“Good scientists follow the data where they lead. They are constantly open to alternatives and remain mindful of scientific and intellectual rigor. To dismiss this scientific report as merely political is to misread it—not only cynically but unscientifically.”
The Fall 2016 edition of The New Atlantis: A Journal of Technology and Society consists of a careful analytical review of the scientific literature available across various disciplines on the topic of human sexuality and gender. The authors, Lawrence S. Mayer and Paul R. McHugh, are senior scholars with impeccable credentials and qualifications to undertake a major report such as this. The report takes a careful look at the literature and decides in an informed and straightforward way what the available science does and does not say—or, more precisely, what conclusions current science does or does not justify—about these important aspects of our humanity.
Any reader will note that the report takes up some issues that lie close to the heart of contemporary discourse about sexual orientation and gender identity. Cynical critics will probably try to dismiss it based on supposed ulterior motives. However, if the topics covered by the report are, in fact, areas where science has been co-opted by politics, and where scientists, and laymen, have overreached in making conclusions and invoking the authority of science, then these are precisely the areas where sound, careful, rigorous scientific response is necessary. As Mayer and McHugh write:
When the research touches on controversial themes, it is particularly important to be clear about precisely what science has and has not shown. For complex, complicated questions concerning the nature of human sexuality, there exists at best provisional scientific consensus; much remains unknown, as sexuality is an immensely complex part of human life that defies our attempts at defining all its aspects and studying them with precision.
Good scientists follow the data where they lead. They are constantly open to alternatives and remain mindful of scientific and intellectual rigor. To dismiss this scientific report as merely political is to misread it—not only cynically but unscientifically. The report, with its substantial body of analyses and findings, stands on its own ground, and it certainly provides sufficient material for study and response by serious investigators. Even serious cynics have a responsibility to deal with the data.
It’s worth reading the report in full. Here I begin by summarizing four of its principal findings. Based on the data presented by hundreds of peer-reviewed scientific studies, the report concludes:
1. Claims that sexual orientation is immutably determined by biology are not supported by scientific evidence.
2. Claims that gender identity is somehow fixed and innate, yet is also independent of biological sex, are likewise not supported by scientific evidence.
3. Since the great majority of children who experience some gender-atypical thoughts do not continue to do so after adolescence, encouraging such children to become transgender or seek invasive and sometimes drastic and irreversible medical procedures is not supported by scientific evidence.
4. The finding that non-heterosexual and transgender individuals have higher rates of mental health problems is supported by scientific evidence, while the common attribution of such findings to the effects of social stigma or stress as the only or primary cause is not supported by scientific data.
As the authors note, some questions relevant to sexuality and gender have lent themselves more readily to empirical study than others. One such finding, which is of great concern to the authors, is that sexual minorities “show higher rates of depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and suicide compared to the general population.” The most common explanation, known as the “social stress model,” is that such outcomes are caused by the stigmatization and discrimination experienced by these individuals. Although this theory has great cultural currency, Mayer and McHugh conclude that “science has not shown that these factors alone account for the entirety, or even a majority of the health disparity between non-heterosexual and transgender subpopulations and the general population.”
With respect to questions of gender identification and biological sex, the authors conclude:
In reviewing the scientific literature, we find that almost nothing is well understood when we seek biological explanations for what causes some individuals to state that their gender does not match their biological sex.
Nevertheless, the authors note, “despite scientific uncertainty, drastic interventions are prescribed and delivered to patients.” They find it particularly troubling “when the patients receiving these interventions are children.” Based on the lack of data on long-term consequences of these interventions, Mayer and McHugh strongly recommend caution when it comes to practices such as gender reassignment surgery and hormone therapy.