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When egos, ideology, and profits trump science, people die

by Evan | Mar 02, 2018
Pandoras LabBook Review:  Pandora's Lab by Paul Offit.

Paul Offit is best known as the doctor who defends vaccination against critics who claim it causes autism. Given the storm of anger you can readily find if you Google his name, it's impressive that his recent book, Pandora's Lab: Seven Stories of Science Gone Wrong, invites still more disdain. Even more impressive, however, is his ability to make his cases.

When I saw that Rachel Carson was one of his targets, I braced myself against any disparagement of one of the inspirational people in my life. Yet, when I finished the chapter about the impact of her most famous book, Silent Spring, I was deflated. Offit credits her book with inspiring an environmental movement that humanity needs, but he nails her and the movement for ideological absolutism. Silent Spring led to a world-wide ban on the pesticide DDT. The purpose was to protect wildlife and prevent cancers, and Offit thinks this was based on dubious science. The ban, however, was so unbending that millions of people died from malaria borne by mosquitoes that would have been killed by DDT aimed specifically at them. Eventually, the ban was relaxed. 

Among the scientists ripped by Offit are several who thought they could turn opium into a safe pain-killing drug. One version was heroin, which was first marketed by the German company Bayer (of aspirin fame) and in the United States by Indiana's own Eli Lilly. The modern chapter of this tragedy is the opioid epidemic. 

Perhaps the most grotesque miscarriage of science described by Offit was a supposed miracle cure for mental illness. A widely respected physician Walter Freeman, went around the country lobotomizing thousands of brains, many of them with an ice pick. But the darkest chapter told how some of the most admired leaders of the early 20th century promoted the pseudo-science of eugenics that was picked up by Adolf Hitler and morphed into mass murder.

Offit is most definitely not anti-science. He advocates science based on solid data and separated from scientists' agendas, bank accounts, and egos -- although he writes so strongly that I'm guessing his own ego is pretty sturdy and his critics accuse him of profiting from his stances.

Nevertheless, Offit is also willing to recognize that even good science comes at a cost. His biggest example is at its core the biggest question today about civilization. Scientific breakthroughs such as the creation of artificial fertilizer have allowed the human population to top 7 billion -- and so, for that matter, has DDT. That's good for those who have not starved or died of malaria, but we 7 billion are also rapidly changing our planet in ways that Offit and others think will cause our doom, and this doctor offers no miracle cure.

EvanEvan - Married, three children, two grandchildren, formerly a newspaper journalist, now a public librarian, at all times a board game nut.


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  1. Evan Davis | Mar 14, 2018
    John, the short answer is yes. Offit has issues with any attempt to present an opium-based pain medicine as non-addictive. I don't know whether he'd be OK with tighter regulation, but his chapter on opium emphasizes the theme that repeated efforts to make a non-addictive derivative have failed.  
  2. John | Mar 13, 2018
    Is Offit suggesting that opioid painkillers are a bad thing? That's like suggesting electricity is bad because a few people get struck by lightning. If we didn't have effective painkillers we would have to invent them. It's certainly possible to fight opioid abuse without depriving people who are suffering from pain.
  3. Evan | Mar 05, 2018
    It is indeed quite readable, not very long and full of interesting stories. BTW, we have started a science and technology book club. Next meeting is 7 p.m. March 15 in the Business, Science & Technology meeting room at Main. The book is Liza Mundy's Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II. 
  4. Kayla W | Mar 03, 2018
    A great description of this book - I'll definitely have to put it on my to-read list.

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