Dear Neuroscience: Stop Trying to “Fix” Diversity

I announced recently that I had been trying to publish an op-ed and that I would post it here if no newspaper would have it. No newspaper would have it, so here you go (and please imagine it were still the end of December, when this was all more recent and it still seemed a fitting time for new year’s resolutions):

As the year in which President Trump reinstated the ban on trans* persons from military service is coming to a close, many of us are hoping for a less transphobic new year. But the current year of sickening transphobia isn’t quite over yet. “Harry Potter” author J.K. Rowling just made headlines by expressing support for Maya Forstater, an openly transphobic researcher who claimed that sex was unchangeable and had nothing to do with identity. Anthony Ramos from the LGBTQ+ media advocacy organization GLAAD referred to Forstater’s view as “an anti-science ideology.”

The disturbing truth is that some scientists hold similar views as Forstater. A recent publication in eNeuro, an open-access journal published by the Society for Neuroscience, proves this point. Author Stephen Gliske, a nuclear physicist by training, proposed a novel theory regarding the neurobiological underpinnings of gender dysphoria (the distress that some trans* individuals experience because of the incongruency between their bodies and gender identities). Much of the argument relies on data from previously published rodent studies.

Gliske’s paper is based on the idea that trans* persons have broken brains that need fixing. In the original manuscript, which was soon amended, Gliske had suggested that future neurobiological “treatments” for trans* individuals could “restore a sense of ownership over body parts perceived as incongruous.” These interventions would pose “less risk, be less invasive, [and] have fewer barriers to receiving care” than gender confirmation surgery. In other words, Gliske advocated against transitioning and for conversion therapy.

The paper has caused significant hubbub in the neuroscientific community. One of the Reviewing Editors for eNeuro resigned because he no longer wished to be associated with an editorial board responsible for publishing “a catastrophically flawed paper.” The editors published a correction and removed from the article the section titled “Implications for clinical practice,” from which I quoted above. Eliminating this section did not make the article less problematic, quite the opposite. Now Gliske’s agenda is less clear and readers might come to the false conclusion that the article isn’t so bad after all.

The editors for eNeuro haven’t seen the last of this yet. Numerous neuroscientists are criticizing the study’s “errors in fact and logic.” Some are circulating studies that undermine Gliske’s concepts, irrespective of his discriminatory clinical recommendations. For example, neuropsychologists Roi Jacobson and Daphna Joel’s research suggests that “body dysphoria” (distress because of one’s body) might be a more appropriate concept than Gliske’s “gender dysphoria.” Neuropsychologist Reubs Walsh commented that “dysphoria is more properly characterised as a state, not a trait,” which Gliske did not take into consideration (personal communication). Additionally, non-human animals might not be the best research subjects to study a genuinely human form of dysphoria. A formal rebuttal by Walsh and colleagues is forthcoming.

Besides these critiques, Members of the Society for Neuroscience and other scientists put together a petition to the editorial board of eNeuro “demanding a full retraction” of the article.

I was about to sign the petition, but then I hesitated. Would eNeuro delete the entire publication, just like they had deleted the final section of the original manuscript? If so, would the article’s disappearance limit phobics’ misuse of (pseudo-)science? Or would it contribute to hushing up centuries of prejudice and bias in the neurosciences?

For the past two hundred years, social prejudice has repeatedly preceded theories and treatments of supposedly abnormal brains. In the early nineteenth century, physician and phrenologist Franz Gall palpated women’s skulls to obtain material evidence for what he considered the distinctive female character. Later, physician Samuel Morton claimed that the widely accepted hierarchy of human “races” corresponded to the capacity of their skulls. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, neurologist Paul Broca expanded on the flawed idea that brains can be classified in hierarchical types: male brains (superior), female brains (inferior), white brains (superior), and black brains (inferior). He added right-handed brains (superior) and left-handed brains (inferior), because he thought that handedness was associated with brain asymmetry and everybody agreed that lefties were somehow off. Science did not uncover natural truths; it served to naturalize existing biases.

Things got worse when scientists did not stop at classifying and ranking brains but attempted to fix the supposedly broken ones. In the twentieth century, electroconvulsive treatment, insulin coma, metrazol shock, and malaria-induced fever were some of the measures used to tame allegedly erratic brains. Hysteria, a catch-all diagnosis for women’s behavior that defied societal expectations, was a common justification for violations of women and their brains. Scientists used the same methods to convert presumed gay and trans* brains into alleged straight brains. Similarly, lobotomy became one of the brain-centered interventions that was supposed to transform unruly children, discontent wives, queer persons, and others into conforming citizens.

The advent of psychotropic drugs in the 1950s promised risk-free chemical fixes for well-known types of broken brains and for a new challenge: the Civil Rights Movement. Numerous black rights activists were diagnosed with schizophrenia, institutionalized, and medicated. Psychiatrists reported that the drugs transformed violent black rioters into docile patients. More recently, psychologist Adrian Raine suggested to prevent the formation of violent and criminal brains by providing brains-at-risk (or their owners) with nutritional supplements. The appeal of a pill-sized brain fix is that it is “benign and relatively cheap.” Pills certainly cost the majority population less than tackling the root causes of most social problems—bigotry, discrimination, and unequal distribution of resources.

Long story short, Gliske’s transphobia continues a tradition of declaring broken the brains of marginalized individuals, and his proposed conversion therapy would be in line with the quest for “benign” and “cheap” brainterventions. Gliske is not the only neuroscientist whose work implies the dangerous question: Why accommodate different kinds of people and guarantee equal rights for all if neuroscience can fix diversity?

As much as I sympathize with the urge to have Gliske’s paper disappear, the historian in me says: Let’s not pretend it never happened. To be clear, I think the paper should never have been published—but it was published. What we need now is a critically annotated version of the paper to be uploaded by eNeuro in place of the current article, so no transphobic can misuse the paper without having to dig through balanced and thoroughly-researched commentary. We also need to have a conversation about why transphobic research can survive peer review and be published in a respectable journal. Most of all, we need more research with and by marginalized individuals rather than research about them.

Last but not least, we need constant reminders that science has the power to define who is normal and who needs fixing (and how). If we don’t know the history of science, we’re doomed to repeat it—just like Gliske did. Let’s make it our new year’s resolution to learn from historical mistakes. It might encourage at least some scientists to be less biased and more inclusive. And, who knows, some famous writers and politicians might quit transphobia, too.

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