The Importance of the Pursuit of Truth in Science - A Book Review

Alice Dreger’s recent book, Galileo’s Middle Finger, is about several things. It discusses her work in advocating for rights for intersex and transgender people. Though she spends over a hundred pages on that topic, that biographical data is largely an entry point into her broader discussion of problems within the academic community of ideologues undermining scholarly work and attempting to control the content and outcome of academic discussions.

Although I don’t agree with Dreger’s ethics in many areas, her main point is important. Her contribution to an understanding of the unwholesomeness of the relationship between science and social justice movements is vital as we pursue open conversation about a just social order.

Dreger’s thesis:

Science and social justice require each other to be healthy, and both are critically important to human freedom. Without a just system, you cannot be free to do science, including science designed to better understand human identity; without science, and especially scientific understandings of human behaviors, you cannot know how to create a sustainably just system.

In light of this, Dreger notes,

Yet it seems that, especially where questions of human identity are concerned, we’ve built up a system in which scientists and social justice advocates are fighting in ways that poison the soil on which both depend.

In other words, there is a problem right now where ideological advocates for social justice are undermining legitimate attempts to understand the human condition unless the scientific evidence agrees with the advocacy group's accepted narrative. Particularly in the area of identity advocacy, legitimate scientific study is thwarted through an openly hostile atmosphere to explanations that run counter to the desired storyline.

Dreger provides several examples of this. First, in her own account, although she is an avid advocate for intersex rights and openly supportive of transgender identity groups, she was viciously attacked for her work in defense of a scientist who dared to explain the transgender psyche differently.  Mike Bailey of Northwestern University is openly an advocate for transgender rights, but since his peer reviewed research undermined the accepted narrative, and because he made his case in an insensitive manner at times, he was deemed a danger to the transgender identity movement. Thus, he was mercilessly and falsely attacked by strong advocates within the transgender advocacy movement. When Dreger, a trained historian, investigated the accusations, she found them to be either gross misrepresentations of truth or entirely false. This led to a central advocate for transgender rights seeking to destroy Dreger’s career and being publically hostile.

There are several steps to this method of advocacy, which Dreger admits to using in a less nefarious way. She outlines four steps, 

blanketing the Web to make sure they set the terms of debate, reaching out to politically sympathetic reporters to get the story into the press, doling out fresh information and new characters at a steady pace to keep the story in the media and to keep the pressure on, and rhetorically tapping into parallel left-leaning stories to make the casual bystander “get it” and care.

These methods were used against Bailey, Dreger herself, as well as other cases Dreger outlines in the book. Her objection to these is not to the methodology used, but to the truthfulness of the accusations. In the cases she highlights, there were clear factual errors that were being intentionally promoted through this form of social advocacy. Dreger also highlights several other cases in less detail where individuals have been warned off of pursuing further research and publication on significant topics because of similar scare tactics by belligerent advocates.

Tying the title back in, Dreger notes that Galileo himself faced resistance in his life to his empirical conclusions. It was only because of his perseverance in the face of persecution that he was able to disrupt the scientific status quo. While Dreger oversimplifies that debate, making it largely a conflict between religion and science, her point is well made that the geo-centric model may have persisted for longer without Galileo’s persistence. Going where the evidence leads is vitally important for the pursuit of Truth.

In closing her book, Dreger writes, 

Here’s the one thing I now know for sure after this very long trip: 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.

In this, I am profoundly in agreement with Dreger. She comes at this from the perspective of atheistic empiricism, convinced there is an objective order in the universe. I come at this as a theistic Christian, certain there is objective order in the universe because there is a Creator who ordains and sustains that order. We agree on the desire to pursue truth and justice, but our concepts of justice are shaped by our beginning points. This is the point of disagreement, but one that we should be able to discuss respectfully.

This is a good book. It is well written and engaging. Her prose is lively and draws the reader in. This is a book that is worth the time and effort to read.

For my predominately Christian audience, I will note that Dreger uses language and discusses some topics in a way we would not consider appropriate for dinner conversations. There are points early on where her advocacy for liberalized sexual ethics is a bit tedious for those not so inclined, but the main point of the book is sound and well-made.

Note: A gratis copy of this book was provided by the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.