Politics & Policy

Results of Trans Teen Study Unchanged after Activists Force Review

Transgender rights activists protest at the White House, October 22, 2018. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

A Brown University professor’s study of a “social contagion” effect among transgender teenagers was republished with its results section unchanged Tuesday following an unprecedented post-publication review prompted by a wave of backlash from transgender activists and researchers sympathetic to their cause.

Dr. Lisa Littman’s paper, “Parent Reports of Adolescents and Young Adults Perceived to Show Signs of a Rapid Onset of Gender Dysphoria,” explores a little-understood phenomenon in which a statistically abnormal number of teens, mostly girls, belonging to the same established friend group claim they are transgender within a short period of time.

The study, which relied on findings from a 90-question survey completed by 256 parents of transgender youths, immediately drew the ire of trans activists when it was published in August 2018, because its findings suggested that rising rates of gender dysphoria among teens may be the result of socialization, rather than inherent biological factors.

Brown University removed a press release announcing the study’s publication after the academic journal PLOS ONE conceded to activists’ demand that it take the highly unusual step of ordering a post-publication review. But following that review, the paper was republished with an unchanged results section and a few additions included to provide “additional context.”

“Other than the addition of a few missing values in Table 13, the Results section is unchanged in the updated version of the article. The Competing Interests statement and the Data Availability statement have also been updated in the revised version,” reads the journal’s notice of republication.

Despite the fact that the post-publication review yielded no evidence of wrongdoing or error on Litman’s part, the notice of republication was still described as a “correction,” in an effort to make clear that “rapid onset gender dysphoria” is not a clinical term, according to journalist Jesse Singal’s exchange with a PLOS ONE spokesman.

“No false information was printed. We stand by the paper but felt it needed additional context because ‘rapid onset gender dysphoria’ is not a validated clinical term,” the spokesman said. “We asked Dr. Littman to revise the article so as not to overreach what could be concluded from this story of parental reports. This included changes to the title, abstract, introduction, and conclusions to clarify the study’s limitations and the implications of its results.”

Much of the correction pertains to Littman’s reliance on the word of transgender teens’ parents, whom she recruited online after noticing a growing number of social-media testimonials in which a parent described how a child’s transition followed closely behind that of many of the child’s friends.

Critics argue that Littman’s reliance on “parental reports” invalidates her concept of “rapid onset gender dysphoria” since the transition may seem rapid to a parent despite its having percolated within a child for a long time.

“What’s ‘rapid’ about ROGD is parents’ sudden awareness and assessment of their child’s gender dysphoria,” transgender writer and former developmental biologist Julie Serano wrote in an essay criticizing the paper.

Littman, however, claims the methodology, which remains unchanged in the revised paper, is standard and has been used in papers that are widely accepted by transgender activists and sympathetic researchers.

“Not to put too fine a point on it, but the message of these critics is that research using parent reports, targeted recruitment and online, anonymous surveys is unacceptable for my study, but not at all problematic when used in studies where the findings support their desired narrative,” Littman said. “But, that’s not how science works: You can’t judge the strength of a methodology by the results it produces, you must judge the results by the strength of the methodology that produced them.”

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