I AM writing this column in Oxford where I have spent the last two days attending the celebrations surrounding a dear friend’s inaugural professorial lecture. It has been challenging for me because she is a social scientist working in the field of public health, which is outside of my professional comfort zone, but that is no bad thing. In fact, it has been a salutary reminder of the need for politicians to be humble and listen to people who know what they are talking about.

In her inaugural lecture, my friend, Professor Nina Hallowell, spoke about the challenges faced by contract researchers, the people who drive forward innovation yet face insecure and precarious contract conditions. This is particularly so for women because of the gender gap, which is currently 11.1% at the University of Oxford and 15.4% across the UK. Considering the Equal Pay Act was passed more than 50 years ago, this is nothing short of disgraceful.

On my second evening, I had dinner with graduate students from Nina’s college. Reuben College is Oxford’s newest college and while its premises in the old Radcliffe Science Library are being refurbished, visiting lectures take place next door at the University of Oxford Natural History Museum (below), where we were surrounded by dinosaur skeletons.

Members of the campaign group For Women Scotland demonstrate outside the Scottish Parliament over the Gender Recognition Act in 2021

Dinner was preceded by a fascinating lecture on the role of Artificial Intelligence in drug discovery, delivered by Charlotte Deane, Professor of Structural Bioinformatics and former deputy chair of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. Charlotte has been an outstanding pioneer for women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) and it was a privilege to hear her speak.

Afterwards, we were asked to debate and discuss the problem of bias in research and then one student from each table went up to the microphone to present a summary of our discussions. Charlotte was a member of SAGE, the UK Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, and during her lecture she had reminded us that one of the key takeaways from the Covid pandemic was that the immune systems of men and women are very different.

This prompted our table to talk about Caroline Criado Perez’s book Invisible Women, an expose of the data bias in a world designed for men. A good example of this gender data gap is that although heart disease is the No 1 killer of women in the US and Europe, women are 50% more likely to be misdiagnosed if they have a heart attack in the UK, and more likely to die, because predictors of and indeed the symptoms of heart attacks are quite different in women – yet most of our data is based on studies of men.

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Such revelations are a salutary reminder that sex really does matter. But my biggest takeaway from my couple of days of being a student again was the need for all of us, scientists, and politicians, to be conscious of avoiding bias in our work and to look at the evidence carefully before we reform law or policy.

I was reminded of this again on Tuesday morning when I watched witnesses giving evidence to the Equalities, Human Rights and Civil Justice Committee on the Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill. They included representatives of For Women Scotland, the LGB Alliance, Keep Prisons Single Sex and the policy analysis collective Murray Blackburn MacKenzie.

These organisations have expressed concern about the proposal to allow anyone to obtain a gender recognition certificate without the need for any medical diagnosis, simply after three months of “living in their acquired gender’”. For doing so they have been wrongly condemned as transphobic.

The LGB Alliance, an organisation founded by veterans of the gay rights movement and former Stonewall stalwarts, has been accused of being a “hate group” for the sin of organising around the interests of same-sex-attracted people. Strangely, those who mete out such hyperbolic insults don’t seem to have the same problem with trans people organising separately in groups such as the Scottish Trans Alliance.

Members of the campaign group For Women Scotland demonstrate outside the Scottish Parliament over the Gender Recognition Act in 2021

The groups that gave evidence on Tuesday have also been among those expressing concern about shortcomings in the policy process leading up to the presentation of the bill in Parliament, the failure to engender an atmosphere conducive to a civilised public debate and the dismissal of concerns raised about the potential impact of the legislation on women and vulnerable young people.

Disquiet about the legislation is not confined to the groups that gave evidence in Tuesday morning’s first session. The Children’s Commissioner has also raised serious concerns about aspects of the proposals and a lack of supporting evidence or research.

In addition, more than half of respondents to a Scottish Parliament survey on the bill said they opposed it. The survey, which generated an exceptionally high response rate with 10,800 individual responses, found 59% of people opposed the bill. More than 60% said that the Scottish Government should not remove the need for a medical diagnosis to obtain a gender recognition certificate. A similar figure felt that the period a person must live in their acquired gender should not be reduced from two years to three months.

Tuesday morning’s first session was extended by half an hour but it is clear that more time is needed to explore critical perspectives on the bill. We need more witnesses critical of self-ID to be heard. To take just one example of the shortcomings of balance in the oral evidence heard so far, an evidence session focusing on the impact of the bill on sport heard only from two men and there was no discussion of the asymmetric impact of self-ID on women’s rather than men’s sport, nor any acknowledgement of the reality that sport achieves inclusion through fairness by providing “protected” categories including age, sex and Paralympic classification. I am indebted to another independent researcher, Cathy Devine, for these insights.

One area where it is particularly important that critical voices are heard is in the field of data collection. Many esteemed social statisticians have submitted written evidence to the committee on the importance of accurate data collection based on sex as a separate category from gender identity.

For example, Professor Alice Sullivan has submitted evidence pointing out that the 2004 Gender Recognition Act was not intended by legislators to have implications for data collection but it did. Inexplicably, she has not been called to give oral evidence. Instead, a man less qualified than her will do so.

Such omissions suggest that the committee may be guilty of confirmation bias, by favouring evidence that is consistent with the default position of the majority of MSPs on the committee which is to support self-ID. Fortunately, the committee has not yet announced its full oral evidence programme so there is still time to put this right.

Earlier this week, a small group of independence activists based in Aberdeen issued a code of conduct calling for respect and tolerance in the debate on Scottish independence.

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It was dispiriting but not surprising to those of us who have had previous dealings with them to see some of the very people who sat on the panel which issued the declaration conducting themselves in anything but a respectful or tolerant manner within days of signing their “pledge”.

Those who saw fit to retweet attacks on some of the witnesses who gave evidence during Tuesday’s first session based on their presumed English ethnicity, particularly those who did so from Twitter accounts seeming to be those of staffers to one of the MSPs on the committee, need to take a long, hard look at themselves.

The last thing the independence movement needs is this sort of behaviour. We could also do without being lectured about conduct by people whose own conduct is questionable to say the least.

There is no substitute for open and civilised debate. Experience shows it is the best way to make good policy and law. Those who don’t understand that have a lot of growing up to do before they can make a meaningful contribution to the cause of improving our country, whether through independence or otherwise.