, it’s simply unfair to biological women to force them to compete against trans women who were natal men and suppressed their testosterone. Given the rapid grown of in numbers of both trans men and trans women, the problem of fairness is not going to go away.  But keeping women’s sports for natal women seems to be the fairest solution; for surely, with the growth in numbers of trans women, if they compete against biological women then biological women will gradually leave sports, as did Hannah Arensmen. They simply lose their chance to win, which is a huge motivator in sports. In fact, Robyn thinks that the “progressive solution”, which depends on the mantra “trans women are women” (i.e., exactly equivalent to women in all rights, including the right to compete in women’s sports), may be counterproductive:

I am sympathetic to the argument that transgender women are socially disadvantaged and stigmatized. And the way to combat it is to integrate them into womanhood without differentiating between natal women and transgender women. But I wonder if that’s truly the case and if forcing open women’s sports to transgender women hasn’t exacerbated the problem.

A recent Gallup poll shows that a larger majority of Americans now say transgender athletes should only compete on teams that match their assignment at birth than in prior years. Sixty-nine percent now oppose transgender women in women’s sports compared with 62 percent who objected in 2021. And only 26 percent of people endorse the idea of transgender athletes playing on teams that match their gender identity. That’s down from 34 percent in 2021. The appearance of transgender women athletes competing—and at times winning—in female sports categories is not ameliorating the social stigma. If anything, it is driving people away from sympathies with transgender rights.

Christian nationalists and some Republican lawmakers are whipping up a backlash against the transgender rights movement to solidify and energize their base. On the other side, the identitarian Left is demonizing anyone who doesn’t go along with every element of the transgender rights agenda, including transgender women in women’s sports.

Sophisticated people who care about both science and social fairness need to separate the signal from the noise. These are complicated issues that need to be parsed to do the least harm possible to the most people. In that calculation, I stand with the natal women athletes who want to compete against each other.

In ethics, this is a consequentialist and utilitarian solution: the higher social well being comes from not allowing trans women to compete against biological women. But I see no other solution that won’t cause widespread resentment—which reduces well being.

But of course not all people embrace a consequentialist morality, and there are deontologists, opposed to Robyn (and my) view, who simply finesse the problem by saying that “trans women are women,” and that settles the issue. I think they’re wrong because it will ultimately lead to the death of women’s sports, but, as always, there is no objective system of ethics. At the least, though, you can inform your ethics with data, and the data show that, in terms of athletic ability, trans women are not (biological) women. Holding that mantra in the face of statistics makes gender ideologues the equivalent of psychics: they claim to be helping people, but have to ignore the data in fulfilling what they see as their mission.

31 thoughts on “Robyn Blumner of CFI discusses trans women athletes

  1. Many thanks to CFI for being open to discussions on wokeness.

    Unfortunately, things are not looking so good for German skeptics from the GWUP. A majority of the new board elected in spring does not consider the topic to be relevant. There are even attempts to stifle discussions in the club and members who do so anyway are labeled as right-wing or new right.

      1. Ah. Thanks.
        The approach taken by Canada is simply to ignore the science and declare in the name of inclusivity and non-discrimination that transwomen are women and all competitors at any level inside Canada’s borders can compete in whichever category matches the gender they feel most comfortable in on the day of competition (including using change rooms and showers.) The competitor doesn’t even have to declare that he is a transwoman, and no one is allowed to ask. Anyone who argues otherwise is declared a bigot and a transphobe. A venue or an event could face, in addition, severe civil human-rights penalties.

        The question of whether testosterone suppression matters — it doesn’t, as the Blumner article and many others make clear — is finessed by simply not asking it. Canadian male athletes who are hoping to compete internationally as women may have to suppress testosterone, depending on the world rules of that sport. (Powerlifting and cricket are two sports whose international bodies require evidence of sustained — but only a year or two — testosterone suppression for men wishing to compete as women at international meets. The International Powerlifting Federation acknowledges that male advantage persists for at least 3 years after suppression to female levels, but then in the same breath allows eligibility after 12 months.)

        This anti-scientific approach is enforced by various Canadian government funding expectations, by ethical guidance documents written by government agencies, and by the risk that Canadian sport organizations that buck it will face ruinously expensive complaints to provincial and federal human-rights tribunals. So the vigour with which they shout, “Trans rights are human rights” is understandable wherever there are witnesses.

        So yes, you can thumb your nose at science and the world still keeps turning. American sport bureaucracies that want to undermine women’s sport need not be bashful about the science. They need only look north and copy us.

        1. Only a matter of time before we have trans-special contestants demanding entry into the Special Olympics. Since swimming is one of the Special Olympic sports, perhaps Lia Thomas could gain additional medals by competing in that arena. Leslie, can we count on Canada to lead the way in this trend?

        2. This is beyond the topic, but :

          Has anyone heard of transhumanism?

          Julian Huxley started the idea – which I just learned about (link below). I think it is more than just implants as we know them and such.

          Transhumanism is argued (not by me, yet) to be on the horizon. Changing sex is in the foreground discourse, but it is laying a pathway for transhumanism.

          … I’m not sure what to make of it yet – conspiracy, or “some of it makes sense”:

          1. I’m 74, and I’ve long considered myself a transhumanist. (I’m also an old-school liberal.)

            I define the term simply as being in favor of the idea that humans can change and/or improve themselves using science and technology — including *genetic* science and technology.

            People today are certainly not blank slates who can ignore their genetic endowment, but it seems obvious to me that advances in genetic engineering will someday allow major changes to the broad range of innate human abilities that we are familiar with.

            In the context of this thread, it also seems logical that people will someday be able to *really* change their sex, not just their gender identity. And those changes would not be immutable, allowing one to revert to an original form or continue with additional changes.

            This means that any genetic changes made by parents to prospective children would also not be immutable. I expect such children could even revert to “classic human” if they wished.

            How this would affect society, let alone sports, seems impossible to detail. Science-fiction writers have been trying for a long time. But major changes are surely coming, probably sooner than later, I think.

            Though I’m not likely to see the biggest changes, the unexpected widespread adoption of recent A.I. advances might have an accelerating impact on advances in genetic technology, so…

  2. “If by suppressing testosterone, trans women lose all athletic advantages over biological women, there would not be an issue. Is this in fact the case?” – J. Coyne

    There would be an issue insofar as transsexual men (“transwomen”) competing against women would still mean the end of women’s sport as we know it, no matter whether the transsexual men in question have lost all athletic advantages over women or not. What about women who generally don’t want there to be transsexual men in women’s sport, because they don’t want women’s sport to be turned into mixed-sex sport? Can we demand justifiably that they just shut up?

    1. They quite likely do – natal males typically have longer limbs and so probably more accurate control of the tip of the cue, for example.

      The World Chess Federation FIDE recently banned trans identifying males from entering women-only competitions (chess competitions are otherwise open to both men and women by default, in any case) because even in non-physical competitions women are at a disadvantage. The reasons for this disadvantage aren’t well understood, but could include, for instance, that young girls, especially in the countries that produce the highest number of chess champions, are socialised in a way that is detrimental to them. (For example, by being assigned household chores that limit their available time for mastering the game and which boys of the same age are not expected to do.) Regardless of the underlying reason, Judit Polgár is still the only woman to make it into the top 10 world ranking. Exceptionally, she (and her sisters, both also successful chess players) was deliberately raised by her parents in a way that avoided the usual female socialisation, of course.

      1. Most likely the explanation is the “greater male variation” hypothesis. The male/female gap at the upper echelons of chess is too big and too consistent across cultures and across times to be merely about socialisation.

  3. I consider trans ‘women’ especially if having gone through male puberty cheats. If that makes me transphobe, so be it.
    Moreover, allowing biological males to compete in female competitions gives the crypto-fascist MAGATs an outstanding talking point.

  4. Next year is the Olympics. If there are a number of Trans-women who win at it, we’ll have all the data we need with all the footage and timers.

    I’m playing the long game with this subject. It can’t be tackled head on, and I won’t waste my breath trying.

  5. Last weekend my flintlock shooting spouse killed two deer, one a doe, the other a buck. What does that have to do with this discussion? Well, we butcher our own deer. Besides the differences in body and bone size, the difference in the connective tissue between the two was incredible. The male connective tissue was so much tougher and stronger. (That is one reason many hunters prefer to shoot and eat does.)

    While I think there is a case to be made for the brain (hypothalamus?) to be feminized by estrogenic compounds in utero, the effects of testosterone on the physical body cannot be denied. Natal males will always have narrower hips no matter the current testosterone levels or multiple cosmetic surgeries.

  6. It seems that this matter might sort out eventually, once top honors for many women’s sports competitions start going disproportionally to transgender women. At that point, governing bodies will be feel pressure to redress the balance by creating “Open” categories or by developing some other policy.

      1. Agree with Maya. This is also a kind of answer to Oliver@4 with whom I think I also agree. Even if testosterone suppression “worked” there would still be this argument against including males in women’s sport: women are not Pez dispensers for the validation of men’s feelings.

        1. Absolutely – even if there was a way of making the competition fair (and there isn’t – women aren’t simply men with lower levels of testosterone) that would still mean some women missing out on rankings, the opportunity of taking part in finals, and ultimately medals, prize money, scholarships etc. for no good reason. Why is it down to women to accept this simply to soothe men’s feelings?

  7. It’s not just about fairness, there are safety issues, too. A woman has just forfeited a boxing match to avoid meeting a man in the ring:

    A female boxer withdrew from a provincial championship in Quebec after learning that her opponent was biologically male, leading to him winning the competition by default. Dr. Katia Bissonnette of Saguenay says she was matched against transgender fighter Mya Walmsley with no notice.

  8. “Trans-Women are Women”. So what does “Trans-” stand for? Why do some “Women” need “Trans” connected to their womanhood if they are (just plain, simple) – women?

  9. I wonder if trans women competing in women’s sports will backfire on the movement and the “trans women are women” view. It seems that as they dominate a sport everyone will see with their own eyes that “no, they are most decidedly different”.

    1. I’ve often wondered that too. If I were a trans rights activist, the one area I would not touch is sports. When Lia Thomas stands on a podium with the females that she has beaten, the fact that she is not female is just too obvious.

      1. “… the fact that she is not female is just too obvious.”

        And that is precisely the object to “socially construct” – the obliteration of discernment between categories – here, male and female.

        Hegel – dialectical synthesis.

      2. Interestingly, Thomas did not dominate every race Thomas entered. Trans activists use this fact to point out that really, Thomas is just like any other woman out there competing.

        Have they never heard of sandbagging? As a student at Penn, presumably Thomas is not an idiot. Throwing certain races so you can collect the gold medal in your fave event and point to your “failures” as evidence it was all “fair” would be a perfectly natural strategy for a scheming cheater such as Thomas.

        1. There’s a CNN article on Thomas which points out :

          “Her [sic] time was the fastest of the NCAA season, but well off the NCAA record of 4:24.06, held by 10-time Olympic medalist Katie Ledecky.”

          Therefore … therefore what, exactly, CNN?

          By the way, since the CNN article writes about the concept of “gender” :

          The earliest literature I can find that elaborates on the concept of “gender” as applied to humans in a non-linguistic way is from 1908, in the occult doctrine The Kybalion:

          I imagine Thomas gets lots of credit for his activism, consequently – I’d say definitely worth moving from Outer School to Inner School.

  10. Apropos other parts of the CFI’s remit, I saw a mention of Deepak Chopra recently in a book (published 2016), and wondered why I hadn’t heard anything of him for several years.
    I wonder what has happened to him. Hopefully some complex, expensive to defend lawsuit that will eventually leave him bankrupt. But I’d settle for horrible diseases, small asteroid impacts, or something else that shows the universe’s disinterest in his worthless maunderings. Worst answer would be that he’s working up a “new” regurgitation of his standard fare, to try to recruit new victims. Sadly, I also suspect that’s the most likely answer.

    1. The incident in your first link is a potential hazard of (field) hockey, no matter who is playing. A female friend of mine used to play it at a fairly high amateur level and she has seen at least one person taken to hospital as a result of getting the ball in her face.

      On the other hand, her club had male, female and mixed teams and she hated playing on the mixed team precisely because the men were more aggressive, heavier, stronger and hit the ball much harder.

      1. How many of your friend’s teammates/opponents had multiple teeth knocked out and “significant facial injuries”? I certainly don’t know what’s normal risk but the teammates’ reactions in the linked video don’t seem like reactions to a typical hazard.

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