Saturday, November 14, 2015

Alice Dreger: Galileo's Middle Finger

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Galileo's Middle Finger is possibly one of the strangest books I've ever read. I think it's probably also a very important book, and one people should read, but man, what a way to go about it. I've been trying to figure out how to write about it (accruing library fines, as is my way).  Dreger is a science historian. She's also an activist and has been involved in a few movements (for lack of a better word) along the way. Galileo's Middle Finger is the story of Dreger's life as an intellectual and an activist as she tracks other intellectuals as their scholarship has been attacked by activists. If that sounds a little convoluted, it's because it is. On the other hand, it's very important: as free speech in the academy is in the news, it's also timely. What do we mean by free speech? What do we expect of scholars and intellectuals? What is the role of the activist in getting involved when intellectuals and scholars do scholarship we either don't like (on principle) or don't like because it's really anathema to work that feminists, queer theorists, etc. have been doing for decades- i.e. decentering the traditional white male, privileged gaze and take science backwards?

Dreger's answer: it's complicated. Dreger worked as an activist with the intersex movement for about 10 years. In the meantime she ran across a scientist named Michael Bailey, a scientist of gender nonconformity who was pilloried by the intersex movement. It turns out that his science was actually good, but was was politically incorrect- it worked directly against the intersex party line that transgendered people are people of one sex born into the bodies of the other sex. So activists who had been doing the hard work of advocating for the humanity of intersex people for over a decade where passionately aroused to fight against a prominent intellectual who had the power of the academy behind him. They decided to wage a grassroots campaign against him and succeeded in ruining his life. This worries Dreger, and should probably worry all of us: is this a form of censorship? And if activists on the side we like (causes that are important to advocating for humanity like intersex people), what happens if activists on sides we don't like- gun activists, people who don't believe in climate change- also are successful at silencing academics and intellectuals? What can we do?

Dreger thinks there is a Galileo-type personality: scientists who are willing to go out on a limb for unpopular ideas and aren't willing to back down. She spent some time researching modern day versions of these (like Bailey) and what happened to them. This would have been a pretty good book. The tricky part is that Galileo's Middle Finger is also part memoir- Dreger's journey through academia, her journey through activist movements, and then her odd foray into doing just she cautions against: getting involved in attacking a scientist. It's a little different, as she portrays it, but I imagine the scientist in the attacks would describe her experience much as the scientists that Dreger portrays as victims would describe their experiences. Dreger is roped into researching and fighting against a doctor in New York, Maria New, who prescribes medicine that is unapproved for what she's prescribing it for: fetal prevention of a particular kind of intersex condition. While claiming to the mothers that the treatment is safe, New claims to the NIH that she's researching the safety of the treatment. This sounds specious, especially the way Dreger describes it. The question that arises is whether the activists who attacked Bailey and the other case studies could make Dreger's victims sound as specious as New.

So where does this leave us? Not clear, but Dreger's book is thought provoking. There's clearly not just space for but a need for both activists and intellectuals, and some engagement between both of them. There's also a need for very thorough fact checking by scientists, and for transparency of this evidence. There's also a need for activists to be thorough before they launch into antagonistic relationships with intellectuals. I can't recommend the book, though, because it's very confusing, and the personal bits (yes, the feminist in me, who knows that feminist scholarship allows for this- maybe encourages it- says is an unfair criticism) make for a winding road that wasn't particularly enjoyable. Important, but not readable.

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