Brown University, a prestigious and well-respected voice in academia, is now being scrutinized for censoring its own study on transgender teens – not because the results are false, but because of the effect it may have on the transgender population.
The study, Rapid-onset gender dysphoria in adolescents and young adults: A study of parental reports, was conducted by Brown University behavioral scientist Lisa Littman and concluded that social media and friends can influence a teen to change their gender identity. And, just five days after posting the study, it was yanked from the website because of complaints it was transphobic.
Dean Bess Marcus responded to the backlash in a statement:
Independent of the University’s removal of the article because of concerns about research methodology, the School of Public Health has heard from Brown community members expressing concerns that the conclusions of the study could be used to discredit efforts to support transgender youth and invalidate the perspectives of members of the transgender community.
Okay, let’s take a look at that questionable research methodology. A 90-question survey was distributed on three websites where parents, according to Littman, had reported rapid-onset gender dysphoria. The questions consisted of multiple choice as well as open-ended questions with room to expand on answers. There were 256 parent-completed surveys included in the study.
Opponents of the study say the results were skewed because the websites used – 4thWaveNow, Transgender Trend, and Youth Trans Critical Professionals – sites where concerned parents meet to discuss such issues. However, as the study states: “[R]espondents were asked specifically whether they believe that transgender people deserve the same rights and protections as others and 88.2% of respondents gave affirmative answers to the question which is consistent with the 89% affirmative response reported in a US national poll. Therefore, there is no evidence that the study sample is appreciably different in their support of the rights of transgender people than the general American population.”
The study claims that parents said teens “exhibited an increase in social media/internet use prior to disclosure of a transgender identity,” which led to the conclusion that “friends and online sources could spread certain beliefs.”
Littman explained the results, claiming social media and peer group had a huge impact on teens deciding to change their gender identities:
“The onset of gender dysphoria seemed to occur in the context of belonging to a peer group where one, multiple, or even all of the friends have become gender dysphoric and transgender-identified during the same timeframe.” She added, “Parents describe a process of immersion in social media, such as ‘binge-watching’ Youtube transition videos and excessive use of Tumblr, immediately preceding their child becoming gender dysphoric.”
The study was a result of the growing number of teenaged girls who were rapidly seeking out changing their gender identity. It was discovered that an alarming number of these girls were “beset by autism spectrum disorder and other mental health challenges, suddenly express feelings of gender dysphoria apparently without having experienced these earlier in life, as is more commonly the case.”
For the purposes and intent of this article, however, the concern here is not the results of the study but rather the removal of it by Brown University. Dean Marcus may claim the university is all about “academic freedom” and that all studies should be “debated vigorously,” but actions speak louder than words. Littman’s study was pulled after it had been approved, simply because a group feared the results would look bad on them. To associate gender dysphoria with mental disorders ruffled the feathers of the LGBTQ community and led them to demand action.
Former dean of Harvard’s medical school, Jeffrey Flier, expressed his concern. “The fact that Brown University deleted its initial promotional reference to Dr Littman’s work from the university’s website—then replaced it with a note explaining how Dr Littman’s work might harm members of the transgender community—presents a cautionary tale.”
To put matters into perspective, let’s look at what it takes to post a study such as Littman’s. First, the research subject must be approved by institutional review boards before it can even begin. The boards determine whether the project has merit and will protect the rights of its subjects.
The findings are then subjected to a peer review and then revised, if needed, in response to reviewer comments. Finally, it is accepted and published.
“But that is not what has happened in regard to Dr Littman,” Flier wrote. “In all my years in academia, I have never once seen a comparable reaction from a journal within days of publishing a paper that the journal already had subjected to peer review, accepted and published.”
Ironically, he claims social media pressure (one of the main culprits named in the study for gender dysphoria) as a reason for the removal.
Flier stressed the importance of scientists and researches maintaining the ability to conduct their projects without fear of reprimand simply because one did not like the results:
For centuries, universities struggled to protect the ability of their faculties to conduct research seen as offensive—whether by the church, the state, or other powerful influences. Their success in this regard represents one of the great intellectual triumphs of modern times, one that sits at the foundation of liberal societies. This is why the stakes are high at Brown University. Its leaders must not allow any single politically charged issue—including gender dysphoria—from becoming the thin edge of a wedge that gradually undermines our precious, hard-won academic freedoms.
Flier also criticizes the university for not being supportive of Littman, “a faculty member in good standing for whom the personal and professional consequences of these events could be devastating.”
We have become a society that cares more about what people feel than the truth of a subject. We tear down historical statues because they “offend” someone, although they are a product of our history and a symbol of what we have struggled through to become what we are today. We try to ban free speech because we don’t like what the other has to say. Everything has become about feelings rather than facts. The truth is not always pleasant, but it is necessary. Brown made a dangerous mistake in pulling a study simply because a minuscule portion of the nation’s population took offense to it. Truth should not be defined by how it makes one feel.