Op-eds, Opinions

Miller: University should safeguard researchers’ independence

By
Thursday, September 6, 2018

Criticism is part of science — indeed, science couldn’t move forward without it — but sometimes that criticism can be brutal. Assistant Professor of the Practice of Behavioral and Social Sciences Lisa Littman is getting a taste of that right now in the reaction to her paper on rapid-onset gender dysphoria. Wednesday’s article in The Herald detailed some of this criticism, which included claims that Littman’s study was “flat-out bad research,” that it was “incredibly dangerous” and that it would “do a lot of damage” to trans youth and the LGBTQ+ community.

Some of these reactions are to be expected and reflect the workings of the scientific process. A study exploring the origins of sexual self-identity, whatever its findings, is bound to provoke strong reactions and pushback from those who are skeptical. Detailed critical analysis of her methodology, including the fact that she relied on surveys of parents rather than interviews with the youth themselves, is clearly called for, and the journal that published it has said as much. This, too, is part of the scientific process. If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen, as the saying goes, and that clearly applies to research on human sexual identity. Littman’s provocative study is getting plenty of critical attention, and that’s a good thing.

I wish I could say the same for Brown’s institutional reaction to such criticism. In frank terms, it has been nothing short of shameful. One would expect a university devoted to open inquiry and academic freedom to vigorously defend the independence of its researchers, and to support their efforts to investigate even the most controversial topics. Instead, Brown cowered.  It removed references to Littman’s paper from its “news distribution” web sites, and then published a statement from Dean Bess Marcus of the School of Public Health that implicitly undercut the work of its own researcher. While Marcus’ letter contained fine words regarding academic freedom, it simultaneously implied that Littman had not properly listened “to multiple perspectives” or recognized the “limitations” of her work. The same letter indicated that Marcus would organize “a panel of experts to present the latest research in this area and to define directions for future work to optimize health in transgender communities.”

While no one could argue with the goal of optimizing health in such communities, there is little doubt that such a panel would be organized in a way to explicitly challenge the work of this junior faculty member, reject her methodology and conclusions and even undermine her decision to investigate the topic of gender dysphoria itself. Marcus went further, citing concerns from members of the Brown community that “conclusions of the study could be used to discredit the efforts to support transgender youth and invalidate perspectives of members of the transgender community.” What she did not explain is why a speculative fear of how research findings could be used by unnamed individuals should play any role in determining the academic merit of Littman’s work.

These actions send a very clear message to every member of the research community at Brown. If your investigation engenders substantial social criticism from stakeholders, whether inside or outside of the University community, Brown will run and hide. It will bury your research findings, surrender to the most vocal of your critics and then call in “experts” to wash its hands of the whole affair.

As Jeffrey Flier, former Dean of Harvard Medical School, wrote in a recent opinion piece, the stakes are very high for the University at this point. “Its leaders must not allow any single politically charged issue ­— including gender dysphoria — from becoming the thin edge of a wedge that gradually undermines our precious, hard-won academic freedoms.”

To be clear, I am not calling for Brown to defend the specific work in question. Littman’s study may well be poorly designed, methodologically flawed or incorrectly interpreted. That will be for the larger scientific community to decide, and decide it will. But what Brown must do is to affirm the right of its researchers to take on the most difficult questions in science and society and to stand up for their independence when challenged. This it has failed to do, undercutting the work of every researcher at this institution. On this point I stand with Littman, and I hope the rest of our research community will do the same.

Ken Miller ’70 P’02 is a professor of biology and can be reached at kenneth_miller@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.

21 Comments

  1. socratic gadfly says:

    I find it very odd that Prof. Miller suppressed all mention of the fact PLOSone is investigating the Littman study for methodological and ethical problems. Brown in its own words only retracted the press release after PLOSone announced a review over allegedly serious problems in the study. Retraction watch did a far better job of covering the controversy over the study. Trust them and PLOSone’s take over faculty with politics and agendas. https://retractionwatch.com/2018/08/29/reader-outcry-prompts-brown-to-retract-press-release-on-trans-teens/ Retraction Watch has “very serious concerns” over the methodology, why didn’t Dr. Miller first asses the paper PLOSone is investigating before starting his political career on it?

    • “suppressed all mention?” Did you actually read the article? It pointed out that, “Detailed critical analysis of her methodology, including the fact that she relied on surveys of parents rather than interviews with the youth themselves, is clearly called for, and the journal that published it has said as much.” And, by the way, I don’t have “a political career.” 😉

      • Thank you for your letter Professor Miller, and your courage. I attempted to post a reply in your defense (not that you needed it from me) but it was scrubbed off by moderators. I think they want only negative comments to show. I hope sane minds like yours can prevail and save what is left of your university.

      • socratic gadfly says:

        You claimed Brown pulling mention of a publication after the journal itself begins investigating allegedly serious problems is political persecution. It is in fact a typical approach.

      • socratic gadfly says:

        Dr. Miller, you might be offended and rightfully so, but if you value scientific integrity then please look:

        All threads regarding this study are full of angry commenters from 4thwavenow, the same website Littman polled, they are in “Paxson ’19, Locke ’18: University committed to academic freedom, faculty support” hounding university faculty, and in every other news going after anyone skeptical of the study. Their twitter and website itself is directing members to go to Brown websites and discussions.

        This is the same website Littman polled and used for her study, it is now directing AstroTurfing in favor of the study. Isn’t it unethical for study collaborators to try and lobby against any scrutiny of a study?

        And also, please note that this website Littman chose to poll tags all of it’s stories with a variety of hateful slurs. They tag more than half of all their stories with “trans cult” and use a variety of slurs for the rest.

        Is a website that uses slurs nonstop, and who then directs it’s members to lobby for the same study they helped organize really going to provide reliable proof of a medical condition? Isn’t their diehard political campaigning proof that they’ll say anything to prove their cause, regardless of facts?

        https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/5a1e1f1109529b9b555f3da9c69c2ae88b3b68f1e5c03e010c8805b730d31ad0.png

        https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/fd39f95f5e4a7966888b15c336c3246134b0742ff2681c1bddde4f85704f1bb0.png

        https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/54f608676fd78f00de6950d110b5b73a7e0191444ce6445b2b69aa3436e3f23a.png

        • No, some of us are survivors of male sexual abuse. Some of us have seen grooming by adult intact male transactivists online of vulnerable youth. Some of us have watched for a decade as the rights of 1% gender identity believers have become superordinated above women’s sex-based protection and broader human rights.

          Women have earned sex-based protections for a reason.

          Trans women need to get men to accept feminine appearing males.

          And, trans women, the WHITE ones have half the murder rate of any male or female. And, teaching vulnerable youth to taunt threats of suicide is abhorrent, we’ve seen that on reddit as well.

          Average people are becoming aware that an extreme gender radical fringe has high-jacked civil rights for gays, lesbians and women. Our numbers are growing.

          Some of us have been mothers and state-licensed foster mothers and know how vulnerable the depressed, often autistic and sad kid who has a history of child abuse can be in adolescence.

          Why should intact, adult males with clothing preferences have any say in the treatment of depressed adolescent girls? They’re advocating to sterilize young people and most transgender are intact males.

          The cracks in the gender religion are showing, and we talking about it.

          Women don’t have penises.

          • socratic gadfly says:

            So there we go, none of what you said is relevant to if a study has substandard methodology and made ethical breaches. However, you decided to derail this into your political crusade and with no evidence go on and claim that lgbt are rapists and want to steal kids.

            Brown, Littman, and Dr. Miller, these are people from the same website Littman polled and used to help recruit subjects, do you really think they are going to give you reliable information when everything they do in their life is just political crusading?

          • socratic gadfly says:

            This is very telling, this should be a discussion over if the paper is fit to publish or it’s methodological and ethical flaws are too great. Instead, you turn this into a political manifesto about how you see LGBT as being predators, rapists and child “groomers”, and you provide no evidence at that.

            Brown, Littman and Dr. Miller, please take note of how the members of 4thwavenow, Littman’s site for surveys behave. Are these diehard political crusaders with their slogans and vendetas against lgbt really going to provide any reliable anecdotes about a medical condition? It looks like they’re fighting a crusade 24/7, maybe the responses Littman got were whatever the subjects thought would promote their cause? This study should have been described as a survey of political organizations, not ROGD, of which not a single case was assessed.

  2. I find it interesting that Ashencat has said nothing intelligent that undermines the opinion expressed by Professor Miller. All he did was talk about PLOSone (who activists are also targeting) and retractionwatch.com (a blog) and accuse a professor at Brown University of using this opportunity to launch a political career (conjecture). Maybe, just maybe, Professor Miller has a good point and Brown did run and hide when they should have stood firm, and they should have invited criticism to expand the dialogue. These tactics are how the activists have been successful so far. They do not have anything that ADDS to the discussion at all. Zero. Zip. Nil. They only pick nits, question motives, distract and harass. They have nothing to add. They just want the dialogue shut down as quickly as possible. Brown – this is an important moment for you. You can do this.

  3. My comment was deleted. I guess no further commenting is desired unless we agree with the trans activist socratic gadfly. So disappointing.

    • socratic gadfly says:

      Fair warning Brown: the reason all these angry commenters shouting
      about “trans activists”, they’re coming from the same 4thwavenow site
      Littman polled is directing it’s followers to go and comment on every
      article involving the Littman study and denounce anyone who focuses the
      normal scientific skepticism on the study.

      Also keep in mind this is the same website that tags every one of it’s articles with
      a slur. The most common slur used by this website is “trans cult”,
      whichtags more than half their total posts. Do you think polling these
      political crusaders will really give you any reliable information about
      ROGD.

      Is it really ethical for the websites that took part in the Littman study to
      brigade their members here with the intention of using them to hound
      anyone skeptical of the study?

      Brown you tell me if this is normal. Shouldn’t Littman ask them to ease off
      in brigading and not interfere in the scientific process?

      https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/5a1e1f1109529b9b555f3da9c69c2ae88b3b68f1e5c03e010c8805b730d31ad0.png

      https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/fd39f95f5e4a7966888b15c336c3246134b0742ff2681c1bddde4f85704f1bb0.png

      https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/54f608676fd78f00de6950d110b5b73a7e0191444ce6445b2b69aa3436e3f23a.png

      • This is just gaslighting. Sure, anyone who disagrees with you is “angry.” Sure, everyone who disagrees with you is only speaking up because 4thwavenow typed in the launch code. Sure, Professor Miller just wants to launch a political career. Look at all those craaaaazy people asking for more research. Look at all those transphobes! Riiiight. So ridiculous.

        • socratic gadfly says:

          Lets be honest, the only reason any of you found this website was because 4thwavenow plugged it in on their twitter, while saying derogatory things about Brown administrators. You would not have gotten here otherwise.

          People should know this is brigading from 4thwavenow, these are angry political activists, not students or scientists. And it’s very relevant for people to know that the websites that Littman polled and collaborated with are now involved in post publication lobbying and political activism against any of the usual scientific scrutiny. This might be an ethical violation.

          And at the very least, it’s really questionable. If the people Littman polled are this fanatic about a cause and frequently use slurs like “trans cult”, then can their anecdotes really give ANY reliable information about this so called new medical condition?

          • More gaslighting. Ethical violation!….blah blah blah… political activism!… blah blah blah… fanatics!…. blah blah blah… brigading from 4thwavenow!… blah blah blah.. (or maybe we used Google). Sorry dimwit, we are on to you. You are a one trick pony and your antics are no longer interesting or effective. Please let it go.

          • socratic gadfly says:

            You see, the problem is you’re more interested in Adhoms than the norms of research. How common is it for a study contributor to go and tell his members or followers to brigade anyone who is skeptical about the study methods?

            I guarantee you 4thwavenow’s behavior is not typical, and had it been a company that was collaborating with Litman and aggregating it’s customers as subjects, it would already be a scandal had it turned out they were astroturfing.

            As for Fanatics, this is the same website that uses a tag system to organize it’s posts, a tag system made of nothing but slurs. 1/2 their stories are tagged under “trans cult”. Does that seem like normal nonpolitical activities? https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/54f608676fd78f00de6950d110b5b73a7e0191444ce6445b2b69aa3436e3f23a.png

          • Gaslighting again. Please try something new or try your tactics on stormtroopers. Intelligent people see you for what you are. Brigading!! blah blah blah…Collaborating with Littman… blah blah blah…Scandal!!! blah blah blah… Fanatics attacking!! blah blah blah.. System of slurs! blah blah blah… Tagged stories – the horror of it all!! Cats living with dogs!! It’s not noooooooormal!!!! Or… it actually is a bunch of parents who have lost children to ROGD (or sincerely believe that they have) and they are scared for their kids and tired of being gaslighted by trans activists like you. You are the radical.

          • socratic gadfly says:

            I rest my case: Brown please take note that the website/organization that worked with Littman in aggregating survey subjects for her study is now creating petitions to lobby for her study, sending it’s members and followers to sell the study, and harass anyone who scrutinizes the data. Tell me if that seems normal.

            Also please take a look at how frequently they use slurs like “trans cult”. Are these objective sources of medical information, or political crusaders who will say and do anything?

            https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/bc93f93248507d82b47b866136b9da14b8f917a3dabf9bf301bf5d1f16650a94.png https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/5a1e1f1109529b9b555f3da9c69c2ae88b3b68f1e5c03e010c8805b730d31ad0.png https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/fd39f95f5e4a7966888b15c336c3246134b0742ff2681c1bddde4f85704f1bb0.png https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/54f608676fd78f00de6950d110b5b73a7e0191444ce6445b2b69aa3436e3f23a.png

          • In other words, “these aren’t the droids you’re looking for.” Just take the trans activist’s word for it. All of it.

          • No, some of us follow journalists and assorted blogs. This information from gender critical parents, professionals, de-transitioned, feminists and others concerned with women’s rights are all tuning in to this issue. Canada, Us and UK women are uniting. Women are rising. The new trans woman is the old male overseer. New makeup, same repression. Gender stinks.

            Journalistic guidelines were rolled out before any public dialog took place. Now it is Canadian law that humans may not refer to other humans biological sex for fear of being hauled to the Human Rights Tribunal.

            In the UK there are two women dragged to a human rights tribunal (kangaroo court) for saying “Women don’t have penises”.

            Biology is not bigotry. Trans has stepped out of their lane. Penis is male, people don’t change sex. No such thing invisible sky god or iinvisible gender fairy.

            Trans activists demand compliance and threaten the new Inquisition for women who question their wrong use of words.

            Gender identity was concocted by pedo sexologists Money, Benjamin and Kinsey. They ought to string up those Kinsey researchers for paying pedos to do what they did to six month old boys.

  4. Sheila Gilligan says:

    My comment from the Zinnia Jones post, slightly edited:

    My cousin is one of the current deans @ Harvard Medical School. I won’t identify the person or the person’s gender because I don’t want to reveal who the person is. What I will say is the individual in question has absolutely no background to be able to comprehend what is at stake here. I doubt Dean Flier’s comprehension is any more penetrating. That said, I will also state that the positions taken by some in the trans political movement can be as problematic as some of the most notorious anti-transition clinicians. I try as hard as possible to avoid trans speak, e. g., over used terms such as “trans” and “cis”, “transgender identity”, “trans status”, etc. So called “trans etiologies” are as specific as etiologies described by the medical term, vasculitis, that is, not at all. There is no “trans community”, only people who make sex transitions and gender transitions and both. The reasons for being impelled to do so are as varied as the people impelled.

    The main problem I have with Littman’s work is its dismissiveness and 3rd person discourse. There may be elements of truth in some of her assessments of certain individuals within the groups she sets her voyeuristic gaze upon. Her reliance upon the work of so called clinicians such as Ray Blanchard, Kenneth Zucker, Susan Bradley, etc. and lack of much needed critical analysis of their work is another huge problem. I don’t use the word “voyeuristic” casually. The aforementioned are people who would spend much of their time pouring through the personal ads of alternative newspapers looking for evidence to confirm their biases.

    •Edit•Reply•Share ›

  5. Thank you, Dr. Miller.

    I was permanently suspended on twitter after nine years there for saying biology words:
    Penis is male.

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