The Bailey Case

Macht makes a good point, in noting that pro-science bloggers, who are quick to jump on any religious or Republican affront to science, have for the most part ignored the Michael Bailey case, largely, I suspect, because most of the pro-science bloggers are more anti-religion and anti-Republican than they are pro-science (which is not to say that they aren't, in fact, pro-science). Another factor, I think, comes from a source that I believe Macht, or perhaps Brandon (I forget which) has mentioned before: many of the most vocal "pro-science" bloggers are biologists who seem to have gotten it in their head that an affront to biology, however irrelevant to the actual practice of biology, is the gravest threat science can possibly face, signifying a deep existential crisis even. But I think that the Bailey case actually represents a potential problem for science much greater than that of the ID movement, and for that reason, I think every scientist should pay attention.

If you're not familiar with the Bailey case, read this article. The gist is, Bailey wrote a book about the science of homosexuality, which included some claims about transgendered women that many transgendered women found highly offensive. As a result, several individuals and groups resorted to attacking Bailey personally, seriously threatening his career. Unfortunately, this is not unheard of in psychology. Elizabeth Loftus' experience may be even more disturbing that Bailey's (it also nearly ruined her career). And I suppose it's not surprising that this thing happens in psychology, because the study of human thought and behavior is bound to touch on sensitive issues. But the way Bailey and Loftus were treated as a result of their espousing ideas that people found unpleasant is disturbing, because it's a threat to scientific progress. If scientists are attacked personally, rather than being critiqued intellectually, for espousing unpopular ideas, then many scientists will be disinclined to espouse such ideas. And it's often unpopular ideas that drive science at its forefront.

To be clear, it is possible, perhaps even likely, that Bailey's theory of the motivation driving transgendered women to be women is wrong. I read his book a couple years ago, as the controversy made it irresistible, and while much of the book is based on sound science, his theory of transgender motivations seemed largely speculative. Still, it is a theory that admits empirical testing. Regardless of the theory's merits, then, the proper approach to criticizing it was and continues to be from that direction. And I hope that whether they agree or disagree with his scientific views, anyone who considers him or herself pro-science would agree.

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I have seen both types of criticism. Most was directed at statements and ideas in his book - which presented nothing but anecdotal data with no citations.

His book is anything but scientific. I have also seen several scholarly criticisms of his ideas as he presents them in published papers. Those do generally conform to more academic styles.

He also reveals several personal biases in his book that call into question the objectivity of his research - which happens to conform to those biases.

By Pelican's Point (not verified) on 23 Aug 2007 #permalink

I'm sorry, but do either Michael Bailey or his critics constitute a political propagandist movement? Um, no.

Pelican, it wasn't all based on anecdote. It was also based on survey data. And the academic criticisms are fine, but that's not what the post is about. That he has been criticized academically is irrelevant to the point I'm trying to make.

Dan, one could easily argue that they are. They attempted to silence someone for espousing ideas in a scientific context that they found politically and personally dangerous/offensive. Just because they're liberal/progressive groups doesn't mean that's not a political, and propagandist, approach.

I'm not saying that his critics are right, but clearly it's not a political or propagandist movement - where are the think tanks, the PR campaign's, the anti-Bailey foundations, etc.? Anything comparable to the Discovery Institute, ARN, Ken Ham's Creation Museum, or the Wedge Document?

This is an isolated case, and while it surely is worth some discussion, you've made a really bad analogy by comparing it with creationism, intelligent design, and theology-based politics.

Well, there are no think tanks, to be sure, but there are political groups involved, with PR campaigns (read the article or google Michael Bailey, and this will become clear). And while, unlike the DI, ARN, Ken Ham, and all the other creationist groups, the political/activist groups involved in this case don't have an explicitly anti-science agenda, the effect of the creationist groups on science itself is minimal. In fact, as far as I can tell, the effect of those groups arises largely as a result of scientists' reaction to their messages. Of course, it is true that those groups have threatened science education, and that is a problem that shouldn't be minimized, but in terms of impact on the practice or publication of science, by scientists, there has been no real measurable effect.

With the Bailey case, or the Loftus case, there have been direct effects. Bailey's research was basically put on hold while Northwestern investigated the allegations (all, or at least most of them, baseless) against Bailey personally. His collaborators were also effected, as the NYT article notes. Loftus nearly lost her job, and spent an inordinate amount of time fighting personal attacks, to the detriment of her research (she is still a prolific researcher and writer, of course).

Put bluntly: the DI only effects scientific research if researchers consciously alter their research programs to score points against the DI. When individuals and groups attack Bailey or Loftus, or any other scientist, personally in such a way that their employers, grant-giving organizations, etc., become involved, their research, and that of those who work with them, is affected whether they choose for it to be or not. And I think that's much more dangerous to the practice and publication of science than anything the DI can do.

Also, it is not an isolated case, at least in psychology. The NYT article mentions another case, I believe, and I pointed to the Loftus case. It wouldn't take much of a web search to find other cases as well. And in the Loftus case, it's impossible to argue that her work is unscientific. She's an excellent researcher, and I think the balance of the empirical evidence is on her side. So it's not simply a case of people attacking the authors of bad research.

I suspect that as certain areas of biology, particularly genetics, increasingly touch on human issues (e.g., intelligence, gender differences, sexuality, and so on), the risk for such behavior towards biologists will grow as well.

Just googled Michael Bailey, and all I found are links to his own websites, a few miscellaneous articles, links to other people named Michael Bailey, and a rather balanced-looking site describing both criticisms and explanations of his transgender theories; oh, and the case's Wiki entry. Sure, there's one NY Times article now, but the worst of this case appears to be harsh accusations of misconduct.

*yawn* - it's a pretty lame, isolated, and boring case (oh, I'm sure it's exciting for those involved, but it's just another example of differences and grievances, which happen between fallible human beings daily).

And while, unlike the DI, ARN, Ken Ham, and all the other creationist groups, the political/activist groups involved in this case don't have an explicitly anti-science agenda, the effect of the creationist groups on science itself is minimal.

Let's dissect this, shall we?

Bailey's groups don't have an anti-science agenda - agreed. This is specifically WHY your comparison is a REALLY misguided analogy.

The effect of the creationist groups on science itself is minimal - disagreed. Strongly. Contrary to you're assertion, the public's misunderstanding of science IS a big deal. Sure, the practice of science will continue just fine, until the ignorant public decides to slash federal funding because they think we're the propagandists. And yes, the practice of science will continue for a while also, until there are no educated students interested in learning "propagandist" science, and the caliber of the next generation of scientists is flushed down the toilet.

How is that not threatening the scientific endeavor?

But again, I didn't say that we shouldn't fight for the little guy, or academic freedom. I just said that comparing creationism to Bailey's case was outrageously stupid.

Ignorance is the enemy of open inquiry, and vehement disputes are part of life. Don't confuse the two.


Your charge of outrageous stupidity is outrageuous. The Bailey case isn't merely a vehement dispute among individuals. It is a co-ordinated political attack on a researcher because he has questioned a revered dogma, viz., that sexual dispositions are the result of biological causes. Thus, it is science suffering at the hands of politics.

I wonder whether you would agree with Chris's comparison, if only the attackers had been religious conservatives.

But it is still just an isolated case.

And of course I would have agreed with Chris if he'd compared religious conservative with creationists! Shall we compare politicians with elected officials too?

Moreover, I would've agreed had he compared Bailey's case with another case involving unfair accusations of misconduct. But that's not what he compared it with.

Dan, I compared two cases of attacks on science, with the following points in mind:

One is a broad attack, with little impact on science, while the other is a narrow one, with potentially great impact on science (particularly since it is a not common, but not entirely isolated phenomenon, at least in psychology). The point here is not the who, but the impact: in one, it's pretty much non-existent, and in the other it's very real. And it isn't an isolated instance. I know for a fact that as a result of the Bailey case and the Loftus case, people have avoided certain research areas or altered their research to avoid these sorts of attacks. And the attacks are pretty common on a less severe level, in psychology. Again, then, the comparison is on a dimension that you haven't touched on: impact on science. How is my comparison inapt in that regard?

Oh, and check out this website:

It is not an isolated case. Chris mentiond the Loftus case. No doubt, there are others. Granted such cases are few, but perhaps that is because other researchers who would draw similar conclusions are unlikely to make them public because they don't want to experience the same persecution.

You've muddled my point about religious conservatives. The Bailey case is an example of liberal politics impeding science. The creationism case is an example of (religious) conservative politics impeding science. Perhaps you refuse to see the similarity because you are sympathetic to the political beliefs of Bailey's attackers.

The accusations of misconduct are not as interesting as their motivation.

I also wonder why very little is said around these parts about some of the actions of extreme animal rights groups. For example, there was only one mention on Scienceblogs of the recent attempt to put an explosive under a UCLA doctor's car by an animal rights group. And yet if Dave Scot says something stupid, half the people here will dissect his every word. And there's been only a few mentions of the numerous threats and attacks by animal rights activists at Oxford in the past. (One would think that Dawkins would be all over that, but as far as I know he's never said a word about those incidents.) Plus, these extreme animal rights groups are an organized movement, so you can't really use that excuse.

I spent a significant amount of time in a forum created to defend Bailey from his detractors - as a polite detractor - a couple of years ago when this dispute exploded.

It was my impression that everyone involved was attempting to integrate their own personal experience with the current state of the science. There were some scientists there including Ann Lawrence and Bailey of course - with whom I occasionally argued. At the time I strongly disagreed with them. Since then however, I have come to see more value in their views. (The theory that Bailey championed - autogynephilia - is really Ray Blanchard's theory - although Bailey and Ann have added support to it.)

The different opinions expressed at the time were all based on appeals to science. Even though some participants had little experience in science they all tried hard to incorporate a scientific approach into their arguments. Many of us learned a great deal about psychology during that period of a few months.

I don't ever remember anyone appealing to religion or such things. Ann Lawrence (and most of his supporters) believed that her personal experience was well explained by Bailey's theory. Bailey and Lawrence were both polite to all participants.

Personal emotional experience will always trump any scientific theory for any person who has had that experience. Science needs to account for the experience - not the other way around. It's still trying on this one.

By Pelican's Point (not verified) on 23 Aug 2007 #permalink

Chris, Rereading your posts I think that you are more objecting to the witch hunt from the left that seemed to spearhead the attack on Bailey - and the post-modernist flavor of that campaign.

I'd agree with your take on that. There was a lot of that happening spearheaded by three prominent transsexual women - Lynn Conway being the most vocal. I found all that a bit too shrill.

Here's her webpage on the controversy.

I wrote a paper in Feb. of 2006 that she still maintains a link to. It's at:

I can't find the pdf of it right now.

By Pelican's Point (not verified) on 23 Aug 2007 #permalink

I agree with Chris here. I know Michael Bailey, and the man is a scientist. He has his theoretical preferences, but his ideas are data driven, and he cares about what is true. After seeing what he has gone through (verbal assaults at invited lectures, hate mail, abuse of various kinds, etc), I am quite reluctant to follow up on collaboration opportunities he would happily engage in with me. I would be interested in examining the acoustic properties of "gay speech" - I think there are important scientific questions to be answered there. But I choose other projects because I don't feel like dealing with the bullshit. I think this is one of Chris's points -- essentially, that's an obstruction of science. I weigh the costs and benefits of following up on some scientific problem, and the personal costs push me to other research endeavors. That can't be good.

Chris, This is a far deeper topic than your comments suggest. For just a hint of some of the forces aligned in this dispute, here's someone who seems to share your conclusions:

[C]onservatives remember what much of the rest of society has forgotten: that even the most private of acts can have dire public consequences, as witness the epidemic of bastardy that has ravaged the United States over the past 40 years, and also of course the AIDS plague, spread in this country mainly by promiscuous homosexual buggery. Religion, to which most non-Randian conservatives are at least well disposed, adds another complicating factor, since the sacred texts of all three major Western monotheistic faiths proscribe homosexuality in unambiguous terms.

These matters are therefore at the very crux of conservative thinking as it has developed in this country across the past half-century. In order to tackle them, it is helpful to have as much actual understanding of them as we can acquire.

Michael Bailey's new book is a very useful addition to that understanding.

. . .

[H]is book offers a wealth of fascinating information, carefully gathered by (it seems to me) a conscientious and trustworthy scientific observer.

(John Derbyshire, Lost in the Male, National Review, June 30, 2003.)

Yes, a scientific observer who presumes to be able to understand and identify the emotional source of the gender identity beliefs in another person's mind - even when his conclusions are quite opposite to that person's own experience.

Based on his other writings and public comments it is not unfair to at least suspect that there is something other than objective science in his conclusions. Conclusions that coincidentally lend strong scientific support to the cultural notion that deviation from sexual norms is, by definition, a form of pathology.

It is notable that Bailey's premise (Blanchard's actually) that all MtF transsexualism is erotically driven - attempts to describe the motivation of transsexual persons whose crossed gender identity first became known to them at 3 or 4 years of age.

Actually, I find the psychological dimension of these questions far more interesting than the political. I'm surprised that this blog has no interest in that end of it.

By Pelican's Point (not verified) on 25 Aug 2007 #permalink

Dan, which is not surprising, given that my argument here is that most biologists have it exactly backwards.

Pelican, I have absolutely no problem with anyone criticizing his ideas on scientific grounds, including arguing that his ideas are not scientific (since "science" is a fuzzy category, there will always be disputes at the boundaries). I only have a problem with the personal attacks, threats to his career, and so on, because these impede science.

I'm a little surprised at how positive the reference to macht is. His original post and his followup comment suggest that he's less interested in this issue for its own sake and more interested in a cheap attempt to insult scientists who blog. His comment on this thread is really good: it's as if he perceives an anti-religion cabal of queers, animal rights activists and "pro-science" bloggers.

There's a missing set of quotation marks in my last comment. To use Oscar Wilde's phrase, there's something in there that "isn't one of my words."

I think Macht's basic sentiment -- that "pro-science" bloggers tend to focus on religious and conservative abuse of science, and ignore liberal (excluding postmodern, of course) attacks on science -- is correct. And that's not surprising, since most of them are liberal. His comment (which I hadn't noticed in the junk folder due to the links) here is also right. And I say this as someone further to the left that most, if not all of the bloggers on SB, someone who considers himself pro-science (though probably a bit pomo for most of the "pro-science" crowd), and who thinks the intelligent design movement is filled with dishonest, anti-science asses.

Well, it's one thing to say that there's abuses out there and that it would be good to talk about them, but it's entirely different to use people's lack of comment to try and discredit them. There are all sorts of reasons why a particular blogger or commentator won't criticize someone he could justifiably criticize. Sometimes they haven't heard of the issue (I'd only previously encountered the Bailey case once), or feel that they lack detailed knowledge of it. Alternatively, they may just be more interested in one case--there's obviously something compelling about ID being placed in our schools.

The alternate picture that macht is pushing is that science bloggers should all just play a game of covering their asses, otherwise someone like macht will swoop in to impute dishonesty. This is a really silly way for things to work, however.

Justin, what's curious is that the cases they don't comment on, and those they do, are divided on a couple of dimensions (religious and political). I don't think there's any doubt that those play a role. Of course, I don't think they intentionally ignore the cases, but they don't seek the information out. It's confirmation bias at its best.

"I'm a little surprised at how positive the reference to macht is."

I've warned Chris in the past that he probably shouldn't link to me, but he just doesn't listen.

In my blog post, it would be a mistake to read "pro-science" literally. I certainly don't mean "scientists who blog."

Your statement about me perceiving a "cabal of queers, ..." is just silly and, I assume, based on some preconceived notion you have about me for whatever reason.

And I certainly never said anybody was being dishonest.

My point was basically that we all have biases. There isn't one group of "pro-science" people and one group of "anti-science" people, no matter how much the self-appointed "pro-science" people would want you to believe that.

Macht, I'm sorry for that comment. It was a pretty nasty thing for me to say.

As for what lead me to say it, I was reacting to this sentence: "I also wonder why very little is said around these parts about some of the actions of extreme animal rights groups." To me, this reads as if you somehow think there's a relation between the present case of transgendered activists, the animal rights activists, and pro-science bloggers more generally. Hence the 'cabal.'

If you didn't mean 'pro-science' to imply dishonesty, what did you mean? The only way I can read the scare quotes is as claiming that these people are being dishonest about their motivations--that they do not care about science, but only a political end. That reading was only furthered by what I perceived as a tangential reference to animal rights activists.

For that reason, while I can understand the charge that there's a blindness among pro-science bloggers, your comments seemed more like an attempt to discredit people than to rectify an oversight.

I don't know about Macht, but mine was as much an attempt to discredit as to rectify. I've tried rectifying the situation in the past, to no avail, and have become convinced that there are certain "pro-science" bloggers who are so obsessed with creationism that they've lost any sense of perspective. Post after post on every single piece of nonsense that an IDist puts on the internet, and as they become more obsessed, post after post about what IDists are eating for breakfast, signifies a deep lack of focus and direction, and it's less "pro-science" than it is masturbation. As a result, such "pro-science" bloggers should be impugned, or at least ignored.

I think I actually agree with much of what you say there Chris, and that explains why I do not read much of the bloggers who are anti-ID 24-7. That said, I don't necessarily judge them for writing this way: in both politics and research, there is a natural synergy between generalists and specialists. Except for people who have lucked into a prominent place in the media or online debates, it's often easier to get heard by focusing on a particular issue that you care a lot about. Generalists profit from having people around who follow specific issues more closely than the generalists are willing to.

Perhaps the issue is a matter of rhetoric and posture--how much awareness of their status as single-issue advocates do people show? Maybe not enough. If so, I guess I should've been more understanding of macht's scare-quotes around "pro-science." Still, I don't see how it warrants "discrediting" people.

I have a complaint. Science Blogs are a fascinating place for discussing interesting ideas. But it's got a terrible comment interface.

Whenever there are more than 3 or 4 comments to a topic - it quickly becomes very difficult to figure out who is saying what to whom. After 10 or so posts on a topic it takes far more effort than it's worth to make sure you are responding to the correct post from the person you select - and to make sure the person you are addressing knows that. The whole process becomes hopelessly confusing if someone posts a comment to you or your addressee while you are composing your comment.

For a start, comments need to be automatically numbered by the site software and beneath each comment should be a button to "quote" and a button to "reply". A "View as indented thread" option would be icing on the cake.

I suspect that both the number of non-posting observers and participants to these Science Blogs would increase dramatically if those simple problems could be rectified.

By Pelican's Point (not verified) on 27 Aug 2007 #permalink

The last sentence in my previous comment probably comes closest to what I mean by "pro-science." I don't think I've ever met anybody who wasn't "pro-science." Every person I've ever met who accepts ID loves science, for example. I guess I use the scare quotes around the phrase "pro-science" to make fun of the pretentiousness of the people who use the term about themselves.

Macht, I think one way in which the 'pro-science' label makes sense is that there really is an anti-science movement. Of course this movement is not anti science because they hate science, but it is anti-science because the facts are politically inconvenient. Many of the exact same people, sources of funding and think-tanks have been involved in the pro-tobacco, global-warming denial, crazy pro-handgun research*, and DDT-hype movements. It's not a coincidence either, since all of these organizations share a common interest in discrediting the representatives of mainstream scientific research. Moreover, these are causes that the typical pro-science blogger cares about (global warming most saliently).

I don't know if ID is highly connected to these groups--I have no positive evidence that it is. Still, I think this helps explain why the idea of bloggers needing to take up a pro-science mantle is out there.

* Obviously there's a lot of legitimate research on the effect of guns with various results (afaik). But there's also a lunatic fringe, including the delightful John Lott.

I'm not sure if I agree with you that controversy is the driving force behind science. I think a lot of scientific advances are solutions to controversies, but I tend to feel that controversies are more a sign of ignorance and confusion than the breaking of new ground.

And on the other hand, don't psychologists have a responsibility to take into account the feelings and viewpoints of their subjects? This difference in the subject matter is, prima facie, what makes psychology so much different from the other sciences. Now, for instance, if a psychologist tells a story about why someone becomes a transvestite, and the person responds, "No, that's not what motivated me" -- well isn't there a sense in which the transvestite has just as much evidential support as the scientist?

Of course, we don't always know our own minds completely, but going to the other extreme and saying that introspection leads no knowledge whatsoever seems to me just as absurd.

By Alex Leibowitz (not verified) on 13 Sep 2007 #permalink

There seems to be very little "science" in the theories. The implications are inflamitory. The accusations of improper behavior, are unlinked to the ideas and very serious but it sounds like he was cleared of that. The problem with these sort of theories is that they are very hard to test and discredit so they linger and hurt. Why anyone would go through facial feminization, feminization surgery, or transexual breast implants or others like this: for a fantasy? Sounds he just didn't get it.