Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Science is good, until you hurt me feelings

Article: Criticism of a Gender Theory, and a Scientist Under Siege

In academic feuds, as in war, there is no telling how far people will go once the shooting starts. Earlier this month, members of the International Academy of Sex Research, gathering for their annual meeting in Vancouver, informally discussed one of the most contentious and personal social science controversies in recent memory.

This is a bit a doozy, and I followed it closely for a bit. It's interesting in two ways: First, academics are so damn petty. Second, though, when scientists disagree with other scientists, the debate, I'd hope, would be scientific. Politics shouldn't be involved. Indeed, when politicians get involved, scientists get all pissy (correctly).

When when the topic is sex, though, all that goes out the window. Here's the deal. Psychologist (Bailey) writes a book suggesting a pretty darn Freudian theory of transgendered individuals.

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 theory upsets some people. That's cool. That's what science is all about. Keeping throwing out your evidence, critique the evidence of others. But it got ugly.

“What happened to Bailey is important, because the harassment was so extraordinarily bad and because it could happen to any researcher in the field...If we’re going to have research at all, then we’re going to have people saying unpopular things, and if this is what happens to them, then we’ve got problems not only for science but free expression itself.”

In defense, one critic said:

“Nothing we have done...overstepped any boundaries of fair comment on a book and an author who stepped into the public arena with enthusiasm to deliver a false and unscientific and politically damaging opinion”

As I see it, there's the problem: If you can argue the theory is "false and unscientific" then do so. But whether it is "politically damaging" should be completely irrelevant.

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