Former Dean of Harvard Medical School Criticizes Brown University’s Actions Regarding Gender Dysphoria Study

At Quillette, former Dean of Harvard’s Medical School Jeffrey Flier provides a scathing review of Brown University’s lack of support for Assistant Professor Lisa Littman and her study of rapid onset gender dysphoria (see my summary of this issue). Setting the stage for his review, Flier makes it clear that this issue is relevant to academic freedom for all:

This week’s controversy surrounding an academic paper on gender dysphoria published by Brown University assistant professor Lisa Littman—brought on by the post-publication questioning of Dr Littman’s scholarship by both the journal that published it, PLOS One, and Brown’s own School of Public Health—raises serious concerns about the ability of all academics to conduct research on controversial topics.

Flier spends the bulk of his article taking apart Brown University’s rationale for removing their press release about Littman’s PLOS One paper.  He then concludes with this stinging call for a defense of academic freedom:

At a time such as this, when a university’s academic mandate is under threat from diverse ideological actors, there is simply no substitute for a strong leader who supports academic freedom and discourse. The dean’s letter raises serious questions about whether the dean of Brown’s School of Public Health is willing to be such a leader.

For centuries, universities struggled to protect the ability of their faculties to conduct research seen as offensive—whether by the church, the state, or other powerful influences. Their success in this regard represents one of the great intellectual triumphs of modern times, one that sits at the foundation of liberal societies. This is why the stakes are high at Brown University. Its leaders must not allow any single politically charged issue—including gender dysphoria—from becoming the thin edge of a wedge that gradually undermines our precious, hard-won academic freedoms.

I certainly agree. There is a process for bringing research to the community of scholars and Littman followed it. Brown’s administrators should stand for the principle of academic freedom by leaving up the press release. The study can easily be criticized but at the same time it is similar to many pilot studies of hidden populations. Unless some kind of academic misconduct is found, Brown University should defend the work of this professor.

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One thought on “Former Dean of Harvard Medical School Criticizes Brown University’s Actions Regarding Gender Dysphoria Study”

  1. I would think unless there is some overt misconduct or methodological flaw, any serious scientific research should be dealt with through peer review and transparent criticism. I may have missed it, but was this thing submitted to a peer reviewed journal (or will it be)?

    I seem to remember there were some pretty serious questions concerning the propriety of Mark Regnerus’ study and whether part of the peer review process was bypassed, but ultimately it was the abysmal mess that was his work that caused it to be dismissed by the scientific community.

    There is no doubt that researchers often live in their own bubbles and do not realize how their intermediate work, or even poorly chosen wording, might be overstated by the media or deliberately misused by adversarial groups. On this they could improve, but the scientific process demands transparency and a free exchange of information.

    Having gone through similar situations during the ex-gay heyday, I can truly empathize.

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