Shooting the Messenger: Activists Persecute Scientists Whose Findings They Don’t Like

Alice Dreger’s book recounts many instances of shooting the messenger, when scientists were persecuted for research findings that activists found objectionable. Social justice matters, but it should rely on science and reality, not ideology.

Don’t shoot him. He’s just bringing a message.

Alice Dreger is an academic historian who has been active in supporting those with intersex and other anomalies of sexual development and who has strongly opposed surgery on infants with ambiguous genitalia done only to make them conform to society’s idea of “proper” appearance and gender roles. She has been unfairly attacked and even called transphobic, which is ironic in view of her strong support of transsexual people.

She became embroiled in the controversy over J. Michael Bailey’s division of transsexuals into two groups. He maintained that some male-to-female transsexuals were autogynephilic, sexually aroused by thinking of themselves as women. Some of them embraced that terminology, but others were badly offended, saying sexual feelings had nothing to do with it, but that some people were simply females born into the wrong (male) bodies. Instead of discussing the evidence, activists turned it into a personal vendetta against Bailey, telling vicious lies about him, his research, and his family that Dreger easily disproved by careful analysis of the historical evidence.

In her book Galileo’s Middle Finger, Dreger tells that story and more. The title refers to Galileo’s actual mummified middle finger, which is preserved in a museum in Italy. Dreger sees it as symbolic of how he reacted to the persecution of the Church. His writings challenged their religious ideology, and instead of addressing the scientific evidence, they chose to attack him personally. Dreger recounts many modern examples of researchers whose findings challenged ideologies and led activists to persecute the individual instead of investigating the facts.

Napoleon Chagnon studied the Yanomamo and reported evidence of males fighting over females, domestic brutality, ritualized drug use, and ecological indifference. He called them “the fierce people”. That was anathema to the generally accepted ideas about human nature. A book by his critic Patrick Tierney made a series of unfounded accusations. He said Chagnon had deliberately given natives a bad vaccine and caused an epidemic of measles (in reality, the measles predated his arrival and he gave no vaccines). Among many other calumnies, he said Chagnon had intentionally started wars (even paying the Yanomamo to kill each other), aided illegal gold miners, and much more. Chagnon was essentially tried in absentia by the American Anthropological Association (AAA) with no chance to defend himself, and his career was ruined. Dreger easily found clear evidence that much of Tierney’s book was wrong, evidence that the AAA had never bothered to look for. She found that Tierney’s research was not just careless, but deliberately fraudulent. She compares the whole Chagnon show to a junior high moot court with no adult supervision.

When E.O. Wilson tried to speak about sociobiology at a conference, members of the self-proclaimed “International Committee Against Racism” rushed the stage and doused him with a pitcher of water. Wilson’s critics warned that “Sociobiology, by encouraging biological and genetic explanations for racism, war and genocide, exonerates and protects the groups and individuals who have carried out and benefited from these monstrous crimes”.

Derek Freeman tried to discredit Margaret Mead’s anthropological research in Samoa with his book The Fateful Hoaxing of Margaret Mead, but his defamatory text was rebutted by other researchers. Dreger says Freeman was the hoaxer, and he succeeded only because he followed “the number-one rule in making shit up: Make it so unbelievable that people have to believe it.” Again, there was a sexual subtext: Mead’s description of sexual attitudes in Samoa was thought to have contributed to the sexual revolution in America. The concern was not so much about the facts she reported, but about their effects on society.

Elizabeth Loftus, the psychologist who is known for demonstrating the fallibility of human memory, was persecuted over her work challenging recovery of repressed memories and childhood sexual abuse.

Dr. Maria New has been treating at-risk pregnant women with dexamethasone to prevent congenital adrenal hyperplasia, telling them it is safe and effective. Dreger’s investigation found that the only evidence was an assumed success in only one human case. New’s message appears to be based on her belief that girls should look like girls and grow up to be mothers. There’s good evidence that dexamethasone isn’t harmless; data in Sweden convinced them to abandon the treatment in that country, even in the context of clinical trials. Dreger couldn’t stop the practice in the US, but she describes her efforts to make doctors aware of the evidence. Her investigation showed that multiple layers of medical research protections and informed consent rules can fail.

In perhaps the most alarming case, when Bruce Rind’s investigation found clear evidence that not everyone was devastated or suffered lasting harm from experiencing every incident that was classified as child sexual abuse, he was falsely accused of advocating pedophilia. Rind’s study holds the dubious distinction of being the only scientific paper ever to be condemned by an act of Congress, by a vote of 366 to zero!

Intersex and transgender people have historically suffered from opposite problems for the same reasons. Intersex people have been subjected to hormones and surgeries they didn’t want, and transgender people have been denied the hormones and treatments that they do want. Dreger argues for acceptance of all differences and for letting individuals decide for themselves and choose their own identities.

There is much more in the book that I didn’t cover; it’s a real eye-opener. And it reads like a novel.

Conclusion: social justice requires good science

Activists are at fault when they distort or ignore good scientific evidence. Science requires dispassionate peer review and discussion. The evidence should be evaluated on its own merits. Personal attacks on researchers who find evidence that goes against an ideology is unconscionable. And the kind of organized persecutions Dreger describes are beyond the pale.

Social justice has to rely on true facts about the world if it is to be successful. What are we to do when the facts point to facts we don’t want to see? Activists care deeply about the people they are defending, but they may not care so much about the truth. Dreger asks, “Who is the real feminist, the one who reflexively sides with people who’ve been historically downtrodden, or the one who does so only after checking the facts?” What happens “when liberal hearts bleed so much that the brain stops getting enough oxygen?”

I hope activists will read this book and take notice. Social justice requires protecting the disadvantaged, but not at the risk of denying evidence or falsifying reality.

This article was originally published in the Science-Based Medicine Blog.

Dr. Hall is a contributing editor to both Skeptic magazine and the Skeptical Inquirer. She is a weekly contributor to the Science-Based Medicine Blog and is one of its editors. She has also contributed to Quackwatch and to a number of other respected journals and publications. She is the author of Women Aren’t Supposed to Fly: The Memoirs of a Female Flight Surgeon and co-author of the textbook, Consumer Health: A Guide to Intelligent Decisions.

Scroll to top