PENGUIN PRESS, MARCH 2015It wasn’t long before I had lots of good company for my misery. As soon as word got around that I had a Guggenheim Fellowship to study conflicts between scientists and activists over issues of human identity, academics from all over started contacting me, suggesting I work on this controversy or that. I heard from one physician colleague about a clinician-researcher who dared to question the reality of chronic Lyme disease and was now chronically plagued by people who insisted they had it. I heard from another about the physician-researcher who had helped to define the condition known as fibromyalgia only to later doubt that it really is a distinct disease. (There’s a way to make yourself researcher non grata.) I started to wonder if this was just a guy thing. Are men much more likely to get into trouble because they’re taught and allowed to be aggressive? Then Mike Bailey told me about another woman who’d been in this kind of trouble, a clinical psychologist who had researched and revealed the disappointing reality behind a poster-child case of “recovered memory” of alleged childhood sexual abuse. Then I learned from an editor at Harvard University Press about another woman psychologist, one who had experienced some significant unpleasantness following a book in which she expressed scientific skepticism about alleged alien abductions. The abductees wanted a word with her.
I had accidentally stumbled onto something much more surreal—a whole fraternity of beleaguered and bandaged academics who had produced scholarship offensive to one identity group or another and who had consequently been the subject of various forms of shout-downs. Only these academics hadn’t yet formed a proper society in which they could keep each other company. Most of these people had been too specialized or too geeky (or too convinced they were the only ones who didn’t deserve it) to realize there were others like them out there. As I started collections of notes on each of these folks, I kept thinking about how Bo Laurent must have felt in the early 1990s, during the early intersex patients’ rights movement, when she realized that there were others like her out there, others who had been born with ambiguous sex, who had been cut, changed, and lied to. “My people” were out there. I just had to put it—put them—all together.
But where to start? Mike Bailey’s son, Drew, insisted the place was the University of Missouri in Columbia. Drew was there earning his PhD in evolutionary psychology, a field I had long held in contempt as I knew feminist science-studies scholars like me were supposed to. Drew assured me I could get plenty of material from a single trip to the University of Missouri, because the place was littered with CV’s torn asunder in various controversies. There was Craig Palmer, the anthropologist who had dared to co-write A Natural History of Rape: Biological Bases of Sexual Coercion. There was Ken Sher, the psychologist who had been the action editor for an infamous paper purporting to show that children are not, on average, as universally devastated by sexual abuse as the angriest survivors might lead us to believe. There was Dave Geary, a psychologist who dabbled dangerously into the study of sex differences in mathematical abilities (even after Larry Summers). And there was Mark Flinn, a scientist whose career had been wrapped up with Napoleon Chagnon, the famous sociobiology-loving anthropologist who had been tried for high crimes and misdemeanors by the American Anthropology Association in 2001.
I wrote to all these people and set up interviews for the two days I would spend in Columbia in late October 2008. Then I crammed, studying these various people’s experiences, and got on a plane from Michigan to Memphis, because (as I had learned) Memphis was the only way to fly to Columbia. Turns out Columbia sports a tiny airport with a total of three flights in and three out each day, except on Saturdays when they drop down to two each.
As we approached the landing strip in the midst of green rolling hills dotted with brightly colored trees, I suddenly wondered something. If in a place as small as Columbia, Missouri, I could quickly find people with intimate connections to at least four major controversies involving scientific claims about human identity, how many of us must there be?
From Galileo's Middle Finger: Heretics, Activists, and the Search for Justice in Science by Alice Dreger. Reprinted by arrangement with Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © Alice Dreger, 2015.