When Science Is Ideologically Inconvenient
Writing in New York magazine — a periodical that does not share much in common with National Review, aside from being edited in Manhattan — Jesse Singal heaps praise on Galileo’s Middle Finger, a new book by bioethicist and historian Alice Dreger about the misuse and distortion of science by ideologues. Dreger writes of herself, on her own website:
I do social justice work in medicine and science, and I do that through my research, writing, speaking, and advocacy. I’m constitutionally inclined to use evidence (especially historical and scientific evidence) to help create a more just present and future. I spend a lot of my energy pushing specific groups of people to be more evidence-based, particularly within controversies.
She resigned her prominent position at Northwestern University after her dean allegedly tried to censor her own academic work to protect the reputation of the university’s hospital. Dreger writes of the new book:
I’m increasingly obsessed with American democracy and the critical role of academics and journalists within it. Evidence, as I argue in my new book, is fundamentally critical to American democracy and to social justice. With academics and journalists under increasing threat from harsh economic and cultural pressures, I’m growing quite concerned about the health of American democracy. The book calls on American academics to step up, defend academic freedom, and be responsible to truth and democracy, both.
In his New York piece, Singal picks out two particularly egregious cases from the Dreger book to point out how left-wing activists and sympathizers attempted to destroy the reputations of academics whose work did not fit their own preferred agendas. Singal says:
At its core, Galileo’s Middle Finger is about what happens when science and dogma collide — specifically, what happens when science makes a claim that doesn’t fit into an activist community’s accepted worldview. And many of Dreger’s most interesting, explosive examples of this phenomenon involve liberals, not conservatives, fighting tooth and nail against open scientific inquiry.
When Dreger criticizes liberal politicization of science, she isn’t doing so from the seat of a trolling conservative. Well before she dove into some of the biggest controversies in science and activism, she earned her progressive bona fides. A historian of science by training, she spent about a decade early in her career advocating on behalf of intersex people — those born with neither “traditional” male nor female genitalia.
The cases Singal writes about are instructive. The first involves Napoleon Chagnon, a prominent anthropologist who has spent years of his life living among the Yanomamo people of the Amazon rain forest. Writes Singal:
Chagnon made ideological enemies along the way; for one thing, he has long believed that human behavior and culture can be partially explained by evolution, which in some circles has been a frowned-upon idea. Perhaps more important, he has never sentimentalized his subjects, and his portrayal of the Yanomamö included, as Dreger writes, “males fighting violently over fertile females, domestic brutality, ritualized drug use, and ecological indifference.” Dreger suggests that Chagnon’s reputation as a careful, dedicated scholar didn’t matter to his critics — what mattered was that his version of the Yanomamö was “Not your standard liberal image of the unjustly oppressed, naturally peaceful, environmentally gentle rain-forest Indian family.”
What progressive academics and journalists did to Chagnon beggars belief. They just made hysterical, wicked stuff up to destroy him. Dreger painstakingly tears apart their case, and published the results of her investigative work prior to this book — but as Singal points out, it has done no good. The book that started the witch hunt against Chagnon and a colleague has not been withdrawn, nor has the New Yorker article by the same author, Patrick Tierney, been corrected. Nothing.
The second case is about a book on transsexuality, written by a prominent academic psychologist, J. Michael Bailey, and based on the theories of a veteran Canadian sex researcher named Ray Blanchard. I’m not going to begin to explain the ins and outs of this particular controversy, but Singal (who does) sums it up like this:
There is, to say the least, a huge amount going on here. But what’s key to keep in mind is that some transgender people and activists hold very dear the idea that they have simply been born in the wrong type of body, that transitioning allows them to effectively fix a mistake that nature made. The notion that there might be a cultural component to the decision to transition, or that sexuality, rather than a hardwired gender identity, could be a factor, complicates this gender-identity-only narrative. It also brings sexuality back into a conversation that some trans activists have been trying to make solely about gender identity — roughly parallel to the way some gay-rights activists sweep conversations about actual gay sexuality under the rug, preferring to focus on idealized, unthreatening-to-heterosexuals portrayals of committed gay relationships between clean-cut, taxpaying adults.
What trans activists and their supporters did to Bailey can only be described as evil. You really have to read this essay to grasp the detail and the magnitude of how they went after him. Singal:
Over and over, in instances that covered every facet of the campaign against Bailey — including the charge that he had had sex with one of his subjects — Dreger discovered an astounding level of dishonesty and manipulation on the part of Bailey’s critics:
After nearly a year of research, I could come to only one conclusion: The whole thing was a sham. Bailey’s sworn enemies had used every clever trick in the book — juxtaposing events in misleading ways, ignoring contrary evidence, working the rhetoric, and using anonymity whenever convenient, to make it look as though virtually every trans woman represented in bailey’s book had felt abused by him and had filed a charge.
Of course, of all the right-thinking people who know, based on surface-level reporting or blog posts they read, that Mike Bailey is an anti-trans monster, only a tiny percentage are ever going to read, or even learn about, Dreger’s investigation. That’s the problem.
One more quote from Singal’s important piece:
It’s hard not to come away from Dreger’s wonderful book feeling like we’re doomed. Think about all the time and effort it took her — a professionally trained historian as equipped as anyone to dig into complex morasses of conflicting claims — to excavate the full details of just one of these controversies. Who has a year to research and produce a fact-finding report that only a tiny percentage of people will ever read or care about?
… We should want researchers to poke around at the edges of “respectable” beliefs about gender and race and religion and sex and identity and trauma, and other issues that make us squirm. That’s why the scientific method was invented in the first place. If activists — any activists, regardless of their political orientation or the rightness of their cause — get to decide by fiat what is and isn’t an acceptable interpretation of the world, then science is pointless, and we should just throw the whole damn thing out.
Please, please, please, read the whole thing. And send it to everybody you know. This is important, especially after this horrible autumn of outraged liberal campus activists and spineless college administrators and faculty capitulating to them. Alice Dreger’s book is called Galileo’s Middle Finger: Heretics, Activists, and the Search for Justice in Science. I’m sure praise from the likes of me won’t earn the progressive Dreger any friends, but I am always and everywhere grateful for courageous people who put truth and justice above the Cause, whatever the Cause is. We are lucky to have her. And good on Jesse Singal and his magazine for drawing attention to this important new book.