For the Higgy: Steven Novella and David Gorski

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

The crucial role of science is to provide logically and empirically rigorous tests, in cases where such testing is possible and methodologically appropriate, of our beliefs about the world we live in. We need these tests because for the most part, our beliefs are shaped by social forces that are not strongly (or at all) influenced by the question of what is actually true. As Jonathan Haidt has evocatively put it, reason rides belief not like a human rides a horse but like a human rides an elephant – for the most part, the elephant goes where it wants. The ability of one isolated individual to control their elephant is very limited, and so we are mostly at the mercy of social systems that seek to manipulate and exploit our beliefs for their own interests. Social systems that instead force us to hold one another accountable for being true and responsible in our beliefs are the only effective countermeasure – and science, which is at bottom a social system defined by mutual adherence to an agreed-upon set of methodological principles, is one of the most valuable of these systems.

Unfortunately, as the tragic example of William Higinbotham himself proves so pungently, scientists themselves are only human – elephant riders, subject to all the pressures of manipulation, exploitation and conformity. And the very success of science in providing reliable tests of belief has made the capture of “science” as a label socially valuable. Everyone wants to be able to claim that their policy is “evidence based,” so suborning the scientists has become one of the most important paths to political power.

Thus we have seen the rise of new institutions, created by scientists for the purpose of resisting these pressures.

And, inevitably, the subversion of these new institutions by the pressures they were created to resist.

Steven Novella and David Gorski run a website called Science Based Medicine. There are only three names on the SBM masthead: Novella (founder and executive editor), Gorski (managing editor) and Harriet Hall, who has the title “editor.” Stick a pin in that fact, we’ll come back to it.

As the About page of SBM puts it: “Online information about alternative medicine is overwhelmingly credulous and uncritical, and even mainstream media and some medical schools have bought into the hype and failed to ask the hard questions. We provide a much needed ‘alternative’ perspective – the scientific perspective.”

Novella and Gorski regularly draw a distinction between “evidence based” and “science based” medicine. “Evidence based” means you can point to some kind of superficially plausible piece of evidence supporting your view. This is the cheap and corrupt standard by which science is subverted. “Science based” means all available evidence that meets scientific standards is taken into account, with awareness that each individual piece of evidence is subject to ambiguity and uncertainty.

They blame “online information,” “mainstream media” and “some medical schools” for bowing to hype and pressure from merely evidence-based approaches, making a science-based approach impossible in those venues.

But when they themselves came under similar pressure, they folded. Faster than . . .

They made the mistake of publishing a review of Abigail Shrier’s book Irreversible Damage, which calls out the many claims in transgender medicine that are evidence-based without being science-based. In such a brand-new area of study, how can we know much of anything yet?

Unsurprisingly given the mission of SBM, the review was positive. And it was not by some fly-by-night outside contributor, but by Hall, editor of SBM and the only other name on the masthead besides Novella and Gorski. In fact, independent journalist Jesse Singal, who was instrumental in bringing the subsequent SBM shenanigans to light, went to Hall’s SBM archive page and counted 700 articles she had contributed to the site before this review.

Why do I have to post Singal’s count of how many articles Hall contributed? Because I can’t count them myself. The SBM archive pages for Hall and Novella are mysteriously not available to the public any more. (Gorski’s works fine, which may have to do with the fact that he is listed as the person who manages the author information pages.)

You know what else you can’t read at SBM any more? Hall’s book review. But you can read it at Skeptic magazine, which has reprinted it.

SBM’s archives are managed by Memory Hole Services, Inc.

Now, as you read the account below of of Novella and Gorski’s actions, to grasp their true Higgyworthiness you have to set aside not only your opinions on transgenderism and more specifically the merits of Shrier’s book, but even the merits of Hall’s review.

Assume in Novella and Gorski’s favor – in the teeth of all indications to the contrary – that transgenderism is great, that Shrier’s book is awful, and that Hall’s review is likewise awful.

Now, even on that set of assumptions, try to read this series of events without laughing:

  1. Novella and Gorski pull down Hall’s review and post a statement explaining that the review did not meet SBM’s editorial standards, but not explaining how or why it did not meet their editorial standards; the statement blusters angrily, across several paragraphs, about “false accusations” that the review was removed for political reasons, but without specifying any other reason the review was removed.
  2. This having mysteriously failed to alleviate anyone’s doubts, Novella and Gorski write and publish a lengthy article in which they repeat a series of false and anti-scientific activist talking points about gender science. Singal has the lengthy tale of the tape, but to take a few examples, they falsely claim that the DSM-IV treated all people who self-identify as another gender as mentally ill; they claim there is overwhelming evidence that the officially endorsed but nonbinding professional standards of youth transgender treatment are widely adhered to, while citing no such evidence and ignoring clear and convincing evidence to the contrary; and they apply extremely high methodological standards to studies whose findings they don’t like while ignoring even more serious methodological problems in studies whose findings they do like.
  3. SBM then publishes two articles by transgender activists that are equally full of false and anti-science activist talking points, including an impressive number of provable factual lies about the contents of Shrier’s book – even some made-up quotations that aren’t in the book! – as well as false statements about the underlying studies and news stories. One of the authors, in the course of attempting to discredit a set of studies, actually misrepresents the studies in a way that makes them look better than they are, presumably out of ignorance. Singal again has the lengthy tale of the tape.
  4. As Singal and others point out these errors, SBM corrects some and lets others stand.
  5. After having officially issued corrections of made-up quotations and other lies from the author of the second follow-up article, SBM proceeds to publish an additional article by that author – in case any shred of SBM’s credibility remained undemolished.

The walls of enforced silence around unscientific but “evidence-based” claims related to transgenderism seem now to be collapsing, partly because of this and this.

The effort to stop people from asking questions about science is, on the face of it, futile and Higgyworthy.

Which of course means such efforts are now going to be redoubled. Singal is still on the case; the headline on his latest article about this topic: “Researchers Found Puberty Blockers And Hormones Didn’t Improve Trans Kids’ Mental Health At Their Clinic. Then They Published A Study Claiming The Opposite.”

However, few people beclown themselves as obviously as Novella and Gorski. They are truly worthy of The Higgy.

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