INTERVIEW—Alice Dreger

by Jessica Baron, HSS’s Director of Media and Engagement

In an April 2015 issue, The New York Times called historian Alice Dreger “a sharp, disruptive scholar” and her new book, Galileo’s Middle Finger: Heretics, Activists, and the Search for Justice in Science (Penguin Press, 2015) “a splendidly entertaining education in ethics, activism and science.” Since then, she’s received international coverage for memorably Tweeted thoughts from her son’s sex education class and resigning her position at Northwestern University following a dispute over academic freedom with her dean. We caught up with her in the midst of her very busy speaking, research, and writing schedule to ask her about turning scholarship into activism.

It’s inspiring to see how you incorporate activism into your academic research. You even have a great piece in Bioethics Forum called “My Top Ten Tips for Doing Activism in Academia.” How did you decide to become a scholar who “makes things happen”?

I have always been practically-minded, so, although I love scholarship, I really love doing scholarship that might help improve the world, especially for the disempowered and the wronged. In the mid-1990s, I was finishing my PhD in History and Philosophy of Science at Indiana University and I started publishing my work on the history of the medical treatment of people called “hermaphrodites” in the late 19th century. People born with the same conditions today started to contact me to ask me to help change the current medical system. I ended up joining the intersex rights movement as a result, and then I ended up doing all sorts of other patient and research-subject advocacy. I talk about these experiences in my latest book, Galileo’s Middle Finger: Heretics, Activists, and the Search for Justice in Science (Penguin Press, 2015). Incidentally, the book is not a history of Galileo; it’s an exploration of current-day battles between scientists and activists over questions of human identity, and ultimately a call to defend academic freedom.

What advice do you have for academics who want to start engaging with the press? Any lessons or wisdom to pass along to those of us who aspire to do public outreach?

Alice Dreger, photo credit Jenny Stevenson Photography

Alice Dreger, photo credit Jenny Stevenson Photography

I see dealing with the press as a way to do widespread education, so I take it very seriously. I run into scholars all the time who are amazed that the press coverage of my work tends to be quite accurate and well-framed. But I’m not just lucky. It happens chiefly because I specifically develop FAQ lists on my website to help reporters when there’s a story they might call me on. It’s a simple and unbelievably important technique for media relations. I also recommend working with a media relations person at your university; get to know those folks before your work becomes of interest to reporters, if possible, and have them help you draft press releases and practice interviews if you have important work coming out or if you have an important take on a big story. I got proper media training at the start of my career and it has made a big difference, so I always suggest academics call a media relations expert at their university and ask for training. Finally, if you want to develop relationships with good reporters, make a point of sending them leads on other people’s work so that you develop a rapport. Don’t be shy about using that rapport to call on them if you have something that might be of interest to them. But keep your communications brief; they are busy people.

In your experience, how do you think the press approaches talking to an academic?

Reporters rightly assume that most academics will speak in long and convoluted sentences that make it hard to convey important information or insights to a general audience. They also assume academics will send them dozens of corrections that the academics see as important and the reporters don’t. (Also true, and a good reason to have an FAQ; nip misconceptions in the bud.) Reporters also think academics expect them to do a lot of research and understand work that isn’t really in their field. You can help reporters by preparing before an interview: send some brief background material and practice what you want to say. Imagine what the questions are likely to be, and have succinct answers ready. (I often write down what I will likely say during an interview; that way I am clear and succinct.) If you want to talk about your published work, be able to express in two sentences what you really want them to know about that work. And always follow the rule, “answer the question they should have asked”… but keep in mind if you don’t answer the question they did ask, you may not end up in the published coverage.

In a few of your essays, you still call historians your “peeps”—what advantage does being an historian give you in the work you do?

My mate, an internist who has lived with me and watched me work for 20 years, says that historians have a secret weapon: the timeline. I know that sounds silly, but it’s amazing how much you can understand about a given topic if you approach it like a historian and bother to timeline it. Another advantage we historians have is our attention to sources; we are keenly aware that every “truth” comes from a source, and so we are always thinking not just about content but about our certainty level for that content. That kind of disciplinary intellectual humility makes us nimble and strong. I find that being an historian is also an advantage because I have a long-view of history, which means I know I don’t really matter in the history of the world. Knowing you don’t really matter is super liberating because you cannot be your own cause and because you can know that if you do screw up, history won’t remember it any more than history will remember what you got right.

Should historians do more for the various social justice movements? Do you have any specific suggestions about what kinds of historians would be most useful to which movements?

Social justice movements are smarter when they are historically informed. I think they also get a certain stamina from understanding history. But historians should take on the work that matters to them, even if it is relatively useless and obscure, because the best scholarship is motivated scholarship.

Do you care to name any other historians that are doing good and vital history/activism?

Naomi Oreskes, Erik Conway, Robert Proctor, and Susan Reverby are four who spring immediately to mind, but there are many. What I appreciate about these people is the serious attention to detail while also conveying a big message.

If you could pick three people to really read your latest book (Galileo’s Middle Finger), whom would you chose?

(1) Francis Collins, because I’d like him to see how researchers can game the system of NIH funding while misleading their patients into accidentally becoming research subjects; (2) Pope Francis, because he’s very influential and I think he’d benefit from thinking about my argument that the pursuit of evidence is the most important moral imperative of our day; (3) Matt Damon. Don’t make me say why.

What’s next for you?

This academic year, I’ll be editing an anthology with Francoise Baylis, a philosopher/bioethicist at Dalhousie University, for Cambridge University Press on “bioethics in action”—first-person accounts of people who have tried to enact specific changes in medicine and medical research. I’m also contracted to write a popular book for parents on how to talk to kids about sex. I’ll be continuing service as the ethics advisor to an NIH-funded Translational Research Network for intersex pediatric clinics. And I’m co-chair, with David Sandberg of the University of Michigan, of a medical education committee on intersex for the Association of American Medical Colleges. I also have a bunch of other projects, including running a nonprofit foundation that produces an online newspaper for the city where I live, East Lansing, Michigan. I am the chief government reporter, and I also dabble in gardening reporting. I resigned my position at Northwestern University following censorship by my dean. If another university wants to offer me another gig starting next year, I’ll consider the offer. I would prefer offers from institutions that have adopted the Chicago statement on academic freedom; see https://www.thefire.org/ny-daily-news-to-ny-colleges-adopt-u-of-chicago-statement-on-free-speech/

Will we see you at the HSS Annual Meeting in San Francisco in November?

Yes. I’ll be part of a roundtable arranged by Joshua Howe on “Historians of Science in the Public Sphere” along with Erik Conway, Jane Maienschein, and Robert Proctor. I am really looking forward to it. And I’ll be happy to arrange some bar and coffee time for folks who want to talk more about these issues, especially for graduate students and junior faculty.