Bad science

LGBTQ+ people have long had to fight against scientific theories which medicalise and pathologize. Karen Pollock argues it’s time to leave the bad science behind.


As someone whose original background is in philosophy I have always struggled with the almost mystical status given to science by many people. Whilst Arthur C Clarke stated that from one perspective science would be indistinguishable from magic, it seems to have a far more religious conception in the minds of many. Karl Popper perhaps best summed up how we should view science, not separate from our own biases and beliefs, but innately tied up with them. As Popper said himself;

In so far as a scientific statement speaks about reality, it must be falsifiable; and in so far as it is not falsifiable, it does not speak about reality.” 

Science is not separate from our fallibility as human beings, instead it is a product of it. Those who believed the earth sat at the center of the universe were not morally inferior to those who proved it orbited the sun, their theory had simply not been falsified yet.

This process of theorisation and falsification lies at the heart of science, along with the fact that no proposed theory springs into existence except from a human mind, and thus is the offspring of that minds cultural and social biases, or to quote Popper again;

“We are social creatures to the inmost centre of our being. The notion that one can begin anything at all from scratch, free from the past, or unindebted to others, could not conceivably be more wrong.”

This musing on the nature of our attitudes to science has been prompted by an announcement from the fine sounding American Pediatric Association that they believe social transition in children is child abuse. The name of the group speaks to our quasi religious worship of science, and how so many hold it as both morally neutral and morally good, as if pediatricians cannot be harmful, or doctors abusive. Their statement “Gender ideology harms children” is based on the idea that those under 16 can chemically or physically transition (a nonsense pushed by people opposed to trans rights). They then go on to make lots of “scientific” sounding claims, in order to access that position of morally neutral experts which we are so eager to confer on people who cloak their prejudices in science.

The American Pediatric Association have in fact been designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. They broke away from the American Academy of Pediatrics over same sex adoption and conversion therapy (opposing the former and supporting the latter). They also oppose things such as sex education, access to abortion and claim children of same sex relationships have poorer lifetime outcomes than those from (perceived) cis het monogamous relationships. It’s disappointing therefore to see women who identify as feminist already promoting the statement as some kind of evidence that social transition harms children.

It would be quite easy to dismiss their false claims one by one, there is a good break down here of how many of the things they call scientific fact are simply wrong. There is however another approach. For far to long therapists and other medical and health professionals have attempted to stand upon that supposedly morally neutral rock of science. LGBTQ+ identities have been medicalised, pathologized and treated according to the science of the day, with barely an apology or acknowledgement when it was decided the science was wrong. Which is not to say that I oppose the study of therapy, to see what works and what does not, with the huge caveat that research is rarely neutral and very often based on the biases of the researcher. However the core value, or listening to people, of believing them, of seeing a person, not a set of symptoms or behaviours is so often missing from the discussion. If a young person or child says they feel like a girl, or a boy, or neither, when they were not designated as that gender at birth, the APA is saying we should not listen to them. If a teenager is saying they find puberty is causing them distress, and there is a safe, reversible intervention that can be made, the APA is saying we should not prescribe it. We do not need more science, we need more compassion. For far too long science has been used to harm LGBTQ+ people, perhaps the answer is not to fight science with science but to start believing what people tell us about their own lives.

Follow Karen on twitter (@CounsellingKaz)

4 thoughts on “Bad science

    1. Apologies, I try not to use jargon, but sometimes it slips in, and yes, its exactly what it is. I think many parents will recognise that children explore in many ways. The majority of children who ask to dress in different clothes, or be called a different name do not turn out to be trans, but their childhoods are better by being allowed to explore, rather than shamed for their feelings.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Cool. Using jargon is fine as long as you slip in definitions for the readers who are just catching up. I am a writing teacher who studied theology at a school that emphasized never leaving anybody out. But it’s hard to remember.

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