Author: Alice Dreger
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Summary: This was an interesting and worthwhile story, but it was more memoir and less general commentary on the interaction of science and activism than I had hoped.
Alice Derger never expected her research into the historical treatment of intersex children to lead her to become an activist protesting present treatment of intersex children. From risky “normalizing” surgeries without scientifically proven benefit to unethical lies told to parents of intersex children, there was plenty to protest. After seeing some scientists unjustly, personally attacked by the activist community she valued, she decided to look further into the relation between science and activism. Her most challenging question was what happens when scientific truth seems to conflict with the easiest, politically correct story.
I thought this was a fascinating and well-written book, but it wasn’t the book I had hoped for. The author starts with a story of medical abuse. She then briefly talks to several researchers who were attacked for their work and end with another story about medical abuse based on poor science. Neither the beginning nor the ending story were particularly interesting to me, because they seem so clear cut. There wasn’t any question of what needed to be done to resolve the science and the activism. I do think these stories were very worthwhile. The way intersex children were and sometimes still are being treated is shocking and we must be aware of it in order to change it. And individual scientists who were targets of personal smear campaigns because of their work certainly deserve a platform from which to spread the true story.
I also understood why the author would focus on issues relating to gender, sexuality, and identity; this is her field of study. I don’t think this meant the story had to be as purely anecdotal as it was. I loved the author’s enthusiasm for using science to find the truth and then build an ethical system based on the facts instead of nice, simplistic stories. I only wish I’d seen some of that here. For example, I’m very curious about the number of scientists experiencing personal attacks because of their work and how many of them are in different fields. For example, I would guess that scientists have been personally attacked for controversial research in genetic engineering (a topic I work on) as well. This wasn’t a bad book, but in retrospect, I think the stock description did it an injustice. Had this been billed as a memoir about the author’s science activism, I probably wouldn’t have been disappointed when she failed to more generally address the interaction of science and activism. As long as you go into this with more accurate expectations, it’s a book I’d recommend.
What’s the most poorly described book you’ve ever read? Are you less likely to enjoy a book if the description doesn’t match the book?