Scientific American Descends into Sophistry

Sophists recognize no objective standard of truth

The modern West is a scientifically advanced culture, and we like to think of ourselves as rational and logical, not religious or superstitious. But modern secularism has created a vacuum, which is quickly being filled by a revival of gnostic and neopagan ideas and practices. Science has been taken over by radical, leftist ideologues and is quickly becoming a mere fig leaf for ideology. Since it still retains a great deal of cultural prestige, science makes a perfect disguise for irrational cult-like ideas. The left has moved on from occupying Wall Street to occupying MIT. 

One way to observe the death of scientific rationality is to watch the triumph of sophistry over empirical science. We see this everywhere these days and a recent article in Scientific American is a particularly egregious example of outright sophistry.  

This article asserts that “human sex is not binary,” which is a denial of basic biology. What is interesting is that it attempts to make what appear to be scientific arguments for this false claim. The strategy is not to say: “science is bunk,” which would at least be more honest, but rather to say scientific facts are exactly the opposite of what biology has always said up to now. The fact that such an article was published in a supposedly reputable magazine indicates the degree to which science has been colonized and corrupted by ideologues. It is important to understand how this article is sophistry and not science.

What is Sophistry? 

But first, let us define sophistry. Sophists have been around since the days of Socrates and Plato describes them in his dialogues. Plato portrays Socrates as a man fixated on the rational quest for truth at all costs. This is what makes him a philosopher. The sophist, on the other hand, tells young men from leading families that he can provide valuable training in how to debate effectively and win arguments. Such skills will come in handy in swaying the crowds and getting political power. For Plato, philosophy is a search for truth, but sophistry is not. 

The main difference between a search for truth and sophistry is that a search for truth presupposes an objective standard and seeks to measure truth claims by that standard. Philosophy measures truth by valid deductions from true axioms. Plato holds that the intellect is able to know these axioms by deductive reasoning applied to everyday human experience such as the reality of change in the world. 

Natural science, on the other hand, measures truth by repeatable, empirically measurable, experiments. For this reason, natural science can only speak about that aspect of reality that is accessible to the five senses. Some of the pre-Socratic philosophers contended that all reality consists of the empirically accessible world. They were philosophical naturalists. Nature is all that exists. 

But Plato argues that the empirical world of change is not all there is to reality. He holds that this changing world of flux is dependent on an unchanging world of permanence that is more real than the material world. The immaterial realm is not accessible to the five senses, but it is accessible to the intellect.  

Plato describes sophistry as recognizing no objective standard of truth, which reduces all claims to power plays. Modern sophists seek to clothe queer theory, which reduces all truth claims to power plays, in the august robes of natural science. The result can only be the ideological capture and destruction of science by irrational ideology.

We can see in Greek philosophy the whole history of philosophy in the West. We see philosophical naturalism in some of the pre-Socratics, realist metaphysics in Plato, and the equivalent of postmodernism in the Sophists. In the past two centuries, our culture has rejected realist metaphysics and the reality of the spiritual, permanent realm and has tried to implement the philosophical naturalism of the pre-Socratics. We have been regressing and not progressing and the result has been a descent into sophistry. 

How is This Article Sophistry? 

It begins with a distortion of the facts by implying “only a few scientists” recognize the sex binary. In fact, all scientists in history have recognized it except for some contemporary ones who are being intimidated by non-scientist activists who have seized control of scientific organizations in order to enforce conformity to their ideological agenda. 

The author misrepresents the position of his opponents by saying that they point only to one feature of human biology as the basis of the sex binary, namely, the production of male or female gametes. But no biologist would ever say that this is all there is to the sex binary. Males on average are heavier and have different bone structures. Males and females have different hormone levels. Genitalia are different and complementary. Every cell in the body is either male or female. But this is a classic technique of sophistry. You fail to acknowledge the true scope of your adversary’s claims, focus on one point you believe to be weakest, and then claim to have refuted your adversary’s overall position. 

The brash claim “This is bad science” is a bluff. Of course, if someone had said that the production of gametes is a complete definition of sex biology, that indeed would be bad science. But nobody ever said that. The author of this article pretends that his opponents say that, but never quotes any of his opponents saying it. To reduce the sex binary to gamete production indeed would be bad science if anyone had ever made that claim. But a clever sophist can twist a true statement so as to create a false impression, as he does here. 

In asserting that “the animal kingdom does not limit itself to only one biological binary” the author shifts from humans to animals in general hoping nobody will notice he is changing the subject. His big point here is that worms produce both gametes. But need we point out the difference between humans and worms? Men never produce ova and women never produce sperm. So, what do worms have to do with the argument? Absolutely nothing. The claim at the beginning of the article was that human sex is non-binary. But the existence of the sex binary in humans is not disproven just because some other species differ. But you are supposed not to notice this non sequitur

When the author again triumphantly asserts that sperm and ova “are not the entirety of biology” he is giving the impression that he is proving his thesis. But he is just flailing away at a straw man. 

Later in the article, the focus shifts from the biological structure of organisms to the behavior of organisms. The author identifies different patterns of behavior in males and females of other species in caring for the young. Of course, he could have made that point by talking about human behavior; sometimes we see working mothers and stay-at-home fathers. But by talking about other species, he creates the illusion that he is doing biology. Not all variations in behavior indicate a difference in biology. Some do, but not all.

All he is really saying is that gender roles are more elastic than biologically based sex differences. But, again, who has ever denied that? He has moved from biology to sociology by discussing gender rather than sex and his whole argument against the existence of the sex binary boils down to the fact that gender is more elastic than sex. How this is supposed to show that sex is a spectrum is never stated.

He keeps repeating his mantra that variation in gender roles proves that the biological sex binary is really a spectrum. He asserts that “binary and simplistic explanations for human sex biology are either wholly incorrect or substantially incomplete.” This would only be so if sex and gender were the same thing, which they are not. Here is how he summarizes the argument: “For humans, sex is dynamic, biological, cultural and enmeshed in feedback cycles with our environment, ecologies and multiple physiological and social processes.” Here he simply conflates sex with gender, thus demonstrating that this is all he has to offer. 

In the final paragraph, the mask comes off. The author lays the blame for past injustices such as slavery and racism at the feet of biology. Science has been done by white male oppressors, so it is obviously wrong. If you believe in the biological sex binary, you are siding with the racists and slave masters. Science, as done up to now, is here declared to be the enemy of the revolution and so it must be ideologically purified. 

If you believe in the sex binary, he asserts, you are trying to restrict LGBTQIA+ people from being fully human (whatever that might mean). It is apparent that biology stands in the way of queering society. 

The whole article is pure, pseudo-scientific sophistry. Despite draping itself ostentatiously in the robes of science, it attacks the integrity of science as a reality-based activity that seeks truth through empirically measurable experiments. Real scientists should be alarmed. The anti-science barbarians are not at the gates; they are running Scientific American

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Craig A. Carter

Craig A. Carter is Research Professor of Theology at Tyndale University in Toronto and Theologian in Residence at Westney Heights Baptist Church in Ajax, Ontario. He is the author of several books including Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition and Contemplating God with the Great Tradition. He is also a columnist for World Opinions and writes a substack newsletter entitled The Great Tradition.