Why Some of the Worst Attacks on Social Science Have Come From Liberals

By
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Alice Dreger, author of “Galileo's Middle Finger”

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.

When Dreger criticizes liberal politicization of science, she isn’t doing so from the seat of a trolling conservative. Well before she dove into some of the biggest controversies in science and activism, she earned her progressive bona fides. A historian of science by training, she spent about a decade early in her career advocating on behalf of intersex people — those born with neither “traditional” male nor female genitalia. For a long time, established medical practice was for the doctor or doctors present at childbirth to make the call one way or another and effectively carve a newborn’s genitals into the “proper” configuration, and in some cases to eventually prescribe courses of potentially harmful or unnecessary hormones. Sometimes the child in question was never even informed that they hadn’t been born a boy or a girl in the classical sense — indeed, sometimes even their parents weren’t. To the medical Establishment, all that mattered — even above patients’ physical and psychological health — was that young bodies fit neatly into one established gender category or the other.

Working together with a group of intersex activists, Dreger lobbied and educated tirelessly, eventually nudging the medical Establishment away from this protocol and toward a new, more humane norm in cases of genital malformation that don’t pose any health risk: Leave the kid’s genitals alone, allow them to grow up a little, and see what they and their family want to do later on. There doesn’t need to be a rush to assign gender and take aggressive medical action to enforce it.

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Eventually, as a result of burnout and other factors, Dreger’s work in this area waned, and she moved on to other projects. Through some of the social networks she had developed in her intersex work, she became interested in the broader world of scientific controversies, and began investigating them as thoroughly as possible — interviewing hundreds of people, chasing down primary documents, and so on. What she found, over and over, was that researchers whose conclusions didn’t line up with politically correct orthodoxies — whether the orthodoxy in question involved sexual abuse, transgender issues, or whatever else — often faced dire, career-threatening consequences simply for doing their jobs.

Two examples stand out as particularly egregious cases in which solid social science was attacked in the name of progressive causes. The first involves Napoleon Chagnon, an extremely influential anthropologist who dedicated years of his life to understanding and living among the Yanomamö, an indigenous tribe situated in the Amazon rain forest on the Brazil-Venezuela border — there are a million copies of his 1968 book Yanomamö: The Fierce People in print, and it’s viewed by many as an ethnographic classic. Chagnon made ideological enemies along the way; for one thing, he has long believed that human behavior and culture can be partially explained by evolution, which in some circles has been a frowned-upon idea. Perhaps more important, he has never sentimentalized his subjects, and his portrayal of the Yanomamö included, as Dreger writes, “males fighting violently over fertile females, domestic brutality, ritualized drug use, and ecological indifference.” Dreger suggests that Chagnon’s reputation as a careful, dedicated scholar didn’t matter to his critics — what mattered was that his version of the Yanomamö was “Not your standard liberal image of the unjustly oppressed, naturally peaceful, environmentally gentle rain-forest Indian family.”

In 2000, Chagnon’s critics seized upon a once-in-a-career opportunity to go after him. That was the year a journalist named Patrick Tierney published Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon. The book — and a related New Yorker article by Tierney — leveled a series of spectacular allegations against Chagnon and James V. Neel Sr., a geneticist and physician with whom Chagnon had collaborated during his work with the Yanomamö (Neel died of cancer shortly before the book’s publication). Among other things, Tierney charged that Chagnon and Neel had intentionally used a faulty vaccine to infect the Yanomamö with measles so as to test Nazi-esque eugenics theories, and that one or both men had manipulated data, started wars on purpose, paid tribespeople to kill one another, and “purposefully with[held] medical care while experimental subjects died from the allegedly vaccine-induced measles,” as Dreger writes.

These charges stuck in part because Terence Turner and Leslie Sponsel, two anthropologists who disliked Chagnon and his work, sent the American Anthropological Association an alarming letter about Tierney’s allegations prior to the publication of Darkness in El Dorado. Rather than wait to see if the spectacular claims in the book passed the smell test, the AAA responded by quickly launching a full investigation in the form of the so-called El Dorado Task Force — a move that led to a number of its members resigning in protest. A media firestorm engulfed Chagnon — “Scientist ‘killed Amazon indians to test race theory’,” read a Guardian headline — and he was forced to defend himself against accusations that he had brutalized members of a tribe he had devoted his career to living with and studying and, naturally, had developed a strong sense of affection for in the process. A number of fellow anthropologists and professional organizations came to the defense of Chagnon and Neel, pointing out obvious problems with Tierney’s claims and timeline, but these voices were drowned out by the hysteria over the evil, murderous anthropologist and his doctor-accomplice. Dreger writes that Chagnon’s “career had essentially been halted by the whole mess.” (Chagnon’s memoirs, published in 2013, are entitled Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes — the Yanomamö and the Anthropologists.)

There was, it turns out, nothing to these claims. Over the course of a year of research and interviews with 40 people involved in the controversy in one way or another, Dreger discovered the disturbing, outrageous degree to which the charges against Chagnon and Neel were fabricated — to the point where some of the numerous footnotes in Tierney’s book plainly didn’t support his own claims. All the explosive accusations about Nazi-like activities and exploitation, and the intentional fomenting of violence, were simply made up or willfully misinterpreted. Worse, some of them could have been easily debunked with just a tiny bit of research — in one case, it took Dreger all of an hour in an archive of Neel’s papers to find strong evidence refuting the claim that he helped intentionally infect the Yanomamö with measles (a claim that was independently debunked by others, anyway).

In the end, Dreger published the results of her investigation in the journal Human Nature, recounting the full details of Chagnon’s ordeal at the hands of Tierney, and the many ways Tierney fabricated and misrepresented data to attack the anthropologist and Neel. Darkness Is El Dorado is still available on Amazon, its original, glowing reviews and mention of its National Book Award nomination intact; and Tierney’s New Yorker article is still online, with no editor’s note explaining the factual inaccuracies contained therein.

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Dreger also recounts her earlier investigation into the controversy surrounding J. Michael Bailey, a Northwestern University psychologist and researcher of human sexuality and former chair of that university’s psychology department. In 2003, Bailey released The Man Who Would Be Queen: The Science of Gender-Bending and Transsexualism, a book in which he relates the stories of several transgender women and promotes the theories of Ray Blanchard, a Canadian sex researcher with a long history of working with patients who were born anatomically male but hoped to undergo gender reassignment.

In his book, Bailey explains that Blanchard believed his patients who had transitioned, or who were hoping to, fit into two rather different categories. Some were “transkids” (a non-clinical term Dreger, not Bailey, uses): folks who were born as boys but had been very effeminate by societal standards since childhood, and who were attracted to men once they hit puberty. In these cases, Blanchard posited, access to sex and intimate companionship might have been one component of what eventually pushed them to start presenting as female. As Dreger explains, the fact that transkids come across so effeminate “means that their sexual opportunities are often limited while they are presenting themselves as men. Straight men aren’t interested in having sex with them because they’re male, and gay men often aren’t sexually attracted to them because most gay men are sexually attracted to masculinity, not femininity, and these guys are really femme.” Transitioning, then, gives transkids an opportunity to have the relationships with men they’d like to — because they’re effeminate, they can pass as women whom straight men find themselves attracted to.

The second, more controversial type of male-to-female transitioner posited by Blanchard consisted of folks with so-called autogynephilia. These individuals have usually presented as male for most of their lives and are attracted to women, but they discover along the way that they are sexually aroused by the idea of being a woman. They tend to transition later in life, often after having married women and started families.

There’s also a really important cultural component to Blanchard’s theory, as Dreger writes:

Blanchard’s taxonomy of male-to-female transexuals recognized the importance of sexual orientation in the gendered self-identities of both those who begin as homosexual males and those who experience amour de soi en femme [the French phrase for “love of oneself as a woman”]. However, he didn’t see sexual orientation as the only thing a male factors in when deciding whether to transition. He recognized that in one environment — say, an urban gay neighborhood like Chicago’s Boystown — an ultrafemme gay man might find reasonable physical safety, employment, and sexual satisfaction simply by living as an ultrafemme gay man. But in a very different environment — say, a homophobic ethnic enclave in Chicago — he might find life survivable only via complete transition to womanhood. Whether a transkid grows up to become a gay man or a transgender woman would depend on the individual’s interaction with the surrounding cultural environment. Similarly, an autogynephilic man might not elect transition if his cultural milieu would make his post-transition life much harder.

There is, to say the least, a huge amount going on here. But what’s key to keep in mind is that some transgender people and activists hold very dear the idea that they have simply been born in the wrong type of body, that transitioning allows them to effectively fix a mistake that nature made. The notion that there might be a cultural component to the decision to transition, or that sexuality, rather than a hardwired gender identity, could be a factor, complicates this gender-identity-only narrative. It also brings sexuality back into a conversation that some trans activists have been trying to make solely about gender identity — roughly parallel to the way some gay-rights activists sweep conversations about actual gay sexuality under the rug, preferring to focus on idealized, unthreatening-to-heterosexuals portrayals of committed gay relationships between clean-cut, taxpaying adults.

But as Dreger explains, 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 explosion The 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.” Central to their argument was the idea that Bailey had dragged his trans subjects out into the spotlight without their consent, that he had callously manipulated them and used them for his own purposes — a particularly potent charge given that outing someone as transgender can, in the most extreme instances, put their life at risk given the scary levels of violence this population faces at the hands of bigots. (Conway’s website originally included Dreger’s own name on a list of trans activists and allies who were furious with Bailey over his book, even though, at that time, Dreger was only faintly familiar with the controversy and had never even expressed a public opinion on the issue. Dreger asked Conway to remove her name.)

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. (James herself, Dreger reveals, acknowledged her own autogynephilia — using that exact word — in a 1998 letter.)

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. Before the full weight of the controversy descended, The Man Who Would Be Queen had been nominated for the Lambda Literary Award’s 2004 prize in the transgender/genderqueer category for its textured, supportive portrayal of its transgender subjects. As a result of immense pressure — Deirdre McCloskey, a respected scholar of economics and history who wrote a memoir about her male-to-female transition, and who helped Conway and James go after Bailey, said nominating the book for the award “would be like nominating Mein Kampf for a literary prize in Jewish studies” — the organization voted to yank the nomination.

Just as she would later dive deep into the controversy that ensnared Napoleon Chagnon, Dreger devoted a huge amount of time to untangling what had really happened. It would take pages to even concisely summarize what she found — she eventually published her almost-50,000-word investigation in Archives of Sexual Behavior, in an article which starts, “This is not a simple story. If it were, it would be considerably shorter.”

But to get a flavor of the quality of the evidence amassed against Bailey by his critics, consider one charge: that Bailey had practiced psychology without a license. Conway, James, and McCloskey filed a formal complaint with the state of Illinois claiming that, since Bailey lacked a license as a clinical psychologist, he had violated state regulations by writing those letters in support of the young trans women seeking to transition. Not only was there no legal basis to the claim — if you don’t receive compensation for your services, which Bailey didn’t, you don’t even need a license to provide counseling in Illinois — but Bailey was completely forthright in his letters supporting the women, both about the fact that he had only had brief conversations with them (as opposed to having provided them with extensive counseling) and about his own qualifications and expertise — he even attached copies of his CV. “Presumably all this was why [Illinois] never bothered to pursue the charge,” writes Dreger, “although you’d never know that from reading the press accounts, which mentioned only the complaints, not that they had petered out.”

And that’s just one example. Over and over, in instances that covered every facet of the campaign against Bailey — including the charge that he had had sex with one of his subjects — Dreger discovered an astounding level of dishonesty and manipulation on the part of Bailey’s critics:

After nearly a year of research, I could come to only one conclusion: The whole thing was a sham. Bailey’s sworn enemies had used every clever trick in the book — juxtaposing events in misleading ways, ignoring contrary evidence, working the rhetoric, and using anonymity whenever convenient, to make it look as though virtually every trans woman represented in bailey’s book had felt abused by him and had filed a charge.

Of course, of all the right-thinking people who know, based on surface-level reporting or blog posts they read, that Mike Bailey is an anti-trans monster, only a tiny percentage are ever going to read, or even learn about, Dreger’s investigation. That’s the problem.

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There’s a risk of getting too cute here, of drawing false, unwarranted equivalencies. In a sense, my dad was right in what he was getting at — conservatives have done a lot of damage to sound science in the United States. It’s conservative lawmakers and organizations who have refused to acknowledge anthropogenic climate change, who have rallied to keep evolution out of textbooks and comprehensive sex education out of classrooms, who have stymied life-saving research into stem cells and gun control.

But that’s in the world of politics and lawmaking, where conservatives often have a numerical advantage. In the halls of social-science academia, where liberals do, it’s telling that some of the same sorts of feeding frenzies occur. 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.