Galileo's Middle Finger by Alice Dreger

Galileo's Middle Finger

Alice Dreger

A powerful defense of intellectual freedom told through the ordeals of contemporary scientists attacked for exploring controversial ideas, by a noted science historian and medical activist.

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New York Times Book Review 
"[S]mart, delightful... a splendidly entertaining education in ethics, activism and science.”

Editors's Choice, New York Times Book Review

An impassioned defense of intellectual freedom and a clarion call to intellectual responsibility, 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.

This illuminating chronicle begins with Dreger’s own research into the treatment of people born intersex (once called hermaphrodites). Realization of the shocking surgical and ethical abuses conducted in the name of “normalizing” intersex children’s gender identities moved Dreger to become an internationally recognized patient rights’ activist. But even as the intersex rights movement succeeded, Dreger began to realize how some fellow progressive activists were employing lies and personal attacks to silence scientists whose data revealed uncomfortable truths about humans. In researching one such case, Dreger suddenly became the target of just these kinds of attacks.

Troubled, she decided to try to understand more—to travel the country to ferret out the truth behind various controversies, to obtain a global view of the nature and costs of these battles. Galileo’s Middle Finger describes Dreger’s long and harrowing journeys between the two camps for which she felt equal empathy: social justice activists determined to win and researchers determined to put hard truths before comfort. Ultimately what emerges is a lesson about the intertwining of justice and of truth—and a lesson of the importance of responsible scholars and journalists to our fragile democracy.

Booklist (starred review)
"A crusader in the mold of muckrackers from a century ago, Dreger doesn’t try to hide her politics or her agenda. Instead she advocates for change intelligently and passionately. Highly recommended."

Kirkus (starred review)
“Let us be grateful that there are writers like Dreger who have the wits and the guts to fight for truth.” 

Jared Diamond, author of Guns, Germs, and Steel and The World until Yesterday
“Alice Dreger would win a prize for this year’s most gripping novel, except for one thing: her stories are true, and this isn’t a novel.  Instead, it’s an exciting account of complicated good guys and bad guys, and the pursuit of justice.”

Advance Galley Reviews

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It took me a while to read this book because I would stop and mull it over and I wanted to absorb several messages: 1, Not everyone wants to listen to the truth because it hurts them and they will respond by trying to kill the messenger.2 there are people who will not back down in the face of adversity even though it will bruise them because they truly believe in what the evidence tells them. 3. We have lost the power the media has to keep people honest as the mediums for news has changed. Personally I read and listen with ingrain doubt to most issues presented as fact. After all, I grew up looking at the globe and telling my teacher that the continents were shaped like puzzle pieces, just to be told that they weren't. Years later we learned of continental drift. It's nice to know that you may be proven right, but it shouldn't take years to get there. I work in the health care industry and so this story was especially interesting to read. In my own practice as a therapist we are moving to evidence based practice, yet I still work with peers who don't want to change how they treat patients despite what research is telling us. Fortunately our patients aren't hurt by this, they just aren't getting the best care. Alice Dreger has managed to write in an entertaining way, methodically and thoroughly. I love this book and will tell my "Medicine for the Soul" hospital based book club members about this book.

I started this book thinking it would be a timely read, when so much science (on climate change, evolution, vaccines, etc.) is being rejected for no good reason. Galileo has always been a hero of mine for pushing scientific thinking forward in the face of such doubters. I thought this book would be examples of these kinds of efforts throughout history and the modern day. However, I was frustrated to see that the author really only talks about her own scholarship and activism, which are conjoined in her case. Thus the title of this book is misleading. Alice Dreger studied the history of how people born intersex were treated by the medical community, and came to support people living today that are victims of unwanted surgery and shame. It should be made clear that this book is mostly about intersex issues, though this may have been a tactic of the author’s: get people to find the book because it’s something they might be more interested in, and if they are dedicated readers, they might learn more about her causes. I wasn’t that dedicated, I gave up. Something about her approach was off-putting for me, maybe arrogance or abrasiveness. She is a good writer, but doesn’t need to remind us so much. It’s too bad, because the intersex community, like the LGBT community, is poorly understood by the general public. Of course, if this issue affected me more personally, I might be glad to have some as dedicated as Dreger advocating. It’s hard to make any sound argument by providing the evidence and reasoning (and I’ll admit, my review might be a small example of this challenge). “Galileo’s Middle Finger” is just not what I thought I’d be reading about now.

Loved it, the combination of politics and science is a powerful one.

Alice Dreger writes wryly and ruefully about the intersections of science, ethics, and politics. What could be dry material is instead, in her hands, compulsive reading. Equal parts enlightening, entertaining, and alarming, Galileo's Middle Finger is recommended thinker for all critical thinkers, whether you think you're interested in science or not.

Overall, my thoughts echo the other reviews included here. An interesting read, an important read, a complicated read. But definitely a memoir more than a sort of survey of conflicts between science, activists, and institutions. Not a bad thing by any means, but mis-marketed I believe. Dreger is funny and relatable (although I do think I ally politically and philosophically, so take it from the choir), and the book does make some interesting historical parallels and connections. Again, a book I enjoyed reading, but probably would not have picked up had I known more - memoirs just don't interest me as literary nonfiction might.

ohhh this book. I’m not sure where to start. The way it started really caught my attention. I did learn quite a bit about intersex people. I’ve never really looked into the subject, though of course I know they exist. I was disgusted by a lot of the things that happened to not only intersex babies but also male/female babies. A newborn boy had a botched circumcision and they turned him into a girl. A SEX CHANGE before he even knew how to talk. I freaked out about that. (Here is the wiki article on David Reimer). David Reimer’s story is so disturbing, I actually put the book down for a bit to research him on my own. I couldn’t even IMAGINE doing those things to a child. It’s heartbreaking. Back to the book, I was a little caught off guard by Galileo’s Middle Finger. The Synopsis was not descriptive. This is more of a memoir from the author. I enjoy memoirs occasionally, I just wasn’t expecting it. She is very passionate in what she does, there is no doubt about that. I did feel that the book dragged on and let me uninterested. It wasn’t a horrible book but it wasn’t great – just ‘okay’. This would be a great book for fans of Alice Dreger, as I hear she has some following. Personally, I’ll rate it 3/5

This book ended up being a lot more autobiographical and filled with drama than I initially thought it would be. To be fair, there are a lot of topics in the book that make it hard to separate emotions from fact. In the overall scheme of the book, this may actually be a good thing for Dreger's main message. She continuously discusses the need to keep going and searching for the truth, which would be incredibly difficult, if not impossible, without an emotional interest. I strongly recommend this book for anyone who is interested in activism or academia. It is an unfortunately accurate portrayal of how the noble quest for truth has been seriously hindered by personal agendas, politics and the sheer power of public outrage at any sensitive topic being discussed rationally. It is filled with stories of the messenger being shot, especially when they are simply trying to be fair and follow the facts.

This is mostly a memoir, a memoir of activism by an academic, who has found herself on both sides of the divide between activists and scientists. I have to say that the book took me by surprise -- after reading the first couple chapters, I was wondering whether the author of the book blurb had read the book. What was all this about intersex people and transsexuals? I mean, I care a little bit about that, but probably not enough to read a full-length highly passionate book about them and activism for them... But then she got to the heart of the book. When the beliefs of activists and individuals run counter to the science, and these individuals have been terribly ostracized and oppressed and have every right to defend themselves, but then abuse this right by abusing the scientists who are studying them and are essentially advocating for them.... wait, what side should I be on? The science in this book is mostly of sexual identity, since that's Dreger's area of activism. But it touches on other social sciences as well. It's well-written and honest. In describing a moment of incredible optimism and naivete, the author reflects that she was also sick and perhaps high on cough syrup. She also describes her frustration at the reactionary nature of the internet age, a sort of post-investigative-journalism age. Can't we all make sure we get the facts right and not fly off the handle? She struggles with her own identity: if other people are doing crazy things in the name of feminism, do I still want to call myself a feminist? (This is, of course, a question that has to be asked about every label we apply to ourselves.) She asks fantastic questions and makes a real attempt at answering them. They're huge questions, and of course she doesn't find all the answers, but I really enjoyed reading her struggle with them. Given the nature of the content here, this will no doubt be a highly controversial book (that comes as a guarantee if you tackle controversial topics). Not everyone will agree with her point of view. But since she handles the topics well, I believe it will make an excellent topic of conversation for many readers. I got this through Penguin's First to Read program.

When I received an advanced copy of this book I was thrilled. I had just completed a book that was about the struggles that Galileo and other scientist had to endure at the hands of religion and politics. Reading the subtitle to the book it seemed a further affirmation of being similar to what I had been reading. "Heretics, Activists and the search for justice in Science". I was wrong. Alice Dreger is professor of Clinical medical humanities at Northwestern University and a self proclaimed feminist, she admits to the fact that she was involved with groups that had political agendas and were trying to push their beliefs on others. (whoa), red flags are flying people. Lets just look at the people who helped to fund her book and her work: John Simon Guggenheim foundation, financial support was given by the Gill foundation , and the Arcus Foundation.The Arcus foundation is "a private grant making organization dedicated to supporting LGBT social justice and the conservation of great apes". (I kid you not look up there website! The Gill Foundation was established to provide charitable grants in pursuit of full equality for all LGBT americans. (do you see a pattern here). unbiased - I think not! She attest to the notion that Galileo had a certain mindset that set him apart from normal vanilla scientist and she compares herself and a few others that work on controversial matters (mainly sexual) and as having this same mindset. First of all she is no Galileo and her self proclaimed martyrdom is nothing more than a feminist pity party (how dare someone not agree with her far leftest ideas ). She speaks of one of her colleagues ( a college professor )which she describes as having this same Galileo mindset who had a stay after class session to have a sexual exhibitionist couple demonstrate how to DIY a sex toy made from a reciprocating saw and then demonstrate its use! This is someone who is comparing themselves to Galileo. enough said. read at your own ignorance.

Dr. Laura Dreger's account of her thorough investigations to exonerate blame assigned to innocent researchers and expose the truth of less than transparent research reads like a fascinating mystery novel. I couldn't stop reading until I knew the conclusion of each situation, whether it was based on tribal research in Argentina or interventions meant to "fix" potentially intersex children. Her portrayal of a few medical doctors, who in the name of science, experiment on pregnant mothers, their fetuses and their babies, made me shudder and want to join a medical ethics research board. This book should be on the list of "must-reads" for students considering entering the field of research. Foremost in the goals of research is to find the truth. Dr. Dreger shares in this non-fiction account what happens when we go with the hysteria of the masses or assume we have all the answers. Thank you for the opportunity to read, learn, and review this book.

I was gifted this book as part of the Penguin First to Read Program. This non fiction work is the brain child of Alice Dregers a well known historian/activist with the intersex and transgender movements. I discovered that an intersex person has both sets of sexual organs while a transgender person feels they are the wrong sex at birth. Dr. Dregers helped doctors to see that the practice of immediate surgery on babies was not the best option, that it is better to wait and have the patient make the choice to operate or do nothing at all. Lots of intersex people would do nothing at all and would like recognition as a completely new sex. The reference to Galileo’s middle finger is a story told early in the book about the re-burial of Galileo and a worker cutting off his middle finger as a relic which can be seen today in a museum in Italy. When the author saw it, she had a hard time stifling her giggles as the middle finger means something completely different in America. The majority of this book takes on the task of unbiased scientific research and whether it can be achieved in this day of grant money, political polarization and the internet. Dr. Dregers came under the scrutiny of another group of intersex/transgender activists who didn’t like the fact that she looked into their allegations against another professor and his work. She found that they had lied, and spread the lies to others until the man was getting death threats against himself and his children. After her experience, she decided to check out other scientists and researchers who had been discredited to see if the attacks were true or not. What she discovered astounded her. Napoleon Chagnon was a famous anthropologist who studied a tribe called Yanomamo in the Amazon for many years exclusively. Then a man named Freeman wrote a paper attacking his work and accusing him of gross misdeeds. Suddenly his research money disappeared and he retired to Michigan. When Dr. Dregers checked into the allegations she discovered that Mr. Freeman’s witnesses did not say what he said they did, or that he himself was the source of their beliefs. “Freeman succeeded in part because he followed what I had learned is the number-one rule in making shit up. Make it so unbelievable that people have to believe it.” This was just one example in her book, but it’s the one that stuck with me. “Good scholarship had to put the search for truth first and the quest for social justice second.” We need to be truly open-minded and not have a fore gone conclusion on what our research will discover. “But the quest for truth-the quest to understand the world around us-must ultimately be how you enact the good.” Universities today no longer require professors to “publish or perish”, instead they expect you to bring money into the university through grants and contracts. “Our usefulness is not measured by generation of high-quality knowledge but by the volume of grants added to the university economic machine. This means our work is skewed toward the politically safe or, worse, the industrially expedient.” We need to fix this problem and fix it now, before it is too late. I highly recommend this book to anyone who thirsts for knowledge and truth.


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