The controversy at Brown University regarding a professor’s research into gender dysphoria “raises serious concerns about the ability of all academics to conduct research on controversial topics,” a professor at Harvard argued recently in the online magazine Quillette.
The scandal began after Brown University publicized the work of one of its assistant professors, Lisa Littman, who published a research paper indicating that in some instances, young girls may be claiming gender dysphoria and transgenderism due to external factors such as social media and “social and peer contagion.” Following a backlash against the research paper, Brown withdrew its promotion of the work, announcing that “removing the article from news distribution is the most responsible course of action” due to what it claimed were “concerns about research methodology.” The school also acknowledged the claims of activists that the research “could be used to discredit efforts to support transgender youth and invalidate the perspectives of members of the transgender community.”
“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,” writes Jeffrey S. Flier, a Harvard University professor and former dean of Harvard Medical School, at Quillette.
“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,” Flier writes.
“What’s needed is a campaign to mobilize the academic community to protect our ability to conduct and communicate such research, whether or not the methods and conclusions provoke controversy or even outrage:”
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,” Flier notes.
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