Alice Dreger's "Galileo's Middle Finger: Heretics, Activists, and the Search for Justice in Science," is one of the most refreshing books I have read recently. Dreger is a professor of clinical medical humanities and bioethics at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine. Nearly twenty years ago, Dreger became an activist for the rights of intersex persons. She fought to change the prevailing practice of surgically altering babies to "rectify" ambiguous genitalia, a practice that science suggested was too risky relative to the outcomes and raised a great many ethical questions. Motivated by varying convictions, surgeons were ignoring science. But before long, Dreger found herself advocating for scientists against activists on another intersex issue. The activists ignored science and attacked scientists when research potentially contradicted activists' strongly held convictions. This book is Dreger's reflections on what she learned from these experiences. I expect to publish a review of the book shortly. For now, I want to post three power sections from the book. (All emphases in the original.)
This quote comes as she is reflecting on her experience talking with researchers at the University of Missouri who had been targeted because of controversial research findings
The story I had been told about Mike Bailey and Craig Palmer and so many other white straight male scientists accused of producing bad and dangerous findings, the story I had willingly heard as an academic feminist in the humanities, was that these guys were just soldiers of the oppressive establishment against which we good guys had come to fight. They came from old dogma about human nature; we came from progress and social justice, and we had to win. But here I was faced with the fact that not only were these scientists politically progressive when it came to things like the rights of transgender people and rape victims, they were also willing to look for facts that might get them in hot water. They very much cared about progress in social justice, but they cared first about know what was true.
That didn’t mean that these scientists (or I, or anyone else) existed without bias. It didn’t mean their work wasn’t shaped and sometimes tainted by politics, ideologies, and loyalties. But it did mean they tried to adhere to an intellectual agenda that wasn’t first and only political. They believed that good science couldn’t be done by just Ouija-boarding your answers. Good scholarship had to put the search for truth first and the quest for social justice second.
In Missouri [University of Missouri, Columbia], I realized that there’s a practical reason for this order: Sustainable justice couldn’t be achieved if we didn’t know what’s true about the world. (You can’t effectively prosecute and prevent rape if you don’t understand why, where, and how rape happens.) But there was also a more essential reason for putting the quest for truth first: it was who we scholars were supposed to be. As the little prop plane flew from Columbia, Missouri, toward the sunrise, of this I was sure: We scholars had to put the search for evidence before everything else, even when the evidence pointed to facts we did not want to see. The world needed that from us, to maintain – by our example, by our very existence – a world that would keep learning and questioning, that would remain free in thought, inquiry, and word.
Nevertheless I knew many of my colleagues in the humanities would disagree. I could practically hear them arguing against me, as if they were seated all around me in those cramped fake-leather seats, yelling to be heard above the churning propellers. We have to use our privilege to advance the rights of the marginalized. We can’t let people like Bailey and Palmer say what is true about the world. We have to give voice and power to the oppressed and let them say what is true. Science is as biased as all human endeavors, and so we have to empower the disempowered, and speak always with them.
Involuntarily shaking my head, I argued back: “Justice cannot be determined merely by social position. Justice cannot be advanced by letting ‘truth’ be determined by political goals. Only people like us, with insane amounts of privilege, could ever think it was a good idea to decide what is right before we even know what it true. Only insanely privileged people like us, who never fear the knock of a corrupt police, could think guilt or innocence should be determined by identity rather than facts. It isn’t perfect, but look what it has gotten us: antibiotics, an explanation and a treatment for AIDS, reliable histories of the Holocaust, DNA-based exonerations of those falsely accused of crimes, spaceships on the surface of Mars – hell, the plane we’re flying in now.
Where would we be, I wondered, if the pope had ultimately won out over Galileo, if he succeeded in using his self-serving Catholic identity politics to forever quash Galileo’s evidence that the ancients and the Bible were wrong about the Earth? Power plays as morality plays, whether by popes or feminists, are just that – plays. I longed for the real world, longed to pick apart each history to know what’s true, to have my work judged by others, to find evidence that an idea is right or wrong. (136-138)
This passage comes from the end of the last chapter.
I want to say to activists: If you want justice, support the search for truth. Engage in searches for the truth. If you really want meaningful progress and not just temporary self-righteousness, carpe datum. You can begin with principles, yes, but to pursue a principle effectively, you have to know if your route will lead to your destination. If you must criticize scholars whose work challenges yours, do so on the evidence, not by poisoning the land on which we all live.
To scholars I want to say more: Our fellow human beings can’t afford to have us act like cattle in an industrial farming system. If we take seriously the importance of truth to justice and recognize the many forces now acting against the pursuit of knowledge – if we really get why our role in democracy is like no other – then we really ought to feel that we must do more to protect each other and the public from misinformation and disinformation. Doing so means taking on more responsibility to police ourselves and everybody else for accuracy and great objectivity – taking on with renewed vigor the pursuit of accurate knowledge and putting ourselves second to that pursuit.
I know that a lot of people who met me along the way in this work thought I’d end up on one side of the war between activists and scholars. The deeper I went, however, the more obvious it became that the best activists and the best scholars actually long for the same kind of world – a free one.
Here’s the one thing I now know for sure after this every 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. (261-262)
These two paragraphs are near the end of the epilogue.
The problem is an old one: People don’t really get that good intentions can’t save you from hell. So long as we believe that bad acts are committed only by evil people and that good people do only good, we will fail to see, believe, or prevent these kinds of travesties. Nowadays I feel as though 90 percent of my time talking to academics and activists is spent trying to convince them of this: The people who are against you are not necessarily evil, and your own acts are not necessarily good. That’s why we still need scholars and activists. It’s not easy to see what’s what in the heat of the moment, and we need people pushing for the truth and justice if we’re going to get both right.
But most people I run into aren’t like us humans. Most people I meet seem convinced that the goodness of their souls will keep them from committing bad acts. When they look back at history, they don’t see what we historians see – dumb tragedies. They see simple moral dramas, with predictable characters enacting easy stories of good and evil. They don’t understand that the Nazis probably didn’t think they were “Nazis.” (275-276)
Powerful food for thought.