Progressive Privilege and the Scientific Discourse
It’s time for all of us to seriously reflect on what it means to “follow the science.” Nowhere is this more evident than when we hear about the research used to debate the transgender issue.
We’ve been told that the science says that hormones, surgeries, and puberty-blocking agents will save children from an inevitable suicide and those who don’t have access to the “cure-all” interventions will die. We’ve also been told the science is settled on this matter. This is a matchless assertion that can’t be made about more thoroughly evaluated psychological interventions. But with such unparalleled findings, why not put the data on full display?
The reality is that these researchers don’t want anyone to look behind the curtain of their unrivaled results and critically evaluate the outcomes of their study. Until more recently, there’s been little examination of the data by those without vested interest in an outcome that doesn’t assume a pathway to gender affirmation. When the topic is assessed with transparency, these procedures evidence physiological and psychological harms.
It begs the question, then: How can so many medical organizations stand in solidarity claiming the “science is settled” when the harms are becoming clear? These researchers get away with this because they possess their very own form of “privilege.” In fact, we find that most, if not all, researchers publishing in domains that have become politically charged share the same political perspective.
Privilege is a political buzzword these days, used to describe individuals who possess some kind of favored status that garners them unearned benefits compared to others in society. In our modern lexicon, privilege is associated with power. Those who possess privilege are most often identified as being members of the dominant group.
Taking this definition, the field of academic research is awash in privilege, and academics have weaponized their privilege to hold the high ground in the marketplace of ideas. Ninety percent of academics and mental health professionals and almost all (100% in one assessment!) of research psychologists identify as politically progressive. If nearly all research is generated from this homogenous perspective, it affects what studies are funded, the research questions that are asked, what gets published, and ultimately what policies and practices are implemented in a society.
Is it any wonder that we currently have a problem with the breadth of scientific discourse when only one perspective of scientists has the right to enter the debates relevant to a field?
Take, for example, the fact that other countries that used to offer “gender-affirming” treatment are backing away from these procedures after a review of the merits of the scientific literature. In the United States, however, Biden administration officials persist in claiming that the science is settled in favor of such “treatments” and that anyone who disagrees is transphobic. The latter statement, alone, gives us an indication that the “science” has been politicized at the very least. While this is clearly problematic, we should not lose sight of a much bigger, root problem that we must address.
That problem is the reality that progressive “privilege” is a systemic issue that has infected our scientific discourse. It has placed immovable gatekeepers in the scientific community. Every step of the process — from bodies making grants to ethics committees approving research topics and protocols to journals reviewing and publishing articles — lies in a walled-off city of imitation science. Tragically, those who fail to align their thinking with the gatekeeper-approved scientific narratives are rarely allowed to engage in the ongoing discourse and debates.
The systemic progressive privilege in research plays out on the frontlines of patient care. Doctors, psychologists, and all those who are charged with putting research into practice feel the pervasive threat that accompanies questioning the current common wisdom or modus operandi. Falling under condemnation can result in the loss of a job, the revocation of practice licenses, or being sidelined from participating meaningfully in one’s profession.
The scientific method, as it has come to be understood, is a powerful tool for open inquiry leading to the discovery of heretofore unknown truths about the world. The scientific method is not meant to be a unilateral process. Ideas challenge other ideas, and over time, greater understanding of the world can be achieved. But how can this reactive process work if only one perspective is allowed to investigate the phenomena being considered? Such censorship undercuts the ability of scientists to develop a robust, comprehensive model or picture of the thing to be studied.
It follows that we should be suspicious of any discipline that does not hold research findings as subject to change under continued scientific investigation and instead maintains a one-sided discourse that discourages criticism or dissenting points of view. Similarly, we should approach some research topics with greater caution because it is evident that the reported study findings have had clear ideological, political, and financial factors embedded in their scientific “discoveries.”
The next time you hear about or read a study, remember to account for progressive privilege in your interpretation of it. Be an aggressive analyst of the document and the writers. Hold these researchers accountable when they apply poor research methods that are designed to make sweeping policy changes affecting the health and well-being of our society. If the scientific field is going to fail the public by failing to provide a transparent pathway to understanding the world around us, let us at least recognize that.
Don’t forget: progressive privilege is real.
Dr. Jennifer Bauwens is the Director of the Center for Family Studies at Family Research Council.