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Galileo's Middle Finger: Heretics, Activists, and the Search for Justice in Science

3.72  ·  Rating details ·  1,913 ratings  ·  344 reviews
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 offe ...more
Hardcover, 337 pages
Published March 10th 2015 by Penguin Press
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Barry Belmont
I won this book in a Goodreads Giveaway. I signed up for a chance to win given my love of all things science writing. Penguin Press was nice enough to send me a copy and I wanted to return the favor by writing a really thorough review. When I began, I didn’t know what this would become. I see now that it’s a grotesquely long review. However, I am including it all as my way of saying thank you for the opportunity. Now to the review proper.

This is the worst book I’ve read all year. In the followin
Alice Dreger is a self-described activist and scholar, with a reverence for truth and evidence-based research. In Galileo's Middle Finger, we get a personal accounting of the intersection of science, activism, and ethics as she has encountered it in her own causes, and her advocacy for others. As a science and medical historian who researches bioethics, her recent work is in the field of intersex persons and their encounters with the medical establishment.

The first half of the book speaks to on
Mar 09, 2015 rated it really liked it
I seem to be unintentionally reading on a theme. We are being lied to and manipulated by people in positions of power, be that a position in politics, science, or any number of other specialty fields, who have personal agendas they are intent on carrying out. It is becoming increasingly easy for these individuals and groups to promote their agendas as technology continues to become more accessible and allows people to connect with each other and spread (dis)information. Our current social climat ...more

"But for now, academic freedom is under assault in America today on so many different fronts: Republican lawmakers who want to shut down “liberal” university faculty and programs; liberals who think that suppression of “offensive” speech and ideas is necessary to social progress; university administrators and trustees worried about tainting brands and offending big donors. As I explained in this book, the Internet has already caused the decimation of investigative journalism. If we now combine t
Jan 23, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction, science
Science ethics and everything on the spectrum from petty academic squabbling to outright (figurative) hit jobs. This book is pretty much guaranteed to make you mad at everyone - including the author - though probably for different reasons.

More review later.
Angie Reisetter
Feb 22, 2015 rated it it was amazing
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. And I had zeroed in way too much on the Galileo in the title and the cover but... well, he is on the cover and in the title. What was all this about intersex people and transsexuals? I mean, ...more
“When you think you're Good fighting Evil, you can continue fighting well past the point that would otherwise count as spent. But Bo and I had come to realize we were not Good fighting Evil. We were dealing with well-intentioned but myopic people who weren't seeing what we couldn't help but see when we took the long view in weighing the evidence.”

Reading this book was very eye opening for a non-academic such as myself as I had only the faintest inkling how politicized science can be. The author,
Kristi Richardson
I was gifted this book as part of the Penguin First to Read Program.

This non fiction work is the brain child of Alice Dreger 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. Dreger 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
Elizabeth Olson
Mar 16, 2015 rated it really liked it
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. ...more
We are doomed.
Katie/Doing Dewey
Dec 19, 2014 rated it liked it
I thought this was a fascinating and well-written book, but it wasn't the book I had hoped for. The author starts with a story of medical abuse. She then briefly talks to several researchers who were attacked for their work and end with another story about medical abuse based on poor science. Neither the beginning nor the ending story were particularly interesting to me, because they seem so clear cut. There wasn't any question of what needed to be done to resolve the science and the activism. I ...more
May 28, 2015 rated it liked it
So, this is Dreger’s story: She was an activist for the rights of the transgendered people. All hell broke loose when she backed up a psychologist named J. Michael Bailey who wrote a book in which he claimed that male-to-female sex change is not as simple as the widely-quoted and politically-correct cliché about “a woman tragically trapped in a man’s body,” and sex and eroticism play a major role in it. In other words, it’s not about some abstract identity. This, obviously, did not suite well wi ...more
Jul 30, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: science, politics
Galileo’s Middle Finger is a book about tensions between science and activism, as seen in a number of examples from Alice Dreger’s career. I thought it would be interesting to hear from someone who has been on both sides of this divide — the activist pushing back against the scientific/medical establishment as well as the defender of wrongly accused scientists. In addition, I was curious to hear from a free speech advocate who seems to be genuine in her views rather than someone pushing a partic ...more
Robb Bridson
Jan 14, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Despite many things I found grating (many uses of the word "journey", contemplation of disowning the label "feminist" because some feminists and some institutions did something stupid, sentimentalism toward American democracy, an overhyped and ego-stroking Galileo metaphor) and missing (the market effects on academia and media--particularly sensationalism, the fact that activists mostly fight with normal people while scholars generally ignore them--as in this book for the most part!), this book ...more
Aug 13, 2016 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2016-read

I picked this up because Dreger is coming to KU and giving a talk in a few weeks, and I was interested in finding out more about her. Midway through the first chapter it became clear to me that I did know who Alice Dreger is and I did know her writing, since I had read Hermaphrodites and the Medical Invention of Sex in an undergrad class on science and the body.

This book is not a history of Galileo - or a history of scientists across the ages. Instead it is focused and driven by Dreger's own ex
Apr 16, 2015 rated it it was ok
Shelves: nonfic-misc
A popular account of several controversies involving science and activism which Alice Dreger has been involved in. Dreger tries to link these controversies together via a central theme about how truth and justice need one another, but she does so in a confused way and some of the specific cases fit the theme very poorly.

Dreger's discussion of Maria New's unethical research alone makes the book at least somewhat valuable. I had not known about New, and Dreger has done important detective work on
Rama Rao
Jan 22, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: science
The society in conflict: Handling academic freedom and political correctness

In this book, Northwestern University Professor Alice Dreger tackles an interesting topic of academic freedom and social responsibility. She discusses three cases in particular. First, the work of anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon for his long-term ethnographic field work among the Yanomamö, a society of indigenous tribal Amazonians, in which he used unconventional evolutionary theory and genetics to understand social beh
Starts well, but one-sided on Ev Psych

I had thought about rating this as four stars, but ... couldn't quite do it.

I do think, per other commenters, some of Dreger's claims are overarching, but not the ones they think are.

First, the science on the two main issues. I have long thought, as some of Dreger's interviewees do, that there are (at least) two types of transgenders transsexuals. And, I think she's spot-on on intersex issues as well.

Second, on the issue of "social justice warriors." I've be
Bryan Alexander
Galileo's Middle Finger is a fascinating, passionate, utterly engaging, and very odd book.

To explain: Dreger's subject is not Galileo, but a series of stories about contemporary scientific controversies. These cover a range of fields, from pediatrics to sexuality, criminology and anthropology... which does stretch the definition of "science." The three big topics are intersex treatment, Napoleon Chagnon's anthropological studies, and transgender psychology. That might sound abstract, but Dreger
Nathan Duffy
Jan 05, 2016 rated it it was ok
There are two major aspects of this book, one which I abhor and the other which is valuable and important, making for a decidedly mixed bag.

On the one hand -- as the title intimates -- the author is completely taken in by simplistic, pop history of Galileo, one of the forerunners of the Enlightenment, as a bold truth-seeker and uncompromising man of science, spitting in the face of the stifling and oppressive powers of dogmatism and authoritarianism. Modern science and democracy, as twin daught
Dan Elton
Oct 04, 2020 rated it really liked it
This book documents the shocking degree to which bad-actors have gained traction in certain parts of academia, and in addition degree to which people have been afraid to call them out. In the words of E.O. Wilson, these people are "mountebanks and poseurs" who put "ideology ahead of science".

The author takes pain to emphasize there is nothing wrong with activist scholars - that is, scholars who in addition to pursuing truth are also pushing for social change. In fact, the author first made a na
Jeff Wong
Nov 11, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I knew very little about this book when I bought it but the cover seemed interesting. It IS an interesting read -- a historian activist (the author) trying her best to look into fraudulent claims on the work of various scientists by other social activists. Starting off with the concerns related to intersex births/births of infants with ambiguous genitalia, to the social-anthropologist who was wrongly reported of abusing his research subjects (the Yanomano people in South America) to what seems l ...more
Keith Akers
Mar 25, 2015 rated it really liked it
This is an important book, and yet I cannot quite identify its real subject matter. Basically, it’s about science and how science operates today, but this is illustrated through unusually detailed examples from her own life.

Alice Dreger is involved in research concerning sexuality, but other areas are mentioned as well. She uncovers a lot of outrageous things going on in science — mostly lying, covering up the evidence or making up evidence, and heartless manipulation of other people. She has s
Tiz. T.
Feb 17, 2016 rated it did not like it
Shelves: science-generic
You know a book is bad when you agree with what the author is saying and you STILL think it is more or less garbage.

And this was the case of this book and me.

The premise, that sometime the social justice movement goes after people (especially but not only) scientists who dare to speak again them, is valid. The author doesn't know Tumblr, but many of us do, and I left that environment because I was deeply disturbed by the callout culture, even if I made good friends there.


The points, for me,
Apr 17, 2022 rated it did not like it
Yeah you lost me when you defended "The Man Who Would Be Queen," Alice. ...more
Julie Salinas
Mar 21, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: firsttoread
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. Perso ...more
Ally Web
Mar 06, 2015 rated it liked it
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 ...more
Dec 21, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Excellent! This book is an excellent telling of scientific misconduct (or lack thereof). While this book is mostly regarding intersex research, there is something here I think every junior research (and lay person) can take away.

She details, at least in my view, WHY lay people need to do a better job of understanding the material they are attempting to attack (or save). Those who find themselves reading "only the headline" and reacting to that are who come to mind. I appreciated her input on Dr
Apr 27, 2015 rated it liked it
This book is a semi-autobiographical tour of the author's campaigns to rectify two wrongs: 1) the harm done to patients by physicians who utilize unnecessary treatment modalities to "correct" intersex conditions based on simplistic concepts of human sexuality; 2) how identity politics has interfered with pure science and scholarship promulgating false ideas and in the process ruining the careers of otherwise deserving practitioners. In both cases these harms are facilitated by weak governing boa ...more
This book, like Max Blumenthal's "Goliath," is a worthwhile book by an author whom I dislike. Dreger is an activist, mostly for causes I don't much care for, and she's a bit of a scold

However, she had integrity, and her basic message, for evidence-based science even where it contradicts ideological preconceptions, is one I support.

Dreger writes about sex-assignment surgery on intersex infants, the persecution of the anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon, and the treatment of fetuses with steroids to
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Alice Dreger is a Professor of Clinical Medical Humanities and Bioethics at Feinberg School of Medicine of Northwestern University.

"In a phrase, I do social justice work in medicine and science. I do that through my research, writing, speaking, and advocacy. . . Much of my professional energies has gone to using history to improve the medical and social treatment of people born with norm-challengi

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