Galileo’s Middle Finger by Alice Dreger – A Preview

As promised, I’ve obtained and started reading Alice Dreger’s recent (2015) personal account of mis-directed politics both in science and in its place in society. Clearly very much within my own agenda, so as I often do, I like to post a preview of my first impressions and (my own) prejudices, it ensures any eventual review is transparently honest. This interest is meta, about the processes and interactions, but the topic is sex and gender differences.

Firstly, Galileo himself, heroic legend in science, has had so much written already, it’s hard to separate fact from myth and motivation, and these from the valid symbolism that nevertheless remains to the benefit of science and society. In Dreger’s case, she additionally latches onto the spin-on-it / flippin-the-finger allusion in Galileo’s middle finger being preserved as a “religious” relic in Florence. (*) Of Galileo the hero, Dreger acknowledges the common picture containing reality as well as mythology by reference to David Wooton’s (2010) biography. Based on my recent reading of Arthur Koestler (1959), I have to say there is a good deal more myth than fact. His “persecution” and “house-arrest” by the Catholic church really seemed to suit the stroking of his own ego. And, though his terrestrial mechanics and espoused open-questioning of scientific progress, against dogmas of the day, remain immensely important and valuable any day, his actual ideas in cosmology were almost entirely political in practice – (see Catholic church and ego above!) [Interesting up-front dedication by Dreger “For Kepler, who saved his mother.” – Koestler’s hero in the above.]

Talking of the Catholic church, Dreger opens with a thought she suspects not many readers would get in advance – that the Catholic church is in fact full of rational free-thinkers. I’m already there. The Jesuits in general and the Bishops and Cardinals often had much more nuanced and honest views of the relationship between dogma and rationality, than their scientific “enemies” display. [And I have a side thread on intellectuals migrating to catholicism.] Science is often much more dogmatic than religion.

Secondly, taxonomy, gender taxonomy in Dreger’s case, is a core topic for me. She is at pains early on to point out the inherent fuzziness of gender for between 1 in 300 to 1 in 100 of us (depending on how … ), before we get to any “so what?” questions. Assignment of classes is always purpose driven, class boundaries are always fuzzy and dependent on your chosen bases for membership. Classes (male or female) are never wholly objective. However this does not mean the identification of major classes of membership must be dismissed as meaningless and useless, far from it. It is always a matter of value and purpose to assign class (gender) in any case. As I’ve written before when it comes to humans, class membership is “identity politics” and more – and there is no better starting-point than self-identity where there are multiple, fuzzy or otherwise overlapping groups and purposes as bases of membership. But this is all about political motives.

Thirdly and finally for now, she says:

” I have come to understand that the pursuit of evidence
is probably the most pressing moral imperative of our time.”

Interesting qualifiers there – not evidence itself and not definitely. Shock. Horror. I’m less strongly pro-evidence than even that. We should always seek evidence and never ignore that which exists, but we must not fetishise evidence to the point that its lack paralyses essential value-based decisions and actions (A view I share with Dick Taverne). Caveats aside, the agenda and signalled conclusions are bang on. She continues:

“Yet … we’ve built up a system in which scientists and social justice advocates are fighting in ways that poison the soil on which both depend.”

So, my own agenda front and centre, I’m reading on …


Ref:- The main “controversy” that prompted the writing of Alice’s 2015 book is documented in this 2008 Pub Med Central article.

[Post Note: See Alice’s comment below. I have a different view about evidence – for me it’s about appropriateness of evidence, which kinds of evidence for which situations. Evidence per se is not THE most important thing. See also this much later FB thread.]

[(*) Note that her title is also an allusion to Pete Atkins (2004) “Galileo’s Finger” – which I hadn’t noticed at the time.]


8 thoughts on “Galileo’s Middle Finger by Alice Dreger – A Preview”

  1. Read what I say. Using evidence is not a fetish. It’s a fetish to assume ALL action needs evidence base.

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