First thoughts on Galileo's Middle Finger

I'm reading Galileo's Middle Finger by Dr. Alice Dreger (@alicedreger), and it's fantastic. It's a paean to evidence-based popular discourse on scientific issues -- something I am passionate about -- and it's very well written.

I bought the book because I ran across Dr. Dreger's excellent and hilarious live-tweeting of her son's sex-ed class (see storify here), which reminded me that I'd first read about her in the article Reluctant Crusader, on "Why Alice Dreger's writing on sex and science makes liberals so angry." While I'm pretty liberal in outlook, I'm also a scientist by inclination and training, and I often see the kinds of conflicts that Dr. Dreger talks about (where what people want to be true is unsupported by evidence, or directly conflicts with evidence).

The book is chock full of examples where Dr. Dreger examines controversies in science. The common theme is that some plucky scientist or set of scientists publish some perspective that is well supported by their data, but that runs against some commonly held perspective (or at least some perspective that an activist group holds). Vested interests of some kind then follow with scurrilous public or academic attacks that take years or decades to figure out. Dr. Dreger spends much of the book (so far) exploring the "playbook" used by these attackers to smear, harass, and undermine the original researchers.

At this point, I think it's important to note that most of the controversies that Dr. Dreger discusses are not "settled" -- science rarely settles things quickly -- but that in all the cases, there appears to be strong empirical evidence to support the conclusions being published. What Dr. Dreger never argues is that the particular science she is discussing is settled; rather, she often argues that it's not settled, and that the attackers are trying to make it look like it is, as a way to shut down further investigation. The kind of "double negative" espoused by Dr. Dreger ("my research doesn't show that gravity works, it shows that there is no reason to believe that gravity doesn't work") is how I try to operate in my own research, and I have an awful lot of sympathy for this general strategy as I think it's how science should work.

There are a few things about Dr. Dreger's book that rub me the wrong way, and I may or may not blog about them in detail when I'm done with the book. (Two brief items: despite showing how easily peer review can be manipulated to support personal vendettas, she consistently uses "peer reviewed" as a label to put work that supports her own positions beyond doubt. Also, she's so impassioned about the issues that she comes off as wildly un-objective at times. I think she also downplays just how complicated a lot of the research she's examining is to do and understand.) Most of my concerns can be attributed to this being an advocacy book aimed at a popular audience, where careful and objective presentations of the underlying science need to be weighed against the audience, and in compensation for this Dr. Dreger provides plenty of footnotes and citations that let interested people follow up on specific items.

But! What I wanted to write about in this blog post is two things -- first, MONEY. And second, media, the Internet, and Internet harassment.

First, MONEY.

I'm only about halfway through the book, but it's striking that Dr. Dreger has so far not talked about some really big issues like global warming, which is kind of a poster child for science denialism these days. All of the issues in the book have to do with controversies where relatively small amounts of money were on the line. Unlike global warming, or tobacco and cancer, "all" that is at stake in the controversies in the book is sociopolitical agendas and human identity - crucially, nothing that hits at a big industry's bottom line.

What Dr. Dreger points out, though, is that even in circumstances where money is not the main issue, it is very hard for evidence to even get a fair hearing. (Even discounting those research imbroglios that Dr. Dreger is herself involved in, she presents plenty of data that the way our society handles contentious situations is just broken. More on that below.) But it doesn't take much imagination to guess that when real money is on the line, the "plucky scientist" faces even more massive obstacles. We've seen exactly how this plays out in the case of tobacco and cancer, where it took decades for scientists and patient advocates to overcome the industry-funded nonsense.

The same thing seems to be happening in climate change policy. I'm minded of a comment on Twitter that I've since lost track of -- badly paraphrased, it goes something like this: "Giant oil companies would have us believe that scientists are the ones with the overwhelming conflict of interest in the global warming discussion. What?"

I like to think about these things in terms of Bayesian priors. Who am I more likely to believe in a disagreement? The interest group which has billions of dollars at stake, or the scientists who are at least trained in objective inquiry? It's almost insane to fail to take into account the money stakes. Moreover, there are plenty of indications that, even when wrong initially, scientists are self-correcting; but I've never seen an interest group go "oops, I guess we got that wrong, let's rethink." So I guess you know my position here :). But thinking of it in terms of priors, however strong they may be, means that I'm more alert to the possibility of counter-evidence.

Anyway, I'm not an expert on any of this; my area of expertise is confined to a few areas in genomics and computational biology at this point. So it's very hard for me to evaluate the details of some of Dr. Dreger's cases. But I think that's one of the points she's getting at in the book -- who do we trust when seemingly trustworthy academic societies get manipulated by activist agendas? How do we reach some sort of conclusion, if not broad consensus then at least academic consensus, on issues that are (at the least) not well understood yet? And (one place where Dr. Dreger excels) how do we evaluate and decide on the ethical standards to apply to biomedical (or other) research? All very relevant to many things going on today, and all very tricky.

Media, and the Internet

At the point I'm at in the book, Dr. Dreger has undergone a transition from being press-driven to being Internet driven. She points out that in the recession, the big media companies essentially lost the staff to pursue deep, technically tricky stories; coincident, "mainstream media" lost a lot of trust as the Internet came along and helped enable audience fragmentation. This meant that she had to take her fights to the Internet to convince the masses (or at least the Google search engine) much more so than relying on deep investigation by arbiters of "official" social policy like the NY Times or New Yorker.

I think in many ways this is a massive improvement -- I hate the fact that, in science, we've got these same kinds of official arbiters -- but it's interesting to read through the book and recognize Dr. Dreger's shift in thinking and tactics. It's especially ironic given that the same kind of tactics she starts to use in the dexamethasone investigation are the ones used against her in some of her intersex work. But, again, this is kind of the point of her book - it's not enough to rely on someone's credentials and sense of justice to evaluate their message, you need to actually look into the evidence yourself.

It's particularly interesting to fold Dr. Dreger's observations about Internet harassment and shaming into my general body of knowledge about how the Internet is used to, well, harass, shame, derail, and otherwise sandbag particular messages and people. Which reminds me, I need to watch all of Dr. Gabriella Coleman's PyCon 2015 keynote on Anonymous...

A Not-Really Conclusion

At the end of the day, I worry that the "trust no one, investigate yourself" message is too challenging for our culture to grasp in a productive way. And yet I'm firmly convinced it's the only way forward. How can we do this better as scientists and educators?


p.s. I'm thinking about instituting a commenting policy, perhaps one based on Captain Awkward's policy. Thoughts?

p.p.s. There's some sort of irony in me leaving Michigan State just as I discover that Dr. Dreger is local. I may try to track her down for coffee while I'm still in town, although I'm sure she's super busy...

Comments !

(Please check out the comments policy before commenting.)