A rowdy, harrowing, vital book: My Times review of ‘Galileo’s Middle Finger,’ by Alice Dreger.

Galileo's Finger
Galileo’s middle finger, Florence, Italy

I’ve a review of Alice Dreger’s latest book in this week’s New York Times Sunday Book Review; it just appeared online.


“Galileo’s Middle Finger” is many things: a rant, a manifesto, a treasury of evocative new terms (sissyphobia, autogynephilia, phall-o-meter) and an account of the author’s transformation “from an activist going after establishment scientists into an aide-de-camp to scientists who found themselves the target of activists like me” — and back again.

As its title suggests, the book is also a defiant gesture aimed at those who would deny empiricism. Yet this middle finger (Galileo’s actual middle finger, in fact, which Dreger stumbles across in Italy) is raised in affirmation as well. It points toward the stars that confirmed his cosmology — and toward empiricism’s power to create a fairer, more rational society. For Galileo is famous not just because he saw how the stars move. He’s famous because he insisted we see for ourselves how the world works, share what we see and shape our society accordingly.

Dreger brings a similar mission to ­activism and ethics. She insists that both be based on evidence, so that we respond to problems as they really are, rather than as we’d like to see them.

Dreger is not merely a lively writer but efficient as well — all the more important in a book as stuffed with adventure and information as this one. She brings in Galileo, for instance, early, swiftly, and gracefully, and in two punchy paragraphs tells the core of his tale. In two more she delivers his core wisdom:

Stop thinking that the authorities know what they’re talking about when they’re talking about natural causes and effects. Focus your mind on discoverable evidence. 

I should note that while Dreger (and I, for reviewing the book favorably) will be likely be attacked for being against some particular agenda, her point (and thus mine) is not about ends, but means. She wants people to pursue agendas, especially those concerning ethics, in a way that stays true to the facts.

Her fight in her chapter about transgender politics, for instance, is not with any particular transgender agenda, but with the willingness of one particular group of transgender activists, at one particular time, to pursue its agenda by ignoring credible evidence (and indulging in ad hominem attacks). That is, a small group of activists was not only willing to call her son a womb turd (seriously), but to ignore, and ask others to ignore, the credible evidence on which their target based his work.

Dreger lifts her middle finger (and Galileo’s), in short, not at people advocating for transgender rights and recognition (a cause she had worked for herself), but at anyone asking us let ideology trump facts. Evidence, she asserts, “is … the most important ethical issue in a modern democracy.” For only on empirical evidence — the actual reality of what is happening — can we base ethical action and behavior.

It’s a wildly entertaining book, chock full of amazing stories. And by its nature — and hers, for she is a lively, rowdy, funny, plainspoken writer and advocate —  bound to test almost any reader’s emotions at some point. Most likely you will object at some point to something here. The book’s strength is that it asks, even demands, that you object on the basis of fact.

Photo by Marc Roberts via flickr, some rights reserved.  



  1. Bravo for bringing “Galileo’s Middle Finger” to my attention. I have been unable to put it down since the moment I received it, and I literally had to tear myself away for just long enough to write this brief note. It has especially been helpful to me to understand some of the issues a dear old friend of mine must have gone through on her long journey to become the woman she is today. And of course on the larger field of play, I so much appreciate hearing Dreger’s clear, strong, incisive voice for the first time.

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  3. [editor’s note: I’ve edited the letter below to strike out the parts (still visible) that depend solely or heavily on ad hominem attack and/or conjecture about motives rather than argument about ideas, statements, or facts. This per my own guidelines for comments on this blog, which are aimed at creating discussion of ideas and actions rather than attacks on individuals or their unknowable motivations.]

    I think you are profoundly naïve, or more likely, disingenuous, to suggest that Dreger does not have an agenda regarding transgender people. Your own descriptors of “credible evidence” and “well-supported, peer-reviewed” suggest a deeply partisan position on your own part, or at the very least, a facile grasp of the debate. The entire affair erupted precisely because Bailey never conducted clinical research of his own yet somehow managed to publish his vague theorising under the prestigious National Academy of Sciences imprint (under the famously LGBT-friendly Bush administration).

    Also you seem to be in a state of high dudgeon over an infantile remark like “womb turd”. Either you particularly sensitive to school-yard-level insults, or you are deliberately seeking a narrative to counter the accusation of sexual misconduct against Bailey and pathologising implications of the theory itself. I am not defending the actions of certain activists. Their misbehaviour does not obscure the fact you are dealing with a researcher who likely abused basic clinical ethical standards and, moreover, people who choose for example to label someone ‘homosexual’ (knowing the implications of that label) in preference to the readily available term ‘androphilic’.

    I’m not suggesting autogynephilia does not exist, but that it is unsupported by the evidence to be presented as Bailey and Blanchard have. Charles Moser and Madeline H. Wyndzen, have both published excellent critiques of the theory. The entire theory of Blanchard rests upon a strict binary, the exact sort of binary you admit does not exist for biological sex, and does not exist for sexuality either…but supposedly exists for transsexuals. Finally Blanchard and Bailey’s inability to account for bisexuality in a nuanced fashion is particularly glaring.

    The bottom line is that you harm real people by endorsing this self-serving and partisan history that endorses a theory with minimal support among researchers and healthcare workers.

  4. How preposterous for her to either assert or imply that either she or her colleagues at Northwestern were oppressed the way Gallileo was by the Church. What she and her friends did to Angelica Kieltyka was totally unethical. Sexology is not an objective science. This is about politics not science. How much different does she sound on free speech and scientific inquiry than Pat Robertson, who says Hillary Clinton is involved in a “gay plot” to “do away with the first amendment”? She supports a man with a checkered past who is as oppressed as Charles Murray, who makes similar arguments.

    1. I’m surprised you published my comment. C. Titus Brown told me my commenting history on Disqus was “rude”. Whatever. Alice Dreger is truly a charmer. I saw her speak at Brown when she was plugging the Chicago Consensus Statement on the Management of Intersex nomenclature and a pathologizing terminology suited to a medical establishment that insists on making perfectly healthy people with sex variations into disordered human beings based on how far their variations placed them from dimorphic paradigms.

      After her 60 some odd page academic paper in support of the White Rajah of North Halstead she seems to have become the go to person for people with tarnished reputations, e.g. Chagnon, who I know far less about than I do Bailey and those Bailey considers colleagues. From what I have learned about not only Bailey but the CAMH in Toronto, NICHD, Johns Hopkins psychohormonal unit, etc. it makes me doubt what she has to say about Chagnon.

      J. Michael Bailey is a tragic character, from my perspective. You may see him as some sort of a peer but over the years, as I have gained a somewhat deeper understanding. It is apparent that these controversies about “political correctness” are much bigger than the one J. Michael Bailey found himself in. Apparently, John Horgan felt threatened by Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennet, E O Wilson et al when he attempted to write a review about John Tierney that he considered objective. Tierney is supposedly some kind of loathsome anti-vaccer now so I suppose anyone who saw any light in his critique of Chagnon will be associated with that.

      You know, the bottom line for me is Bailey used human beings as his research subjects and did so in a most cavalier and disingenuous manner. He was lauded by the National Academy of Science for running roughshod over people. He focused on a subculture within a demographic and painted a portrait of that demographic as if that demographic were synonymous with a sub-culture it is not.

      The most omnipotent New York Times seems most enamored of evolutionary psychologists who seem to make the evidence fit the thesis. You write for a very powerful organization. I doubt you know what it feels like to be roadkill.

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