Tuesday, August 21, 2007

The War on Science, Transgender Edition --
This account of a J. Michael Bailey, whose work on transgendered people was not well-received by the subject matter.

In his book, he argued that some people born male who want to cross genders are driven primarily by an erotic fascination with themselves as women. This idea runs counter to the belief, held by many men who decide to live as women, that they are the victims of a biological mistake - in essence, women trapped in men's bodies. Bailey described the alternate theory, which is based on Canadian studies done in the 1980s and 1990s, in part by telling the stories of several transgender women he had met through a mutual acquaintance. In the book, he gave them pseudonyms, like "Alma" and "Juanita."

Many scientists praised the book as a compelling explanation of the science. The Lambda Literary Foundation, an organization that promotes gay, bisexual and transgender literature, nominated the book for an award.

But days after the book appeared, Lynn Conway, a prominent computer scientist at the University of Michigan, sent out an e-mail message comparing Bailey's views to Nazi propaganda. She and other transgender women found the tone of the book abusive, and the theory of motivation it presented to be a recipe for further discrimination.

This controversy gets revisited by the conclusions of Alice Dreger, described as an "ethics scholar and patients' rights advocate".

Dreger is the latest to arrive at the battlefront. She is a longtime advocate for people born with ambiguous sexuality and has been strongly critical of sex researchers in the past. She said she had presumed that Bailey was guilty and, after meeting him through a mutual friend, had decided to investigate for herself.

But in her just-completed account, scheduled to be published next year in The Archives of Sexual Behavior, the field's premier journal, she concluded that the accusations against the psychologist were essentially groundless.

For example, Dreger found that two of the four women who complained to Northwestern of research violations were not portrayed in the book at all. The two others did know their stories would be used, as they themselves said in their letters to Northwestern.

The accusation of sexual misconduct came five years after the fact, and was not possible to refute or confirm, Dreger said. It specified a date in 1998 when Bailey was at his former wife's house, looking after their children, according to dated e-mail messages between the psychologist and his former wife, Dreger found.

This points to a chilling effect for those who want to do research in politically controversial areas. Eventually, the only people who will do research into anything with political implications will be scientists whose funding sources have an agenda.
(4:29 PM) Links to this post


Blogger Lena Dahlstrom said...

This isn't about telling an unfortunate truth or unpopular ideas. There's a multitude of reasons why at a public meeting of sex researchers shortly after the publication of "The Man Who Would be Queen," Dr. John Bancroft, then director of the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction, said to Dr. Bailey, “Michael, I have read your book, and I do not think it is science.” Likewise Alice Dreger herself has said: "I should correct the misperception that I’m a defender of Professor Bailey." (panel discussion on KQED's "Forum" show, Aug. 22, 2007)

First, there's the major problems with Bailey's theoretical basis. There is a huge difference between a classification system and causality (what makes something happen). Bailey relies on the work of Raymond Blanchard, which at best (and this is/has been disputed) shows that the population of male-to-female transsexuals includes the following two groups: those who like to have sex with men, and those who are viewed to be aroused by cross-dressing. Blanchard makes a huge leap in asserting that wanting to have sex with men or some sort of autoeroticism is the cause of transsexualism in these two groups. (Blanchard did see these two groups as only a portion of the MTF transsexual population.) In the 20 some years since Blanchard started with this classification system, no one has replicated his work, a key part of the scientific process. In fact, Prof. Joan Roughgarden, Professor of Biological Science at Stanford University, author of "Evolution’s Rainbow," concluded: "if you go back to Blanchard’s work, you again do find that the existence of these two clean-cut categories is a figment of imagination… because Blanchard sent out a bunch of questionnaires, and he has three different studies in which the results of the questionnaires are tabulated, and you see a scattering of all sorts of answers to the questionnaires. And trying to find that they coalesce into two distinct clusters is really an exercise in pure imagination." (panel discussion on KQED's "Forum" show, Aug. 22, 2007) Perhaps this contributes to why prior to Bailey's book, Blanchard was only of interest to a few people at all and even specialists in transsexuality rarely cited his work.

Bailey goes further than Blanchard and asserts these are the two -- and only two -- causes of MTF transsexualism -- and that if you say that your life experience doesn't match these models, you're lying. Which needless to say, makes Bailey's theory un-disproveable -- taking it out of the realm of the "scientific," despite Bailey's repeated assertions in TMWWBQ and elsewhere about the scientific nature of his inquiry. For example, the book's subtitle is "The Science of Gender-Bending and Transsexualism" and it's inside jacket promises "Based on his original research, Bailey's book is firmly in the scientific method."

Then there's the shoddy nature of Bailey's "field research" for the book, which in its entirety consisted of talking to a handful of transsexuals at a local bar, and the startling conclusions Bailey reached based on that. To make an analogy, imagine a researcher who:

- drew conclusions about the entire population of black women based on a half-dozen women he met while "cruising" a local bar (Pg. 141 of "The Man Who Would Be Queen") (because he didn't know how to locate other black women, despite the presence of several organization for black women) and based on that sampling

- argued that white women "aspire (with some success) to be presentable, while [black women] aspire (with equivalent success) to be objects of desire" (Pg. 180)

- argued black women "tend to have a short time horizon with certain pleasure in the present being worth great risks for the future" (Pg. 184)

- argued that black women "might be especially well suited to prostitution" (Pg. 185)

- argued the black women are "especially motivated" to shoplifting (Pg. 185)

- argued those who were black women "are much better looking than most" of those who aren't, and that he can tell the difference between light-skinned black women and dark-skinned white women based on whether he found them attractive (Pgs 141-142, 180-182)

I doubt we'd be debating whether those findings were politically incorrect and recognize the shoddy "research" for what it was.

The general public doesn't see the slight of hand that converts a questionable taxonomy into an non-scientific opinion about a reason why.  Nor the slight of hand that takes what is at most, anecdotes from a highly non-random sample, and turns them into assertions about an entire population.

Frankly, some transsexuals have hurt the case for the many justifiable criticisms of Bailey's work by their over-zealous behavior. But I hope one might see how assertions such as the ones above, might be enraging to a population that already is marginalized and discriminated against. People whose lives are affected by a book that says that the story they've been telling about themselves is a lie, and that asserts that they are especially suited to criminal activity, have clear reason to be concerned. They are right in thinking "with friends like Bailey, who needs enemies?" Especially when Bailey continues to assert that transsexuals are "better suited than genetic women are" for prostitution (panel discussion on KQED's "Forum" show, Aug. 22, 2007).

2:37 PM  

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