Simón(e) Sun and Florence Ashley: Tactics of Misinformation
Rhetorical tricks and strategic deceptions are once again being used to skew science against marginalized groups.
By Corey S. Powell
In 2023 alone, more than 500 anti-trans bills have been proposed or adopted in nearly every state in the United States, targeting everything from drag performances to gender-affirming medical care to school inclusion policies for trans people. Support for these measures has been enabled and propelled by scientific misinformation, which has proven to be a distressingly effective tool in outraging a public that might otherwise be broadly empathetic, or at least uncertain about where to stand. In the following Q&A, law professor Florence Ashley and scientist Simón(e) Sun describe to OpenMind co-editor Corey S. Powell how deceptions in science have been used to disenfranchise trans people and other marginalized groups. (This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.)
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Anti-trans sentiment has existed for a long time, but it seems like we're at a moment of particularly intense attacks. Why is that?
Florence Ashley: It’s definitely been getting worse. A lot of people who have been out since the '70s and '80s are saying that this is an unprecedented level of public hate. Even if there's been progress around rights for a lot of people, there's a whole lot more hostility. I am located in Canada, where we're starting to have anti-trans bills that would have been mostly unheard of just five years ago. In the U.S., the fact that the courts are so stacked by Trump appointees at the federal level has been particularly daunting. We are seeing alliances between the anti-reproductive justice and anti-trans movements, which is really concerning.
Trans culture is more visible today than it has been in the past. Does that help, or is increased visibility stirring up the anti-trans movement?
Florence Ashley: Visibility is very much a double-edged sword. There are good sides to visibility, of course. It helps people realize that they're trans. You have more access to trans narratives, which gives you more space to understand yourself, and that's very positive. But at the social and political level, it has been quite negative. We're seeing a lot more people who vehemently hate trans people, who are even willing to harm trans people. Whereas people who are favorable to trans people largely just leave us alone. And a lot of reforms that we were able to achieve with relative ease, in a less visible manner, are now being rolled back.
Both of you work within academia, which is regarded, from the outside, as largely progressive. From your inside perspective, has the academic community been helpful and supportive?
Simón(e) Sun: It’s easy to assume, broadly, that academics tend to lean left, or lean progressive, but it’s much more nuanced in terms of what specific issues you're talking about. Often scientists have a false view of themselves as existing outside of social or political issues. Especially in the basic sciences, a lot of scientists feel like they don't have to think about any kind of political question.
Many of the arguments against trans rights center on the idea that transness itself is not legitimate—that there are just two sexes, period. You describe this idea as “sex essentialism.” Can you explain that term, and talk about how it shapes the debate?
Simón(e) Sun: Essentialism is the idea that you can take any phenomenon that is complex and distill it down to a particular set of traits. In the case of sex essentialism, the idea is that you can sufficiently describe sex by a few particular characteristics. In this debate, it used to be chromosomes, now it’s gametes (egg and sperm cells). The target is always moving, because if you want to make something binary, then you need to find the most binary characteristic. Today, sex essentialism boils all of sex down to the gametes that a person produces. Then you draw a line from gametes to all of these other characteristics—to sex roles, even to the personality of an entire individual. But biology is just not that simple. The sex essentialist perspective is completely wrong about the biology of how sex characteristics arise.
What is the error at the center of sex essentialism and this attempt at a simple, binary definition of sex?
Simón(e) Sun: The error is simply that the gametes are a determining factor of sex—that once you know what gametes a person produces, that’s their sex and nothing about it can change. But biology is a dynamic system where an organism starts in a particular state and grows through life and through development with multiple systems interacting. That is, more precisely, how sex works. Sex essentialism boils all that down to one, immutable characteristic to preclude transness as a biological phenomenon. If you start with a model of sex that is binary, you'll always produce a binary result. And if you insist that it is true, then it is the only answer that you get.
Florence Ashley: There's something to be said about the rhetorical tricks here. The people who use ideas about biological sex against trans people are first appealing to the idea of biology as a description of difference, but then they do a jump and use that conception of biology as a form of meaning. The thing is, we organize society around meaning, not difference. Biology at its core can't tell you what matters to human organizations. So there is a fallacy here of looking at the human difference at the biological level, oversimplifying it, and then saying, “That's what we should organize people around.” We should really be asking what we care about, and then look to see if biology has anything to say about it. If you go through that exercise, then you realize that biology really has very little, if not virtually nothing, to say about things like trans rights.
You use the term “epistemological violence” to describe how people can apply ostensibly neutral scientific ideas in harmful ways. Can you explain that concept?
Florence Ashley: Epistemological violence occurs when a researcher or somebody else interprets empirical results in a way that devalues, pathologizes or harms a marginalized group, even though there are equally good or better explanations for the same data. Science is always “under-determined,” a technical term that basically means there are always multiple possible ways to interpret a set of data. That’s where a lot of misinformation and oversimplification comes from, in that gap that's left. The idea of epistemological violence is that it's wrong to interpret data in a way that punches down on marginalized people. We should try to interpret the data in a way that's compatible with their inclusion and well-being, if that's an equally good interpretation. We shouldn't be cherry-picking the data to support prejudice and biased points.
You have written about three broad misinformation techniques in the trans debates: oversimplifying scientific knowledge, fabricating and misinterpreting research and promoting false equivalences. Are these the same techniques that have been used in science-based arguments about race and other human traits?
Simón(e) Sun: Absolutely. Even in climate change. Perhaps the most salient example is race science. There’s an entire history of asking about the science of racial differences, and how can we describe them in a biological way. That kind of research has been used in the past, and still is to some extent today, to bolster racist arguments. It’s an oversimplification to say that one population exhibits a lower average IQ than another population. That’s just biology, but there’s also social environment, socioeconomic status and other factors that come into play.
Here's a huge question: How do you help the general public recognize legitimate information from BS?
Florence Ashley: We need to get out of the idea that correcting misinformation by itself will convince people. But once you’ve appealed to people's emotions, once you've appealed to people's values and desire to be on your side, then correcting misinformation can make their commitment to equality sustainable. And there’s another gap, which is people who don't really have an opinion. If you already don't have an opinion on the topic, then being exposed to actual, scientifically grounded information can be very helpful. That's often what we see in courts, where even judges who were appointed by Donald Trump will sometimes rule in favor of trans rights when they're presented with information and they don’t have much preconceptions. They realize, oh, there’s so much evidence in favor of trans rights, we’ve got to do something about that. That's possible because we are talking about people who didn't have strong political attachments yet.
OK, so how can we help the general public identify the falsehoods?
Florence Ashley: There's no foolproof way. There is so much noise and misinformation that it's just hard to know even the most basic of facts. And because the problem of epistemological violence, it's not only difficult to find what the science says in terms of data, it’s difficult to interpret it on your own. We need journalists to do a better job and probe some of the basics of what people are saying. They’re legitimating a lot of anti-trans voice without really questioning the basis of their opinions, notably around claims that youth are being fast-tracked through medical transition. There's the other implied claim that if we take things slower, it's going to prevent potential regrets. We just published a review article in Psychology of Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity where we find that there's no empirical or theoretical basis for that claim. The New York Times has been a particularly bad offender in that regard. For individuals, try to get information from a trans person who actually knows these issues.
What about ordinary people who want to help but don't know where to start—what can they do?
Florence Ashley: Shut down misinformation and hate when you see it crop up around you. Oftentimes we don't like confrontation, so we just let misinformation go. We need people to start speaking up whenever it comes up. And be loud. We’re in an ecosystem where the anti-trans voices are trying to portray themselves as speaking for a silent majority. We need people to be loud enough to counter any impression of a silent majority. You can also help trans people materially. Give them a job, help them get housing, help them pay for transition-related medical care. Share your power with trans people, giving them opportunities to write, opportunities to share with audiences and opportunities to have a say in policy-making. And share your skills.
This Q&A is part of a series of OpenMind essays, podcasts and videos supported by a generous grant from the Pulitzer Center's Truth Decay initiative.
January 25, 2024