When activists attack scientific dissent

Doing research on some topics can get you in trouble.

Alice Dreger

Alice Dreger was the ideal person to become an activist on issues of intersex and transgender. She was white and straight and hence could be a firm ally without being accused of self-interest or personal animus. She was an historian of science and able to research the issues as well as speak out about them. And she was articulate.

In the US in the past two decades, intersex and transgender have become hot topics. Dreger became involved, almost by accident, through a suggested PhD topic: the history of biomedicine and what, a century ago, was called hermaphroditism.

Intersex refers to people whose bodies do not conform to the conventional ideas of normal female or male. For example, some individuals have versions of both a penis and vagina. Others have an extra large clitoris. There are many variations. Dreger found that in many cases such individuals were brought up as one gender or the other and most people didn’t know the difference. But in some cases, doctors decided that babies with ambiguous genitalia needed to be “fixed” by surgery, for example their clitorises reduced in size. This sometimes caused physical damage and led to emotional problems.

From a human rights perspective, it can be argued that surgery for intersex should only be undertaken when a person can give informed consent. Even the assignment to one gender or another at birth needs to be undertaken with care.

After researching the history of medicine and intersex, Dreger obtained visibility on the issue, was contacted by activists and was drawn into campaigning for intersex rights. She voluntarily relinquished her tenured academic job to become an activist, and for a decade she used all her skills on behalf of those who were being harmed by the imposition of a medical-sexual orthodoxy on people’s bodies.

Scientific research and gender politics

By another set of accidents, Dreger entered an even more contentious domain: defending scientists who challenged conventional ideas about sexual identity. Michael Bailey argued that transgender is shaped by both biology and culture. He distinguished between two types of male-to-female transsexuals: “transkids” (Dreger’s preferred term) who are males attracted to other males, and “amour de soi en femme,” males who dream of being females. Only some change their bodily sex, depending on cultural conditions. Bailey drew on previous work by Ray Blanchard.

Michael Bailey

As well as publishing papers in scholarly journals, Bailey wrote a book, The man who would be queen, which received some publicity and also generated hostility from a few transgender campaigners who were offended by being characterised as “amour de soi en femme.” The hostility went beyond expressing disagreement. Bailey was targeted as a scholar and a person, for example with complaints made to his university about ethics violations.

Some people who knew Dreger urged her to look into the Bailey story. She did, using her skills as a researcher. She concluded that Bailey’s research work was solid. She also arranged to meet Bailey, to judge for herself claims that he was anti-gay and anti-trans. To her surprise, she discovered that he was totally comfortable with gay and trans people, and highly sympathetic to them.

Dreger wrote a long analysis of the Bailey saga and arranged for it to be published in an academic journal. It amounted to a defence of Bailey against his attackers.

“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.” (p. 100)

As a result, Dreger herself became a target. This experience set Dreger on a course of action: defending scholars who unfairly came under attack.

She tells of her experiences in an engaging book titled Galileo’s middle finger: heretics, activists, and the search for justice in science. It is a candid account of her personal trajectory, with extended treatments of several case studies, of which Bailey’s is one.

Dreger addresses the damaging potential of political correctness in sexuality studies and anthropology. Political correctness here refers to adherence to a particular viewpoint that is linked to fair treatment of disadvantaged groups, for example sexual minorities and indigenous groups. A classic example is the study of race and IQ. The politically correct view is that there are no systematic differences in innate intelligence between different ethnic groups, with measured IQ variations due to cultural factors. Anyone who studies race and IQ enters a treacherous terrain in which the “wrong” findings can lead to being attacked. Most researchers steer clear of such topics.

Dreger is critical of subordinating scientific research to belief systems. She believes that doing good research is vital, and those who do good research should be defended against ideologues. Furthermore, she made it a personal duty to become a defender in a number of cases.

The mirror side of this position is a concern about bad research used to bolster harmful practices. Dreger became alarmed about the use of a steroid during pregnancy that was supposed to reduce the risk that a child would be intersex. This drug was being dispensed by a senior scientist, Maria New, to numerous mothers. Dreger began investigating and concluded that the research justifying this intervention was thin and that mothers were not being properly warned that the drug was experimental.

In this case, Dreger became involved to promote good science by trying to expose what she believed was bad science. She thought the solution was to get government regulatory bodies – one of them was the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) – to examine the evidence, but to her dismay the FDA’s assessment was that all was okay. Dreger learned that regulators can sometimes give the stamp of approval to bad practice.

Suppression of dissent

Since the late 1970s, I have been researching what I call “suppression of dissent.” In a typical case, a scientist does research or speaks out on an issue and challenges the interests of a powerful group, and as a result comes under attack. In some fields, including forestry, nuclear power, pesticides, fluoridation and vaccination, there is a pattern of suppression, with numerous scientists, engineers, doctors, dentists and others being penalised for expressing their views.

In some of these areas, there are key works describing numerous cases of suppression of dissent. George Waldbott, a US doctor critical of fluoridation, documented many cases of suppression of fluoridation critics in his 1965 book A struggle with titans. Robert van den Bosch, a US scientist, recounted case after case of reprisals against scientists who questioned the orthodoxy on pesticides in his 1978 book The pesticide conspiracy. David L. Lewis, yet another US scientist, tells of numerous suppression cases in his 2014 book Science for sale. To this list must now be added Dreger’s book Galileo’s middle finger.

(Suppression doesn’t only occur in the US! The 1986 edited book Intellectual suppression reports on numerous Australian cases and gives references to cases in other countries.)

There are many similarities between Dreger’s approach to suppression of dissent and my own experience. Both of us address challenges to scientific orthodoxy, often linked to influential groups, and attacks against dissidents. Each of us, in addition, became involved in a critique of establishment figures. In my case this involved analysis of the pro-nuclear positions of Sir Ernest Titterton and Sir Philip Baxter.

There are also some differences between our experiences and approaches. Most obviously, Dreger has addressed identity issues and taboo topics and encountered hostility from a particular group of activists. This is a different sort of configuration than the patterns I’ve mainly looked at, which involve vested interests of industry or government groups.

Another difference is that Dreger investigates research and researchers in considerable depth in order to determine who is right, scientifically. If, by her assessment, a scientist is doing good research, indeed better research than others, then it is unfair for the scientist to come under attack. This is a sound approach.

My usual approach is somewhat different. I do not seek to determine who is right, scientifically, for example whether a researcher’s findings on pesticides or vaccination are superior to others. My concern is that researchers should not be penalised just because their findings challenge orthodoxy or threaten vested interests. For this, the double standard test is useful. If two scientists do research on pesticides or vaccination, and one reaches conclusions supporting the orthodox view and one reaches conclusions challenging it, are they treated the same way? If the dissent-supporting scientist suffers reprisals but the orthodoxy-supporting scientist does not, this suggests suppression of dissent.

Galileo’s middle finger is an important book. Dreger learned from her journey:

“how badly most people want simple stories of male and female, nature and nurture, good and evil; how the Internet has gutted the Fourth Estate; how the government is made up of fallible and occasionally disappointing humans; and why, more than ever before, democracies must aggressively protect good research.” (p. 189)

Dreger has forged a vital path in a highly contentious area, and told of her experiences in a revealing and perceptive way. Anyone interested in science in a free society should pay heed.

Brian Martin

Thanks to Anneleis Humphries, Michael Matteson, Ben Morris and Tracey Woolrych for helpful comments.