Is it so wrong to admit that gender identity and teenagers is complicated?

Jonathan Chait had a really nice piece on the transgender adolescent controversy month that I really liked.  I think what I most liked about it is the call for epistemic humility right in the headline, “Helping Trans Kids Means Admitting What We Don’t Know.”  I think what is so frustrating about the left’s take on all this is the near-hubris of we know what’s best for kids and teenagers always know what’s best for themselves.  Of course, the pure absurdity of that last phrase to anyone who’s ever been or known a teenager stands out.  Is there really any reason to think “teenagers know always know what’s best for themselves” becomes true when we add “for their gender identity.” And, of course, the right is regularly using this for an absurd moral panic.  That’s certainly not okay, either.  But, just because the right is acting poorly on this does not mean that those on the left need to embrace rigid positions that would not make sense for any other aspect of adolescent life.  Chait:

Last month, the New York Times published an investigative report on the medical treatment of children who question their gender identity. The findings were decidedly mixed. The reporters showed that many patients benefit from puberty-blocking drugs, which help them transition to a different gender, but that doctors also fear puberty blockers have long-term side effects, and that the treatment locks at least some children into escalating medicalization before they have figured out their gender identity.

The response on the left was as if the newspaper had committed a hate crime. “It is playing into the ongoing manufactured and weaponized conservative panic about trans existence,” asserted a Slate podcast. “Wild how normalized it is for journalists on this ‘beat’ to be aligned with straight-up hate groups and rely on anti-trans activists to link them with sources,” tweeted left-wing journalist Michael Hobbes.

This interpretation that the Times had contributed to an atmosphere of hatred against trans people was repeated so often and so stridently that within the left, it came to seem almost obvious. A week later, when a murderer opened fire in an LGBTQ nightclub in Colorado Springs, NPR’s On the Media interviewed NBC Out reporter Jo Yurcaba, who explained that the murder resulted from “rhetoric that labels LGBTQ people as grooming children,” including “coverage, for example, in the New York Times that paints gender-affirming care for minors as something that is debatable.”

There is a familiar pattern here in the way left-wing activists shut down internal criticism by treating any criticism of their position as either identical to, or complicit with, the far right. [emphases mine] Extremists on the right, of course, use the same method to shut down their critics on the center-right. To the radical, the easiest way to win a debate is to insist that the only choice is between opposing poles. If you oppose any element of their argument, you have endorsed the enemy. If the criticism is tempered and credible, this only makes them regard it as more dangerous.

But this absolutist mind-set has had an especially pernicious effect on the issue of youth gender medicine. This is because the science is genuinely murky and embryonic, making the struggle to identify a humane and effective solution both difficult and necessary. The left has thrown itself behind a crusade to define such a position out of existence.

The key thing to understand about this issue is that there are two distinct debates going on at the same time. The one between Democrats and Republicans in the political arena concerns whether to respect the basic rights of transgender people. Within the medical community, the debate is over exactly how to treat children who question their gender identity. The former matter is clear and simple. The latter is murky.

The question of how to treat children has many sources of uncertainty. There has been a huge explosion in cases of children questioning their gender identity, and a large majority of the patients are assigned female at birth. The stages of treatment generally begin with social transition (using different name and clothing), proceed to drugs that delay puberty, and culminate in surgery. Experts don’t agree on the correct age at which to begin these treatments. One problem is that kids and teens often have a fluid grasp of their own identity and gender, and need time to form a stable identity. Another is that puberty blockers have undetermined long-term risks.

Both sides of this debate within the medical community agree that trans people do require medical and social support without stigma. The disagreement lies in the process and speed of the appropriate treatment. The treatment regimen supported by most of the trans-activist community calls for “gender-affirming” care that puts kids on the process to transition in relatively rapid order, highly aware of the risk of going too slow: that transgender children will be denied care they need and grow despondent or even suicidal. More traditional treatment models call for more cautious progression to medicalization and surgery, focused on the risk of moving too fast: that children will be mistakenly diagnosed with gender dysphoria and will have long-term side effects from treatment that they later come to regret.

Progressive activists have not just embraced the gender-affirming care model; they have begun treating any disagreement with it as hateful denial that trans people exist. Indeed, they have frequently denied that any debate exists within the medical community at all.

The purpose of their rhetorical strategy is to conflate advocates of more cautious treatment of trans children with conservatives who oppose any treatment for trans children. This campaign has met with a great deal of success. Much of the coverage in mainstream and liberal media has followed this template — ignoring or denying the existence of the medical debate, and presenting anti-trans Republican politicians as the only alternative to gender-affirming care. This has been the theme not only of progressive infotainment like Jon Stewart and John Oliver, but also mainstream organs like Politico and CNN, where coverage of the issue often treats progressive activists as unbiased authorities and dismisses all questions about youth gender treatment as hate-driven denial of the medical consensus.

Over the last half-decade, as more and more reporting has revealed a persistent divide inside the medical community, the attempts on the left to deny its existence have grown increasingly strained. Rather than acknowledge the debate within the medical community and the genuine sources of concern, activists have continued to wish away its existence and attack those journalists who try to report on it.

Anyway, good stuff.  I’m so tired of false binaries and damn are there few places where those false binaries are worse than on issues of gender and adolescents because, you know what? It’s complicated!

Our justice system just keeps finding new ways to wrongfully convict people with junk science

I haven’t been posting much on criminal justice issues for a while, but PS 313 Criminal Justice Policy is back on the docket starting this week, so I should definitely be upping my game here.  Anyway, terrific new piece from Pro Publica on the latest in junk science.  Apparently, there’s some new “method” to analyze somebody’s voice during a 911 call and determine that they are lying and the likely perpetrator.  And, if your initial response to this is “give me a break!” you are right and a typical reader of this blog, but, alas, not a typical prosecutor or judge.

Tracy Harpster, a deputy police chief from suburban Dayton, Ohio, was hunting for praise. He had a business to promote: a miracle method to determine when 911 callers are actually guilty of the crimes they are reporting. “I know what a guilty father, mother or boyfriend sounds like,” he once said.

Harpster tells police and prosecutors around the country that they can do the same. Such linguistic detection is possible, he claims, if you know how to analyze callers’ speech patterns — their tone of voice, their pauses, their word choice, even their grammar. Stripped of its context, a misplaced word as innocuous as “hi” or “please” or “somebody” can reveal a murderer on the phone.

So far, researchers who have tried to corroborate Harpster’s claims have failed. The experts most familiar with his work warn that it shouldn’t be used to lock people up.

Prosecutors know it’s junk science too. But that hasn’t stopped some from promoting his methods and even deploying 911 call analysis in court to win convictions…

I first stumbled on 911 call analysis while reporting on a police department in northern Louisiana. At the time, it didn’t sound plausible even as a one-off gambit, let alone something pervasive that law enforcement nationwide had embraced as legitimate.

I was wrong. People who call 911 don’t know it, but detectives and prosecutors are listening in, ready to assign guilt based on the words they hear. For the past decade, Harpster has traveled the country quietly sowing his methods into the justice system case by case, city by city, charging up to $3,500 for his eight-hour class, which is typically paid for with tax dollars. Hundreds in law enforcement have bought into the obscure program and I had a rare opportunity to track, in real time, how the chief architect was selling it.

Harpster makes some astonishing claims in his promotional flyers. He says he has personally consulted in more than 1,500 homicide investigations nationwide. He promises that his training will let 911 operators know if they are talking to a murderer, give detectives a new way to identify suspects, and arm prosecutors with evidence they can exploit at trial…

The program has little online presence. Searches for 911 call analysis in national court dockets come up virtually empty too. A public defender in Virginia said, “I have never heard of any of that claptrap in my jurisdiction.” Dozens of other defense attorneys had similar reactions. One thought the premise sounded as arbitrary as medieval trials by fire, when those suspected of crimes were judged by how well they could walk over burning coals or hold hot irons.

Could it be true that Harpster, a man with no scientific background and next to no previous homicide investigation experience, had successfully sold the modern equivalent to law enforcement across the U.S. almost without notice?


Fortunately, this is not as pervasive as bite mark analysis, blood splatter, and other junk science, but the idea that this could take hold well into the 21st century when we have already learned so much about (and discarded much) junk science is thoroughly depressing.  Honestly, our desire to punish somebody for heinous crimes just keeps on getting the better of us as a society and a criminal justice sytem.

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