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Sex and the UK census
The last UK census was in 2011, and the next one is due to take place this year. A lot has changed since 2011. One of the most noticeable changes in society has been the rise of “gender non-conformity”, that is, people identifying with genders other than the one they were “assigned at birth”. Most of the attention has been on transgender people, but there are of course also “non-binary” and “gender fluid” people, as well as people with various other “gender identities”.
This phenomenon has presented a bit of a conundrum for the Office for National Statistics, who are responsible for drawing up the census questions. How should they ask about sex? This is no trivial matter because the census (which is an exceptionally high quality data source) will be used to study important questions about society, including those relating to healthcare and mortality. However, if the data on sex are inaccurate, we won’t necessarily get the answers to those questions right. At the same time, it is also of interest to have accurate data on the transgender population.
The simplest option for the ONS would have been to ask two questions, one about biological sex and one about gender identity. The first question would have been something like, “What is your sex? (as recorded on your birth certificate)” And the second would have been something like, “What is your gender? (as recorded on your birth certificate, passport or gender recognition certificate)”. Note that, in the UK, the gender on your passport does not have to match the sex on your birth certificate.
However, the ONS apparently did not consider this approach satisfactory. What’s more, Scotland’s chief statistician has proposed ceasing to ask for people’s sex, other than in “exceptional circumstances”. He has stated that “questions about a person’s biology should not be asked, except potentially where there is direct relevance to a person’s medical treatment”. The argument, as I understand it, is that asking transgender people for their biological sex amounts to a breach of privacy.
These reports have alarmed some academics, who are concerned that lack of accurate (or indeed any) data on sex will undermine scientific research. Six academics recently penned a letter to The Times articulating their concerns. (A longer version of their letter is available here). They note that “those with transgender identities are likely to be concentrated in younger age groups and differ by sex, as registered at birth.” And they argue that “sex remains a key determinant of outcomes across the full spectrum of public policy areas”.
The ONS has now published its guidance concerning the 2021 census question on sex. What approach did they end up going with? A not very sensible one, in my opinion. There will be a mandatory question, “What is your sex?”, accompanied by the following guidance:
This question is vital for understanding population growth and equality monitoring. Please select either “Female” or “Male” … If you are considering how to answer, use the sex recorded on one of your legal documents such as a birth certificate, Gender Recognition Certificate, or passport … If you are aged 16 years or over, there is a later voluntary question on gender identity. This asks if the gender you identify with is different from your sex registered at birth. If it is different, you can then record your gender identity.
In other words, respondents will not be asked to give the sex recorded on their birth certificate (i.e., their biological sex). Instead, they will be asked to give the sex that is recorded on their birth certificate or the sex that is recorded on their passport or gender recognition certificate. To deal with gender identity, there will be a subsequent, voluntary question that asks “if the gender you identify with is different from your sex registered at birth”. Note that you can be fined for failing to complete the mandatory questions.
It is unclear what percentage of transgender people will answer the voluntary question about gender identity. If a large percentage do, then there won’t be a problem, since such people will be easily identifiable (as transgender). However, if a large percentage do not, identifying them could prove rather difficult. So far as I can see, this will not serve the interests of science, and hence will not serve the interests of the various groups with a stake in this debate. Given that census data can be used to study sex differences in healthcare and mortality, this includes almost everyone.
Image: Pieter Brueghel the Elder, The People's Census at Bethlehem, 1566
The seasonality of COVID-19
I wrote a piece for Lockdown Sceptics on the seasonality of COVID-19, which was published on Sunday. Here’s an excerpt:
I read the article by Glen Bishop in Friday’s Lockdown Sceptics newsletter with great interest. The author, a maths student at Nottingham University, had heard that a new paper by Imperial College researchers was predicting a deadly third wave of COVID-19 in the summer of this year. He decided to read the paper for himself, and noticed that the researchers were making one very questionable assumption: there is no seasonality to COVID-19.
Lockdowns and border controls
I wrote a piece for Quillette about lockdowns and border controls, which was published on Monday. Here’s an excerpt:
The evidence suggests that lockdowns have been effective, but only when they were combined with strict border controls. Looking across the Western world—Europe, the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand—just five countries have kept the rate of confirmed COVID-19 deaths below 300 per million. Those five are: Iceland, Norway, Finland, Australia, and New Zealand. Note that in every case, the per capita rate isn’t just below 300 per million, but (as of this writing) below 150 per million.
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