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First, the title refers to the fact that Galileo's mummified middle finger is in an Italian museum.
The author, a science historian, demonstrates with case after case that failure to separate the scientific investigation from personal/group religious, social, and political ideology leads to bad science. Her examples are all from the political left, where she resides and is comfortable. Many of the political and social beliefs of leftist social justice warriors are so strong that to investigate them scientifically is treated as heresy.
One in 2000 births results in a child of uncertain gender assignment, a condition now called "intersex" but formally called "hermaphroditism". Most of the book is about gender assignment issues either intersex or through preference after childhood.
Even for those who have not faced intersex issues this non-fiction book is worthwhile as a study of how ideology and government money perverts honest scientific investigation.
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Dreger and I were in the same graduate program 20 years ago. It was clear then that she was an outstanding scholar an exceptional human being. After one of her talks as a grad student, I heard Cognitive Science prof. Douglas Hofstadter lean over to a colleague and say "she's good". Once again, it shows.
Galileo's Middle Finger documents, in a meticulous evidence-based way, Dreger's journey from her Ph.D. work on intersex into activism as she realized that 19th-century prejudices were still standard medical practice, and beyond as she is swept into an unfamiliar world where identity trumps evidence, in a direction she is not expecting. When Dreger brings her same thorough methods of investigation into the controversy surrounding Michael Bailey's popular-press book on transgender women, she is surprised to find Bailey the victim of a smear campaign.
Dreger documents the Bailey case thoroughly and clearly. Regardless whether Bailey's theory is correct, it is clear that he was an unjust target of dishonest tactics. Documenting this brought Dreger herself in the line of fire. Her book details how that played out, and then also discusses several other controversies in depth, including: Napoleon Chagnon, Margaret Mead, and EO Wilson.
(Before continuing, let me say that Gilbert's narration is exceptional. The clarity and inflection made it easy to imagine that it was the author's own voice speaking directly to the reader.)
There is so much detail and feeling about any of these particular cases, that it is easy to get lost in one particular controversy and miss the bigger picture. The book is not about Galileo. Rather, because Galileo's story is well known, Dreger uses him as an exemplar of what she sees in common in all of her stories: namely the struggle between evidence and orthodoxy, or if you prefer, between evidence and political correctness. The story is particularly acute when the messengers are brash and iconoclastic, which is to say not very politically correct -- whether by politically correct you mean adhering to societal norms, or being socially sensitive.
Dreger makes a passionate and well supported plea for always putting the evidence first, and argues that this is necessary for both justice and democracy, and that we keep forgetting two important truths: 1. our adversaries are usually not evil, and 2. our good intentions will not keep us from doing harm, even if we are on the "right" side.
The book was written before the most recent US election, but emerges at a time when evidence and truth have taken an even more central role in public discussion then they have in a long time. Both sides of the political divide take it his self evident that they have truth and evidence on their side, so much so that apparent evidence to the contrary is taken as a threat to identity and authority, and there is a strong temptation to discredit -- or slander -- the source.
I can easily see those on the other side doing this. To her credit, Dreger faces the situation when her own social and political allies become similarly evidence blind, and not only lets herself be persuaded by the evidence, but doggedly pursues it even when the outcome does not match her presuppositions or preferences.
The question is whether the rest of us can do the same.
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