Doctrinal battles in academia

transgender symbolNew York Times health and science reporter Benedict Carey has had more than a few interesting stories this summer. I particularly liked his write-up about how firstborn children have higher IQs. I'm a last born, for what it's worth. For years he's covered the case of one J. Michael Bailey, a pscyhologist at Northwestern University. Yesterday he wrote about the academic dispute involving Bailey, the former head of the psychology department:

The central figure, J. Michael Bailey, a psychologist at Northwestern University, has promoted a theory that his critics think is inaccurate, insulting and potentially damaging to transgender women. In the past few years, several prominent academics who are transgender have made a series of accusations against the psychologist, including that he committed ethics violations. A transgender woman he wrote about has accused him of a sexual impropriety, and Dr. Bailey has become a reviled figure for some in the gay and transgender communities.

To many of Dr. Bailey's peers, his story is a morality play about the corrosive effects of political correctness on academic freedom. Some scientists say that it has become increasingly treacherous to discuss politically sensitive issues. They point to several recent cases, like that of Helmuth Nyborg, a Danish researcher who was fired in 2006 after he caused a furor in the press by reporting a slight difference in average I.Q. test scores between the sexes.

"What happened to Bailey is important, because the harassment was so extraordinarily bad and because it could happen to any researcher in the field," said Alice Dreger, an ethics scholar and patients' rights advocate at Northwestern who, after conducting a lengthy investigation of Dr. Bailey's actions, has concluded that he is essentially blameless. "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."

Bailey argued, in his 2003 book The Man Who Would Be Queen, that some men who desire to change their sex are driven by an erotic fascination with being female. Conventional teaching is that most people who desire sex changes are correcting a biological mistake of being born the wrong sex. And as political as most academic fights go, you can imagine how heated this one is.

Let me be clear: this story is not directly about religion at all. It's about political correctness and academic independence and all sorts of other juicy things. But I think it's worth considering from a journalism and religion angle. So many of the hottest religion stories are framed as religion vs. science -- assuming not only a conflict but a superiority of supposedly objective reason, logic and scientific method.

One of my husband's best friends is a cell biologist and we were recently discussing how the academic funding system reinforces conventional views and makes it somewhat difficult to deviate or experiment with alternate views. Particularly considering how much scientific research is conducted with federal taxpayer dollars, this funding mechanism is understandable. But it's worth considering how much pressure is on scientists to follow governmental or big business research goals.

Carey's story is readable and very balanced, quoting Bailey critics such as one of my favorite economics professors (Deirdre McCloskey). Interestingly, he doesn't mention that McCloskey is transgendered -- someone I began reading as Donald McCloskey. I'm not sure why that information was deemed unimportant, but I can't help but think more transparency is wise in a story about political correctness and questionable motivations. Carey does mention the transgendered status of Bailey's other critics.

Anyway, Bailey went through holy hell after the publication of the book. While the Lambda Literary Foundation nominated the book for an award, prominent transgendered activists were alarmed. One compared Bailey's views to Nazi propoganda. Four men who changed their gender and discussed same with Bailey wrote letters of complaint to Northwestern. One claimed Bailey had sex with her. A transgender advocate downloaded pictures of Bailey's children and posted them on her website with sexually explicit captions. The university launched an investigation, as did Dreger:

Dr. 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 Dr. Bailey was guilty and, after meeting him through a mutual friend, had decided to investigate for herself.

But in her just-completed account, due 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. . . .

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

"The bottom line is that they tried to ruin this guy, and they almost succeeded," Dr. Dreger said.

ulcerBailey's book was social science -- not grounded in hard science -- but he was doing what scientists do. He threw out an idea and tested it. It may or may not be worthy, but it's interesting how vociferously it was fought. It's also worth noting just how much political pressure scientists face. Consider this quote from Carey's piece:

Dr. Ben Barres, a neurobiologist at Stanford, said in reference to Dr. Bailey's thesis in the book, "Bailey seems to make a living by claiming that the things people hold most deeply true are not true."

Yes, and from Darwin to Freud to Dawkins, this is precisely what scientists do. But challenging science and transgendered activists can be just as -- if not more -- difficult as challenging religious doctrine. Think about all the myriad of academic debates dealing with cloning, embryonic stem cell research, evolution and global warming. And consider this other bit of reportage from the article:

One collaborator broke with Dr. Bailey over the controversy, Dr. Bailey said. Others who remained loyal said doing so had a cost: two researchers said they were advised by a government grant officer that they should distance themselves from Dr. Bailey to improve their chances of receiving financing.

"He told me it would be better if I played down any association with Bailey," said Khytam Dawood, a psychologist at Pennsylvania State University.

Next time reporters pit science vs. religion, it's worthwhile to investigate a bit further on both sides of the equation.

NB: I chose that peptic ulcer image on account of how conventional wisdom held for decades that stress caused ulcers. In 2005, Barry Marshall and Robin Warren won the Nobel in Physiology or Medicine for successfully challenging prevailing dogma in showing that bacteria cause peptic ulcers.

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