Galileo's Middle Finger

Heretics, Activists, and the Search for Justice in Science

[Amazon Link]

A century after Galileo's death, his body was exhumed from its undistinguished location (appropriate for a heretic) and moved to a more exalted site (appropriate for a scientific genius-hero). During the move, a fan took the opportunity to snip off a middle finger. (He also apparently took a thumb, index finger, and a tooth, but those aren't as symbolic as the bird-finger.) Today these remains are on display at the Florence History of Science Museum.

The author of this book, Alice Dreger, takes the Galilean digit as a talisman: if you are devoted to facts, especially facts that your peers view as inconvenient or reprehensible, you should be prepared to be branded as a heretic, as Galileo was. It's a daunting position to be in, and your response, should you be brave enough, could well be symbolized by this appropriate articulatory gesture.

The book is a rambling history of Dreger's history as a historian/philosopher of science, branching into activism and advocacy. It starts with her investigation of the surgical treatment of intersex (for old fogies like me: hermaphroditic) infants. Despite the fact that these babies are otherwise healthy, and little evidence that their unconventional naughty bits would cause major problems in later life, there was a movement to (more or less) guess what the "correct" arrangement of organs should be, and to use scalpels to approximate that in risky surgery. Dreger found herself as part of a movement to stop that. Pointing out that scads of doctors were performing unethical procedures that had no basis in sound medicine won her some enemies, and set her on the path to full-time hereticism.

After that initial struggle, Dreger found herself involved in a controversy about the psychology behind transsexualism, defending a researcher who claimed, well, there's more than one simple thing going on with that, at least for the men who want to be ladies. That view was anathema to a certain segment of activists, and the researcher was quickly vilified and smeared. In attempting to ferret out the facts of the matter, Dreger was subjected to the shitstorm herself.

Dreger also found herself in opposition, once again, to the administration of a drug, dexamethasone, to pregnant women in hopes of preventing masculinized genitalia in their female babies. Dreger alleges this treatment is risky, with potential harm outweighing any possible benefit, and the research was conducted without appropriate oversight and avoided appropriate ethical guidelines.

And more. Dreger makes a convincing case that the dispassionate search for truth in science and medicine can quickly go off the rails when matters like sex and politics intrude; then things quickly get nasty and personal, careers are ruined, reputations tarnished. She realizes that this modern-day inquisition is entirely a left-wing phenomenon.

Ironic, since she views herself as a solidly leftist feminist herself. She fails to extend her analysis to many controversies beyond the ones she was directly involved with. (Race and IQ are briefly mentioned, once; one can almost detect the here-be-dragons repulsion Dreger feels in even bringing it up.)

In addition, caution is warranted since Dreger is only telling her side of her various stories. (Google appropriately, and you'll discover a lot of naysayers.) Interestingly, one of those is Deirdre (used to be Donald) McCloskey, an economist/historian whose works I've found remarkably insightful and fun. I wouldn't put Deirdre and Alice alone together in a room full of weapons.

But Dreger's general thesis rings disturbingly true, and deserves to be underlined. In way too many fields, "scientific consensus" has been arrived at by relentless leftist squashing and silencing of heretics.

For example, from earlier this month, a headline at The College Fix: "Sex researcher’s article pulled from feminist website because it’s not ‘inclusive’"

The researcher: Alice Dreger.