The Rumpus Interview with Alice Dreger


In 1638 the scientist Galileo Galilei, convicted of heresy for claiming the earth revolves around the sun, was put under house arrest near Florence. He stayed there for the rest of his life.

This, writes historian and activist Alice Dreger, could never happen in America. The Founding Fathers, whatever their faults, “understood the critical connection between freedom of thought and freedom of person,” and so Galileo’s actions—finding evidence to challenge prevailing ideology in the search for truth—were the work of democracy itself.

But that ideal has become fraught as activists and scholars clash over what scientific findings mean for social justice. Ideology sometimes takes precedence over evidence but, as anyone familiar with the history of scientific racism knows, “data” isn’t always pure either.

Dreger has spent the past two decades exploring this divide. Her book Galileo’s Middle Finger is half memoir—documenting her early work in the intersex rights movement and the period spent investigating academic scandal—and half a call for freethinking and letting the data guide beliefs

She spent a year documenting the controversy surrounding J. Michael Bailey, the sex researcher who authored The Man Who Would Be Queen. His book claimed that some men, called autogynephiles, want to transition to women because they are sexually aroused by the idea of themselves as female. Prominent transgender activists pilloried him, claiming that the book was inaccurate and that Bailey had committed gross ethical breaches, such as sleeping with a research subject and practicing psychology without a license. Dreger, in a peer-reviewed paper, exonerated Bailey from most of these charges and found that his book was based on credible research, even if the conclusions were not to the liking of activists.

If there’s a science-activist scandal in the past decade, chances are that Dreger has looked into it. She investigated claims that anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon engineered a measles outbreak among the Yanomamö people while doing fieldwork, and talked to Craig Palmer about the death threats he received after feminists claimed that his Natural History of Rape—which argues that rape has a sexual component in addition to a power component—made him an apologist. She’s crusaded against the scientific establishment herself, fighting against the use of the drug prenatal dexamethasone, which doctors continue to prescribe to pregnant women despite it being proven to cause birth defects.

Dreger is active on Twitter, where she recently caused controversy for live-tweeting her son’s abstinence-only sex-ed class. She’s pushed against “anti-anti-vaxxers,” cautioned against outlawing gender conversion therapy, and found herself embroiled in an academic freedom fight with her employer, Northwestern University.

Dreger lives in East Lansing, Michigan. She spoke to me via phone about the responsibility of science, her evolving attitude toward feminism, the Tim Hunt affair, and why knowledge should be a little dangerous. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.


The Rumpus: Galileo’s Middle Finger is about, broadly, the tension between science and social justice, and your experience investigating that divide. For those who haven’t yet read it, what would you say is the cause of that divide, and what is the “rallying cry” of the book? Is there one specific anecdote that you think best sums up the core of the book?

Alice Dreger: I would say the book is about the tension between scientists and social justice activists—not their fields—because I believe science and social justice don’t have to be in tension. In fact, the ‘rallying cry’ of the book is “Can’t we all begin by caring about facts?” I try hard in the book to get people to understand that free inquiry or research requires a just system around you, and that sustainable social justice requires good research, so the search for truth and the search for justice depend on each other. As I say in the book, when one is threatened, the other is harmed.

When I live-tweeted my son’s sex ed class, the book was the backdrop. My son had bothered to look at the scientific evidence, and the day I attended, it began with him telling the “guest educators”—there to teach a very negative view of sex and a very positive view of “abstinence until marriage”—that if their goals were reduction in unwanted pregnancy and sexually-transmitted disease infections, then teaching abstinence was not the most effective means. He has been “raised” with this book and so he gets the importance of research to effective social policy, and how sometimes people base social policy on ideology rather than science. So he was very frustrated by that, as was I.

That said, the social activism I engaged in, live-tweeting, helped to shed light and make way for more scientific approaches to be introduced. So it turned out to be an accidental instance of tension between science and social justice activists like (in this case, anti-sex, anti-choice activists brought in as “educators”), followed by what I think has been a space being made for more cooperative work between science and social justice. Everyone wants to reduce unwanted pregnancy and STD infection rates, so the question becomes “how do we do this effectively?” Not everyone likes the answer.

Rumpus: A lot of Galileo’s Middle Finger centers around “science” and to what degree it’s something objective that leads us closer to truth or, as some activists and scholars argue, is rife with prejudice and biases. You generally champion the “objective truth” standpoint, but stepping back to the basics, what do you think “science” is and how you use that word?

22571733Dreger: The word “science” can stand in for lots of things and there’s a spectrum. There are popularizations that draw on science—these are the kinds of things that writers do in Scientific American or National Geographic—but they’re reporting. I wouldn’t call them “doing science,” but they represent the doing of science.

When I talk about science, it’s a way of doing inquiry into generalizable findings, a process that uses stringent guidelines, not a product. Certainly science has come in lots of different methodologies and some of them are more rigorous than other, and that distinction is important.

Rumpus: So what about Mike Bailey, who used “The Science of Gender-Bending and Transsexualism ” as the subtitle for The Man Who Would Be Queen? A lot of people criticized him for using the word “science” and saying that it gave his conclusions about autogynephilia way more heft. Do you think that was a responsible way to use the word?

Dreger: He was relying on scientific studies, looking at all that different stuff, trying to draw from that scientific literature and figure out how to present it to a different audience. And that’s not doing science; it’s science popularization. The word popularization has been badmouthed, but a well-done popularization is incredibly useful to people.

Bailey’s book was very much a popularization. It was meant to bring a lot of scientific studies to a popular audience in an accessible fashion. I don’t really see a subtitle that begins “The Science of….” as controversial for a science popularization. Imagine, for example, a book called Voids: The Science of Black Holes or a book called Figments of Reality: The Science of Memory. But Bailey made a mistake in not extensively footnoting the book so that readers could go and look at the science on which he was drawing.

Rumpus: Activists for transgender rights went after Bailey because they thought his findings would threaten their cause by making transgender people seem like perverts. In Galileo, you discuss how one activist posted photos of his children with pornographic captions under them. Other scientists have received death threats, had people contact their departments demanding they be fired, or had their careers almost destroyed. With social media and such, these reactions become more common.

But on the other hand, calling someone out can be effective when it causes them to see the error of their ways. How has your research, and seeing how lives are affected by this, informed your opinions on this type of behavior? Where is the line?

Dreger: There’s a difference between “calling out bullshit” and “shaming.” “Calling out bullshit” is saying, “what you’re saying is not true.” But shaming is going after the individual. It’s definitely easier to do now and it happens rather accidentally, both of which are disturbing to me. Things move faster and have more power on social media.

What happens is that often it starts with the calling out of the bullshit, but it becomes very ad hominem very quickly and it’s kind of scary to watch. Like the Tim Hunt thing [where the Nobel Prize winner made sexist remarks about female scientists]. I think that morphed really quickly from calling out bullshit to public shaming, and I felt very uncomfortable with what happened.

Rumpus: What should have happened? How could we stick to calling out bullshit without shaming? Right after we spoke the first time, you were involved in another controversy on Twitter. A surgeon wrote about watching her teacher do an unnecessary cut to teach her a lesson. You tweeted that you didn’t know the best course of action. Did you feel that that, too, became ineffective shaming? Were you satisfied with how that played out?

Dreger: I ended up asking people how we should deal with it—how do you deal with someone who is espousing some bullshit idea and can’t seem to see it or admit it? I was very uncomfortable during it all because of the idea that we might be causing harm to this person when trying to just call bullshit out.

I feel strange still about how that played out, because we got no real resolution. Kevin Pho [the owner of the blog where the story was posted] took down the post but really didn’t appropriately pursue the questions that were tied up in it—did it really happen? If so, is that awful surgeon still practicing and training others? Does the patient know how she or he was injured for “teaching purposes”? Are the other “Hope Amantine” stories real or fake? What has Kevin Pho learned about screening stories? Too much unresolved. All we seemed to do was to drive a pseudonymous surgeon underground. Was the person even really a surgeon?

I thought that if it incident was managed well we could get a teachable moment, get a Nobel Laureate saying, “god, I can’t believe I said those things, it was out of line,” but he was so quickly shamed that he turned very defensive and started making all sorts of claims that were problematic, like “it was a joke” when it clearly wasn’t really.

So that kind of thing—where you get that lightspeed shifting—is really troubling to me because when you’re trying to judge souls you very quickly reach the point where you’re talking about eternal judgment and damnation.

I really like what Janet Stemwedel wrote. I got the sense she might have written that in response to the conversation she and I got into on Twitter about Hope Amantine—which ended up in some discussion about Tim Hunt. Anyway, I think her questions were useful for thinking about how Hunt could have done this better. But people have a hard time seeing when they’ve said something really stupid and need to make good.

Rumpus: What do you mean there? You think we shame because we’re too quick to assume that people are inherently terrible and won’t change?

Dreger: People tend to be kind of tribal, and I think they go into tribal mode when they discover someone who has a view very offensive to them. The Internet seems to have exacerbated this, perhaps because everything feels pretty safe. Anyway, they end up concluding that the other person is some kind of simple evil enemy who must be taken down, and they go into rhetorical war mode. The other side then reacts accordingly. It’s kind of maddening to watch.

A big point in my book is that most of the harm done in the world is done by nice people with pretty good intentions. I’d much rather talk about ideas and realize that people are capable of changing their minds on things and also capable of reaching consensus, instead of dividing people into armies of supposedly good and supposedly evil.

It’s incredibly unproductive, and that’s what we’ve seen around the Tim Hunt stuff. But if I say that publicly, all my fellow feminists are going to say that I’m taking too lightly what Hunt said. I’m not, but I’m going to suddenly be in that camp of supposed apologists. I’m not an apologist for Tim Hunt but I think that the attacks shifted so fast and happened so overwhelmingly that he did not understand there could be an opportunity to learn and concede, which is so powerful and so rare. I wish he’d read what Janet Stemwedel said in that post.

Rumpus: It’s interesting that you say that your “fellow feminists” would think you were an apologist for wanting to be more moderate with the Tim Hunt affair. That makes me think—in one chapter of the book, you discuss a threatening encounter you had with an activist at a women’s studies conference, and said that the encounter made you question whether you were a feminist. How has your relationship to feminism and social justice changed after years of doing this research?

Dreger: I really want people to understand as feminists that social policy can’t be based on wishes. It has to be based on fact.

What’s frustrated me is that I continue to run into branches of feminism that are trying to do social policy based on wishes. Of course there are huge branches that do follow fact, like the reproductive health section, but there are pockets which tend to be about simplistic equations of oppression and say that if somebody comes from a group that’s historically oppressed, that’s all we need to know, we have to accept anything they say is truth, have to back them on whatever they say, and I find that very, very frustrating.

I see that in huge parts of the academy. So I tend to hang out with feminists who are scientists more than with people in the humanities these days because I get really impatient.

I think knowledge has to be dangerous sometimes. The quest for knowledge has to be dangerous sometimes if you’re doing it well, and that may include with coming up with findings that challenge your assumptions and ideology. What was useful for me was one of my best grad student professors, who was a young philosopher of science, saw me stuck in a rut and he said, “If you haven’t changed your mind lately, how do you know it’s working?” I thought that was so interesting and helpful for me, though I don’t know if it is for anyone else.

Rumpus: Why do you think activists resist evidence-based knowledge? It’s clear you don’t think people who resist are stupid or “evil” people, so what have you found are the motives? Is it more because they distrust the possibly biased methodologies that produced that evidence? Is it because they think that such knowledge would threaten any political progress they’ve made? Or is it just because a lot of times evidence does come from, and science is produced by, heterosexual white men?

Dreger: I’m not sure most activists do resist. As I say in the book, today, activism is smarter than ever and some of the smartest people are activists. That said, I think we all are inclined to want to believe what we want to believe. One of my Twitter followers the other day said he was wondering what would happen when activists who believe in “the blank slate”—that people are born with no brain wiring already set—find out they’re wrong. I wondered if they’ll ever believe they’re wrong. The human tendency to believe what we want appears to be hard-wired into us, although I get the blank-slaters will not believe that!

Rumpus: So, what have you changed your mind about lately?

Dreger: Well, I don’t simply think anything done in the name of feminism is good. In the past I would have assumed that anything done in the name of feminism is good, but now I think there are pockets of feminism that are problematic.

Another issue: I keep wavering on the question of whether or not the academy deserves special protection. I think somebody has to have the special protections to do the hard work of democracy, which is fact-checking. Investigative journalists are in a bad place, so we need academics, but there are many days when I want to smack the entire academy and say, “for God’s sake, if you want this privilege, do something to earn it, do daring work, protect each other, and do the hard work of democracy. Look into stuff that makes people uncomfortable and go where the facts are and find out what is true.”

Rumpus: But academic freedom is supposed to allow you to do unpopular research, the kind done by the people you wrote about. Why are you ambivalent about that protection?

Dreger: I don’t think getting rid of tenure is the answer because when you get rid of tenure you become even more afraid. I mean, I don’t have tenure myself.

What I run into a lot is tenured professors who feel an enormous amount of privilege to spend time on whatever they want, which is also fairly low-level meaningless things and then expect all of the protections that come with the privilege of being in the academy. I just think that if we’re going to have the exquisite protections that we’re going to afforded—well, that until recently were afforded—that there’s some responsibility that goes to that and that many individuals aren’t living up to that responsibility.

Rumpus: Let’s talk more about investigative journalists being in a bad spot. There are so many new investigative journalism outlets cropping up, but you think that it’s really been crippled.

Dreger: Twenty years ago when I started, I could call all these people who were investigative journalists and they would go and do fantastic work and sometimes show me I was wrong about something, though they’d often support what I was finding. Today there’s virtually nobody, not even the ones I know from twenty years ago, who hasn’t left the business. It used to be they could work on a story for three weeks, and now I’m lucky if they can spend an hour looking at what I’m sending them. It’s horrifying and I don’t know where it’s going to go.

I am really worried about investigative journalism in this country because it’s so absolutely, fundamentally important to the functioning of democracy. I don’t think the American public understands. They think they have more information than ever. They’re on fucking Twitter and they think that that’s news but so much of what they’re reading is just commentary, and it’s commentary on things that aren’t even true.

On the other hand, just after [New York Times columnist] David Carr died, I listened to an old interview with him and he had the most interesting thing to say. When he started out he needed a camera crew and a transcription device and now, just his phone allowed him to do recording audio, recording video, look things up real-time to challenge his source, everything you need to do good investigative journalism. And he felt what we needed was to recognize that and mobilize people to do journalism. But they have to be mobilized, and trained, and inspired to care about facts. And that’s turning out to be harder than I thought it was going to be.

Rumpus: I think your work could be considered a type of investigative journalism, but some of the methods are very different. You said that you would transcribe interviews, then give the transcription to the interviewee and let them add or delete whatever they wanted. As a journalist myself, I had this shocked, knee-jerk reaction that someone would give an interviewee that much leeway to erase things, so I want to know how that process affected your research and work.

Dreger: Well, they’re not transcriptions. Sorry if I wasn’t clear. They are notes I take during the interview. Often they are essentially transcriptions because I type really fast, but they are not the same as transcriptions. When I clean up the notes to give back to the person, I take out the “ums” and fix sentences to cohere into what I think the person intended. That’s why I really need them to check it. Transcriptions often get you garbled, incorrect information. This strikes me as both more efficient and more accurate in the long run, as well as more respectful of the source.

That method grew out of doing facilitated autobiography for people with medical trauma. As part of the intersex rights work, we had to record people’s histories and a lot of these people were too traumatized to write down what had happened. I would do an interview and write it in their voice and they would change it to make it more accurate. That became very useful to me, to go back and forth and get it better and they could use the autobiography later. In that sense, it’s less real in terms of being a record of what the person said on a given day at a given moment, and I never would represent these as being raw conversations, but it was really meant to try to get the history better.

I definitely found that people were more willing to talk to me because I was willing to let them have more control. It was partly to protect myself so that I couldn’t be accused of having mis-transcribed or willfully misheard anything. Humans make mistakes, both the interviewer and the interviewee, and I wanted to make sure I had a representation of what they actually thought, not what they blurted out or what I might have misheard.

It did lead to frustration on my part because there’s stuff I found out that I couldn’t use in the end. Obviously, I wouldn’t publish anything that would be counter to what I know to be true, but sometimes somebody phrases thing in a way that’s so revealing and they change it and it’s so frustrating.

I respect what professional journalists do and understand why they have their rules, but also like the way I do because I think I get closer to what’s true in terms of what the person wishes to represent.

Rumpus: It took you a very long time to do these investigations and get to the bottom of these issues. For the person who doesn’t have the time and resources, how can we do better? We’re all so cognitively lazy.

Dreger: I get this question a lot, but there’s no easy answer. One of the things I wish people would do is not conclude quite so quickly what they know is true.

Rumpus: What are you up to now? What’s next for you?

Dreger: I’m kind of pooped. The amount of incoming correspondence has been so overwhelming. Positive in many ways, but it’s a lot of people needing to talk about what’s happened to them and a lot of what I do is just try to witness it. It’s a lot of academics who have tried to do the right thing and been through hell because of their own university systems, and some activists who have been struggling hard to affect change and have been ignored by people in power.

It’s a lot of listening to people who have been harmed and a lot of it is confidential, so it makes me look unproductive. And maybe I am by a normal definition, but I learn so much and they deserve somebody to listen to them, so it’s a kind of privilege.

But. It’s quite emotionally exhausting because people think these are all stories of good and evil, but it’s good people for the most part doing bad things and it’s hard to watch good people do bad things over and over again. The species really sucks. It’s really good in some ways and incredibly stupid in some ways. I put myself in that category too. I am not exempt.

Angela Chen (@chengela) is a science reporter at The Verge. Her reporting and essays have been published or are forthcoming in The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, The Atlantic, Aeon Magazine, Catapult, Smithsonian, Paris Review, Hazlitt, and more. More from this author →