An axe to grind

Thursday, September 29, 2016

I don't like to politicize my life or my friends' lives. I have a tendency to avoid sharing important articles on the issues closest to me because of my obvious bias.

I feel better sharing issues at a healthy distance, where those that know me can more easily see my hope to be moderate, thoughtful, open-minded and highly self-scrutinizing in my tone. (I hope readers can see that here.)

Looking like I have an axe to grind will hurt my ability to connect with people important to me and my credibility in hosting thoughtful dialogue with my diverse group of friends.

I'd like my Facebook wall and my friendships to remain fairly neutral on the issues that are hotspots of divisiveness among this very diverse group. Many of my friends who will see my posts hold conflicting viewpoints, often on extremely personal and weighty topics. I'm all for respectful disagreement, and I love and trust all my friends to be thoughtful and respectful, but I don't want to regularly throw up the Facebook equivalent of kindling or gasoline on a fire.

Enough disclaimers, what I'm getting at is: I hope you'll forgive my lapse in these ideals, because this is one I can't pass on.

There's a doctor named Paul McHugh. He may sound familiar. He's often cited1 as one of the foremost experts on the science of gender and sexuality in the country, having studied such for over 40 years. His credentials almost never miss his affiliation with "American College of Pediatricians", and they always hinge on his position as a professor with the well-known Johns Hopkins University, and he's been referred to by his reports' publishers as "arguably the most important American psychiatrist of the last half-century".2

He is the author behind a "major new report" being heralded by certain outlets as a comprehensive take on sexuality and gender.3

Unfortunately, his publications and activities show he also has an axe to grind.

McHugh's research, including this new report, have been widely circulated and intentionally portrayed as the best data science has to offer on these topics.

Make no mistake, credentialed or not, McHugh has an agenda. Is he more of an expert than I am? Certainly. Do I hold any greater degree of impartiality than he does? Certainly not.

But does his research:

  • show efforts to avoid predetermined conclusions? No.
  • avoid giving undue weight to statistically unconventional or underrepresented opinions? No.
  • avoid confusion of credentials with more widely accepted academic groups? No.
  • explain the gap between his conclusions and those of much more widely accepted positions? No.

However, the studies and articles propagating them, including McHugh's own editorials, actively:

  • perpetuate credential confusion and elevation
  • seek to support predetermined conclusions4 aligning with the published mission of the ACP
  • avoid peer-reviewed processes
  • spin to imply more than they really cover with editorializing and rhetorical sleight-of-hand and use of homosexuality- and transgender-invalidating tropes, such "transgender" as a verb, or insistence on referring to transgender people by the names and gender pronouns they no longer prefer.5 6

Remember what I said about the "American College of Pediatricians"? It sounds like the foremost national association of pediatricians, right? Well, not quite. This group was founded in response to the actual principal national academic society of pediatricians — the American Academy of Pediatricians — for supporting the adoption of children by gay couples.7

The group was founded explicitly to further conservative positions on LGBT and other social issues such as abortion and the legalization of marijuana.

The group has an estimated few-hundred members, to the AAP's 66,000 members.

For instance, a "position statement" on gender identity9 -- only 5 years old, but now deleted10 from their website -- begins "Gender Identity Disorder (GID) is an identifiable morbidity...". Unsurprisingly, this language frames gender identity immediately with the "disorder" label, elevates the DSM's word "comorbidity" (correlation) to "morbidity" (causation), and completely ignores the DSM's careful emphases on this subject:

DSM-5 aims to avoid stigma and ensure clinical care for individuals who see and feel themselves to be a different gender than their assigned gender. It replaces the diagnostic name “gender identity disorder” with “gender dysphoria,” as well as makes other important clarifications in the criteria. It is important to note that gender nonconformity is not in itself a mental disorder. The critical element of gender dysphoria is the presence of clinically significant distress associated with the condition. (emphasis added)

I don't object to the right of any group, including many of my likely readers, to support these positions. I only object to a group that is actually not a diverse and principal national associations of pediatricians implicating themselves as such. And even moreso when, despite however much lip service that group may pay to scientific process, it is in fact tightly wound up with — even ordained to support — a system of predetermined conclusions.

This is just what I've observed. Much more thorough debunking has done elsewhere:

Sure, let's say this is informative, but it's not news, right?

The above is actually just background info. Sorry! My primary reason for this post is actually a couple easy-to-miss references to this study that have come across my radar in the past week.

The first was the citation of the study by Dallin H Oaks, in a group including highly impressionable youth, as the only scientific justification on talking points just like those of the ACP.

A talk about beliefs doesn't need to defer to science, of course. Beliefs are a separate thing. But once a scientific study is employed in support, it needs to be used responsibly. And in this case and many pushing similar views, McHugh's positions are the only science cited.

Aside: McHugh likes to use words like "truth", "biological fact", "fact of nature", as well as perpetuating myths about transgender people that have been widely discredited and are extremely disturbing to many transgender people who find out what is being said about them. However, in my own research, anecdotally of course, I've been unable to turn up much supporting these attitudes that doesn't have McHugh's articles and opinions at the root of the references.

Disappointingly, Oaks even implies a coverup, saying, "The media, for reasons that I won’t go into, has hardly taken any notice of that study."

Each and every time, Johns Hopkins University is cited as the home of the researcher involved. The name carries weight. Johns Hopkins has clout and lends significant credibility to McHugh and these reports. Every time, McHugh's credentials and often the official-sounding and purpose-masking name "American College of Pediatricians" are employed.

Which leads to the second time I saw this study this week: Johns Hopkins University has disassociated itself from McHugh's "troubling" report:

[The report] was not published in the scientific literature, where it would have been subject to rigorous peer review prior to publication. It purports to detail the science of this area, but it falls short of being a comprehensive review.

Johns Hopkins has taken this action in response to a review from the Human Rights Campaign. The HRC has threatened Johns Hopkins with demotion on its Healthcare Equality Index. The HRC is an LGBT organization so this is unsurprising, but it's one whose review clearly matters to Johns Hopkins.

I am personally thrilled to see that it is no longer just advocacy groups calling attention to the misleading nature of McHugh's publishings, but his very own employer and with it the name which has been relied on to prop up the political agendas driving their research.

When we only hear a sentence for a hypothesis and a name or two for a citation, it's easy to be mistaken about the science we feel behind our beliefs. No side to any debate is immune to this. I don't blame any of us for falling for it. I do all the time. I can only hope that this is a step toward greater understanding for all and an greater inability for agendas to drive the attitudes of the masses on these very personal issues.

Footnotes and sources