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Suppressing Science at Brown University

Brown University

What happened to Lisa Littman at Brown offers the most recent evidence of how scientists are pressured not to stray beyond politically approved conclusions — something that ID researchers have known for a long time. Alex Barasch at Slate thinks that what has been done to Dr. Littman isn’t “censorship.”

All Brown and PLOS One have promised is a more rigorous review of the study design, which clearly warrants one; far from being censored, the paper remains fully accessible on the journal’s website. In other words, the scientific process is moving forward as usual.

Oh please. If not one of outright censorship, this a story of suppressing and intimidating a researcher who violated an implicit speech code. Littman published her (peer-reviewed) study in PLOS One, “Rapid-onset gender dysphoria in adolescents and young adults: A study of parental reports,” concluding that young people may pick up gender dysphoria socially, in part through circles of friends and social and other media. That’s not something you are supposed to say. PLOS One and Brown’s School of Public Health, where Littman teaches, caught blowback from activists, and Brown in particular collapsed under the pressure.

A “Cautionary Tale”

They took down a news release from their website and replaced it with a “statement, community letter on gender dysphoria study.” The study of gender dysphoria is not the point of interest here. The trampling of academic freedom is. Jeffrey S. Flier, professor and former dean of Harvard Medical School, writes at Quillette that he is disquieted by Brown’s hanging Dr. Littman out to dry.

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.

Increasingly, research on politically charged topics is subject to indiscriminate attack on social media, which in turn can pressure school administrators to subvert established norms regarding the protection of free academic inquiry.

Here’s what happened:

There is no evidence for claims of misconduct in Dr Littman’s case. Rather, unnamed individuals with strong personal interests in the area under study seem to have approached PLOS One with allegations that her methodology and conclusions were faulty. Facing these assertions, which predictably drew support from social media communities populated by lay activists, the journal responded rapidly and publicly with the announcement that it would undertake additional expert review.

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. One can only assume that the response was in large measure due to the intense lobbying the journal received, and the threat — whether stated or unstated — that more social-media backlash would rain down upon PLOS One if action were not taken.

There were also said to be unidentified voices within the Brown community who expressed “concerns” about the paper. But when Brown responded to these concerns by removing a promotional story about Dr Littman research from the Brown website, a backlash resulted, followed by a web petition expressing alarm at the school’s actions. The dean of the School of Public Health, Bess Marcus, eventually issued a public letter explaining why the removal of the article from news distribution was “the most responsible course of action.”

In her letter, Dean Marcus cites fears that “conclusions of the study could be used to discredit the efforts to support transgender youth and invalidate perspectives of members of the transgender community” (my italics). Why the concerns of these unidentified individuals should be accorded weight in the evaluation of an academic work is left unexplained.

The Really Cowardly Part

But this is the really cowardly part:

There is no suggestion whatsoever of support for Dr Littman, a faculty member in good standing for whom the personal and professional consequences of these events could be devastating. The dean of a school is in effect the dean of the faculty. While she must exercise balance and objectivity when controversial issues arise, her responsibilities include the expression of appropriate support for a beleaguered faculty member until and unless clear evidence emerges to impugn that scholar’s behavior or work.

You can still see the deleted press release via the Wayback Machine. The headline sounds proud of Dr. Littman’s accomplishment — “Brown researcher first to describe rapid-onset gender dysphoria.” But while I’ve sometimes misjudged the impact of things I’ve written, even I could have told them this was going to give offense to PC censors:

62 percent of parents reported their teen or young adult had one or more diagnoses of a psychiatric disorder or neurodevelopmental disability before the onset of gender dysphoria. Forty-eight percent reported that their child had experienced a traumatic or stressful event prior to the onset of their gender dysphoria, including being bullied, sexually assaulted or having their parents get divorced.

This suggests that the drive to transition expressed by these teens and young adults could be a harmful coping mechanism like drugs, alcohol or cutting, Littman said. [Emphasis added.]

You don’t have to take Littman’s paper down to “censor” or perhaps more accurately, “censure” her. Is her “methodology” sound? The paper’s peer reviewers clearly thought that it was. If they were wrong, let those who know better criticize and debate the merit of her work. That’s scholarship for you. 

But that is not what happened here. Littman has been served a very potent warning, potentially a “devastating” one, that when she is challenged by a mob, her university will not support her. It will panic and back right down, insinuating that she is at fault when there is no indication she actually is. Other researchers would be fools not to take serious note and to adjust their own work and thought accordingly.

Dreadfully Familiar

This is all dreadfully familiar to scientists who favor critiques of Darwinian theory and arguments for intelligent design. They have seen what happened to researchers who, perhaps naïvely, went public with their own reflections on the evidence for teleology in nature and biology. You’ll find some of those stories at the Free Science website.

Lisa Littman is Scott Minnich with a splash of Eric Hedin. I don’t know what is going on behind the scenes for this assistant professor — considerable distress, no doubt — but I hope there is no aspect of Richard Sternberg or Günter Bechly or Caroline Crocker. That is, I hope this does not end in her being forced out. I know plenty of other ID sympathizers, including at high-profile institutions, who would be put in serious jeopardy if their identifies were known. This is how the vaunted “academic consensus” is maintained.

Professor Flier says this business with Dr. Littman’s paper in PLOS One is without parallel in “all my years in academia.” That’s funny — I can think of a very close comparison. Just a couple of years ago the very same journal caved in response to a different mob of enraged activists after PLOS One published another peer-reviewed paper, this one by Chinese researchers, on the human hand and noting its “proper design by the Creator to perform a multitude of daily tasks in a comfortable way.”

As with Professor Littman, PLOS One issued a statement that “We are looking into the concerns raised about the article with priority and will take steps to correct the published record.” This was following online complaints, including by editors of the journal. It then retracted the paper. I wrote here, “The note of career anxiety — no, panic — is telling. These folks don’t want to be rendered ritually impure by contact with a bit of injudicious language.”

It’s the very same thing with Lisa Littman. Career anxiety is exactly how heterodox thought is policed and stamped out in the academic world. I’m sorry to associate Littman in any way with the taint of design science — I have no reason whatsoever to think she would appreciate it, or is in any way in sympathy with it. But the parallel must be pointed out.

I could add, coincidentally, this is also not unlike my own experience at Brown, though I was only an undergraduate not a scientist. It was perhaps the most educational thing that happened to me in college. See “Kafka Meets Coppedge.” Clearly, not much has changed.