Galileo's Middle Finger

March 27, 2016

Recently, I read Galileo's Middle Finger - an excellent page-turner on what happens when scientists publish findings that run counter to politically correct narratives. The author, Alice Dreger, is a historian and a staunch supporter of (and activist for) social justice. Unlike most social justice activists, however, she has an incovenient belief that scientific evidence matters.

Her first step toward getting herself in trouble came when she was investigating a controversy over The Man Who Would Be Queen, a book by J Michael Bailey, a psychologist studying sexual orientation. Bailey's book had been met by fierce criticism from trans-rights activists when it was published. When the Lambda Literary Foundation, which promotes LGBTQ literature, nominated the book for an award, a prominent trans-rights activist told the executive director of the foundation that that was akin to Mein Kampf being nominated for an award on Jewish literature, and the nomination was withdrawn. In the age of a nascent Google that could easily be gamed, Bailey's online profile was hijacked. The trans-rights activists used this online tactic to tarnish his image (accusing him of sexually assaulting his children) and discredit him publicly.

Years later, Dreger entered scene expecting to find a bit of nuance on the two sides of the controversy. She expected Bailey to be a typically-aloof scientist who, perhaps unwittingly, had insulted the identities of transgender people, who had naturally taken offence at his book. Instead she found that all allegations against Bailey were complete fabrications.

... they had made up charges against him [that] they knew were not true [and] they had very successfully garnered the help of the liberal media to go after him, to paint him as a crazy, right-wing, Nazi-like character, who had committed all sorts of offences, and none of that was true.

-- Alice Dreger, The Saad Truth

After the publication of Dreger's (50,000-page) report on the Bailey controversy, the floodgates opened, with scientists who had been victims of "social justice" crusades asking her to investigate their cases as well. Galileo's Middle Finger is the harrowing chronicle of those investigations - of what happens to scientists who find politically inconvenient facts. It's an engaging and important read, and highlights how easy it is for well-meaning public and journalists to be fooled and swayed by activists with an agenda.

Dreger concludes:

Evidence really is an ethical issue, the most important ethical issue in a modern democracy. If you want justice, you must work for truth. And if you want to work for truth, you must do a little more than wish for justice.

I'm posting this now, because at this very moment, the same literary foundation that withdrew Bailey's book under pressure and without due diligence has done the same to Dreger's. Conferences are being petitioned by activists to dis-invite Dreger from speaking engagements. And as well-documented in her book, no by-stander is actually bothering to do any research. Politicians being ever-so-quick to advertise their vacuous orthodoxy, a California congressman has already taken to Twitter to praise the Lambda Foundation for withdrawing "the nomination for an anti-transgender book."

Everywhere (or at least in circles where it counts; this is small time controversy on the internet scale), the narrative that Dreger is an "anti-transgender" bigot, is being spread shamelessly and fact-checked by none. And who's doing this? The very people who want you to believe that they're victims or speak for victims. That they must be listened to unquestioningly and that they require special safeguards and protections.

When these people co-opt words like "justice" to carve out a privilidged position for themselves, they make injustice harder to fight. The Alice Dregers of the world - people who care about justice that is based on evidence and good science - are likely to better identify injustices, to make better decisions on how to advocate against various forms of injustice, and to gain more broad-based support in their activism. We'd be living in a much better world with more people like Alice Dreger. Please support her by buying and reading Gelileo's Middle Finger.