Science, Social Activism, Sexual Minorities, and Galileo’s Middle Finger

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I think most people who have read Galileo’s Middle Finger by Alice Dreger feel at some point a bit annoyed at the title, and especially, at the way the book is marketed by the publisher. You could take Galileo and his finger entirely out of the book and you would still have the same book.

Alice Dreger’s book is about the relationship between social ethics, activism vis-a-vis science, and the science itself. It is about academic freedom and intellectual honesty, but again, not a history of as the reference to an old dead white guy in the title might suggest. Dreger’s book is not a history of science, nor is it pure philosophy, but rather, a set of case studies exposing how things go wrong at the intersection of science and social justice.

David Dobbs has written an insightful and thorough review of the book, in which he notes,

Dreger joined … in a decade-long effort to persuade doctors to let intersex infants grow up and sort things out for themselves.

This was her activist phase. Her ­anti-activist phase began when she ­decided to defend the research psychologist J. Michael Bailey, who created a firestorm with a 2003 book titled “The Man Who Would Be Queen.” The book, based on well-supported, peer-reviewed research by him and others, argued that some men want to change sex not simply because they are “born trapped in the wrong body,” as Dreger describes the common view, but because they were sexually aroused by the idea of themselves as women.

This notion enraged advocates who insisted that transsexuality came invariably from an unavoidable mind-body mismatch … These advocates sought not only to refute Bailey but to ruin him. When Dreger defended him, they targeted her too.

So, right there you can see that there are middle fingers, not Galileo’s in particular, at play.

Dreger also takes on a subject I’ve addressed as well, Napoleon Chagnon. This is a situation where well meaning activists who are pretty much on track with the ethics buy into a story that is largely fabricated and become themselves rather unethical.

Laura Miller also has a review here.

…in addition to being highly readable, “Galileo’s Middle Finger” has an important and seldom-voiced message. “Science and social justice require each other to be healthy,” Dreger writes, “and both are critically important to human freedom.” Yet, too often, from Dreger’s perspective, ideological or politically strategic needs take priority over the evidence. People, while trying to do good, find themselves deliberately ignoring or obscuring the truth.

This is a book most people will find a way to love and to hate. Most of those people will do so without reading it, of course. But I recommend it.

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7 thoughts on “Science, Social Activism, Sexual Minorities, and Galileo’s Middle Finger

  1. I find it hard to reconcile “ideological or politically strategic needs take priority” with “People, while trying to do good, find themselves deliberately ignoring or obscuring the truth.”

    If one is serving the god of political ideology, one is not “trying to do good”, unless “good” is defined using a very, shall we say, “non-Judeo-Christian” perspective.

    Rather, pursuing the evidence is serving “Good”, even when, and in many cases especially when, the evidence contravenes the ideologies & politics.

  2. Right, as does the reviewer. Not sure how fair a statement is is in the original review. Things get rather complicated in real life scenarios.

  3. That’s the messy problem with “Real Life”. It’s not just complicated, it’s politically incorrect & just totally disrespects ideologies.

    No wonder people want to attack and ruin “Real Life”.

  4. The number of people born intersex is three or four orders of magnitude than the number of slaves in non-slave states in 1860.

    The former is about 0.06%, the latter is about 0.00009%

  5. Regarding the digit itself, unfortunately I didn’t have a compass with me when I last visited the Museo della Storia della Scienza in Florence so don’t know exactly where it’s being raised to.

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