CA Mushrooms
CA Mushrooms

Book Review

Rigor Mortis: How Sloppy Science Creates Worthless Cures, Crushes Hope, and Wastes Billions

By Richard Harris
2017, Basic Books, NY
Hardback; 288 pages
ISBN-10: 0465097901;
ISBN-13: 978-0465097906

Synthetic: How Life Got Made

By Sophia Roosth
2017, University of Chicago Press
Paperback; 256 pages
ISBN-10: 022644046X;
ISBN-13: 978-0226440460

I recently read two compact books that, although not strictly about mycological subjects, are of interest to those with more microbiological interests and especially with cutting edge research—but both books were written very skillfully for general audiences. And although both books do feature microbes (including fungi at times), that’s where the similarities end. I found Rigor Mortis to be much more interesting (and will be of special interest to those embroiled in debates over the merits and health benefits of medicinal mushrooms— “they’ve been proven in thousands of published studies!” vs. “those studies are not done to western medical standards!” We’ll see about those standards later. But first a review of Synthetic.

Synthetic: How Life Got Made has gotten glowing reviews from all the big, heavy hitting scientific journals including Science. I did enjoy it, though I would have to admit that I enjoyed some of the reviews more than the book. The topic has to do with the latest cutting edge bioscience, which I find interesting, but I felt the writer made unnecessary use of over-the-top flowery prose which I found to be a distraction. Further, each chapter was more of a conversation about her visit to this lab in the (San Francisco) Bay Area or on the East Coast, and less description of the technologies involved. In the past biologists were involved in taking organisms and cells apart to learn of their functionality. Now in the “-omics” era (genomics, proteomics, transcriptomics, etc.), researchers are engaged in creating new combinations and new life forms (sort of) in attempts to see how living systems work. I didn’t have any real quibbles with the science discussed but was a little perplexed that there was little mention of CRISPRcas9, which technogeeks would quickly recognize as being THE molecular biological discovery of the past few years.

Rigor Mortis: How Sloppy Science Creates Worthless Cures, Crushes Hope, and Wastes Billions is a brandnew book by the highly revered NPR science writer Richard Harris. I have long enjoyed his reports on NPR (he’s been there since 1986), and this book read like a multi-week exposé on the entire field of biomedical research and drug development. Let me state right up front: I have complete faith in modern Western medicine, have all my kids fully vaccinated (of course), and when sick seek out a physician (the MD type). However, this book adeptly documents the shortcomings of biomedical research ranging from poor science to gross negligence. It’s all here, laid out in a chapter by chapter tour de force (and, again, with extensive references and footnotes): lack of reproducibility of experimental results, wrong interpretation of statistical results, cherry-picking data, falsified data in high profile published results— and the continued citation of those results, in some cases for years, even after the retraction of publications, mixed up or mislabeled cell lines or mice or rats from commercial suppliers, poor experimental design, and the list of grievances goes on. The causes are writ large: biomedical research is a field where a LOT is on the line. Money. Careers. And of course many researchers really are working as hard as they possibly can to improve and save lives. Harris not only throws back the veil on the dirty little (and not so little) secrets of biomedical research, he offers up some solutions and, indeed, gets many other experts and journal editors to join in the conversation. This book would be interesting to anyone with an interest in how science gets done. It should be mandatory reading for college students who need to understand and employ experimental design in their studies.

— Review by Britt Bunyard
— Originally published in Fungi