Edinburgh University should value academic enquiry above ideology

Jonathan Haidt declared that universities could either be about seeking truth or about seeking social justice, but not both. Nowadays, with academics in the humanities and social sciences skewing heavily left, many have adopted Marx’s dictum: “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it”.

And so it is that universities are increasingly declaring contentious and ideological notions as orthodoxy, and then demanding assent. This will only get worse unless people speak up against it, so, as a university academic, here goes:

Like many universities, the University of Edinburgh now has a unit dedicated to promoting “Equality, Diversity and Inclusion”. And who could be against any of those? Note, though, that while declaring that it “promotes a culture of inclusivity”, Edinburgh’s pages make no mention of diversity of ideas or about including those who challenge orthodoxy. And yet surely both of those are necessary in a truth-seeking university?

Edinburgh then seeks to instruct us in a set of catechisms under the heading “Educate yourself”. And note that these are not just the webpages of an advocacy group composed of students at the university, this is official Edinburgh University webpages carrying their imprimatur.

In bold type we are told that: “We need to understand that transphobia is every bit as unacceptable as racism and homophobia”. [Update: since this post was written the page has been taken down.]

So what is “transphobia”?, well: “Transphobia is the hatred, fear, disbelief, or mistrust of trans and gender non-conforming people.” Hatred or fear of trans people? Yes, that is transphobia, and yes that should be deplored. Everyone, on all sides of such debates, agrees that trans people should be treated with respect and enabled to live their lives in dignity and safety.

But “disbelief”? That suggests that you’re not allowed to disagree with claims made by trans people. So, if a trans activist asserts that “trans women are women”, and that they are “just as much women as any other woman”, then you are not allowed to reply: “Well actually, I consider trans women to be biological males who (in line with their genuine, innate nature) wish to live a female gender role”.

Asserting such things could well get you banned from Twitter, but surely they should be allowed in a truth-seeking university? After all, biological sex is real and important. When they transition, a trans person does not change sex, they change gender roles. And the fact of their biological sex can still matter in some areas of life (such as sport, where men are generally better than women so that the performance of elite women can roughly equate to that of the best 14- or 15-yr-old boys). And it really would be bad if a university had so lost sight of its truth-seeking role that it did not allow its members to say such things.

A university, as an employer, can reasonably request that — in work situations — members refer to each other using prefered pronouns. But it is quite wrong to demand adherence to anti-scientific ideology.

The orthodoxy-prescribing web pages continue:

In recent years, however, there has been a resurgence of transphobia in the mainstream and social media, which has fuelled increased transphobic hate incidents in society.

Notice how they give no citations or links to support this claim, as might be expected of university-imprimatur pages collected under the rubric “educate yourself”.

This has largely been linked to proposals to reform the 2004 Gender Recognition Act …

Again, this is assertion backed by no evidence. Have “transphobic hate incidents” really been linked to suggested changes to that Act?

Many people refer to these changes as giving trans people the right to ‘self-ID’, but it is, more correctly, a legally-binding ‘self-declaration’.

OK, though the distinction between “self-identification” and “self-declaration” is not clarified, and note that under self-ID the declaration is only “legally binding” until the next self-declaration.

This increased transphobia has been particularly severe for trans women, …

Again, no statistics, no evidence. All of this would be fine as the advocacy pages of a pressure group, but is such ideological contention really appropriate as the official voice of Edinburgh University?

… who have been the target of high-profile, celebrity campaigns that deny the trans experience …

The mention of “celebrity” is presumably a reference to J. K. Rowling, who Tweeted in support in Maya Forstater who was sacked for maintaining that biological sex is real. (And by the way, have Twitter really capped the number of “likes” on that Tweet at about 220,000? It seems so, and many Twitter users have reported that their “likes” mysteriously undo themselves.)

And no, no-one “denies the trans experience” in the sense of denying that some people do, as a very real part of their nature, identify with the gender role opposite to their biological sex, and may even feel themselves to be of the opposite sex. All that is being “denied” is that that actually makes them the other sex, and that a trans woman actually is “just as much a woman as any other woman”.

… and deliberately suggest trans women pose a threat to cis women by distorting statistics of male violence to imply it is a characteristic of trans women.

Note the accusation of “deliberate distortion” of statistics, an accusation not in any way substantiated. This webpage is a propaganda piece, not something that a university should put its name to.

And given mention of statistics one might expect some citations and links to what the statistics actually are. After all, some self-IDd trans women do pose a threat of sexual assault to women. And as far as I can tell (though I am open to correction on this) the statistics do seem to suggest that the propensity to sexual assault among trans women (that is, biological males) is more in line with that of men generally than that of women. And the rates of sexual assault by men are, of course, twenty times higher than those by women, so that matters.

For clarity, that is not suggesting that trans women are more likely to commit assault than men, but that their propensity is roughly in line with biological males generally, and thus much higher than that of women.

(And again, if Edinburgh have good-quality evidence that this is not the case then it would be helpful if their “educate yourself” pages linked to it. Because, you see, “educating” oneself is about familiarising oneself with actual evidence, not about uncritically imbibing ideology.)

A particular strand of feminism (gender-critical) voices concerns that recognising the rights of trans women will negatively impact the ‘sex-based’ rights of cis women …

It’s rather notable that they put “sex-based” in quotes. This is in line with radical “queer theory” that says that biological sex is not actually real, and that what is real is one’s inner “gender identity”. That is a highly contentious claim that flies in the face of science. Note also the loaded phrasing “recognising the rights of”, as though the rights being claimed were already established and agreed.

And it would seem that those gender-critical feminists have a fair point, don’t they? A doctrine that all that matters is a self-report of ones “gender identity” would indeed “impact the sex-based rights of women”, in those situations (such as women’s sports and women’s prisons) where women have a legitimate and reasonable expectation of sex-based segregation.

… and that predatory men will exploit the proposed right to self-declaration to access women-only spaces or to gain advantage in sports and the workplace. This effectively makes trans women the focus of blame for the actions of predatory men.

Well no, it makes the rules, the self-ID doctrine (not “trans women”) the focus of blame for the actions of predatory men. And again, it’s a fair point, isn’t it? Under self-ID, what is there to stop a predatory man adopting a trans persona in order to obtain ready access to women’s spaces? For that matter, what is there to stop a narcissistic man of mediocre sporting ability adopting the persona of a trans woman in order to play against rather easier competition, and so indulge his self-image as a winner?

Gender-critical feminists have also criticised trans women for perpetuating stereotypes of femininity, another example of harmful gate-keeping of another person’s gender presentation. […] none of us should be commenting on other people’s dress choices and external features or assuming gender identity on that basis …

But, once again, the gender-critical feminists have raised a fair point. If we are to deplore feminine stereotypes, so that we don’t associate “female gender” with styles of dress or mannerisms or appearance, and certainly not with activities or job roles, then what is “gender” actually about?

The whole point of trans ideology, of course, is that ones gender is not associated with biological sex or reproductive anatomy — and nor is it associated with any feminine stereotypes (perish the thought!) — so what is left? The trans activists can only answer that it is associated with an inner “gender identity” what we just know or “experience”.

But this makes no sense: if one does not anchor the terms “man” and “woman” in objectively real biological sex, then how can one even define the terms “man” and “woman”? The trans activists try the feeble: “a woman is anyone who experiences themselves as a woman”, but that just gives an endless recursion and answers nothing.

Again, this whole web page would be fair enough if it were the advocacy claims of a pressure group, but the role of a university and its academics would then be to carefully and dispassionately scrutinise each claim for truth and consistency — and yet here the claims are being presented as orthodoxy to which university members are expected to assent.

While concerns for women’s safety are valid, there is no evidence that trans women pose any more danger than other women.

Well, some studies claim such evidence — though I recognise that this link is to an advocacy group, but if Edinburgh have better evidence then perhaps they could present it? Isn’t that how proper discussion proceeds?

This type of ‘reasonable concern’ is used frequently by trans-hostile groups, such as ultra-right wing campaigners and certain feminists.

One notes the quotation marks around “reasonable concern”, implying that this is just a cover story. One notes the smear tactic of grouping feminists with the “ultra-right wing”. And yet, I’m willing to bet that the majority of moderate, centrist-minded people would accept such concerns as reasonable.

Another ‘reasonable concern’ is alarm at the increase in gender identity services for children, despite evidence that early support for individuals reduces psychological problems and suicide in later life.

And again, there are no citations or links to support that claim. And evidence dragged reluctantly out of the Tavistock clinic owing to the Keira Bell case is that pubery blockers make no overall difference to psychological well-being. This is not settled science, with the only studies having a small number of patients and lacking controls, so it should not be presented as though assent is mandatory.

There is considerable misinformation about what happens in gender identity clinics, deliberately circulated to create fear and moral panic.

Come on, there is no way that a university should have this sort of stuff on its official webpages. The UK high court has recently ruled that concerns about gender-identity clinics are well-justified and has halted puberty-blocking drug treatment in under-16s, calling it “experimental”.

Having said that, it is reasonable, in the face of so much misinformation and hostility, for people to have concerns and to seek information and reassurance. This is different to the use of ‘reasonable concerns’ by transphobic campaigners where accurate information is rejected or distorted in a similar way to the strategy of Islamophobes and anti-Semites.

Oh come on! This reads like an undergraduate activist having a tantrum. Sure, let the undergrads spout activist speak, but the official University Edinbugh pages should be written by grown-ups, especially if they are supposed to be statements of university policy.

6 thoughts on “Edinburgh University should value academic enquiry above ideology

  1. Paul Braterman

    “Having said that, it is reasonable, in the face of so much misinformation and hostility, for people to have concerns and to seek information and reassurance.” Information, of course, yes. Reassurance? That presupposes that the questioner’s concerns are not actually warranted.

    For example, what reassurance can Edinburgh University offer me that I should not be concerned, as I am, that transgenderiing is fundamentally misguided, and directly at odds with the goal of eliminating gender stereotypes?

    1. Coel Post author

      Good point. The whole piece is written based on total confidence that they are morally in the right. And, from being morally right, everything else follows (moralistic fallacy: “the world is as I morally want it to be”). That’s why they don’t bother with evidence or reasonable discussion. It also follows that anyone disagreeing with them must be morally deplorable, and should be shunned on those grounds.

    1. Coel Post author

      Hi Robin,
      Yes, the page seems to have disappeared. It did attract widespread adverse comment so, yes, they’ve likely thought better.

  2. Robin Herbert

    In general I agree – academic enquiry should be above ideology. Indeed any enquiry, whether through a tertiary institution or not, should be above ideology although it is often difficult to know when we are being ideological.


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