Sound and fury, signifying nothing

This week, Lily Madigan was asked to appear on a BBC radio programme to talk about trans women in sport. There’s just one problem with that. While Madigan is trans, she is not an endocrinologist or a sports scientist – so she can’t talk knowledgeably about the crux of the issue, which is whether raised testosterone gives female athletes a competitive advantage or whether bodies assigned male at birth retain any biological advantages post-transition (as it happens, the answer to the latter question appears to be no. More of that in a moment).

Madigan was expected to debate the issue with an anti-trans activist who is not an endocrinologist or a sports scientist either.

As Madigan posted on Twitter, she “explained to them that good reporting means talking to sports scientists & trans people in sports, not trans people & a transphobic person. Facts & experiences, not opinions.”

What is the point in having two people talk about a subject neither of them have any expertise in? How does that help illuminate the issues, or make the listeners better informed?

As it happens, there’s tons of scientific research into trans women in sport. This, from 2017, is a systematic review of the current literature as of then. Among other things, the review found that “the majority of transgender competitive sport policies that were reviewed were not evidence based” and “there is no direct or consistent research suggesting transgender female individuals (or male individuals) have an athletic advantage at any stage of their transition (e.g. cross-sex hormones, gender-confirming surgery) and, therefore, competitive sport policies that place restrictions on transgender people need to be considered and potentially revised.

Of course, experts are not always available at times that suit programme makers. But I very much doubt any experts were actually sought. It’s a trans issue, so let’s pit a trans person against an anti-trans person and hope sparks fly.

This happens again and again in current affairs: rather than speak to people who know what they’re talking about, programmes choose instead to take a gladiatorial approach with false equivalence – so a climate scientist is pitted against an angry climate change denier, a feminist is pitted against a misogynist, a trans woman is pitted against an anti-trans bigot. Sometimes it’s because the researchers are expected to cover tons of topics of which they only have a superficial knowledge, but often it’s because the purpose isn’t to inform. It’s to entertain, or to outrage.

A row is much more entertaining than an expert giving a measured, informed opinion. Who cares about facts, about settled science, about expert consensus? There’s a loon for every subject, desperate to shout “fake news!” at real facts.