Galileo’s Middle Finger by Alice Dreger

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The facts are often not what we want to hear. This rings true for most of us when we’re thinking of stodgy old white guys living in sixteenth-century privilege, believing the sky was punctured by pinpricks of starlight from heaven. But examples from a modern context are surprising and sometimes nauseating: the data that show not all children are always traumatized by molestation; evidence that rape may have a biological, sexual origin, and that transgender identification may have more to do with desire than identity (or at least that desire is wrapped up with identity).

Alice Dreger examines these uncomfortable, controversial, and sometimes painful conclusions as she confronts heretical science. In this thoroughly engaging and often terrifying book, Dreger focuses not on the mothballed apostates of Galileo’s era, as the book’s title suggests, but on contemporary, blazing controversies. Scientists, who we expect to be supportive of revolutionary ideals in the service of knowledge, can also have, at their core, a ruthlessly unscientific bias.

Galileo’s Middle Finger deals very little with astronomy. Nor does it say much about the Copernican Revolution or the witch hunts against the men who dissected the heavens. The book’s title comes from an encounter at the Uffizi Museum in Florence. There, along with Galileo’s telescope, Dreger saw the great iconoclast’s middle finger, preserved, displayed upon an ornate base of marble, where it was written, “This is the finger, belonging to the illustrious hand that ran through the skies.” Dreger found this an absurd gesture: Galileo, the destroyer of authority, the activist of facts, the man who burned people with his eyes until they gazed through his telescopes, is eternally flipping off the skies.

The book, which is really a memoir covering twenty years of Dreger’s historical research and social activism (mostly in the field of gender identity), is organized around the idea that “The pursuit of evidence is probably the most pressing moral imperative of our time.” At first Dreger recounts her early experiences in intersex activism. When her historical dissertation on Victorian hermaphrodites turned out to appeal to a group of activists in the mid-90s, Dreger gave up a tenure-track job to join their ranks, stuff ballots, harangue politicians, and form committees. As things progressed, she began to notice an unsettling fact: some activists were ignoring data, much the same way that doctors did when they mutilated an infant with mystifying sexual organs.

People, Dreger observes, often want an enemy, an ogre to slay. But in order for time and change to have their geologic effect on the monolith of cultural norms, Dreger believes that activists must arm themselves with data and be willing to change their trajectories. “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 by facts,” she writes. Her point is that essentialist identity tropes will help no one. “We were not Good fighting Evil,” she writes. “We were dealing with well-intentioned, myopic people who weren’t seeing what we couldn’t help but see when we took the long view in weighing the evidence.”

Alice Dreger

Alice Dreger

Which is why Dreger later found herself, unpredictably, coming to the defense of straight, white men researching maligned people: first Michael Bailey, who studied transgendered women, and then Napoleon Chagnon, an anthropologist profiling the disappearing Yanomamo people in Brazil. In his book The Man Who Would Be Queen, Bailey’s thesis was that transgender identity has a lot to do with sexual desire. Bailey, a tenured professor at Northwestern, found himself under fire in reviews, conference panels, hearings, and phone calls to his family. Prominent transgendered academics publicly accused Bailey of sodomizing his children, having sex with his research subjects, and of suffering alcohol abuse (charges which lacked any evidence, according to Dreger). Dreger was weary to support Bailey because of the gaffes he was known for (like insinuating that highly sexed people would make good prostitutes). She came to his aid not because of personal affiliation, but, as she frames it, out of a necessary commitment to justice through verifiability.

Anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon was widely seen as problematic for his summation of the Yanomamo as a “fierce” people. But his controversy mushroomed when he was accused of experimenting on the Yanomamo or to see how many would respond to a wave of infection. He let many people die, among other alleged misdeeds. The charges against him were so influential that the American Anthropological Association created a task force to investigate him, and Brazil banned Chagnon from doing research in-country. Dreger’s conclusion, though, was that charges against Chagnon were bunk, and stuck for a long time partly because many people didn’t like his egotistical personality.

Dreger takes pains to point out how odd and uncertain it felt for her, as a prominent feminist historian, to come to the aid of empowered, old, straight white guys in academia. But looking at the research and the charges, Dreger found herself harking to the academic cornerstone, the bedrock of science: the collection of data as the arrow of knowledge.

Dreger’s writing, at times, comes close to a morality play, with her side clearly in the right, opposed by nebulous characters with sometimes unclear motivations. Dreger is right that “Even Nazis didn’t think of themselves as Nazis.” But she doesn’t always seem to extend this compassionate, explanatory thinking to her enemies, at least on the page.

Dreger sets herself up—along with Bailey and Chagnon and a few others—as “Galilean” types, pugnacious pursuers of truth, no mater the public cost. It comes off as a bit self-important, and on a few pages, preachy. But in the last section of the book, when she details the complicated, difficult-to-summarize controversy of a doctor experimenting with an untested drug on pregnant mothers, Dreger proves that she is no stranger to plowing waist-deep into thickets of controversy. Here she recounts how her years of passive research turned into offense, and how she was stymied by political in-dealings and the incompetence of the FDA. She presents copious paragraphs of damning evidence.

Galileo’s Middle Finger makes an important point about researchers obsessed with publication, tenure, and external funding, who keep their heads down in a gun battle. Dreger writes, “Our fellow human beings can’t afford to have us act like cattle in an industrial farming system.” On the whole, the book is engaging, and, coming from a historian, surprisingly edgy. Dreger, ironically, is not writing from the catacombs of social evolution but from the front lines. Her long view adds a layer to the controversies she outlines, making them about more than individual issues, but about how knowledge goes forward, or goes anywhere at all.

Clinton Crockett Peters has been awarded literary prizes from Shenandoah, North American Review, and Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art. He holds an MFA in nonfiction from the University of Iowa where he was an Iowa Arts Fellow. His work also appears in Orion, Fourth Genre, DIAGRAM, Hotel Amerika, the Dallas Observer and elsewhere. He has worked as an outdoor wilderness guide, an English teacher in Japan, and as a radio DJ. More from this author →