Pardon the absence. Busy times at work.
Last year I read a book about scientists who were attacked by postmodernist wackos for the sin of refusing to bend their science to fit The Narrative. I figured taking a peek at the book would be a fitting way to finish off this series of posts.
Galileo’s Middle Finger: Heretics, Activists, and One Scholar’s Search for Justice is an excellent read. It’s all the more effective because author Alice Dreger sympathizes with many of the goals of the feminist and transgender activists whose outrageous search-and-destroy tactics she recounts in the book. Dreger is a feminist herself, and she recognizes that science has at times been hijacked by racists and sexists. As she recalls of her own education in science:
Marxist and feminist science-studies scholars had for almost two decades been producing a large body of work deeply critical of various scientific claims and practices. They had shown how various scientists had, in word and deed, oppressed women, people of color, and poor folks, typically by making problematic “scientific” claims about them. Harvard biologist Ruth Hubbard, for example, had taken apart pseudoscientific claims that biology made women “naturally” less capable of doing science than men.… Meanwhile, Hubbard’s Harvard colleague Stephen Jay Gould had scrutinized “scientific” studies purporting to show important racial differences in skull size and IQ and had shown them to be hopelessly riddled with racist bias.
As a science historian, bioethicist, and former professor of clinical bioethics at Northwestern University, Dreger believes in good science. When scientists do sloppy research or allow their biases to skew the results, she reminds us, the problem is with the scientist – not with the scientific method:
The finding by Gould and others that scientists often suffered from bias didn’t mean science itself was rotten. The very fact that scholars could see and show problems of racist and sexist bias in science stood to me as proof that, together, evidence-driven scholars could advance knowledge and ultimately get past the individual human mind’s tendency to follow familiar scripts.
Dreger became an activist when her research led her to discover the medical abuse suffered by intersex children – children whose anatomy doesn’t quite fit either gender.
Some of these patients had immediately apparent mixes of male and female traits—a notable phallus and a vaginal opening or feminine breasts along with a full beard. Others appeared to have one sex externally but the opposite internally. All unwittingly challenged the idea that there were only two real sexes—that there was a clear, natural divide between men and women.
She learned that doctors, when faced with intersex children, often simply picked a gender for them.
The modern system featured not only highly aggressive cosmetic genital surgeries in infancy for children born with “socially inappropriate” genital variations like big clitorises, but also the withholding of diagnoses from patients and parents out of fear that they couldn’t handle the truth. It treated boys born with small penises as hopeless cases who “had” to be castrated and sex-changed into girls, and it assumed that the ultimate ability of girls to reproduce as mothers should take precedence over all else, including the ability to someday experience orgasm.
I was stunned and outraged by what was going on. I threw myself into the struggle and spent the decade after grad school living two lives—as a professor researching and writing academic histories of the medical establishment’s treatment of intersex and also as a patient advocate and a leading activist for the rights of sexual minorities.
You get the idea: she’s a feminist and activist who spent years fighting for the right of intersex people to choose their own gender or at least to be left alone by the medical industry. Hardly the type of person feminists and transgender activists should try to destroy. And yet they did … because she dared to defend scientists who disagreed with The Narrative promoted by postmodernists.
It was shortly after this time that I took on a new scholarly project, one that without much warning forced me to question my politics and my political loyalties, if not also my decision to give up tenure. This was a project that suddenly changed me from an activist going after establishment scientists into an aide-de-camp to scientists who found themselves the target of activists like me. Indeed, this project soon put me in a position I would never have imagined for myself: vilified by gender activists at the National Women’s Studies Association meeting and then celebrated at the Human Behavior and Evolution Society by the enemies of my childhood hero, Stephen Jay Gould.
… In 2003, three years before I came to the story, a group of transgender activists had kicked up a storm over a book by a Northwestern sex researcher, J. Michael Bailey, because in that book, Bailey had pushed a theory these activists didn’t like: Bailey had suggested that, in cases of men who become women, transgender isn’t just about gender identity, but also about sexual orientation—about eroticism. This, I already knew, was a no-no among certain groups of transgender activists who insisted that virtually all transgender people are born with the brain of one sex and the body of the other.
Transgender people, Dreger is careful to explain, aren’t in the same category as intersex people. Intersex people have actual, physical traits of both genders. They are also quite rare — somewhere in the neighborhood of one in 2,000. Transgender people don’t have ambiguous body parts.
I’ve mentioned several times in this series of posts that postmodernists feel no obligation whatsoever to be logical or consistent. We are simply supposed to accept The Narrative and pretend we don’t notice when The Narrative contradicts itself – which it often does.
The Narrative insists that there are virtually no differences between men and women – in fact, if you declare yourself to be a man even though you have a female reproductive system and menstruate, well, by gosh, you ARE a man … which led to the recent bizarro-world decision by gender activists to go after the Always brand for putting the female Venus symbol on its menstrual products – because “men” have periods too, ya know! (The company caved and agreed to drop the symbol.)
Okay, let’s see … if you simply declare that you identify as a man, you ARE a man. If you simply declare that you identify as a woman, you ARE a woman. There are no differences in the brains of men and women. In fact, there are really no genders at all … because gender is just a social construct. So says The Narrative. That’s why we see postmodernist drivel like this:
And yet according to The Narrative, the only acceptable explanation for transgender women is that they have a woman’s brain trapped inside a man’s body.
Uh … what? Let’s apply some simple logic:
If there are no differences between male and female brains, it’s not friggin’ possible to have a female brain trapped in a man’s body. If having male reproductive organs doesn’t make you a man, if having female reproductive organs doesn’t make you a woman, and if gender is nothing more than a social construct as opposed to a biological reality, IT’S NOT FRIGGIN’ POSSIBLE TO BE A WOMAN TRAPPED IN A MAN’S BODY.
So here’s the story so far:
If you don’t agree with The Narrative that there are no inherent differences between men and women – including their brains — you’re a bigot, a sexist, a homophobe, a hater, etc., etc.
If you don’t also agree with The Narrative that you are whatever gender you declare yourself to be, you’re a bigot, a sexist, a homophobe, a hater, etc., etc.
But if you don’t also agree with The Narrative that all transgender women have a woman’s brain trapped inside a man’s body, you’re a bigot, a sexist, a homophobe, a hater, etc., etc., and we are totally justified in trying to ruin your career and your life.
Yes, it’s utterly and completely contradictory. But remember, we’re talking about postmodernists here. They can be as illogical and self-contradictory as they please, and you’re supposed to just agree with them on everything, even if actual science says otherwise … which brings us back to the book:
I thought I knew from my background in science studies and a decade of intersex work how to navigate an identity politics minefield, so I wasn’t that worried when in 2006 I set out to investigate the history of what had really happened with Bailey and his critics. My investigation ballooned into a year of intensive research and a fifty-thousand-word peer-reviewed scholarly account of the controversy. And the results shocked me. Letting the data lead me, I uncovered a story that upended the simple narrative of power and oppression to which we leftist science studies scholars had become accustomed.
I found that, in the Bailey case, a small group had tried to bury a politically challenging scientific theory by killing the messenger. In the process of doing so, these critics, rather than restrict themselves to the argument over the ideas, had charged Bailey with a whole host of serious crimes, including abusing the rights of subjects, having sex with a transsexual research subject, and making up data. The individuals making these charges—a trio of powerful transgender women, two of them situated in the safe house of liberal academia—had nearly ruined Bailey’s reputation and his life. To do so, they had used some of the tactics we had used in the intersex rights movement …. but there was one crucial difference: What they claimed about Bailey simply wasn’t true.
Postmodernist tactics 101: words aren’t tools we use to help us arrive at the truth; they’re weapons to be wielded. Whatever you say about an opponent in order to destroy him doesn’t have to be true; it merely has to be effective.
Dreger published a lengthy article detailing the vicious and false attacks on Dr. Bailey. Not surprisingly, the postmodernist search-and-destroy squad went after her next:
Certainly I should have known what was coming—after all, I had literally written what amounted to a book on what this small group of activists had done to Bailey. But it was still pretty uncomfortable when I became the new target of their precise and unrelenting attacks. The online story soon morphed into “Alice Dreger versus the rights of sexual minorities,” and no matter how hard I tried to point people back to documentation of the truth, facts just didn’t seem to matter.
Correct. Facts never matter to postmodernists.
Troubled and confused by this ordeal, in 2008 I purposefully set out on a journey—or rather a series of journeys—that ended up lasting six years. During this time, I moved back and forth between camps of activists and camps of scientists, to try to understand what happens—and to figure out what should happen—when activists and scholars find themselves in conflict over critical matters of human identity. This book is the result.
And that’s just the opening chapter.
The book’s title is partly a reference to a trip to Italy Dreger took as a student. A museum had (supposedly) Galileo’s mummified finger on display. Dreger imagined him flipping off the authorities with all their superstitions and insistence on adhering to dogma.
Philosophically paving the way for the world as we now know it, Galileo actively argued for a bold new way of knowing, openly insisting that what mattered was not what the authorities—ancient or otherwise—said was true but what anyone with the right tools could show was true. As no one before him had, he made the case for modern science—for finding truth together through the quest for facts
But she also chose the title because the scientists whose stories she recounts in the book are much like Galileo himself. They believe in science, and expected (perhaps naively) that being scientifically correct would protect them from being persecuted by people who don’t like what they have to say. They were wrong about that, of course.
I had accidentally stumbled onto something much more surreal—a whole fraternity of beleaguered and bandaged academics who had produced scholarship offensive to one identity group or another and who had consequently been the subject of various forms of shout-downs. Only these academics hadn’t yet formed a proper society in which they could keep each other company. Most of these people had been too specialized or too geeky (or too convinced they were the only ones who didn’t deserve it) to realize there were others like them out there.
Dreger recounts persecutions of scientists who dared to challenge the idea of “recovered memory,” or dared to present evidence that the Yanomami frequently kill each other and kidnap women for sex (The Narrative says they’re all peaceful children of Nature), or dared to write papers arguing that yes, rape is sometimes about sex. (The Narrative says rape is always about violence and power, and never about sex, period.)
For daring to dispute The Narrative, these scientists were all publicly attacked and portrayed as bigoted tools of The Oppressors. Dreger found they were nothing of the sort.
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 so 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 knowing what was true. 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.
That’s not how postmodernists see it, of course. For them, truth runs a distant second to (ahem) “justice.” As someone who spent years in academia, Dreger knows that all too well:
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.
She argues back quite effectively:
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 is 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 by facts. Science—the quest for evidence—is not ‘just another way of knowing.’ It’s a methodical process of checking each other, checking theory against experiment, checking claim against fact, and fact against fact.
I’ve barely scratched the surface of the engaging (and often infuriating) stories Dreger tells in Galileo’s Middle Finger. You may not care much about gender and transgender issues, but if you read this blog, I presume you care about science. I also hope you recognize that good science is facing an existential threat because of postmodernist lunacy, and sooner or later, the lunacy will affect all of us.
After all, The Narrative says that eating meat is evil, it’s bad for your health, and raising animals for food will ruin the planet. If these postmodernist wackos aren’t stopped, imagine what will happen to nutrition science. Imagine what will happen if they acquire the power to tell us what to eat. Well, heck, you don’t have to imagine. Just go read the EAT-Lancet paper.
Greger finishes with a chapter titled TRUTH, JUSTICE, AND THE AMERICAN WAY. Here are a few quotes:
Perhaps most troubling is the tendency within some branches of the humanities to portray scholarly quests to understand reality as quaint or naive, even colonialist and dangerous … to treat those who seek a more objective understanding of a problem as fools or de facto criminals is to betray the very idea of an academy of learners. When I run into such academics—people who will ignore and, if necessary, outright reject any fact that might challenge their ideology, who declare scientific methodologies “just another way of knowing”—I feel this crazy desire to institute a purge. It smells like fungal rot in the hoof of a plow horse we can’t afford to lose.
What privilege such people enjoy who can say there is no objective reality, no way to ascertain more accurate knowledge! … These must be people who have never had to fear enough to desperately need truth, the longing for truth, the gift of truth. Surely, the “scholar” who thinks truth is for children at Christmastime is the person who has never had to fear the knock of the secret police at her door.
The activists who founded the United States—the Founding Fathers—understood the critical connection between freedom of thought and freedom of person. They understood that justice (freedom of person) depends upon truth (freedom of thought), and that the quest for truth cannot occur in an unjust system. It’s no coincidence that so many of the Founding Fathers were science geeks.
I want to say to activists: If you want justice, support the search for truth. Engage in searches for truth … 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.
Bingo. She says pretty much everything the postermodernist wackos — with their hostility to free speech, their cancel culture, their rejection of logic and reason, their “different ways of knowing,” and their insistence that we all bow down before The Narrative — need to hear.
But I doubt any of them are listening. They’re too busy proving what fine, noble, enlightened people they are by shouting down everyone else.