Can one be a social activist and a real scholar, true to argument and evidence? Alice Dreger’s answer in Galileo’s Middle Finger is that although possible it is highly unlikely. Furthermore, she says, no one unprepared to be pounded from all sides should even try.
Dreger’s semi-autobiographical exposé covers her years as a medical historian taking up the cudgels for discriminated-against minority groups, especially people with intersex conditions. She starts her journey strongly allied with social activists, who she presumes are honest, fair, and moral simply by their cause; establishment scholars, on the other hand, who dissent from the social justice position du jour, deserve whatever attacks they sustain, given that their primary motivation is to protect their power and privilege.
Early on in this well-researched and accessible book, Dreger recounts her epiphany. She discovers that activists don’t always care about fairness or truth while the scholars they target are often decent people interested in social justice. Dreger reviews a litany of incidents in which ruthless activists, without regard for scholarship or the consequences of their attacks, seek to discredit and harm scholars they consider heretics.
Consider, for example, the scorn heaped upon Randy Thornhill and Craig Palmer for daring to argue that rape is an act of both power and sex. Or, contemplate the special vitriol directed at Bruce Rind and his colleagues for suggesting that sexually assaulted children are differentially traumatized depending on individual resilience and the circumstances of the assault. For offering this common-sense hypothesis, backed with a review of the outcome literature, they were tagged as promotors of pedophilia. Perhaps most disturbing was how the American Psychological Association (APA), after initially offering some support for Thornhill and Palmer’s academic freedom, ultimately capitulated to the activist mob.
The first establishment scholar for whom Dreger “changed sides” to defend was Northwestern psychologist J. Michael Bailey. Bailey had advanced an etiological framework for male-to-female transgenderism in a mainstream medium known to contradict the activist party line. For this heresy, Bailey and his family were subjected to a sustained torrent of abuse and misrepresentations from three prominent transgender activists. When Dreger wrote in Bailey’s defence, the attacks were redirected towards her with one of the activists going so far as to refer to Dreger’s son as a “womb turd.”
Interestingly, the verboten etiology that generated the furor strikes at least some transwomen as accurate. The recognition of this reality contributed to Dreger’s second important epiphany: social justice activists do not always speak for members of the communities whose interests they purport to represent. Rather, minority group members may find themselves silenced by activists for fear of themselves becoming targets.
Chapters 6 and 7 of the book are devoted to Dreger’s defense of another traditional scholar, anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon. Chagnon’s long career had focused on ethnographic fieldwork with the Yanomamö tribespeople living in a tract of remote Amazonian forest. In contradicting the conventional wisdom that indigenous peoples, uncontaminated by Western influences, live in peace, Chagnon was broadly attacked with vindictive and mostly false allegations, most notably in an extensive screed penned by Patrick Tierney. Of all the accusations directed at Chagnon, the most damming was that he had been involved in promoting a measles epidemic that killed many Yanomamö.
Dreger’s efforts on Chagnon’s behalf were fundamental in his eventual exoneration. He certainly had no reason to thank his own fraternal organization, the American Anthropological Association, because it, much as the APA abandoned Bailey, had long before thrown Chagnon “under the bus.”
The most extensive act of advocacy reported in Galileo’s Middle Finger finds Dreger back in more familiar topical territory as well as back in the role of “traditional activist,” one who challenges the establishment scholar. Three chapters towards the end of the book are about her attempts to hold endocrinologist Maria New accountable for her recommended treatment for mothers at risk for giving birth to children manifesting congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH). CAH is an intersex condition where XY females are likely to develop apparently male genitalia. Dreger describes her efforts to challenge New’s promotion of what is, in her estimation, an unproven and likely harmful drug to these genetically-at-risk pregnant women.
The CAH saga is a cautionary tale for those of us who are preoccupied by the current attack on knowledge by the postmodern social justice activists. In the case of Maria New, the scenario is flipped around to an examination of the intransigence of the establishment scientist seemingly focused on protecting her “turf,” at least as narrated by Dreger. New appears to be the beneficiary of all the privilege and power bestowed by an “Old Boys Network,” exactly the phenomenon that social justice activists so often rail against. It behooves us to remember that the activists had, and still have, a legitimate point in this regard, and this is driven home by the knowledge that of all the battles covered in the book, this was Dreger’s least successful.
Galileo’s Middle Finger is an infuriating read even for one who thought he was inoculated from shock by the lengths to which today’s authoritarian left will go in the name of social justice. It was also a dispiriting read insofar as Dreger’s experiences show that there will be no quick remedy to the current threat to knowledge, generally, and to scientific practice, more specifically. If one is to gain any sense of hope at all from Galileo’s Middle Finger, it is to be taken from the example Dreger herself sets. Consistent with her belief that sustainable justice cannot result outside of the pursuit of truth, she continues to carry the torch and, in turn, inspires the rest of us to do the same.