Galileo’s Middle Finger
by Alice Dreger

February 16, 2015 Book Reviews, Books 0

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★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Galileo’s Middle Finger: Heretics, Activists, and the Search for Justice in Science by Alice Dreger | Penguin Press | March 2015 | Hardcover $27.95

Galileo’s Middle Finger is one American’s eye-opening story of life in the trenches of scientific controversy. For two decades, historian Alice Dreger has led a life of extraordinary engagement, combining activist service to victims of unethical medical research with defense of scientists whose work has outraged identity politics activists. With spirit and wit, Dreger offers in Galileo’s Middle Finger an unforgettable vision of the importance of rigorous truth seeking in today’s America, where both the free press and free scholarly inquiry struggle under dire economic and political threats.

I managed to get my grubby paws on an e-ARC from Edelweiss for early review.

This book grabbed me from page 1. This partly had to do with the fact that I started reading it not long after the Disneyland measles outbreak brought the anti-vaccines controversy to the front page of every science news website in the country. I was already in a fine lather over that and the timing for reading this book was basically perfect for me.

First, I want to share a few quotes from the 1st chapter just to give you an idea of the tone of this book….

On introducing the topic of intersex and transgender conditions:

“Human sex comes in two big themes — male and female — but nature seems to enjoy composing variations on those themes.”

On choosing where to conduct research while working on her PhD:

“Britain and France also made practical sense because they would be nice places to go on dissertation grants.”

On the topic of her dissertation, historical medical treatment of hermaphrodites:

“Late-nineteenth-century medical and scientific men had little interest in changing social mores just because nature was turning out to be a bit churlish where sex was concerned.”

I could keep going because the book is basically full of this sort of thing, but any more than this teaser is probably a copyright violation of some sort. Also, keep in mind that these quotes are not from the final copy, which is scheduled to hit the shelves on March 10, 2015.

What we have here is a very conversational and accessible book about science and its fraught but extremely important relationship with various social justice fights. (It’s tempting to use the phrase It’s about ethics in science journalism but at this point saying anything is about ethics in ___ journalism makes me want to barf a little bit. Thanks, hashtag gamergate! The overuse of the suffix –gate makes me want to barf a little bit, too, but now this review has gone completely off the rails. Now, where was I… ?)

This book has been favorably reviewed by Kirkus, Dan Savage, and Jared Diamond, which I think says a lot about its quality and potential impact in the science nonfiction market.

Dreger touches on topics like intersexuality, sociobiology, and fetal drug therapy. We get a little bit of history of the treatment of these issues by both the scientific community and the culture at large, but this isn’t really a science history book. Dreger gets personal. She writes mainly about her own experiences with dealing with controversial scientific opinions, but she also includes quite a lot of info on other scientists’ and social activists’ experiences too. She writes about what happens when attempts to pursue scientific truth butt up against efforts to achieve cultural acceptance or legal justice, and about what happens when people on both sides of a volatile issue behave unethically in pursuit of their goals.

I rather enjoyed this book, though it probably wasn’t great for my blood pressure. (“She tried to claim WHAT!?” “He seriously said THAT?!”) The only big caveat I’d give a potential reader is that the bulk of the book really does revolve around the author’s own experiences — and she really did get down into the trenches. There are some passages that feel very “he-said/she-said” and, speaking as someone who is not an expert in any of the fields or controversies discussed in this book, I’m not comfortable making absolute judgments based only on those sorts of arguments… but I have to admit that Dreger is thorough and persuasive.

This is not an unbiased, entirely 3rd person academic-flavor book, and you won’t enjoy it if you’re expecting to read it that way. Dreger has a particularly Galilean personality — and, in fact, she does compare herself and many of her colleagues to Galileo several times. She uses the phrase “politcally tone-dumb” — that is, not exactly oblivious to the effect that controversial science will have on politicized efforts to achieve social justice, but more like not bothering to care about it overmuch because pursuit of actual truth is more important.

Anyway, the message is ultimately a warning, but a hopeful one: Truth and justice are inextricably linked, and only by working together can scholars and activists achieve both.


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Publication information: Dreger, Alice. Galileo’s Middle Finger: Heretics, Activists, and the Search for Justice in Science. New York: Penguin, 2015. EPUB.
Source: This review is based on an e-ARC that I received from the publisher via Edelweiss.
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.

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