Stirring the Pot

How to navigate the slings and arrows of conducting “controversial” research

By Alice Dreger | March 1, 2015

PENGUIN PRESS, MARCH 2015Three important insights I’ve gained from studying what has happened to scientists whose research has ticked off activists working within social justice movements: (1) If you want to get in trouble, study sex. (2) Anybody who tells you “all publicity is good publicity” has never been accused of genocide. (3) Death threats are rarely grammatically correct. I illustrate each of these lessons in my new book, Galileo’s Middle Finger: Heretics, Activists, and the Search for Justice in Science.

First off, Mama was right: Sex is gonna get you in trouble. While it is true that you can also tick people off by making challenging scientific claims about alien abductions, chronic Lyme disease, or race—especially race—the surest route to having your reputation threatened is to contradict some deeply held belief about sex.

So, you could follow the leads of people like Craig Palmer and Randy Thornhill, who dared to suggest that rape may involve our evolved biology, or Michael Bailey, who promoted the idea that eroticism may play a role in transgenderism, or Elizabeth Loftus and Melvin Guyer, who challenged the idea of “recovered memory” of childhood sexual abuse.

As these people discovered, when your work gets labeled “controversial,” you should expect that few of those criticizing you will actually read your publications; they’re much more likely to go after you as a caricatured messenger than to engage in dialogue about your actual message.

This, then, takes us to the second point: Anybody who tells you “all publicity is good publicity” has never been accused of genocide. Being accused of genocide isn’t one of those things for which you start a clippings file that you figure your grandchildren might someday like to have.

Just ask anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon, tried in absentia by the American Anthropological Association (AAA) because of allegations leveled in Patrick Tierney’s 2000 book Darkness in El Dorado. Chagnon and geneticist James Neel were raked over the coals for two years in spite of the fact that Tierney’s claims of unethical experimentation on South American natives were false and (as I show in my book) the leaders of the AAA’s investigation team knew his book was “just a piece of sleaze.”

Now, while the charge of genocide is usually reserved for those who are already renowned scientists, like Chagnon, the charge of being a eugenicist is readily available to the average scientist. For example, neuroscientist Charles Roselli’s work on homosexual male sheep attracted charges of “gay eugenics”—ultimately leading to animal-rights and gay-rights proponent (and tennis champion) Martina Navratilova publicly condemning the research. You can’t make this stuff up.

The good news: Death threats are rarely grammatically correct. Why is this good news? Because it suggests that the people who see themselves as your worst enemies—those who send violent threats—are typically not the well-educated, more reasonable people you have some chance of talking sense into.

And if, like Chagnon, you’re lucky enough to have colleagues who bother to challenge falsehoods—or if you’re super lucky, like Roselli, and have a university-relations expert named Jim Newman who helps you respond to 20,000 e-mails calling for your termination by disseminating facts about your work—then you have some hope.

Alternatively, you could try to avoid controversial work. The thing is, thanks to the Internet, just about anything you study could incite controversy. So instead, I’d suggest this: (1) The minute you’re in hot water, create a plain-language FAQ about your work; (2) Don’t believe what you read about yourself on the Internet; (3) Take comfort in being in truly excellent company among all the other eugenicists. I know I do. 

Alice Dreger is a historian of science and medicine and professor of clinical medical humanities and bioethics at the Feinberg School of Medicine, Northwestern University in Chicago. Read an excerpt of Galileo's Middle Finger.

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Avatar of: Zarathrustra


Posts: 2

March 23, 2015

Great article; thank you. I've now ordered your book. I expect it to make a good companion to such books as Ilan Pappe's "The Ethnic Cleansing of Palastine", Freedman's "Wrong", Brooks' "Free Radicals", and Harcombe's "The Obesity Paradox".

Avatar of: PastToTheFuture


Posts: 117

March 23, 2015

It all has to do with what C.D. Darlington referred to as the Three Great Lies of Science or perhaps more appropriate here, the Three Forbidden Questions of Science.   Darlington said that there were three great lies in science. These three topics were taboo and would get you driven from science if you discussed them. He said that perpetuating these lies distorted all of science and the human beliefs that come from them. Since these lies are about humans, this has placed a limit on what humans can understand and distorts our values, including values critical to survival. The consequences and dangers of this distortion cannot be underestimated.   The first lie was about humans being animals, something that Darwin and Huxley finally challenged. The second lie was about human sexuality. This held sway until at least the 1930's before it could be examined in academia without punishment (Such as The Kinsey Report). The third lie is about human heredity. For many reasons, but mostly accommodation, the peoples and nations have decided to ignore the differences between races, tribes, peoples, even men and women. This distorts the views of humanity that we are able to make. It is a huge limitation upon us, but in hindsight, perhaps this is good. Racial interactions do often appear to be a rather rough sort of win-lose proposition referred to as Social Darwinism. The gain of one comes from the loss of another. All too often science has been used as a reason for racism. Notions of race have led to wars and in particular concepts of racial superiority justified as just natural Social Darwinism were much of the cause of WWII. As such, the study of heredity and race are special fields in science and often seem to be discouraged to avoid racism and instead provide for accommodation. This varnishing of the truth has been bad for science and people, though the alternative may have been worse. The view of this book completely avoids that and quite the contrary is based on the belief that human variation is the wealth of humanity. All this variation will be necessary to be able to adapt to the future. It is not that Social Darwinism was so wrong, it just is not how history usually played out and it will be far different in the future.   ... I think he missed Heliocentrism in his list, but who wants to try to figure out which Pope has supremesy if there are Popes on other worlds?  
Avatar of: Mosier


Posts: 1

March 23, 2015

The subtitle is a bit of a non-sequitur.  I suppose that reflects the view of an activist, rather than a scientist.  Anyway, it's an important issue.  I downloaded the book.  

Avatar of: N K Mishra

N K Mishra

Posts: 60

March 24, 2015

My comments: 


In this article you have stated that while navigating an investigation you may face slings and arrows of criticism if by any chance your work does not fall in line with the accepted notions or deeply held beliefs. Sometimes research takes you to an unchartered path which you had not anticipated before neither had  your guide. In such a situation, spelling the truth as you see it becomes equally hazardous and you often become a subject of ridicule and you are looked upon with disbelief. The question of threatening of reputation arises when you publish the work. Your work remains unquoted even if later workers corroborate your findings and ideas. There is every possibility of being either bulldozed over or sidetracked.


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