- The scientific community is increasingly embracing sociopolitical ideologies and philosophies that are blatantly at odds with scientific data.
- The highest profile example is the debate over sex. From a biological perspective, it is a binary phenomenon, but some academics advocate a "sex spectrum" that consists of three, four, five, six, or even an infinite number of sexes.
- The acceptance of fashionable nonsense is a threat to Enlightenment values and public health.
A few weeks ago, I was suffering an annoying symptom and wanted to know if it was related to a more serious medical condition. I took to Google and ultimately landed on a Medical News Today article containing the information I wanted. As I began to read the story, though, I noticed a curious editor’s note:
“Sex and gender exist on spectrums. This article will use the terms ‘male,’ ‘female,’ or both to refer to sex assigned at birth.”
Let’s set aside that sex is observed at birth rather than assigned. Why the odd qualification? Medical News Today wanted to signal its commitment to a particular politico-ideological narrative. However, to fulfill the site’s mandate to deliver “science-led, facts-first, inquisitive” content, the author had to concede that this medical condition disparately impacts men and women. Put another way, the author denied that sex is a binary category, then disseminated medical information based on those two categories. Something is amiss.
Humans only produce two types of gametes, sperm and eggs, which means biological sex is necessarily binary. Those who advocate the notion of a “sex spectrum” reject this, but they cannot agree on the extent of the sex spectrum: There could be three, four, five, six, or even an infinite number of sexes — just definitely not two.
An unscientific mindset
Medical News Today’s attempt to harmonize these obviously contradictory views of sex exemplifies a disturbing trend that has swept through the scientific community in recent years. Far too many academic and public health institutions claim to promote science-based thinking while simultaneously genuflecting to sociopolitical ideologies which deny that such thinking is desirable — or even possible.
“Queer Theory” is the academic discipline that birthed the increasingly popular understanding of sex and gender. Its adherents deem any conventional idea about sexuality — say, that “male” and “female” are fixed categories rooted in biology — as oppressive. It should not come as a surprise that, as Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay explain in their book Cynical Theories, “Queer Theory is dominated by… the deconstruction of categories, and a profound skepticism of science.”
With its roots in postmodernism, Queer Theory rejects the idea that we can gather objective, verifiable information about reality. Worse, it treats scientists with disdain, arguing that people who claim that science offers insight into how the natural world functions are making value judgments designed to maintain their political power. Other critical theories share this radical skepticism of science.
Instead of fighting back, the scientific community — for what ironically appears to be an effort to maintain political power — has been eager to embrace what is clearly an unscientific, anti-Enlightenment mindset. This explains, for instance, how biomedical journals are increasingly full of fashionable nonsense.
This trend is dangerous because it gives members of the public a perfect excuse to ignore scientific and medical information they dislike. Why take the biomedical community seriously on something important like vaccines when it can’t even describe what a man and a woman are? And a society that can no longer discern basic truths is headed for devastating consequences.
We see troubling examples everywhere. Obesity is no longer a preventable medical condition responsible for millions of deaths; instead, obese people are victims. Today, an army of self-described “fat activists” asserts that thin people constructed the concept of “obesity” to oppress overweight individuals. Even once-reputable sources of health and fitness information, LiveStrong for instance, have embraced fat acceptance rhetoric while trying to give their readers weight-loss advice. I wrote previously:
“LiveStrong wants to be an ‘ally’ to these activists, for example, by urging health care providers to avoid ‘stigmatizing terms such as ‘unhealthy weight,’ ‘obese,’ ‘morbidly obese,’ and ‘fat.’’ But LiveStrong also wants to help its readers ‘reach or maintain a healthy weight.’ Contradictions abound.”
The examples of fashionable nonsense go on seemingly without end: women are “bodies with vaginas”; men can get pregnant; evolution denial is white supremacy; mathematics promotes patriarchy; and genetically engineered crops are a Western ploy to recolonize the developing world.
Follow the science (but only sometimes)
Academic journals, science magazines, and celebrity scientists cannot endorse these absurdities and then cry crocodile tears when Americans deny the evidence for climate change or the benefits of childhood immunizations. But this is precisely what we see.
Scientific American recently warned the public not to “cherry-pick” the COVID research they accept. Yet, the magazine also argued that investigations into the biological roots of transness should cease, because this “bioessentialist model… inevitably delegitimizes many transgender or nonbinary individuals’ experiences.” Forget what we should or shouldn’t believe — even the research we’re allowed to do is to be determined by sociopolitical ideology.
We cannot reject scientific thinking when it’s politically convenient, then turn around and complain that our ideological opponents ignore science. People notice the hypocrisy, and science suffers for it.