Sunday, 2 September 2007

Science and Ideology II: The J. Michael Bailey Affair in the New York Times

Science and Ideology II:

The J. Michael Bailey Affair in the New York Times

Martyr for Academic Freedom or Thin-Skinned Quack?

The opening paragraphs of Benedict Carey’s 21 August article for the New York Times, entitled Criticism of a Gender Theory, and a Scientist Under Siege, draw the lines of the recently revived controversy around J. Michael Bailey’s The Man Who Would be Queen (TMWWBQ) quite clearly: science versus ideology.

On the one hand, we have J. Michael Bailey, a “Scientist Under Siege”, who authored a book (TMWWBQ) “intended to explain the biology of sexual orientation and gender to a general audience.” On the other, we have his “critics”, identified as “several prominent academics who are transgender”, who think his “theory” is “inaccurate, insulting and potentially damaging to transgender women”. No non-trans critic is identified, nor is there any mention of the scientific status of Bailey’s “theory” (which, in reality, is Ray Blanchard’s brainchild). Nor do we find out in any real detail why Carey’s carefully selected Bailey critics – he steers clear of anyone from the relevant scientific community[1] – object so vehemently to TMWWBQ, or, indeed, anything else that might contextualise the controversy.

Instead, we are told about the fear that the “harassment” (read: criticism) of Bailey has engendered in Bailey’s (unnamed) peers, who complain of the “corrosive effects of political correctness on academic freedom”, asserting that “it has become increasingly treacherous to discuss politically sensitive issues”. Indeed, “If we’re going to have research at all, then we’re going to have people saying unpopular things, and if this is what happens to them, then we’ve got problems not only for science but free expression itself”. Alas, Carey does not see fit to muse on the irony of charges of censorship being levied against the very people whom Bailey sought to silence and stigmatise with his book. Nor does he point out that “criticism” and “censorship” whilst both beginning with the same letter, are indeed two very different things.

Carey tells us precious little about the actual subject matter of Bailey’s book, apart from the statement that he “argued that some people born male who want to cross genders are driven primarily by an erotic fascination with themselves as women,” a “theory” that is contrasted with “the belief, held by many men who decide to live as women [sic],” which Carey describes in the most hackneyed and stereotypical terms, “that they are the victims of a biological mistake — in essence, women trapped in men’s bodies.” (emphasis supplied) Bailey’s “argument”/”theory”, we are told, is based on “Canadian studies done in the 1980s and 1990s”. Readers will have to search elsewhere for any discussion of the basis of the opposing “belief”; Carey provides none.

And thus, Carey has successfully created the impression that the only counterpoint to the “scientific theory” of J. Michael Bailey and Co. is a “belief” held by “men who decide to live as women”.

At this point, a few nagging questions arise: Why is Carey’s sourcing so lopsided? Why is it so important for the story Carey wants to tell that Bailey appear to be opposed only by a few trans women who aren’t even psychologists? What would be wrong with quoting some of the many psychologists and psychiatrists who are much more respected in their field than a J. Michael Bailey – a member of the Harry Benjamin International Gender Dysphoria Association, perhaps?

In fact, Carey does quote one critic from a relevant field: Stanford neurobiologist Ben Barres, but the quote Carey selects – “Bailey seems to make a living by claiming that the things people hold most deeply true are not true.” – is so ambiguous that it could even be taken to suggest that Barres supports Bailey’s “theory”, about which Barres has in fact said that

Bailey truly doesn't get the gender identity dissonance that transsexuals experience--it really is hard for people to understand what they haven't experienced themselves. I have talked with many MtFs [trans women] who have contacted me, and have listened to the feelings they have gone through their whole lives, and it is always an exact mirror of what I have experienced as an FtM. These MtFs have no reason to lie to me, as I have no power over what treatment they receive. For Bailey to say that most MtFs are primarily doing the gender change because of a fetish rather than a true gender-identity issue just doesn't ring true to me, or to many other people that have worked in clinics taking care of many MtFs[2].

(emphasis supplied)

The answer to the above questions is obvious enough. A few phone calls and a PsychLit search would suffice to demonstrate that the Ray Blanchard “theory” luridly regurgitated by J. Michael Bailey is not, and has never been, accepted science. Indeed, had Carey wished to go to the trouble, he would have discovered that Blanchard’s own studies not only fail to validate his separation of trans women into two mutually exclusive categories, but have also never been reproduced by anyone else. He might also find that the Clarke Institute so highly praised by our “scientist under siege” has fallen into such disrepute that they have to refer their patients to England for surgery, because the leading Canadian surgeons won’t take their referrals.

It is also clear why Carey would choose to quote only trans women as criticising Bailey. The article explicitly makes the controversy a battle between the popular right-wing fiction of “political correctness” – i.e. opposition to bigotry and other similarly offensive things – and “science”. By putting only trans women in the “critics” corner[3], it becomes easier to frame the controversy as a dispute between a scientist and those personally offended by his findings.

In effect, had Carey sought out gender specialists in psychology and psychiatry to discuss the Blanchard-Bailey-Lawrence “theory” of trans women, he would have had to come up with a new headline: Quackery Exposed – Northwestern in Damage-Control Mode, perhaps.

Bailey’s (carefully selected) critics get a much chillier reception from Carey. Carey insinuates that Drs. Lynn Conway and Deirdre McCloskey, two of the aforementioned “prominent academics who are transgender”, were the driving force behind the ethics complaints filed by several of Bailey’s unwitting “research” subjects, complaints Bailey associate Alice Dreger (identified only as an “ethics scholar” who carried out a “lengthy investigation”) characterises as “harassment”. We hear that Conway chronicled the accusations against Bailey on her website[4], but not that her site also linked to scientific critiques of the Blanchard-Bailey-Lawrence model by psychologists[5].

We are told that Andrea James “downloaded images from Dr. Bailey’s Web site of his children, taken when they were in middle and elementary school, and posted them on her own site, with sexually explicit captions that she provided.” While we do read James’ response, that the captions were intended to “echo [Bailey’s] disrespect”, we do not hear that “echo” is meant literally. In fact, the captions James placed on the photos in question were epithets from Bailey’s own book, terms he found “sympathetic” (at least when used on trans women). Nor does Carey mention the interesting contrast between Bailey’s defamatory epithets and the (almost as indefensible) way in which Andrea James sought to echo them: Unlike Bailey, James actually took the pictures down and apologised for what she did. Bailey, on the other hand, not only has yet to apologise for smearing a highly vulnerable group with sexually explicit (and patently false) epithets; he actually compounds them by directing even more invective at his critics.

And while we hear Alice Dreger bemoan the “harassment” suffered by Bailey, we (unsurprisingly) do not hear of Dreger’s harassing and defamatory blog postings about (and e-mails to) Andrea James (including, ironically enough, one comparing James to a neo-Nazi). Nor, of course, do we get to hear how Dreger used defamatory claims in an attempt to cause a student group at her university to rescind its invitation to James to discuss her critique of Bailey, or how she sent harassing e-mails with similar content to James’ agent[6].

To Carey’s credit, he does get one fundamental thing right: the Bailey “controversy” is fundamentally a conflict between science and ideology. Unfortunately, Carey seems to have mixed up the cast of characters.

To put Bailey on the side of science is an insult to science. Even a cursory look at the scientific literature on transsexuality would reveal that the Blanchard-Bailey-Lawrence “theory” has been overwhelmingly rejected by the scientific community, and that the “belief” attributed in hackneyed, stereotypical terms to Bailey’s critics in fact more closely represents the scientific consensus.

As if that were not enough, Carey compounds this insult to science by placing the real scientists – the ones who publish in peer-reviewed journals and don’t use samples that could easily fit in an efficiency in Queens – in the corner of “political correctness”, i.e. ideology. As noted above, there is no shortage of scientists who are critical of Bailey and his cronies. It would be relatively easy to find well-documented scientific critiques of the vaunted “Canadian studies”, which do as much as any of Bailey’s unprofessional behaviour to discredit Blanchard’s own theory, or to find at least one of the many clinical psychologists or psychiatrists specialised in trans issues – Bailey is neither[7] – to provide a scientific counterpoint to the BBL clique[8]. One could even go so far as to look at Bailey’s book, in which he is quite proud to note that his “theory” successfully inoculates the uninitiated against any sort of empathy for trans women[9], or look to back issues of the New York Times for information on his other discredited claims[10]. If Carey were to quote genuine academic gender specialists – thus placing the contenders in the right corners – it would quickly become apparent that Bailey is a purveyor of ideologically motivated pseudoscience who prefers to evade the peer review process by “publishing” his findings in press releases and pop psych books.

Of course, this would probably make it harder to sell Bailey as a beleaguered truth-seeker, besieged by “political correctness”, but ultimately exonerated by an “ethics scholar” (who herself happens to be anything but a neutral observer).

If Carey’s article demonstrates anything, it’s that no one has anything to fear from “political correctness”, when even scientific correctness cannot make it through the ideological filter of the Newspaper of Record.

[1] One might note that this echoes Bailey’s own preference for tiny, unrepresentative samples.


[3] While Ben Barres is a trans man, his context-free quote, as noted above, can be easily taken as either critical or supportive.


[5] Bockting, W, Biological Reductionism Meets Gender Diversity in Human Sexuality, J. Sex Research, Vol. 42, No. 3, Aug. 2005, pp. 267-270, available online at: ; See also


[7] Nor is he even a member of the major associations of psychological professionals.

[8] See, e.g.,

[9] TMWWBQ, p. 206

[10] See, e.g., Gay, Straight, or Lying, NY Times 5 July 2005, available at


Leah Peters said...

Yay! So good to read a good thorough smackdown of Bailey. Why does this man continue to be hired by the media as an ..gag.. expert? This bigot should be drummed out of academia!

Chief Scientist said...

Bailey, Roughgarden and Barres are all on this science site.

Two of them wrote articles about this in the last day.