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
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.
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
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
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.
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...
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