Reviewing Alice Dreger’s new book, Galileo’s Middle Finger, Jesse Singal (New York Magazine) notes that it’s not just the political right that has politicized social science over the last decade, although many people on the left assume that it’s the right that is “anti-science.” Here is Singal talking to his father:
At one point, my dad picked it [Galileo’s Middle Finger] up off a table and started reading the back-jacket copy. “That’s an amazing book so far,” I said. “It’s about the politicization of science.” “Oh,” my dad responded. “You mean like Republicans and climate change?” That exchange perfectly sums up why anyone who is interested in how tricky a construct “truth” has become in 2015 should read Alice Dreger’s book. No, it isn’t about climate change, but my dad could be excused for thinking any book about the politicization of science must be about conservatives.
Dreger’s book is not about conservatives, but rather about liberals. Unlike previous critics such as Dinesh D’Souza and David Horowitz, however, Dreger is quite liberal herself. She is a historian of science who spent her early career advocating for intersex people. She later became interested in scientific controversies, and spotted many cases where people reached politically desirable conclusions before they did empirical research and evaluated research in terms of whether it also arrived at their desired conclusions.
Singal summarizes Dreger’s deep dives into the cases of Napoleon Chagnon (from the 2000s) and Michael Bailey (from the 2010s), and his whole piece is worth a read. Here is a segment where he discusses Bailey’s case. Bailey discovered that a certain segments of people who sought gender transitioning were not conventionally transgender. They did not believe themselves to be born into the wrong body, but rather had other reasons for transition. He wrote about this in his book The Man Who Would be Queen. Here’s Singal:
Bailey, being someone with a penchant for poking mischievously at political correctness, wasn’t too concerned about the political dimension of what he was arguing in his book. From a scientific perspective, he explicitly viewed the idea that “everybody is truly and easily assignable to one of two gender identities” as an oversimplification; part of his motivation for writing The Man Who Would Be Queen was to try to blow it up, to argue that transsexuality is more complicated than that. So it shouldn’t be surprising that some trans activists and allies didn’t appreciate the book’s argument — and they obviously have every right to disagree with Bailey and Blanchard’s views. What is surprising is just how big an explosionThe Man Who Would Be Queen sparked, and how underhanded the campaign against Bailey subsequently got.
A small group of activists led by Lynn Conway, a transgender University of Michigan electrical engineer and computer scientist, and Andrea James, a trans activist, started going after Bailey shortly after the book’s publication. In allegations laid out on a large UM-hosted web page built by Conway, they charged that Bailey — as summed up by Dreger — “had failed to get ethics board approval for studies of transgender research subjects as required by federal regulation; that he had violated confidentiality; that he had been practicing psychology without a license; and that he had slept with a trans woman while she was his research subject.”
James, in Dreger’s telling, went after Bailey with at-times-scary ferocity, engaging in a host of intimidation tactics: She posted photos of Bailey’s young daughter online with nasty text underneath (in one case calling her a “cock-starved exhibitionist”), sent angry emails to his colleagues, and quickly turned on anyone who didn’t join in her crusade — including some who said that they felt that their own life stories had been accurately and sympathetically captured in Bailey’s book. The allegations were so serious, and came in such a heaping quantity, that Bailey’s reputation was permanently tarnished in the eyes of many casual observers. What those observers can’t have known was his long-standing history of support for transgender people — he had used his perch as a researcher to advocate passionately for better treatment of this population and for improved access to gender-reassignment resources, and had even, at the request of one of the subjects in his book, written letters to physicians on behalf of a group of young trans women who were seeking reassignment surgery.
Singal’s conclusion expresses our fears at Heterodox Academy quite powerfully:
Science can’t function in this sort of pressure-cooker environment. The way things are heading, with the lines of communication between scientific institutions and the general public growing increasingly direct (a good thing in many cases, to be sure), and with instant, furious reaction the increasingly favored response to anything with a whiff of injustice to it — details be damned — it will become hard, if not impossible, for careful researchers unencumbered by dogmatic ideology to make good-faith efforts to understand controversial subjects, and to then publish their findings…. If activists — any activists, regardless of their political orientation or the rightness of their cause — get to decide by fiat what is and isn’t an acceptable interpretation of the world, then science is pointless, and we should just throw the whole damn thing out.