Jesse Singal, Cattle Rustler?
Years ago I heard a historical story about a land dispute in the old West. A rancher family was occupying some prime real estate and had just branded their cattle. A rival wanted the land and invented a story that they were cattle rustlers, a major crime, and said the ranchers has just stolen some cattle and were searing their own brand over the old ones.
A vigilante mob rode to the ranch, saw the fresh brands on the cattle, and lynched the innocent family. The genius of the plot was incorporating true details into the lie. The mob saw what they were expecting and concluded the accusations were true.
From time to time, we all witness disagreements where there are two or more plausible explanations. A worker is fired and claims they were targeted by a bigoted manager, but the employer claims they were disruptive and rude to customers.
Are colleges refusing to hire conservative academics because they are actively discriminating against them? Or are there just not enough competent conservatives interested in academia? Does the same explanation hold true when we look at racial and sexual diversity in academia?
Two opposing sides can concoct plausible explanations for a problem, and we’ll often see what looks like confirming evidence that makes sense for the explanation.
When we encounter one of these ambiguous situations, it’s a common mistake to embrace the first explanation we heard, like the lynch mob did who were convinced they had captured a group of rustlers. They even had a token piece of evidence – the fresh cattle brands – but they actually saw something ambiguous and let it confirm what they expected to find instead of investigating it further.
This all brings us to Internet whipping boy Jesse Singal, former science editor of New York Magazine, a freelance journalist and co-host of the Blocked and Reported podcast. For years transgender rights activists have painted Singal as a bigoted peddler of misinformation.
Yet, Jesse Singal’s supporters see him as a careful, nuanced champion of uncomfortable truths. He’s reported about the major gaps in research for transgender medicine for children and the dangers it brings but still maintains that some children should take puberty blockers after careful assessment. How do we know which version of Jesse Singal — if either — is true?
Ultimately, the best solution involves careful study and analysis. For example, activists frequently make bold claims about evil behavior by Singal but when pressed for examples, they clam up like a mobster being questioned by a homicide detective. Activist Brianna Wu made claims in March 2021 about having “receipts” of Singal’s crimes, but has never followed up and publicly revealed any evidence.
A popular solution is to look for institutional support, but this has problems as institutions are run by human beings. You can see a positive example of institutional support when someone presents themself as a lone genius up against the close-minded scientific establishment. That almost always turns out to be a crazy lunatic peddling pseudoscience. In that case, the institutional support is fairly reliable.
However, there are numerous cases when elements of the criminal justice system have been caught lying about evidence, from beat cops who lie in court to the 2012 Massachusetts crime lab scandal where a chemist was caught faking positive results for suspected drug samples. In these cases, the institutional support is flawed.
Unfortunately, numerous institutions and their members have smeared Jesse Singal, from journalists with large followings like Jude Sade Doyle and the gay rights advocacy group GLAAD. But, look closer and you’ll see more misinformation from people who should know better. This is simply a sign of institutional capture and decay, as the claims made by GLAAD were easily disproven yet the organization has failed to remove him from its “accountability project” list.
It’s important to keep in mind the trustworthiness and reputations of those we read. Unfortunately, doing this makes us vulnerable to lies and smears made about people who say controversial things. That doesn’t oblige us to listen to every crank and conspiracy theorist, but it does mean that we have to use our judgment and decide when to drill down deep into the evidence of the claims themselves, as well as carefully parse any accusations against those making them.