The Left Hand of Daftness
Terrible comparisons between the rise in lefthandedness and trans youth echo climate change denial.
Anyone with any experience trying to engage with misinformation and disinformation will know: bad arguments never die. No matter how blatantly and obviously wrong they are, they will simply keep reappearing, spouted with supreme confidence over and over, wasting time, and poisoning the information space. It is a frustrating and thankless endeavour trying to explain at length why a neat soundbite is actually completely misleading nonsense. So it is deeply disappointing that those who thought themselves skeptics or voices of reason in a battle against “right-wing misinformation” on subjects like climate change have fallen so far down the rabbithole of employing the exact same tactics when it comes to sex and gender.
A particularly egregious example is dismissing the dramatic recent rise in young children being referred to gender clinics or claiming a trans identity as no more than people expressing their true selves, analogous to the rise in left-handedness over the last century. For example, this canard was employed by John Oliver in a recent segment of Last Week Tonight:
As for the rapid rise in kids identifying as trans, as the writer Julia Serrano has pointed out when you look at a chart of left-handedness among Americans over the 20th century you see a massive Spike when we stopped forcing kids to write with their right hand and then a plateau. That doesn't mean everyone became left-handed as though there was a rapid onset southpaw dysphoria, it means people were free to be who they were and to the extent that some young people are just exploring their gender identity how exactly is that a bad thing?
This is all quite deceptively simple, and for those of us who have in the past railed against intolerance it is quite an attractive argument. Sure, live and let live, embrace gender fluidity, let kids be kids. But we aren’t talking about “exploring their gender identity”, or simple gender nonconformity - we’re talking about affirming and medicalising cross-sex identification in children. There is a vast difference between simply not beating a left-handed child for being “sinister”, and celebrating placing a likely gay child on a medical pathway that leads to infertility and lifelong inability to orgasm.
John Oliver is not a random idiot. He is a well-paid and highly visible celebrity, with a team of writers and researchers backing him up, and a responsibility to not misinform viewers, yet here he is repeating one of the most obviously flawed arguments around. This is then, inevitably, picked up and recirculated on social media, retweeted by thousands upon thousands, seen by millions.
If you scratch the surface, you see that this whole analogy is deeply flawed. There are differences in the numbers at stake, the rate of change and time period, the social and historical context, the potential effects on the individual, the requirements placed on society, the differential spread between the sexes, and so on. There is not enough similarity between the facts of the change to claim that the reasons for the change are the same. The whole argument rests on ignoring absolutely everything at issue, and focus only on that simple-sounding plea to let people be who they are.
For starters, here is the endlessly circulated graph of the rise in left-handedness over the 20th century:
John and his team straightforwardly attribute this to left-handers not being tolerated by society, and put the rise over the last century to simply letting people be free to be who they are.
Going back to the actual source of the graph - The History and Geography of Human Handedness - you can see that the truncated graphic shows only part of the story, and over a longer timescale a different picture emerges:
What we see is a gradual suppression of left-handedness over the course of two-and-a half centuries spanning the industrial revolution, where machinery was inevitably designed to be used by the majority (ie right-handers). While one factor certainly is that during the rise of universal schooling religious views about left-handedness being “sinister” resulted in schoolchildren facing regular beatings for writing with the “wrong” hand, this was far from the only cause.
As such regressive views faded, and employment opportunities widened without physical restriction on handedness, the pre-existing natural level of handedness re-emerged. At no point did it approach anywhere close to zero, instead reaching a low of around 60 million people, rising to approximately 230 million in 1940 and remaining stable as a percentage ever since.
[added May 1st 2023]
Also see this thread on Twitter for an explanation as to the unreliability of the underlying data of this graph.
It is also important to note that there is no significant difference between the sexes. Although there are slightly more left handed men than women, the difference is small, and stable.
The point being this was a phenomenon with at least two major contributing factors. So, with all that in mind, let’s compare this to the last decade or so of referrals to the Tavistock Gender Identity Service:
Some things to note that break this whole comparison:
The time period is shorter. Rather than a gradual change over decades, we see a huge acceleration after 2014, a brief dip during the pandemic, and then a resumption of the upward trajectory
There is no indication that numbers have plateaued
There is an enormous difference between the sexes. Boys used to outnumber girls by 2 to 1 before 2011, but now girls now outnumber boys by around 3 to 1
GIDS are recording a huge increase in the space of a couple of years of “unknown” sex. This is a ludicrous lack of record-keeping, given that everyone is either male or female.
The treatment for children referred to a gender identity clinic is not simply “letting them be who they are”, but ending up on a medical pathway
This chart demonstrates the emergence of a tiny new population, not a “return to the norm”. We’re talking about small absolute number in comparison to the number of left handers (thousands compared to millions), but a vastly more rapid increase from a baseline of 0, in the course of a handful of years.
For wider context, here’s the same data plotted over a century:
This analogy fails badly because we’re talking about vastly different populations, changing at vastly different rates, over vastly different timescales, making actual direct comparisons impossible. Referrals to a single gender clinic that hasn’t been in operation longer than a few decades, vs global measures of a universal human property. The concept of a “trans child” which is a comparatively recent invention, vs basic dextrousness which has existed and changed across species over millenia.
The absolute number of left-handers dwarf those referrals, so to try and form a better comparison, here’s the rate of change in left-handedness over the last two-and-a-half centuries:
This is the approximate change over time, in 20-year periods, and you can see the slow reduction during industrialisation, and then a spike where the number increased 80% over two decades, before the increase plateaued to the point we are now, where there has been no increase in left-handedness in decades.
Almost doubling in 20 years represents a substantial change, however referrals to GIDS over the last 10 years have gone up around 6000% in girls, and 2000% in boys. Tiny in absolute numbers but the rate of change is vastly different, is different across sexes, is the subject of huge attention and celebration in schools and throughout media, shows absolutely no sign of plateauing, and - unlike handedness - is being medicalised, with potentially huge personal consequences. There are clear and glaring differences that a glib comparison to handedness simply can’t explain.
Obviously, this is just one clinic, but one problem really is that better numbers don’t exist, and attempts to gather them are stymied by the incredibly blasé attitude that there’s no particular need to keep track, because any rise is “just social acceptance”.
It also invites further obvious questions - for example, why the sex differential and how would we expect that to be resolved? Are too many girls being referred, or too few boys? Are we hoping that girls will plateau and then boys will catch up? How does “societal acceptance” explain this difference, given that by far the most visible and celebrated trans people are male? Given that handedness has a baseline that was suppressed during the 19th century and only now recovered, is the same true of “trans kids”, and if so why, and for how long? Given that paediatric medical transition is only a couple of decades old and is widely presented as the only viable alternative to suicide, have we - through all of human history - been experiencing a mysterious baseline of childhood suicide due to the lack of such interventions? Should the last 20 years have seen a consequent drop in suicide and depression to mirror the rise in paediatric transition, and if so, why has adolescent mental health gone in precisely the opposite direction at the same time?
None of this has been considered by anybody involved in the production of John Oliver’s show. The comparison itself is a vacuous non sequitur, driven by a desire to not see a problem, reinforced by groupthink. John Oliver has pointed at some random property, asserted it has fluctuated over time, given a superficial and incomplete reason why, and then asserted that a completely different thing must therefore be changing for the same reason, therefore there’s nothing to worry about. It is textbook motivated reasoning, and highly reminiscent of climate change denial.
When confronted with graphs showing the rapid rise in global temperature in recent decades, those who sought to minimise the severity of climate change and humanity’s need to do anything about it did exactly the same thing. For example, it has been well established over and over, by various means, that the the rate at which the earth is now warming as a result of human activity is far more drastic than changes seen in the geological past, and shows absolutely no sign of stopping:
For decades there have been attempts to dismiss the severity of this problem by making vague claims about the solar cycles, or orbital cycles, or any other cause of climate change in the distant past. The simplistic argument is: climate has changed before, so there’s nothing to worry about.
All of which is - again - a non sequitur, because the causes and timescales are totally different. Climate gradually changing in natural cycles of around 20,000 years, dating back millions of years, is vastly different to rapid increases as a result of human activity over a few decades. But at least those who want to diminish the severity of climate change in this way are comparing like with like, ie temperature.
What John Oliver has done is worse - it is like saying the hole in the ozone layer was nothing to worry about, because we’ve had ice ages in the past. Completely unrelated phenomena are merely asserted to be the same in order to not have to deal with any problems. Having mocked climate change deniers in the past, on the subject of “trans kids” he has become, if anything, worse.
Comparing handedness to the rise in children claiming a trans identity is fundamentally begging the question - you can’t just assert things are nothing to worry about because other things were nothing to worry about.
But, given that handedness has been raised as an analogy, let’s look at it a different way. Let’s say we didn’t just accept that everyone was left or right handed (or even ambidextrous), but rather came to believe that some children were born “transhanded”. That is, they felt very strongly that their handedness was somehow wrong, and that they should in fact be the opposite.
Let’s say that rather than question this belief, we merely affirmed that it were true. That kids know who they are. That they were actually born with the wrong hand dominant. That schools and politicians and popular media and global corporations all united in saying how wrong it was to disbelieve a child who called themselves right-handed, just because they seemed to favour their left hand through some quirk of birth. That parents were told that if they didn’t affirm their child’s transhandedness, the child would likely kill themselves. That we should accept them as truly whatever handedness they felt they were, and ignore the evidence of our own eyes when watching them open jars or catch a ball. That disbelieving transhandedness was dismissed as “biological essentialism”. That handedness would start appearing in email signatures and on CVs, and LinkedIn would encourage people to put their handedness in their bio, to normalise the process of asking. That anyone who questioned someone’s claim to be transhanded would be considered hate speech, and that people would face bans on social media, losing their job, or even criminal sanctions. That we referred these special children to handedness clinics where they were promised a surgical fix once they reached the age of 18, and spent their adolescence having their sense of discomfort reinforced by adults and medical professionals, all promising how well the correction would resolve their handedness dysphoria. That after years of waiting they would finally feel hand euphoria once their hands had been medically swapped. That nobody kept track of how many children this was done to, or if it even worked. That nobody felt it relevant how many had comorbidities like autism or depression or self-harm or OCD. That clinicians who expressed concern how many parents were bringing their lefthanded children in to be turned into righties were bullied and dismissed as bigots. That any adult who came forward and said what was done to them as a child was all a terrible mistake, they should be dismissed as a tiny minority and abused and called a liar and a grifter and a hateful faker who was never really transhanded and anyway they brought it on themselves by making a free, informed choice.
You would say all this is completely insane, so why the hell are we doing it with sex?