We all know you’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, or its title, but sometimes we all do it, and the publishing industry has to know that. Look at some of the covers and titles out there, clearly designed to catch the would-be reader’s eye and make a sale, or find a reader. Case in point: Galileo’s Middle Finger, by Alice Dreger. Look at that cover. Look at that title, and the subtitle: Heretics, Activists, and the Search for Justice in Science. Don’t you think you know what the book is about? I certainly did: it’s about Galileo and his fight with the Catholic Church, and possibly other scientists of the Middle Ages fighting authorities to get their science accepted by the authorities. Possibly there would be discussions of Nazi and Soviet suppression of science that didn’t fit their ideologies.
I’m here to tell you that is NOT what the book is about. While the author does bring Galileo into the mix, he’s only a patron saint (as it were) of modern scientists who are fighting, not against an oppressive church or government, but against self-proclaimed experts and political activists who disagree with the conclusions the scientists reach. The story of medieval and Renaissance scientists fighting the Church is an old and relatively familiar one. This story is newer, less well known, and fascinating.
Dreger’s story begins with her own involvement in research into intersex people, and her efforts on their behalf to stop doctors from mutilating babies in the name of making them “normal” boys or girls. This introduces her to activists, and brings her into contact with a scientist studying transgender women. This scientist is attacked by prominent transgender women for his theory that not all transgender women are people with women’s brains in a man’s body. Dreger investigates the claims that the scientist abused his subjects, failed to get proper consent, violated their privacy and otherwise falsified his data, and discovers that none of the allegations were true, though they received so much publicity that most people believe they’re true.
Horrified at the realization that people who she wants to believe are the “good guys,” members of oppressed minorities, could try to shut down truthful science because it contradicts their beliefs, Dreger starts investigating the case of an anthropologist who studied a tribe of people in the Amazon area, only to be attacked by opposing parties who claimed he paid members of the tribe to murder other people, lied to his subjects and falsified his research. The anthropologist’s name was dragged through the mud, he lost funding and his reputation was seriously damaged, but it turned out that the allegations were themselves false and the people raising them had serious conflicts of interest.
This is a passionate book by a historian who’s involved in the controversies she’s reporting on, so read the book with that in mind. It is certainly not an objective book, nor does it pretend to be. But it raises important questions about how much we really do support scientific inquiry into objective truth, especially when that objective truth contradicts our deeply held beliefs, and how, in the absence of serious journalism, there are any checks and balances on the power of organized groups to try to shout down unpleasant truths. It’s a fascinating, well-written book (well documented, too — check out the footnotes), even if it’s not at all what you might think it’s about when you see the cover.