The shortlisting of Stephanie Davies-Arai reveals something surprising about the pressures on the scientific community at the present moment.
The winners of this year’s John Maddox Prize, a former naturopath turned whistle blower and a coral reef scientist who have both faced hostility, were quite rightly subjects for a story for the Guardian. But the shortlisting of Stephanie Davies-Arai, a sculptor and communication expert from a field of ‘136 strong submissions from 36 countries’ reveals something more interesting and surprising about the pressures on the scientific community at the present moment. The announcement of the prize winners was accompanied by this statement:
The judges noted the emergence of ‘toxic debates’ in new areas of research, such as the evidence for transgender medical interventions, and called for employers, government agencies, funders and professional bodies to do more to support researchers, to ensure the public continue to have access to all discussions about evidence.
Speaking at the John Maddox prize award ceremony at the Wellcome Institute, Magdalena Skipper, editor of Nature (co-sponsor of the prize along with Sense about Science) said that ‘we live in particularly challenging times when facts and experts are in fact doubted’. To prove the point, she mentioned the new Journal of Controversial Ideas which will enable “academics – particularly younger, untenured, or otherwise vulnerable academics – to have the option of publishing under a pseudonym when they might otherwise be deterred from publishing by fear of death threats … threats to their families, or threats to their careers.”
But the decision to shortlist Stephanie Davies-Arai, founder of the parent run organisation Transgender Trend, for a prize that ‘rewards an individual who has promoted sound science and evidence on a matter of public interest’ with an emphasis ‘on those who have faced difficulty or hostility in doing so’ reveals something even more surprising. Davies-Arai has certainly faced difficult and hostility, but she is not an academic or a scientist.
Transgender Trend provides evidence-based information in relation to the sharply rising rates of gender dysphoria amongst children and especially adolescent natal females. The website provides careful analysis by Dr Michael Biggs and Dr Nicola Williams of statistics which have often been misused by lobby groups. Transgender Trend carries a factual account of desistance studies and of evidence that gender nonconformity in children is predictive of later homosexuality. An article explains the problems with attempts to sex the brain, including an account of the human brain mosaic.
Transgender Trend’s outreach work to schools has attracted particular controversy and their School Resource pack was described by Stonewall as ‘dangerous’:
Masquerading as professional, ‘evidence-based’ advice for schools on how to ‘support trans and gender nonconforming young people’, the pack in fact provides the reverse. It is a deeply damaging document, packed with factually inaccurate content.
Printed copies of the School Resource Pack were paid for by a crowdfunder which was suspended after complaints from trans charities, though reinstated after an investigation. The Resource Pack has now been distributed to schools all around the country and provides ‘tips on how to create a school culture of acceptance of gender non-conformity without denying biological sex’. This is a genuinely grass roots organisation (Stephanie Davies-Arai works unpaid) which draws on the expertise of parents and academics.
Transgender medical interventions are certainly an example of a ‘toxic’ debate. But what is striking is that very few of the sceptical voices in the scientific community (voices like Ben Goldacre who has worked on the All Trials campaign supported by Sense about Science) have spoken about the trans children debate. Oliver Burkeman has been one of the few with sufficient courage to enter the debate. In one of the first articles about the issue in September 2017, Janice Turner wrote that she had ‘been contacted by doctors, psychotherapists and concerned transgender people themselves, desperate to speak out on the trans phenomenon but terrified to do so for fear of abuse or even losing their jobs.’
When critical voices in the scientific community do not speak, lay voices are all the more important. An alternative narrative on the issue of transgender kids has been provided by parents, academics, campaigners and a sculptor. Stories have been broken on sites like https://4thwavenow.com/ and by anonymous writers on twitter. In this area the debate has been driven not just by citizen journalism but by citizen science. And in the decision to shortlist Stephanie Davies-Arai, the judges of the John Maddox Prize not only celebrate the personal bravery and integrity of a campaigner but send a message to the scientific community about the importance of speaking out.