Galileo’s Middle Finger: Heretics, Activists, and the Search for Justice in Science by Alice Dreger isn’t actually about Galileo and his offensive middle digit, but the two make a powerful metaphor for what this book is really about: the power of facts and reason to make a more humane, democratic world and horrifying examples of that failure. Dreger, who holds a Ph.D. in the history of science from Indiana University, is a Professor in Medical Education-Medical Humanities and Bioethics at Northwestern University who has spent much of her academic career studying not sex, per se, but the spectrum of gender. She’s also a committed activist for intersex and transgender people, an area she first stumbled into while casting about for a dissertation topic. She comes by the activism—and the affinity for Galileo—through her Catholic childhood in which she was encouraged by her Polish émigré parents to question everything and embrace science.
Like Superman, Alice Dreger believes in truth, justice and the American way, especially in science and medicine. The Tuskegee Experiments, Henrietta Lacks, thalidomide, DES, and the infection of Guatemalans with STDs in the 1940s & 50s under the auspices of Johns Hopkins and the Rockefeller Foundation are part of the tradition of both the accidental and deliberate perversion of medical ethics Dreger explores in her book. Her personal example of that failure involves the treatment of children born what is now called intersex: with deviations from “normal” genitals, and/or genetic and developmental anomalies affecting sex characteristics. One of the mind-blowing stats that Dreger points out right off the bat is that “If you add up the dozens of kinds of sex anomalies—including incredibly subtle things you might never know you had without the benefit of a lot of fancy medical scans your insurance company probably doesn’t want to cover—the frequency of intersex in the human population comes to about one in a hundred.”