“Galileo’s Middle Finger: Heretics, Activists, and the Search for Justice in Science” is a strange mix of disheartening, enraging and uplifting. It’s the subject matter—scientific controversy—not Northwestern professor and medical historian Alice Dreger’s writing style, which reads like a good lecture.
For readers who want science to arbitrate fairly where humans fall short, it’s enlightening yet perhaps not shocking to see that a fucked-up moral algorithm of politically correct narrative and personal grudges can dictate inquiry into medical procedure.
Dreger deftly balances human stories with anecdotes of actual scientific harm being perpetrated by activists and journalists silencing those with less-than-ideal but scientifically sound theses. She beats a roughly chronological path, starting with her involvement in the intersex movement, then detouring into elaborate research projects in which she defends sexologist J. Michael Bailey and Napoleon Chagnon, and concludes with a relatively unstudied medical treatment prescribed to pregnant mothers. Following someone through at least four abstruse detective narratives requires a hell of a lot of trust, especially as those narratives constantly reveal self-interested motive. Yet Dreger’s decision to marry the research with memoir inspires long-lasting credibility. For me, she earns her credibility in the first quarter of the book, when she writes of wanting to retire from intersex activism and of her willingness to step away from her conclusions at any point.
I have to say it baldly: I loved this book, populated with familiar scientists I’d never explored and theories I wish I’d heard more about. It’s a book for contrarians and lovers of nuance, and it tears down a number of scientific heroes. Take trans computer pioneer Lynn Conway, for example; Dreger recounts in measured detail a smear campaign Conway helped lead against Bailey’s book “The Man Who Would Be Queen.” Her henchwomen attacked Bailey’s children online because they didn’t like how he described their sexualities. One critique: Dreger defends a lot of straight white men. But in these cases, their privilege harms rather than aids them, as they cannot perceive why their research troubles others, and science is not enough to combat willful distortion by those who want their agenda to come out on top.
Dreger strikes me as one of very few true practitioners of the scientific method, refusing to let her preconceived notions dictate her experiment’s outcome. “Galileo’s Middle Finger” is but an overview of her work, but it will hopefully inspire the same critical inquisition that Dreger gives her subjects in all who read it. (Liz Baudler)
Galileo’s Middle Finger: Heretics, Activists, and the Search for Justice in Science
By Alice Dreger
Penguin Press, 352 pages, $27.95