January 1, 2016


Why Some of the Worst Attacks on Social Science Have Come From Liberals (Jesse Singal, 12/30/15, New York)

I first read Galileo's Middle Finger: Heretics, Activists, and the Search for Justice in Science when I was home for Thanksgiving, and I often left it lying around the house when I was doing other stuff. At one point, my dad picked it 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. Many liberals, after all, have convinced themselves that it's conservatives who attack science in the name of politics, while they would never do such a thing. Galileo's Middle Finger corrects this misperception in a rather jarring fashion, and that's why it's one of the most important social-science books of 2015.

At its core, Galileo's Middle Finger is about what happens when science and dogma collide -- specifically, what happens when science makes a claim that doesn't fit into an activist community's accepted worldview. And many of Dreger's most interesting, explosive examples of this phenomenon involve liberals, not conservatives, fighting tooth and nail against open scientific inquiry. [...]

This should stand as a wake-up call, as a rebuke to the smugness that sometimes infects progressive beliefs about who "respects" science more. After all, what both the Bailey and Chagnon cases have in common -- alongside some of the others in Galileo's Middle Finger -- is the extent to which groups of progressive self-appointed defenders of social justice banded together to launch full-throated assaults on legitimate science, and the extent to which these attacks were abetted by left-leaning academic institutions and activists too scared to stand up to the attackers, often out of a fear of being lumped in with those being attacked, or of being accused of wobbly allyship.

It's hard not to come away from Dreger's wonderful book feeling like we're doomed. Think about all the time and effort it took her -- a professionally trained historian as equipped as anyone to dig into complex morasses of conflicting claims -- to excavate the full details of just one of these controversies. Who has a year to research and produce a fact-finding report that only a tiny percentage of people will ever read or care about? Who's going to figure out exactly how some contested conversation between Mike Bailey and a young transgender woman in Chicago in two thousand whatever actually went down? Dreger herself is transparent about the fact that these days she can only afford to do what she does because her physician husband has a high-paying job at a medical school. There aren't a lot of Alice Dregers. Nor are there, these days, a lot of investigative journalists with the time and resources to understand complicated debates involving controversial science. There is, however, a lot identity-driven content on the internet, because it's easy to produce and tends to travel well. If you're a writer or an editor looking for a quick hit, outrage at a perceived slight against some vulnerable group is a surefire bet.

While the false charges against Chagnon and Bailey were certainly helped along by the internet, neither episode occurred in our present age of bottomless social-media outrage. Imagine if the Bailey controversy dropped tomorrow. Imagine how various outlets, all racing to publish the hottest take and all forced to rely on only those sparse, ambiguous scraps of evidence that filter down in the first days of an uproar over an unfamiliar subject, would cover it. If anything, all the incentives have gotten worse; if anything, the ranks of dedicated, safely employed critical thinkers in a position to be the voice of reason have thinned. In all likelihood, the coverage today would be far uglier and more prejudicial than it was when the scandal actually broke.

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. Chagnon and Bailey, after all, were good-faith researchers. They had both demonstrated, in the way only years of diligent scholarly work can, that they were fascinated by and cared deeply about their subjects. In their published writing, both men surfaced and amplified stories about hidden communities that never would have reached the wider world otherwise. And yet all this work counted for zilch, because when controversy erupted, they fit an easy-to-process, irresistible story line: They were white men exploiting vulnerable populations for personal gain. Imagine being a young psychologist genuinely interested in transgender issues, with a genuine desire to study them rigorously. What would the Bailey blowup tell you about the wisdom of staking your career on that field of research?

We should want researchers to poke around at the edges of "respectable" beliefs about gender and race and religion and sex and identity and trauma, and other issues that make us squirm. That's why the scientific method was invented in the first place. 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.

Posted by at January 1, 2016 10:04 AM