Five books, all trying to show that science and religion are BFFs, get my kishkes in a knot

September 1, 2021 • 12:00 pm

UPDATE: Philosopher Maarten Boudry has issued a series of tweets also criticizing Harrison’s take on the relationship of science and religion. Here’s the first one, but there are about two dozen in the thread:



Matthew sent me a tweet about this Five Books article telling me it would irritate me. Well, it really didn’t, as the books aren’t really about the compatibility of science and religion, but more about whether there’s been a perpetual war between science and religion. These are two different issues. The second is completely empirical: have there been recurrent clashes between religion and science over history?  The first is a combination of philosophical and empirical study: do the natures of science and religion give them different ways to find out what is true about the cosmos? And, if so, have those different methodologies led to conflicting and incompatible claims?

In my book Faith versus Fact: Why Science and Religion are Incompatible, I maintain that there have been sporadic clashes between science and religion (the most notable being the Galileo story and the persistence of creationism), but in general most modern science doesn’t step on religion’s toes.  In this interview, Professor Peter Harrison of the University of Queensland, whose field is the relationship of science and religion, picks out five books that he’d recommend for the layperson to study the intersection of these fields. Click to read it:

Here are photos of the five books chosen by Harrison. I’ve read only one of them: the Hardin et al. essay collection.

Harrison is pretty much an accommodationist, and although he admits that, say, Darwinism conflicts with religion, this is a relatively new phenomenon because, he avers, before the 17th century nobody took the Bible as a handbook of science. What he means—and I think he’s dead wrong here—is that before the 17th century nobody thought that the Bible’s empirical claims were true. If you read the Church fathers, or the Nicene Creed (a fourth century confection) you’ll see that the account of the Bible was seen as purveying the literal truth about our origins, the existence of deities, the existence of Heaven and Hell, and many other empirical matters. Most important is the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, for which we have no extrabiblical evidence, and yet is the fulcrum on which all Christianity rests.

So the idea that Biblical literalism is a new phenomenon seems badly wrong to me. Yes, “science” as a practice and profession didn’t come along until a few centuries ago, so there couldn’t be a conflict between science and religion per se, but even the ancient Greeks engaged in empirical studies that didn’t involve the hand of Zeus.

As with all accommodationist historians, Harrison argues that the Galileo affair has been exaggerated as a clash between empiricism and religion; these people always say it’s about religious power, or is more nuanced than we think.  Harrison even emphasizes a “science versus science” element: that Galileo neglected some of his contemporaries’ claims, like Tycho Brahe’s “parallax” arguments against a heliocentric solar system. But you’d have to be deluded to think that the controversy wasn’t mainly about Galileo’s empirical claims contradicting the Earth-centricity divined from Scripture.

On to creationism. Harrison’s discussion of it is weird, and I reproduce it below:

It is slightly different with Darwin. With evolution, there are religious issues at stake. This is part of what motivates young earth creationism: fundamental questions about the nature of human beings, the origins of morality, and the literal truth of the Bible. Darwin’s theory puts question marks against these in a way that the Galileo case doesn’t. It wasn’t evolution that generated difficulties but the method of natural selection, because it made evolution look like a random directionless process. Again, that appears to be inconsistent with Christian notions of a providential direction to history and the special place given to human beings.

But, as we say, history is complicated. Darwin has very powerful highly religious supporters and he has some scientific critics as well. And until we arrived at “the modern synthesis”, with its better understandings of genetics, there wasn’t a plausible mechanism for natural selection.

At least he admits that creationism does exemplify a war between science and faith. But his claim that it was natural selection and not evolution itself that generated creationism seems wrong. Regardless of the mechanism of evolutionary change, the idea of evolution itself flatly contradicts the Bible, and much of the opposition to Darwin’s views rested on his claim that evolution happened (contradicting Genesis), that it was slow (contradicting a young Earth), and that the distribution of plants and animals on the surface of the earth, according to Darwin, could not be explained by a Flood and dispersal scenario.

Second, if you understand natural selection, you know that it is NOT a “random directionless process”. It is the presence of variation (randomly generated by mutation, but Darwin didn’t know that) interacting with a non-random process: the differential proliferation of variation that confers a reproductive advantage. Does Harrison think this? It seems so, because he implies that Darwin’s theory made evolution look like that “random directionless process.” Even if you’re a creationist, you don’t understand what you’re criticizing if you go after natural selection on that basis.

Finally, once we had genetics at the beginning of the 20th century, we knew about mutations and thus had a theory of how natural selection worked on newly arising (or standing) variation. (The “modern synthesis” didn’t begin until the mid-Thirties). But so long as there is heritable variation, which even Darwin knew about, you have a “plausible mechanism for natural selection,” which is simply the differential sorting of variants via their effect on reproductive success. If the variants are heritable, that causes evolution.

One gets the idea from these two paragraphs that Harrison doesn’t really understand Darwin’s theories, is unable to explain them, or doesn’t know their place in history.

A few more items lest I go on forever.

First, Harrison takes the common stance of believers and some philosophers (I don’t know if he’s religious) that you have to philosophically justify the methods of science a priori before you can have any confidence in what you find by doing science. I quote (here he’s talking about Merton’s book):

What’s particularly interesting is that he treats science itself as a kind of ‘black box’ and focuses on external factors and, crucially, values. He argues that Puritan values were important to setting up science and justifying scientific practice. That’s the key thing about this book. He understands that more generally, social values are crucial to the legitimation of science. That means it’s not just to do with the inherent internal logic of science as something that is somehow self-evidently true. That’s not how you make science successful—it’s something external to the sciences that leads us to value them, that makes scientific advance possible, and that makes science an important and central feature of society.

Why this question is so vital to this very day is that science is undergoing challenges to its legitimacy. It’s simply not enough for a scientist to rehearse the chorus ‘well, we’re scientists and this is what the science tells us’; they have to understand the role played by values in giving legitimacy to what they’re doing.

I’m not sure what “challenges to legitimacy” science is undergoing, but I deny that there are any “social values” or a priori philosophical rationales necessary to give us confidence in science or make it “legitimate.” While there’s no one fixed “scientific method”—and here I agree with Feyerabend that “anything goes”—there are general agreed-on principles of what counts as evidence, including empirical observation, doubt, criticism, replication, and so on, that are used by all scientists trying to discern “truth”. If there is a social value at play here, it’s merely “we value what is true.” (That’s not what Harrison means, of course.) There is nothing external to the sciences that leads us to value them, but simply the toolkit that is science that, importantly, IS A TOOLKIT THAT WORKS.  Why people value science is simply that it tells us the things we want to know, and tells them truly. You don’t turn to religion if you want to make a vaccine against Covid-19. (Now why we want to make one rests on social principles, but the method itself is what gets us what we want.)

Second, Harrison claims that it is religious values that gave rise to science. That is, the legitimation of science that he deems necessary comes from faith—Christian faith. In this case, it is the faith that gives us impetus to understand God’s laws. Harrison also claims that religion is “necessary but not sufficient” to give rise to science. In other words, in an atheistic West, we would have no science. Two quotes here:

To overgeneralise somewhat, with the new views of Descartes and Newton, the powers of things are stripped away—they become inert—and God has to do the work of moving things around. He does according to his own laws. The notion of divine omnipotence—that God can make any kind of world he wants and is not constrained by any other considerations—then leads to the necessity of empirically investigating the world. That’s one example: the idea of laws of nature and mathematical laws of nature which are foundational to modern science come out of the idea of divine omnipotence. Descartes is explicit about this, and so too are English thinkers like Robert Boyle, Isaac Newton, and Samuel Clark. They are very explicit that laws of nature are divine edicts.

Now you can argue about the extent to which scientists were motivated by religion to find out stuff, but I don’t think that, say, the ancient Greeks, or many scientists in the early days, were simply trying to work out “God’s laws”. I think you’d have a hard time arguing that William Harvey’s discovery of the circulation of blood, for instance, was motivated by his efforts to work out how God designed the body. It was motivated, as far as I know, by sheer cussedness: the desire to find out for himself whether Galen was right (Galen wasn’t). And certainly now, when most working scientists and a big majority of good ones are atheists, there is NO motivation to do science as a way to understand God or God’s plan. Even Francis Collins, an evangelical Christian, leaves God at the door of the NIH.

There’s also this:

Interviewer: One of the claims that Funkenstein makes towards the end of the book is that while one “can draw many meaningful connections between medieval theology and early modern science”, the stronger claim that “without the former, the latter would never have emerged” is “neither demonstrable nor plausible.” Do you disagree?

Harrison: I think I would. I’d be inclined to say that the medieval theological background is necessary but not sufficient. That would be my view, which is a bit stronger than Funkenstein’s claim.

Ergo, had we not had medieval theology, we’d never have had science. Well, of course this is an untestable claim, but I’d argue that pure curiosity, and the realization that the empirical, naturalistic toolkit of science produces results, that all that would have emerged without medieval theology. You have to do some fast dancing to lay the entire enterprise of modern science at the doorstep of Thomas Aquinas.

Third, I’ve long argued that while science can make contributions to religion—by determining whether their truth statements are really true—religion has, like Laplace apocryphally asserted, nothing to contribute to science.  Harrison disagrees, arguing (without giving examples) that naturalism is not necessarily a sufficient assumption for science: that maybe injecting an element of the divine or numinous could advance science:

Clearly, the advocacy of something like intelligent design or scientific creationism in present circumstances is absolute heresy. And I want to be clear that I am not advocating that. But I do think it’s very interesting to consider whether religious conceptions might lead to unconceived possibilities in terms of contexts of discovery. This is precisely Funkenstein’s point—that thinking about divine omnipotence and what God could possibly instantiate led to new ways of thinking about the world. This was also argued even more strongly by the French historian and philosopher of science Pierre Duhem.

. . . I wonder whether the very strong naturalism which either explicitly or implicitly shapes virtually all modern thought is in some way restrictive. Your point is that specific religious dogmas are potentially restrictive, and I think that’s absolutely right. But there’s a difference between specific religious dogmas and thinking in more elaborate theological terms about something like divine omnipotence (which is the historical case I’m thinking of). To put it this way, I don’t buy the idea that scientific naturalism is some neutral position and that the religious position is the one invested in a set of restrictive assumptions. I think naturalism is potentially just as dogmatic and restrictive.

I’d love for Harrison to give us an example of how naturalism has limited scientific thought, for surely there must be one example in the history of science in which thinking about God would not just motivate scientific exploration, but produce specific hypothesis that naturalism wouldn’t. He doesn’t give us those examples, and that’s because they don’t exist.

Finally, and least important, Harrison claims that the existence of religious scientists constitutes an embarrassment for those of us who claim that science and religion are incompatible. A quote:

As you say, the existence of Christian scientists who are not obviously subject to cognitive dissonance is an embarrassment for some who would claim the incompatibility of science and religion (as, for example, the New Atheists did). The fact is that there are now eminent scientists who have religious commitments, as there have always been throughout history. This is an awkward fact for advocates of the incompatibility of science and religion.

It’s not awkward to me, not if you understand human psychology.  People are religious for a variety of reasons (including childhood brainwashing), and to say that people can’t be superstitious in one part of their life and rational in others is to misunderstand human nature.  I think religious scientists are philosophically muddled, but don’t necessarily experience cognitive dissonance because they’ve built a mental wall between delusion and rationality.

h/t: Matthew

What we’re reading now

August 30, 2021 • 11:00 am

After polishing off Cormac McCarthy’s The Road—a post-apocalyptic novel permeated with McCarthy’s inimitable prose (and I recommend the book very highly)—I need to keep reading, as there’s still no place interesting outside the U.S. that’s safe or accessible for travel.  I thus took three books out of the library to keep me busy for a while.

Occasionally I get a hankering to read every Booker Prize winner since they started awarding the prize in 1969.  So far I’ve read only seven (Midnight’s Children was my favorite), so there’s a long way to go. The reason I want to do this is that there are too many fiction books to read, and few reliable guides; but I’ve enjoyed every Booker Prize novel I’ve ever read. So I picked out two more.

The first one, below, is by an author with whom I have a love-hate relationship. Naipaul can write like a dream—A House for Mr. Biswas is an all-time classic—but he can be splenetic and downright patronizing, as when he writes about his visits to India (he was actually from Trinidad of Indian ancestry). I hoped that this one, his only Booker winner, would be as good as Biswas. It’s a good book, but doesn’t come up to that standard. It is in fact a very weird novel, consisting of three disconnected tales, about Indians who move to the U.S., about Trinidadians who move to London, and about Brits who move to Africa.  I suppose the connection between the stories is revealed by the title. I’m only 2/3 of the way through, but so far it looks as if the “theme” is that people who move to find freedom only find more enslavement. The third tale is by far the best, a classic, “on the road” story about a gay white Brit and a woman bent on adultery with a different man, who take a long drive in an African country experiencing revolution. I’d recommend the book, but if you haven’t read Naipaul, go to Biswas first. Truly, I’m not yet sure why this one won the Booker, but I’m not yet through.

I haven’t started the book below yet, published in 1973 and a Booker winner that year, but I’m a sucker for novels about India, as I love the country. Ergo, Midnight’s Children as my favorite Booker Winner, and I also love The Raj Quartet and A Passage to India. I also love novels by Indian expats like Jhumpa Lahiri or inpats like Arundhati Roy.  The book below attracted me because of the plot summary and blurbs on Wikipedia:

Inspired by events such as the sieges of Cawnapore (Kanpur) and Lucknow, the book details the siege of a fictional Indian town, Krishnapur, during the Indian Rebellion of 1857 from the perspective of the British residents. The main characters find themselves subject to the increasing strictures and deprivation of the siege, which reverses the “normal” structure of life where Europeans govern Asian subjects. The book portrays an India under the control of the East India Company, as was the case in 1857. The absurdity of the class system in a town no one can leave becomes a source of comic invention, though the text is serious in intent and tone.

. . .Walter Clemons in Newsweek on 21 October 1974 said it was “a work of wit, lively historical reconstruction and imaginative intensity.”

John Spurling said in the New Statesman on 21 September 1973 that it was “a masterpiece”

On 2 September 1973 Julian Symons wrote in The Sunday Times that Farrell is “one of the half-dozen British writers under forty whose work should be read by anybody inclined to think that no interesting novels are being written today.”

That sounds like it’s worth a try.

I came to this book by an unusual route. (It’s not a Booker winner.) I was listening to a song on YouTube suggested by a reader: Karen Carpenter’s version of “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina“, and then got hooked into the YouTube suggestion of Madonna singing the same song” from the movie version of “Evita“.  Since I heard that, and several other versions, I realized that I know very little about Eva Peron despite the huge role she played (and still plays) in the history of Argentina. So I needed to fill that lacuna, and this book appeared to be the biography that was recommended most often. (It also appears to be the one that inspired the musical.)

The Evita legend freaks me out, as it’s played on a foreign stage, and involves a poor woman who hits the big time, using her fame as an actress, a beauty, and Juan Peron’s wife to do good for the poor. But her motivations may be more than altruistic, or so suggest the lyrics of Lloyd-Webber/Rice song—a pastiche of trite emotions and self-aggrandizement set to a beautiful tune. I need to find out how much of Evita was empathy and how much was self promotion. Regardless, her story, her death at 33 from uterine cancer, and the preservation of her body (Juan Peron used to put it on the dinner table as he ate), is just plain weird, and I want to know about it. And I want to know what she did to make her more beloved of her people than was her husband.

A brief but informative biography:

Here’s Eva Peron’s state funeral in 1952—an unusual ceremony for the wife of a President. But she was adored by the “common people’ of Argentina. The video has no sound, but doesn’t need any.

A rare video of Eva Peron being interviewed:

And to see a popular post on my favorite 20 books of the last 200 years (along with those chosen by my friend Tim), go here.

This, of course, is my call for you to recommend books you’re reading or have read recently, as I often find my own material from readers’ suggestions. Please comment below.

Andrew Sullivan’s new book reviewed by the NYT

August 8, 2021 • 9:15 am

I had forgotten that Andrew Sullivan has a new book coming out—a collection of selected essays written over the last 32 years. The official date of release is Tuesday, and you can order the book from Amazon by clicking on the screenshot below (the Simon & Schuster website for the book is here).


There’s a review of the book in today’s New York Times (click on screenshot below), and it’s surprisingly positive. I say “suprisingly” because, after four years as a writer for the NYT Magazine, Sullivan was fired in 2002. (He was also let go from New York Magazine last year, presumably because they deep-sixed one of his columns condemning the violence associated with racial-justice demonstrations.) And he’s also seen as a “conservative”, though my reading of his positions shows him all over the map. It’s also surprising because their choice of a reviewer is David French, identified in the column as “a senior editor of The Dispatch, a columnist at Time and the author of Divided We Fall”, but also self-identified in the column as an “evangelical conservative”—not the kind of reviewer you’d think the paper would pick.

French’s review is a good one in both senses, though: it’s thorough and well written, and it’s positive about the book. It makes a good case for why Sullivan is, as French calls him, “one of America’s most important public intellectuals,” and surely one of its most readable and thoughtful journalists as well.

Except for his Catholicism, to which Sullivan clings resolutely in the face of reason, I read Sullivan weekly, and subscribe to his Substack website—for several reasons. First, he’s an excellent writer. Like Orwell, he eschews cant, writes simply but eloquently, and is always engaged with politics. (A journalist who writes with leaden words is hard to read!)  I like the fact that he’s fearless, going against the Zeitgeist on issues like Critical Race Theory and wokeness. And I like the fact that, unlike almost every journalist working, he admits when he’s wrong, as he did when he initially supported the Iraq war.

His writing on gay marriage was of immense importance in helping turn America around on this important issue, and, on other issues, Sullivan is constantly re-examining and re-asssessing his previous views. He was a big supporter of Biden and a big hater of Trump, and although he still rightly despises the Orange Man, he’s beginning to find flaws in Biden and his administration. His latest column is called “Biden’s Not-So-Great New Normal“, in which, though he praises Uncle Joe for his pandemic response, he faults him for his administration’s failure to do anything about the immigration crisis—yes, it is a crisis—and for the rising murder rate, which disproportionately affects African Americans.

Is Sullivan a conservative? I don’t really care. On some issues he’s taken conservative stands, on others liberal ones. What I like about him is that he makes me think, which is the job of a good journalist. (Don’t ask me about his enthusiasm for Herrnstein and Murray’s book The Bell Curve. I haven’t read the book nor followed Sullivan’s coverage of it.)

Click to read the piece: I’ll give just a few quotes from the review. Note, though, the somewhat snarky description of Sullivan in the picture caption. “Andrew Sullivan looking concerned.” Did they need to write anything there? It undercuts the seriousness of Sullivan’s views.

Some praise from French:

When he is right, he is right with the same intensity. In 2009, he could see the strategy and incentives of the modern Republican Party: “If you have safe Republican seats in a party dominated intellectually by rigid ideologues, then your path of least resistance is total political warfare.” Substitute “rigid commitment to Trump” for “rigid ideologues,” and you have the same dynamic today.

It’s hard for anyone to read Sullivan’s words and not feel provoked. However, he is no troll. He does not write for the purpose of inflicting pain. And even his most passionate arguments are thoughtfully delivered, deeply rooted in his philosophy and faith.

That seems to be a pretty accurate characterization, although I could do without the reliance on “faith”(see below).

And the final assessment:

When I reached the end of his book, I felt a sense of gratitude. I disagreed with Sullivan on many points (and I do wish he had reproduced one of his essays in support of the Iraq war), but for 32 years a thoughtful man has demonstrated the courage of his convictions and challenged his readers time and again.

This world is almost impossibly complex. Conventional wisdom is frequently wrong. No partisan side has a monopoly on truth. In these circumstances, a nation needs writers and thinkers who will say hard things, whose fearlessness gives you confidence that you’re hearing their true thoughts.

It’s not difficult to be a partisan bomb-thrower. Attacking the hated opposition to the roar of the home crowd can be lucrative and rewarding. Partisans who gird for cultural battle don’t want to have second thoughts. They don’t want to look in the mirror and ponder the sin on their own side. Yet in essay after essay, for decade after decade, Sullivan has been the man with the mirror. He’s held it up to a nation and culture that increasingly yield to authoritarian temptations and shouted: “Look at yourself. Look at what you’re becoming.”

Read “Out on a Limb” for the snapshots of recent history. Read it to better understand the many journeys of one of America’s most important public intellectuals. But most of all read this book to see what it looks like when a thoughtful man tries his best to tell the truth and let the chips fall where they may.

The last paragraph could be just one of many blurbs from the review that could go on the book cover.

As I said, my one abiding disagreement with Sullivan is his rather pious Catholicism, though he’s notably reluctant to say explicitly what part of Catholic dogma he accepts. Surely he believes that Jesus existed as a divine being, and saved us through his crucifixion and resurrection, but you’ll never hear it from his mouth. (Or at least I never have.) Does he belief in the afterlife, or in the transubstantiation? You got me. For a writer grounded in facts, he’s been eager to inhabit a warehouse full of mythology. Now that could have some good effects (perhaps Sullivan’s humility comes from his faith), but in the main his harping on religion only serves to justify a belief system based not on evidence but on wish-thinking.

One plaint in this area. A while back Sullivan wrote a column, Religion and the decline of democracy: We may miss it when it’s gone“, asserting that liberal democracy depends on Christianity and, should atheism prevail, America will go to ground. I was incensed enough not only to write a critical post about this thesis, but also forwarded an email to Sullivan’s site as a “dissent” (he regularly publishes readers’ criticism). My dissent, however, was ignored. Perhaps it was too long, but I think it countered Sullivan’s points well. I thought I’d posted it on this site, but couldn’t find it (it may be somewhere), so I reproduce it again (I added the supporting links in my email):

Dear Andrew,

I wanted to challenge you on a statement you made in last Friday’s Dish. In response to a reader’s question about whether you thought that “a resurgence of small ‘L’ liberalism is possible in an increasingly atheistic west”, and how it could be promoted, you said this:

. . . . the honest answer is: I don’t know whether liberalism can survive without some general faith in an objective reality and a transcendent divinity. That’s why I suspect a reinvention and reboot for Christianity is an urgent task.

I agree about the objective reality part—after all, modern liberalism and its program are closely wedded to real facts, not fake ones—but I don’t agree that liberalism needs a “transcendent divinity”. In fact, objective reality suggests the opposite: liberalism needs to reject the idea of gods.

I’ll leave aside the contradiction between believing there’s an objective reality and the assertion that there’s a “transcendent divinity”, much less a Christian one— claims about reality that have no empirical support. And I’ll only mention that many nonliberal positions, like anti-pro-choice and anti-gay views, are often seen and supported as God’s will.

Instead, I want to emphasize that the objective reality of the world is that the less religious a country or a state is, the more liberal it seems to be. Not only that, but the inhabitants are better off and happier.

There are now ample data showing a negative correlation among the world’s countries between belief in God and several indices of national well being—indices that comport with liberal goals. Measures of “successful societies”, incorporating 25 factors that make for healthier societies, are negatively correlated with religiosity among developed Western nations.  Income inequality across 67 countries is positively correlated with the frequency with which their inhabitants pray. The UN’s World Happiness Index, a measure of people’s subjective evaluation of their mental well being, is strongly negatively correlated with the average religiosity of a nation.

Granted, some of these data come from non-Christian countries, but most are Christian.

This also holds for states in the U.S.: the human development index, a measure of a state’s well being, is negatively correlated with the average religiosity of the 50 American states. Of course in America religiosity is Christian religiosity.

Over and over again—and this is a fact well known to sociologists—we find that the more religious a country is, the worse off it is. The five happiest countries in the world, for instance, are Finland, Iceland, Norway, Denmark, and Switzerland—hardly Christian nations, with Scandinavia being for all purposes a den of atheists. And these countries, by all lights, are liberal, moral, and caring.

While the reason for these correlations aren’t clear, it’s not likely that religion itself promotes poverty, inequality, and unhappiness. Rather, it’s probable that, when the people of a country or state are not well off, and don’t feel cared for by their societies, they turn to religion as a palliative: the assurance that Someone Above will take care of things, now or after death. Although I’m not a Marxist, Marx may have gotten it right when he said, “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”

Whatever the cause, objective reality doesn’t support your claim that embracing transcendent divinities leads to more liberal societies. Rather, worse societies seem to become more religious, or retain more religion.

Fortunately, we do have a reinvention of Christianity. It isn’t a reboot, but surely suffices as a grounding for liberalism. It’s called secular humanism, and is the basis for all the happiest, most secure, and best-off societies in the world.

All the best,
Jerry Coyne

I thought that wasn’t bad, but it’s in the circular file. Still, it doesn’t diminish my desire to keep reading Sullivan (I’ve just asked our library to order his new book), nor even the affection I feel for him—an affection, I think, born of his sensitivity, his willingness to reveal a lot about himself as a person, and, above all, his willingness to re-examine his views and admit when he’s wrong—traits that appeal to a scientist.

Kendied and Di Angeloed out? John McWhorter recommends some books as palliatives

August 3, 2021 • 10:15 am

John McWhorter is getting us revved up for his upcoming book, Woke Racism: How a New Religion has Betrayed Black America, to be published on October 26 (click on screenshot to go to Amazon link).

To prepare us for his views (many of which we know from reading preliminary chapters on his Substack site, McWhorter has a short post this week highlighting some books that align with his ideas and are counter to those of the most famous “anti-racist” authors (McWhorter would call them “racist authors”): Ibram X. Kendi and Robin DiAngelo.

Click on the screenshot to see his recommendations:

I have in fact read two of the four books McWhorter recommends.

The first is Greg Lukianoff’s and Jonathan Haidt’s The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up a Generation for Failure, an explanation of why college students and other young folk are acting the way they are (i.e., being woke). It’s a very good book, and sets out three rules that young people have absorbed that, claim the authors, explain much of their behavior with respect to politics. (McWhorter repeats them).

1. What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker.

2. Always trust your feelings.

3. Life is a battle between good and bad people.

McWhorter sees these not only as rules absorbed by young people, but in particular as “tenets of wisdom” seen by the Woke, including many black people as well as whites like Di Angelo who write about anti-racism. As McWhorter notes, these homilies don’t provide us with any “new frontiers of psychotherapy” and are clearly maladaptive, divisive, and defy rationality.

Click on the screenshot to go to the Amazon link for this book. It’s well worth reading.

McWhorter then recommends three other books (I’ll give the covers and Amazon links), one of which I’ve read. I’ve indented McWhorter’s take:

1.) Touré Reed teaches us that solving black America’s problems will require a focus on class rather than race. Note: he says that this will solve black problems, not just that “It’s all about class.” Reed knows what racism is; he just understands that it isn’t the everything we are taught it is. His book is called Toward Freedom: The Case Against Race Reductionism.

2.) Wilfred Reilly teaches us an invaluable lesson about that Victimization Mindset I wrote about here that bedevils black Americans unduly. Specifically, we must beware this “impact matters more than intent” thing, because sadly often, black people, gripped by this victimization mindset, exaggerate or lie about racist acts and even attacks. His book is called Hate Crime Hoax. Don’t be misled by the fact that the subtitle and cover feel a touch “headline-y – cablenewsy” – publishers must sell their books. The issue is the content, and this book teaches lessons that are 1) sad, 2) understandable (again, see my post), and 3) urgent.

This one I’ve read, and while it’s a bit repetitive it’s the only book in its genre. Reilly goes through a number of “hate crimes” actually committed by members of the minorities that were supposedly under attack. These hoaxes are committed for a number of reasons: mental illness, to bring attention to the perpetrator as a member of an oppressed minority group, and, very often, to garner sentiment for minorities by fabricating instances in which they were attacked. Reilly estimates that a large proportion of “hate crimes” committed on campus are actually hoaxes. What’s distressing beyond that is the way college administrators usually react when they discover the hoax: “Well, yes, it was a hoax, but it still underlines a very real problem—so it’s not so bad after all.”

3.) Jason Riley has written a biography of the great black conservative thinker Thomas Sowell. Anyone under the impression that to be a card-carrying conservative and a black person at the same time guarantees that one is caught somewhere between naïve and cynical knows little of Sowell’s lucid work and unforgivably underacknowledged volume of achievement. The book is called Maverick.

Many people ask which “other” black thinkers they should listen to besides what I have called the People With Three Names, who I need not list. If it’s books you’re looking for, skip “Black Fragility” (you probably already read it, basically) and start with these. [JAC: “Black Fragility is McWhorter’s snarky alternative title for Di Angelo’s first book.

I haven’t read this one yet though I have read some Sowell. In general, I find him extremely thoughtful though his writing is a bit dry. I see that Maverick has five stars on Amazon from 570 ratings, so it’s certainly found some fans. I may have to read it, especially because the writing is Jason Riley’s, not Sowell’s.

More on Abigail Shrier, Harriet Hall, Science-Based Medicine, Jesse Singal, and transitioning

July 3, 2021 • 11:00 am

Yesterday I reported on the site Science-Based Medicine’s defense of their “deplatforming” a book review written by one of their own editors, Dr. Harriet Hall. Hall had written a favorable review of Abigail Shrier’s book Irreversible Damage, itself about the dangers of transsexual adolescents undertaking medical treatment prematurely or without proper guidance. Hall approved the book, but the editors, including Steven Novella and David Gorski (N&G), summarily removed her review (it was reposted by Michael Shermer and Skeptic magagzine). N&G asserted said it was not removed because the review was ideologically impure or that there was a social-media pushback, but simply because Hall’s review was full of inaccurate statements and bad science.

I put up N&G’s response, and since I hadn’t yet read Shrier’s book (I am beginning it now), I simply reported that two well known skeptical scientists and doctors had objected to Hall’s review and to Shrier’s contentions. I still think that N&G should NOT have removed Hall’s review, but left it up with their own response. That, after all, is what free speech is about. But I’m not yet (and may never be) acquainted sufficiently with the data to pass judgement on these dueling views. But I will note further exchanges in this disparity of opinions.

One of these, pointed out by a reader, was a series of tweets by Jesse Singal, who writes for The Atlantic as well as New York Magazine and other outlets, and has some expertise in scientific and sociological studies of transgender transitioning (see here and here). He’s also written an article below in the July Spectator about how the media distorts what little good data exists about the psychological outcomes of transitioning. (The data appear to be far scantier than one would think from the vociferous claims of transgender advocates.)

First, though, Singal fired a fusillade of 16 tweets in response to N&G’s attack on Hall and Shrier, and I’ll reproduce these here. As always, judge for yourself, and dig further if you’re unclear or intrigued. I’ll reproduce them all as they’re a quick read, and they should be perused along with Singal’s Spectator piece at the bottom.

The Spectator piece mentioned in the next tweet is linked to and discussed at the bottom of this post.

Gorski’s tweet at Rowling above is clearly out of line here, and in fact is gratuitously nasty.

One gets the impression from these tweets, many of which are summarized in detail in Singal’s article below (click on screenshot), that N&G were firing from the hip, making unsubstantiated claims about the literature that verge on distortion. The problem with all of this is that everyone is so polarized on the issue, whether rightly so because of the data or because of ideological bias, that it’s hard to know whom to trust. However, Singal’s article below does show that he’s read many of the original studies questioning the supposed “safety” of puberty blockers and the claimed suicide-reducing effect of transitioning. Both claims are “problematic,” i.e., we really don’t have good data. Read and judge for yourself. I’ll give a few quotes from Singal:

Singal’s piece makes several points. First, although some U.S. gender clinics adhere to what we’d see as proper care for gender-dysphoric children and adolescents, many do not, and few seem to come close to the standards used in European countries.

Second, many of the studies cited by the media to show that transition is safe—beginning with the administration of puberty-blocking hormones, are flawed, and, in fact, we have no good information about the safety of these blocking hormones. Further, studies cited to show that transitioning reduces the risk of suicidality in transgender children are flawed to the point that we have no idea whether this is true. The patterns we see could have other explanations, like clinics not taking on children with serious mental problems.

Third, the mainstream media, which by and large adheres to the ideology of unreserved advocates for transitioning, generally refuses to report any of the incomplete data, false assertions, or problematic claims. That, says Singal, is because the media has an ideological bias on this issue, something I don’t doubt.

I’ll give a few quotes from Singal’s article, and. though it’s long (if your attention span is short), it’s well worth a read.

First, on the disparity of European versus American treatments:

In 2007, the Dutch Protocol, as it is known, was brought to the States, initially to Boston Children’s Hospital. These days, blockers and hormones are available in many more American youth clinics, though access varies considerably by geography.

There are some crucial distinctions between the Dutch approach and how some US youth-gender clinicians currently practice. For example, because, as the Dutch clinicians Annelou de Vries and Peggy Cohen-Kettenis wrote in a 2012 article describing their protocol, ‘most gender dysphoric children will not remain gender dysphoric through adolescence’ (a finding that has emerged at multiple clinics), the Dutch clinic has historically discouraged childhood social transition, while also discouraging parents from shaming children for gender-nonconforming behavior. Clinicians there promote the practice of ‘watchful waiting’ until the onset of puberty, at which point, if the GD persists, it is taken as a useful indicator that blockers might be the right choice.

Further reflecting the clinic’s cautious approach, youth with significant mental health problems or a lack of family support (or both) have not been eligible for physical transition. So when we look at the Dutch-protocol data, we’re looking at a subset of kids and teens who were carefully assessed, over a long period of time, to ensure they had clinically significant gender dysphoria and that other mental health problems could be ruled out as the primary drivers of their distress. They all had good family support when they began transitioning.

. . . The lack of outcome data for gender-dysphoric youth who physically transition is one reason there has been a steady drip of news, mostly out of Europe, reflecting growing unease about these treatments. The UK has seen a complicated, slow-boiling controversy at the National Health Service’s sole provider for youth transition services, the Gender Identity Development Service at the Tavistock Clinic in London. Staffers there raised concerns about the quality of care; some argued children were being fast-tracked toward blockers and hormones in part as a result of activist pressure. Complaints from a young detransitioner who insists that she was not properly assessed, and who had a double mastectomy she regrets, culminated in a High Court ruling declaring that under-16s are unlikely to be able to consent meaningfully to blockers or hormones, making it much harder for this group to access treatment. An appeal is underway; in the meantime a convoluted process will still allow some young people to access these services with parental permission.

This spring Sweden banned youth medical transition outright at a number of gender clinics, including one at the famed Karolinska Institute, except in approved research studies. And in June last year the body that recommends on treatment methods in the Finnish public healthcare system published guidelines that emphasized the need for thorough assessment prior to the administration of blockers or hormones — stating that blockers may only be given ‘on a case-by-case basis after careful consideration and appropriate diagnostic examinations’.

These steps seem to reflect a growing realization that the holes in the research on youth medical transition are too big to ignore. Three major reviews of the literature conducted by government agencies in Finland, Sweden and the UK found an alarming lack of data supporting early treatments.

On how the media distorts the data:

Journalistically, the proper response to this issue is to give the details in all their complexity — not to leap to some extreme in which we pretend, for the sake of our political agenda, that there are zero legitimate questions about youth transition. Unfortunately, though, that’s what just about every major American media outlet has been doing. To be fair, this trend started well before the GOP state laws were introduced, but it is getting worse. The threat posed by these laws is often deployed as an excuse to not ask too many questions about extremely unsettled areas of medical research centered on very vulnerable populations.

I mean, what are you, anyway? One of those transphobic Trump supporters? This attitude underpins how these transition stories are framed and what news gets ignored entirely. Apart from the occasional fleeting reference neither CNN nor the New York Times nor the Washington Post nor Vox, all of which have offered near-blanket coverage of the proposed bans on youth medical transition, covered the NICE evidence review [the NHS’s National Institute for Health and Care Excellence] or any of the Tavistock controversy or the Karolinska decision. These outlets routinely repeat activist claims which should be given serious scrutiny and which sometimes defy basic, generally agreed-upon facts. ‘There is no consensus criteria for assigning sex at birth,’ explained CNN in a news article published in March, though editors there later struck that bizarre statement.

Mainstream coverage of this issue is a buffet of sanctimonious overclaiming. It says authoritatively that kids in the US can’t go on blockers or hormones prior to lengthy, in-depth assessment (false). That no one under 18 is getting surgery (false). That the worldwide rise in referrals to youth GD clinics is almost entirely the result of reduced stigmatization (no one knows). That GD [gender dysphoria], or the perception that one has GD, can’t spread through adolescent social networks (almost certainly false on the basis of anecdotal evidence and any familiarity with developmental psychology). That it’s a ‘myth’ that significant number of kids who believe themselves to be trans will later feel differently (false, according to all the existing data). That only a tiny percentage of people detransition (we have no data at all on this in the context of youth gender care in the States).

The last paragraph sums up in a nutshell what we don’t know but what is asserted to be true by liberal media.  I won’t go further except to say that Singal, who is no opponent of guided and informed transitioning, emphasizes our ignorance:

Most reporters don’t have much experience covering this issue.  When they take it up, they reach out early on to an activist organization, which in turn recommends media-friendly ‘experts’ who happen to be on the vanguard of this issue; i.e., seeking to break down the final vestiges of the ‘gatekeeping’ of trans youth. They will earnestly confide in the journalist that among real experts (like themselves), there are no legitimate concerns with the safety of medical treatment of very young trans youth. People who feel differently are transphobes. Simple.

This is a comfortable storyline, but it’s just not true. We desperately need better data on trans youth healthcare. But we don’t have it yet — in many ways, everyone is flying blind, especially families of kids with later-onset GD. Parents deserve every scrap of information that can help them understand not just the potentially profound benefits but also the risks and unknowns of blockers and hormones. American journalists, from an understandable but misguided desire to position themselves on the right side of an emotionally taxing and fraught issue, are hindering their ability to get it.

I’m well familiar with the ideological bias of liberal American journalists, and am prepared to believe that, since they’re not scientists, they want to be on the side of the angels. But this debate will continue, and it will continue until we have sufficient data to settle the medical issues. We appear to be a long way from that.

Steven Novella and David Gorski defend their removal of Harriet Hall’s book review (the book: Irreversible Damage by Abigail Shrier)

July 2, 2021 • 9:15 am

On June 22, I reported here that the site Science-Based Medicine (“SBM”) had removed from its site a book review written by one of its editors, Dr. Harriet Hall. I characterized this removal as an “unfair deplatforming” and suspected that the review, of Abigail Shrier’s book Irreversible Damage (about the dangers of medically treating young children—mostly girls—to affirm their new gender identity as boys), had been removed because of public pushback.

The explanation below for the removal, by SBM founders Steven Novella and David Gorski, takes issue with those reasons for removal, and spends most of its space defending the removal on the grounds that, by making erroneous scientific statements (many based on Shrier’s contentions), Hall’s review had violated the strict scientific/medical standards of the site. (Hall’s review is still available at other sites, like this one.)

I haven’t yet read Shrier’s book, but I did read Hall’s review and this post by Novella and Gorski, and so we’re left with dueling opinions.  I don’t really have a dog in this fight (my main concern about transgender issues involve law and ethics, not medicine), and so I’ll suspend judgment for the nonce, even after I do read Shrier’s book. The issues at hand involve reading many, many scientific papers as well as having some medical expertise; the first I am unwilling to do and the second I don’t have. There will be at least one more installment of this SBM “explanation” involving more arcane medical issues.

I recommend that readers read Shrier’s book for themselves as well as the upcoming series of SBM articles, which take serious issue with Shrier’s claims.

Ultimately, this is an issue that the public and the courts must make, but one that must rest heavily on medical and psychiatric data. Whatever you conclude, I think that the publication of Shrier’s book and of Hall’s review were useful for two reasons. First, some of their claims might be correct; even Novella and Gorski agree with Shrier and Hall that much of the research on treatment for transgender children is anecdotal and needs more rigorous studies. Second, it’s only this type of back-and-forth that will clarify the empirical issues under contention, and (I hope) ultimately lead to their resolution. I note, though, that this hope may be vain given the ideological maelstrom around the topic.

But let’s proceed: click on the screenshot to read.

First, Novella and Gorski argue that Hall’s piece was published without review because she was one of the site’s editors (and remains so), but concerns were raised by themselves and other editors that ultimately led to the retraction:

Two weeks ago, one of our editors published a book review that raised concerns with Dr. Gorski and me, as well as at least one other editor, soon after it published. Reading it, we both feared that this book review had probably strayed beyond evidence or expert opinion and thus required a robust response. This was a review of a book by Abigail Shrier titled Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters. This particular book discussed a complex area of medical practice that also happens to be one embroiled in heated political debate. Because of the context of this topic, we believed it especially critical that SBM be perceived as a politically neutral and reliable source of information about the relevant science. Unfortunately, Dr. Hall’s fellow editors were concerned that the review in question did not achieve this goal.

Our first step was to carefully review the article and then discuss our concerns directly with Dr. Hall to hopefully find a solution. The challenge here was that, while we had enough background knowledge to immediately see there were serious problems with the review, none of us are topic experts. Reviews outside SBM by those with expertise in this area seemed to be making valid scientific criticisms of the opinions and claims in Ms. Shrier’s book, which the review took at face value.

Clearly what we needed was time to do a deeper dive on this complex controversy, to wrap our heads around the published evidence, and to vet the claims and arguments on both sides. This is something we would have preferred to do prior to publication, but we no longer had that luxury. Giving an immediate half-baked analysis would not do SBM readers justice. Ultimately, we decided to hit the “pause” button, to withdraw the review for a time while we consulted outside experts and did our own internal review. Since Dr. Hall indicated she would publish her article on an alternate site (and immediately did), we saw no pressing need to leave the article on SBM while this review was underway.

Novella and Gorski (N&G) are highly respected men, and I have no reason to doubt this explanation, so I won’t argue that pressure for social media had anything to do with the retraction.

And here are the claims that Novella and Gorski make about Shrier and Hall’s (S&H’s) putative errors. The characterization of their criticisms are mine, as well as the comments.

a.) S&H argue that the recent rapid increase in the proportion of adolescents seeking transgender transitioning is due to social contagion. That is, S&H claim that it’s become more acceptable to declare that you’re a transgender person, for which you get a lot of affirmation and support, than to say (if you’re a girl) that you’re a tomboy or a lesbian. 

N&G deny the social contagion hypothesis, and say that the increase (which they deny is higher than fourfold) can be solely attributed to both better diagnoses (like autism or ductal carcinoma), and to the number of children and adolescents reporting to gender clinics. This is possible, but I do not rule out social contagion as a contributing factor, especially when one sees the strength of “affirmation” when you say you’re transgender.

b.) S&H neglect the rigorous “standards of care” for children claiming gender dysphoria. And indeed, the World Professional Association for Transgender Health has a list of standards (reproduced in N&G’s piece) that seem rigorous and reasonable, with the possible caveat that use of hormone blockers to stall puberty may not be “fully reversible”. Otherwise, they seem reasonable, so long as the adolescent (and there must be an age limit for medical intervention) has been fully informed of the benefits and risks of medical transition rather than simply subject to affirmation. Similar standards are, say N&G, promulgated by The Endocrine Society.

I have no issue with the standards, though we have to be mindful of what even N&G say:

Of course, these are standards, and not every practitioner adheres perfectly to the standard of care in any aspect of medicine. But we don’t take outliers and use that to criticize the standard or pretend it is typical or common. Interviews with those involved in transgender care indicate that adherence to rigorous standards as outlined above are the norm.

But the question is really how many practitioners adhere to these standards? Shrier, I believe, argues that there are too many exceptions, and I simply cannot judge, nor can anybody. Given the fact that some transgender children get puberty blockers or hormones on the black market, it would be hard to answer this question.

As for whether puberty blockers are “fully reversible”, as the medical standards insist, I’m not so sure about that. Here’s an except from a recent NYT article on puberty blockers (I haven’t listed all the possible harms described in the article, and note of course that there are the psychological benefits of transitioning):

What are the risks?

Puberty blockers are largely considered safe for short-term use in transgender adolescents, with known side effects including hot flashes, fatigue and mood swings. But doctors do not yet know how the drugs could affect factors like bone mineral density, brain development and fertility in transgender patients.

The Endocrine Society recommends lab work be done regularly to measure height and weight, bone health and hormone and vitamin levels while adolescents are taking puberty blockers.

A handful of studies have underscored low bone mineral density as a potential issue, though a 2020 study posited that low bone mineral density may instead be a pre-existing condition in transgender youth. Treatment with gender-affirming hormones may theoretically reverse this effect, according to Endocrine Society guidelines. . .

The impact of puberty blockers on brain development is similarly hazy. The Endocrine Society guidelines point to two studies: A small one published in 2015 showed that the drugs did not seem to impact executive functioning (cognitive processes including self-control and working memory), while a 2017 study of rams treated with GnRH agonists suggested chronic use could harm long-term spatial memory. (Of course, rams are not humans.). . . . .

c.) Gender dysphoria is not a “disorder” like anorexia. N&G argue that, unlike anorexia, gender dysphoria shouldn’t be seen as a psychiatric disorder because the word “disorder” implies that the condition should be cured—and not by allowing gender transitioning. Frankly, I don’t care what you call gender dysphoria, nor do I think that it automatically has to be “cured”, for surely many children do have a deeply ingrained feeling that they are in the wrong body, and many feel better when they do something about it. But using the DSM (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association), which reclassified gender dysphoria from a disorder to “not a disorder” between the DSM IV and DSM V, doesn’t reassure me. The DSM is a pretty subjective and arbitrary way of “diagnosing” mental conditions. I’ve read a fair amount of it and am not speaking from ignorance.

And there are the comorbidities of gender dysphoria: mental illness that often goes along with the condition, both before and after transitioning. These may be correlates and not causations, but it’s worrisome that these conditions often go together. And even if they are merely correlated, one cannot automatically (as many do) argue that gender-dysphoric children must transition because otherwise they’ll kill themselves, or that, after transitioning, a higher rate of suicide among transgender people is evidence that they’ve been harassed to the point of suicide.

d.) Hall’s claims about the proportion of children who “outgrow” gender dysphoria conflates prepubescent children with adolescents. Based on what N&G say, this is a fair criticism. Hall does this conflation, they say, when asserting that some transgender children “outgrow” their desire to have a new gender identity.

e.) S&H, claim N&G, exaggerate the number of adolescents who regret having transitioned.  N&G say the incident of “regret” is 1% or less.

f.) N&G argue that overall, people who transition between sexes are generally happier. They cite several studies showing “a significant improvement in psychological functioning” after a year, as well as a decrease in suicidal ideation and improved quality of life.  I have no quarrel with this, and it’s an important finding.

N&G have a long discussion which goes into other issues, but I think I’ve hit their main issues above. I am trusting that they are fairly representing the literature rather than just citing data that support their claim that transitioning is a good thing that should generally be supported. Because I don’t know the literature, one should leaven this trust by reading Shrier’s book and looking at her own references.

In the end, I have no issue with applying accepted standards of care to adolescents who wish to transition, as well as waiting until they’re of a proper age of consent. I don’t know what that age should be, but it can’t be 2 or 4 years old, and if it’s after puberty, say 16-18, it’s already too late for a nearly full medical transition. The British High Court recently ruled that children under the age of 16 are too young to give informed consent for the use of puberty blockers unless they have parental consent.

In the end, this argument is above my pay grade, though I’ll continue reading about it. In the meantime, the “agreement” between N&G and S&H comes down to this:

Where we agree with Dr. Hall is that the current state of this evidence is far from ideal. Mainly for practical reasons, most of this research is not blinded or controlled. To put this into context, however, most surgical interventions are not studied in blinded trials, and sham surgical interventions are rare. You cannot blind a trans individual to whether or not they received a gender affirming intervention.

But we do agree that given this reality, we need to continue to study and monitor such interventions for both medical and psychological outcomes. This is where an informed medical and ethical discussion should take place, balancing the risks and benefits of interventions given the limitations of the research. There is also a meaningful ethical conversation to be had about the proper age of consent and balancing that with risks vs. benefits of gender-affirming interventions.

In other words, it’s the familiar ending of science papers, “More work needs to be done.” But that’s cold comfort for children who have gender dysphoria now. And it does say that some of Shrier’s contentions are credible and worth investigating.


h/t: Jay

Science-Based Medicine unfairly deplatforms a book review

June 22, 2021 • 9:20 am

Ginger K. called my attention to what seems to me a violation of ethical and journalistic standards by a respected website, all in the name of appeasing the woke. Science-Based Medicine, whose editors include David Gorski and Steve Novella, is a site designed to promote the kind of medicine described in its title, as well as to debunk medical woo. I haven’t read it often, but I’m sure a lot of readers have, and I know the site is greatly respected.

So much the worse, then, that the site removed a book review written by another respected physician, Harriet Hall, known for being one of the Air Forces’s first women flight surgeons as well as a notable advocate for science based medicine and a vociferous debunker of quackery.  And—get this—Hall is one of the journal’s five editors.

Hall’s “mistake” was to write a fair and objective review of Abigail Shrier’s new book, Irreversible Damage (see my post here)  about the sudden increase in transgender males drawn from teenaged girls. (The numbers have increased 4,400% from 2008 to 2018!) Shrier and Hall, who admittedly note that there are very few studies about why these transitions have skyrocketed, and involve nearly all girls who want to transition to males rather than the other way round, call for more research and argue that transitions should be done under “a research setting”. From Hall’s review (it’s been removed, but the screenshot below will take you to an archived copy):

This book will undoubtedly be criticized just as Lisa Littman’s study was. Yes, it’s full of anecdotes and horror stories, and we know the plural of anecdote is not data, but Shrier looked diligently for good scientific studies and didn’t find much. And that’s the problem. We desperately need good science, and it’s not likely to happen in the current political climate. Anyone who addresses this subject can expect to be attacked by activists. Is ROGD [rapid onset gender dysphoria, a phenomenon discussed by Shrier] a legitimate category? We don’t know, since the necessary controlled studies have not been done. I fully expect Shrier to be called a transphobe and to be vilified for harming transgender people, and I’m sure I will be labeled a transphobe just for reviewing her book. [JAC: Yep, Hall got it right!]

She brings up some alarming facts that desperately need to be looked into. The incidence of teen gender dysphoria is rising and appears to be linked to internet influences and social peer groups. The number of people identifying as lesbians is dropping. Therapists are accepting patients’ self-diagnoses unquestioningly, and irreversible treatments are being offered without therapist involvement. We know at least some of these patients will desist and detransition, and we have no way to predict which ones. Children are being instructed in how to lie to parents and doctors to coerce them into providing the treatments they want. Families are being destroyed.

For what it’s worth, I will stress again that I am not a transphobe. I support hormones and gender surgeries for adults who will benefit from them. I care about the welfare of these adolescent girls and it bothers me that some of them may be unduly influenced and take irreversible steps they will later regret.

What to do? I think limiting surgeries to a research setting is a good idea. I think the affirmative care model is a mistake and a dereliction of duty and should stop.

Shrier’s hypothesis is that many of these girls who want to transition do so without proper supervision, and are eagerly and uncautiously urged to do so by peers, some parents, and the medical establishment. Some, she says, may be doing so because of social pressure (presumably the status that transitioning confers) rather than gender dysphoria. Many, she thinks, might be lesbians (whose numbers have dropped precipitously), and some have wanted to detransition once the process is begun, though once you start taking puberty-blocking hormones—the first step in becoming a transsexual male—it’s usually too late. Shrier is not a transphobe at all and fully supports the rights of transsexual people, but is calling for careful evaluation, both sociological and medical, before the drastic step of medical intervention is taken. Instead, the standard is invariably “affirmation, which Hall summarizes in seven “matras” used by the affirmationists. (See her review for the list.)

Neither Shrier nor her reviewer Hall are transphobes, but now they are irrevocably typed as that. The ACLU staff attorney for transgender issues, Chase Strangio, has called for the banning of Shrier’s book from bookstores (odd for the ACLU, no?), and an uproar has arisen—all because Shrier is urging caution about a social phenomenon whose sudden increase demands scrutiny and investigation. To even deny the need for instant affirmation of a wish to be a boy if you’re a girl is to label yourself someone dedicated to eliminating transsexual rights or even advocating the genocide of transsexuals. That is hogwash, of course, and Shrier’s book and Hall’s careful review implicitly show that. She was instantly labeled a transphobe for not damning the book, and Science-Based Medicine got hundreds of outraged comments (see below).

At any rate, read the original version of Hall’s book review by clicking the screenshot below:

The reason Hall’s review was archived is because Science-Based Medicine retracted it—a review by one of its own editors! (I don’t expect Hall will be an editor much longer.) When you go to the site where the review formerly reside (click on screenshot below), you see this note:

I don’t fully believe Novella and Gorski’s claim that readers’ objections had nothing to do with the removal. What else would call their attention to opponents of Hall’s review? Since they didn’t vet the review themselves, how would they find out that the article was “below their standards”? Note, too, how they use the euphemism “quality control” for “censorship”.

I ask readers to look at Hall’s original review (and read Shrier’s book) and see where the “quality” falls off. Hall, after all, calls attention to the lack of research on the epidemic of girls becoming transgender boys, but the data on its prevalence, and the ubiquity and unquestioning nature of “affirmation therapy”, are undeniable.

On Bari Weiss’s Substack website Common Sense, Weiss allows Shrier to respond to Hall’s “cancelation” and her own demonization as the book’s author (click on screenshot below). There’s also a brief intro by Weiss herself; I’ll give one quote from that:

You do not need to agree with Shrier about whether or not children should be able to medically transition genders without their parents’ permission (she is opposed), or for that matter with Weinstein and Heying’s bullishness about ivermectin (I had never heard of of the drug before they put it on my radar). That’s not the point. The point is that the questions they ask are not just legitimate, they are of critical importance. Meantime, some of the most powerful forces in our culture are conspiring to silence them.

That is precisely the reason it is so important to stand up and say: no. To say: progress comes only when we have the freedom to disagree. To say: It is outrageous that tech platforms are censoring such debates and that some journalists are cheering them on. To say, in public: enough. In my case, that means making sure to publish those voices who have been shut out of so many other channels that ought to be open to them.

I’ll highlight just three bits of Shrier’s piece on Weiss’s site. First, the circumstances under which Hall’s review was removed from Science-Based Medicine were dubious:

On Tuesday, one of the blog’s long-time contributors, Dr. Harriet Hall — a family physician and flight surgeon in the Air Force with dozens of publications to her name — posted a favorable review of my book. She examined the scientific claims as well as the medical ones and wrote that the book “combines well-researched facts with horrifying stories about botched surgeries, people who later regret their choices and therapists who are not providing therapy but just validating their patient’s self-diagnosis.” Dr. Hall not only shared my criticisms of “affirmative care” — that is, immediately agreeing with a teen’s self-diagnosis of gender dysphoria and proceeding to hormones and surgeries — but also noted that many physicians and therapists feel the same way but are afraid to say so.

Within a day, Dr. Hall’s article was flooded with nearly 1,000 comments, mostly, she says, from activists demanding the article be stripped from the site, but also from some readers expressing their appreciation. Angry emails from activists swamped the blog’s editors. Within two days, those editors had given Dr. Hall an ultimatum: retract, rewrite, or allow them to add a disclaimer.

“What surprised me was that my fellow editors attacked me, too. Basically what they said was that my article was not up to my usual standards as far as medicine, science and critical thinking went. And I didn’t feel that I did anything but what I always do. That surprised me,” she told me. Considering the editors’ ultimatum, she elected to have the editors who disagreed add a disclaimer to the website. “I told them I did not want it retracted. And the next thing I knew, they had retracted it.”

Let that sink in: a book review by a respected physician was bullied out of existence in America.

Second, there are two copies of Shrier’s book in the Halifax Public Library in Canada, and a line of 146 people waiting to read them. Meanwhile Canadian activists are trying to bully the library into getting rid of the book. (So far the library has not relented.)

It’s not only corporations facing this type of activist pressure. Public libraries now do, too.

Halifax Pride, the annual LGBTQ festival, announced late last month that it would cut ties with the city’s library system over its insistence on carrying Irreversible Damage, calling it “transphobic,” and claiming that it “jeopardizes the safety of trans youth” and “debates the existence of trans people.”

So far, the Halifax Public Libraries have resisted. Their position is straightforward and apolitical: libraries exist to expose the public to the widest array of views, “including those which may be regarded as unorthodox or unpopular with the majority.”

The Halifax Public Libraries tried to compromise with the activists by pasting a note inside the book’s cover, directing readers to a list of “trans-affirming” resources. But the activists were unappeased. No ties with the libraries were restored. They want the book gone from the library and scrubbed from existence. Two copies in a library of nearly 1.2 million volumes are two too many. [JAC: I would suggest that readers buy more copies of Shrier’s book and donate them to the library so people won’t have to wait so long to read it.]

Not even the Nova Scotia Library Association or the Canadian Library Association has come to the library’s defense, though their standing orders explicitly require member libraries “to guarantee and facilitate access to all expressions of knowledge and intellectual activity, including those which some elements of society may consider to be unconventional, unpopular or unacceptable.”

The lack of support by the Nova Scotia Library Association and the Canadian Library Association are reprehensible. Librarians, famous for promulgating free speech and avoiding censorship or making books unavailable, should spring to the defense of the Halifax Public Library. I find it odious that the HPL has even pasted a note inside the books’s cover “directing readers to trans-affirming resources”. Do they do that with other books to which people object? This shows that there’s something about transsexuality that brooks no questioning of the tenets of its enthusiasts, or of “affirmationists”. The topic is simply taboo. If you don’t toe the line of the enthusiasts, you are a “transphobe.”

And what Shrier writes about is, as Weiss notes, worthy of discussion: it’s not like it’s Mein Kampf or anything (and even that book should be available in libraries).

Finally, Shrier (whose book I’ve publicly defended as something worth reading and considering) is now fed up with people supporting her via emails but not doing so publicly, nor revealing their names. She wants people to publicly affirm her right to write such a book, using their names.  The epidemic of transsexual boys is a phenomenon that needs to be examined, and if some young people are making irreversible medical changes in their bodies and lives without proper consideration, or proper caveats, well, that also needs to be examined.

The reasons for private approbation for Shrier but lack of public support is clear: nobody wants to be seen as a “transphobe”, just as nobody wants to be called a “racist.” Such is the power of demonizing labels. From Shrier’s conclusions:

Whether or not most people admit it, what keeps them from speaking up in the face of what they know is wrong is fear. Fear not primarily of unemployment, though that is a pressing concern, but fear of ostracism. This deep and ancient fear is behind our desperate reach for innocence and safety when we virtue signal. By contrast, we stand exposed when we speak unpopular truth. Within your tribe, there will be people who pull away from you, and if you think well of them — and sadly, even if you don’t — this causes pain.

. . . What can make it bearable? According to Professor Williams, getting yourself accepted by another group. This is also the way to confront most of life’s heartaches — surrounded by those you love. And there is no better way to gain respect from those you don’t already know than by being identified with truthfulness.

Fear of ostracism is rational.  But we are now living in a world in which evolutionary biologists are threatened with losing their platforms for engaging in debate about the source and treatment of a deadly virus; in which prize-winning composers have been professionally ruined for saying arson is bad; in which authors are editing already-published books to placate online mobs. That should scare us far more than losing friends or status.

So look to the Halifax Library. Summon what faith you can in those things you know to be right and true: a person is not defined by her race; biological sex is real; scientific research requires ideologically unencumbered investigation; activists shouldn’t bully libraries; and books should not be banned.

The first hundred or so silent supporter emails meant the most to me. They made me feel less crazy and less alone. But the inescapable reality is that defeating this ideology will take courage. And courage is not something that can happen in private. Courage requires each one of us to speak up, publicly, for what we believe in. Even when — especially when — it carries costs.

You are not a transphobe if you read Shrier’s book. You are not a transphobe if you read her book and see that it highlights a problem that needs to be addressed. You are not a transphobe if you refuse to call for the censorship of Shrier’s book. Those who sling about insults without addressing the problem Shrier discusses are not virtuous, nor are they “transphiles”. They are censors, pure and simple, and the embodiment of the Authoritarian Left. They are opponents of free speech, who think that some topics don’t need discussion because their own views are the right views. They are the Big Brothers of our time.

So, Ms. Shrier, here is my public statement of support for your book. My name is Jerry Coyne, and I think your book deserves to be read widely by anybody interested in the new onset of transsexual conversions. And I deplore the ad hominem arguments used to attack it.

Richard Dawkins’s new book

May 8, 2021 • 12:00 pm

Reader Luke sent me this notice, and no, I didn’t know of Richard’s new book. The cover is below along with the Amazon blurb, to wit:

Including conversations with Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Steven Pinker, Matt Ridley and more, this is an essential guide to the most exciting ideas of our time and their proponents from our most brilliant science communicator. Books Do Furnish a Life is divided by theme, including celebrating nature, exploring humanity, and interrogating faith. For the first time, it brings together Richard Dawkins’ forewords, afterwords and introductions to the work of some of the leading thinkers of our age – Carl Sagan, Lawrence Krauss, Jacob Bronowski, Lewis Wolpert – with a selection of his reviews to provide an electrifying celebration of science writing, both fiction and non-fiction. It is also a sparkling addition to Dawkins’ own remarkable canon of work.

Click on the screenshot to go to the Amazon site:

Luke also wrote this and sent me a screenshot:
You may know this already, but Richard Dawkins’ new book Books Do Furnish A Life was published yesterday (in the UK at least). I was delighted to see that the last chapter before the epilogue is his glowing review of WEIT!
You can see Richard’s entire review of my book, called “Heat the Hornet” at this link. And don’t think I wasn’t immensely pleased with his encomiums!

Philip Roth’s biography pulped after its author is accused of sexual assault

May 2, 2021 • 1:00 pm

Well known author Blake Bailey‘s new biography of Philip Roth, which has received great reviews, has been pulled from sale by publisher W. W. Norton, though I notice it’s still on Amazon. If you still want to read it after you read this post, best to get it now, as the publisher, W. W. Norton, has decided to stop selling it.  The story can be read in the New York Times or, in shorter form, at the Washington Post Book Club page (click on the screenshots below):

The explanation from the NYT:

Now, allegations against Mr. Bailey, 57, have emerged, including claims that he sexually assaulted two women, one as recently as 2015, and that he behaved inappropriately toward middle school students when he was a teacher in the 1990s.

His publisher, W.W. Norton, took swift and unusual action: It said on Wednesday that it had stopped shipments and promotion of his book. “These allegations are serious,” it said in a statement. “In light of them, we have decided to pause the shipping and promotion of ‘Philip Roth: The Biography’ pending any further information that may emerge.”

Norton, which initially printed 50,000 copies of the title, has stopped a 10,000-copy second printing that was scheduled to arrive in early May. It has also halted advertising and media outreach, and events that Norton arranged to promote the book are being canceled. The pullback from the publisher came just days after Mr. Bailey’s literary agency, The Story Factory, said it had dropped him as a client.

Bailey denies the allegations, calling them “categorically false and libelous”. One of them is a flat-out rape accusation, the others involve him “grooming” or behaving inappropriately towards middle school students.

Now normally I would say that accusations alone are not sufficient to warrant this step: there must be either a conviction or convincing evidence. The presumption of innocence still applies. And, after all, publishers all have a “morals clause” in their contract that allow them to extricate themselves if an author is guilty of gross transgressions, even if not criminally convicted.  But absent a conviction, I’d normally say, “it’s not time to pulp the book yet.”

BUT.  . . .

There does seem to be something more here than a mere accusation. One involves an email that Bailey sent to Eve Peyton, the woman who accused him of rape when she was a graduate student at another school. And this doesn’t look good for Bailey:

In an email reviewed by The Times, Mr. Bailey apologized to Ms. Peyton for his behavior days after the encounter, and asked her not to speak to others about it. She last heard from him in the summer of 2020, when Mr. Bailey wrote her again, in a message also reviewed by The Times, in which he alluded to “the awfulness on that night 17 years ago” and said he was suffering from mental illness at the time.

If I saw that email, and I take the Times‘s word for its authenticity, that would be enough for me, for it’s a tacit admission of guilt. A conviction isn’t needed if there’s an admission.

In the end, then, I don’t see this as censorship based on a mere accusation, but a fairly credible accusation, and I think Norton did the right thing. (They’ve also said they’ve paused selling the book, leaving open the door that if he were exculpated, sales would resume.)

Others may disagree with me and argue that even the worst criminal’s book should be published if it contains something in it worth reading. There is, after all Mein Kampf, by one of the worst mass murderers in history (granted, Hitler doesn’t get royalties, but the book also provides an insight into a historical figure). Likewise, Bailey’s book is supposed to be a good account of Roth’s life and work. Should it be removed from sale because of the author’s criminality?  Surely the author should not be allowed to profit from his work if he did indeed do what he’s accused of, just as O. J. Simpson cannot profit from his creepy book If I Did It, for the proceeds go by law to the Goldman family.

Upshot: I would do what W. W. Norton did, but there should be some way to make Bailey’s work available to scholars and the public if he’s found to be guilty or is credibly guilty. I can’t envision scholarship being “disappeared” completely.

Any ideas?

Short take on a book: Dennett vs. Caruso in “Just Deserts”

April 19, 2021 • 10:15 am

This is not a book for everyone, for it’s rather hard-core philosophy (albeit written in an accessible way), and is about one question: do we have free will or not? Since a lot of us have engaged in free-will debates here over the years, it’s appropriate for many of us. I’m really glad I read it.

And so to the Rumble in the Ivory Tower:

In one corner is Gregg Caruso, described on his page as “Professor of Philosophy at SUNY Corning, Visiting Fellow at the New College of the Humanities (NCH London), and Honorary Professor of Philosophy at Macquarie University. He is also Co-Director of the Justice Without Retribution Network housed at the University of Aberdeen School of Law.”

In the other corner is Dan Dennett, whom most of us know; he’s “the co-director of the Center for Cognitive Studies and the Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy at Tufts University.”

Both men have published extensively on free will. Caruso is a self-described “free will skeptic”; he thinks that because none of us can control our actions in a way that would change what we do at any given moment, we are not morally responsible for our acts, though we are “answerably responsible” or “causally responsible”. That is, if we do something good or bad, then we must be held accountable by society for our act in some way. Caruso adheres to a “pubic health” model of punishment: if you transgress, you are quarantined for possible cure and to keep you from hurting other people. You are not quarantined to deter others, as we don’t do that with carriers of infectious diseases. Ergo Gregg doesn’t see deterrence as a valid reason for “punishment” (or “quarantine”).  Caruso also sees no concept of “free will” that makes any sense, much less the historical one of “dualistic” free will—the one in which at any time we could have willed our choices and behaviors to be other than what we chose.

Dennett, like Caruso, is a determinist, agreeing that at any moment we have no free choice about what we do. However, he believes in a form of free will different from the traditional one; a form that, he argues, is the only kind of free will worth wanting. He thus sees his form of free will as compatible with determinism, so he’s a “compatibilist.”

What is Dennett’s form of free will? For him “freedom” consists of what we do when we’re members of the “Moral Agents Club”: that group of citizens who have been properly brought up and are responsive to reason and guidance by other responsible people. So for Dan, though free will isn’t “free” in the traditional sense, he sees it as “the concept of responsible, reliable self-control.”  In other words, people do things—make “choices”, if you will—that conform to the strictures of society. And so Dan says members of the Club have “moral responsibility.”

The screenshot below links to the Amazon order site.

I’ll briefly describe the Battle of the Heavyweights. You already know whose side I’m on! But let me say first that I greatly enjoyed the book, as it shows two top-notch philosophers arguing about a topic dear to my heart, and although the back and forth is civil (it’s a conversation, with each person writing between a paragraph and a few pages before the other person responds), it’s also hard-nosed, with each man querying and parrying the other, trying to find holes in their defense. 

As the title says, the argument is about “Just Deserts”, which to Dan means that people deserve to be praised or blamed for their actions because those actions are taken in a state of moral responsibility. Gregg sees no real reason for people to deserve their praise or blame, and so praise and blame must be allotted according to whether these actions help society or not (with some limitations). Blame should be limited, though, as it’s not really deserved; and “quarantine” rather than moral shaming is the best way to proceed.

In general, both Caruso and Dennett are consequentialists: they think the system of reward and (especially) punishment are largely justified by the consequences these systems have on society. To Dan, punishment is warranted by its effect on sequestering bad people and preventing them from hurting others, by its ability to help effect reformation of the criminal (if that’s possible), and to deter others from committing similar acts. Caruso, however, differs from both Dan and me in arguing that deterrence should not be a goal of punishment, because it uses people as means to control other people’s behavior, which he sees as fundamentally immoral. For example, one might say that in Dan (and my) society, even if someone is innocent of a bad deed that’s been committed, you might want to frame them to deter others from doing that deed. But that doesn’t seem right, does it? My answer would be that the consequences of punishing the innocent would be detrimental in general. But perhaps they need not be! The issue of deterrence is one I’m still thinking over.

So what is the difference between Dan’s views and Gregg’s? Gregg in fact spends almost all his time trying to answer that question, and he presses Dan on whether Dennett’s views are retributivist (which both men abhor: punishing someone simply to get back at them for bad deeds). But Dan sometimes comes close to saying that with his view of “moral responsibility”. At one point, frustrated by Dan’s apparent rapid changes of view during the conversation, Gregg compares Dan to a slippery eel. (There are moments of palpable frustration like this, though both guys behave civilly, like members of Dan’s Moral Agents Club.)

In the end, I would say Gregg won, simply because Dan doesn’t seem to make a good case for people deserving the punishment or praise they get just because they’re member of the “Moral Agents Club”. As Gregg (and I) have pointed out before, you have no choice about whether you’re a member of the Moral Agents Club: circumstances beyond your control have determined whether you are responsive to reasons and adhere to the social contract that makes you “morally responsible.” You might not have had the right upbringing, for instance.  Both Dan and Gregg agree, though, that strenuous prison reform is needed, and largely along similar lines. So to me, the debate either comes down to a difference in semantics or to an opacity of views on Dennett’s part that makes parsing his ideas very difficult.

But it’s great to see these two intellectual heavyweights slug it out. There are no knockouts, but I judge Caruso the winner on points.  And I have to do some thinking about deterrence. Right now I still think that deterrence is a valid aim of punishment.

Regardless of whether you’re a compatibilist or a free-will skeptic (or somewhere in the middle), this book will stimulate your thinking. Do read it if you’re interested in the free-will debate that’s occupied so much of our time. And I really do wish that we could have more debates like this: real back-and-forth conversations in more or less real time. That’s one reason I’m debating Adam Gopnik on whether science or its methods are the only way of gaining knowledge.

Oh, and after you read the book, you can vote on who you think made the best arguments; the voting site is here. Do not vote unless you’ve read the book!