We’re switching things up this week in our What’s The Point podcast. Instead of your regularly scheduled programming, you’re getting a new monthly podcast from the FiveThirtyEight science team. It’s called Sparks, and it’s where FiveThirtyEight’s science writers and I talk about science writing that sparked our interest (hey, titles have to come from somewhere). There’s no need to have read the same thing we did — we’re going to use what we’ve read to talk about the big science ideas and questions embedded within.
Our inaugural podcast features the 2015 book “Galileo’s Middle Finger” by science historian and bioethicist Alice Dreger. Dreger entered the world of activism when she started supporting people born with ambiguous genitalia, arguing that they had better long-term health and psychological consequences when they could make their own decisions instead of having doctors give them traditionally male or female genitalia through surgery at birth (assuming their health wasn’t in danger). But when Dreger got involved in a controversy related to theories about people who are transgender — and defended researchers who suggested that there were links between erotic arousal and transgender identity — she ended up on the receiving end of activists’ fury.
The first segment of Sparks features a discussion among writers Christie Aschwanden, Anna Maria Barry-Jester, Maggie Koerth-Baker and me (Blythe Terrell, senior editor for science). You can listen to that episode by clicking the play button above.
Christie then interviewed Dreger to get her perspective, and you can listen to that by clicking play below. We recommend listening to the roundtable first!
Once we’ve chosen our next book, we’ll let you know so you can read along with us.
A lightly edited transcript of the first segment, in which the panel discusses how to decide which evidence to trust, and what role civilians should play in the scientific process, is below. Thanks for listening, and let us know what you think!
Blythe: It reminded me of a lot of stories that have been in the news where somebody, some sort of a whistleblower, came in with evidence and forced everyone’s hand in terms of things that really mattered. Anna, you did some writing about the Flint [Michigan] water crisis, where there was a lot of evidence that was not being collected properly, and maybe you can speak to some of that.
Anna: Right, I thought about Flint a lot when I was reading this book. In Flint there was a problem with lead in the water as the result of a change in the water source. The community had been saying for a really long time that there were problems with the water. They were experiencing all sorts of sensory problems. Lead is an insidious, silent menace, right? So they couldn’t know that there was lead in the water, but they knew there were problems with the water. And all of their evidence, as a group who was drinking this water, was being ignored. And it turned out that they were right, and there were all sorts of problems.
That is sort of an easy concept to grasp, when you have a community that’s been marginalized for a long time and a power structure that has undoubtedly not done right by them. It’s very easy to be like, “Yup, see these people knew all along and we should have listened to them,” and in fact that’s true. And that was what was sort of complicated with this book. You see that time and time again we really need to listen to people. And what it got to in the book is like, when you’re dealing with humans, what is the ethical obligation for scientists?
Blythe: Right, how they talk with those people, how they treat those people’s narratives and life experiences.
Maggie: You have a different obligation to a human research subject than you have to a star.
Anna: Right, exactly. We actually do need people to ask these questions even if they are challenging, and when it’s about humans it’s always going to be challenging. In Flint it was so important that they listen to the community, and that turned out to be where the evidence is. But the sort of bigger questions that go on in this book, where you’re talking about identity, don’t really apply because [in the Flint case] there is a scientific test. You can look at the water, you can see that there’s lead and we know that lead is dangerous after years and years of research looking at exposure.
Christie: I also think that an important issue here is that studying people is really hard and physics is relatively easy by comparison. I think that it’s important to sort of differentiate between questions that can be answered scientifically and ones that can’t. At some point, in most of these things, it does come down to value judgment, so you have the evidence but we have to make judgments about them. We have to decide on cut-offs or thresholds or just ideas of definitions and measurement things and things like that. So I think that it’s wrong to just think that science can answer every single question, and that’s maybe where she butts into trouble.
Maggie: Yeah, and I think that it can also be hard for activists to trust that science, and for very legitimate reasons. Science produces data, but the assumptions that underlie how that data was collected can totally skew whether or not that data is accurate. And that’s something that we have a long history of with human research.
Sparks is a monthly podcast series discussing big ideas about science produced and edited by Lucina Melesio. You can stream or download the full episode above. You can also find us by searching “fivethirtyeight” in your favorite podcast app, or subscribe using the RSS feed. Check out all our other shows.
Subscribe to Sparks via the What’s the Point feed on iTunes, and please leave a rating/review — that helps spread the word to other listeners. Have something to say about this episode, or have an idea for a future show? Get in touch by email or in the comments.