Tales of scientific errors whose unintended consequences have been disastrous.
Offit (Vaccinology and Pediatrics/Univ. of Pennsylvania School of Medicine; Bad Faith: When Religious Belief Undermines Modern Medicine, 2015, etc.), a doctor with a mission, once again does not hold back. In each chapter, he tells a different story of science gone wrong, beginning with the war on pain, stretching from opium through heroin to the addictive opioids now in the headlines. Then the author takes on scientists’ mistaken belief that margarine, with its partially hydrogenated vegetable oils containing trans fats, was a heart-healthy alternative to butter. It was quite the opposite, writes Offit, and the process for converting unsaturated fats to trans fats “has probably caused more disease and death than any other man-made chemical reaction in history.” The author then tells of Fritz Haber, the pesticide and fertilizer chemist behind the gas warfare of World War I and supervisor of production of Zyklon B, the gas used to kill millions of Jews. Haber won a Nobel Prize, as did Egas Moniz, the inventor of lobotomies. Offit’s acidic comment: “At this point, it seems reasonable to wonder whether Nobel Prizes awarded in the first half of the 20th century came in Cracker Jack boxes.” The author also takes up the eugenics movement, with its malicious notion of a master race, the erroneous banning of DDT following Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring—in Offit’s words, she was not a scientist but a polemicist—and the fallacious notion of the highly respected and double Nobelist Linus Pauling that megadoses of vitamin C could cure diseases. Each chapter concludes with a crisp take-home lesson, such as “beware the zeitgeist” and “beware the quick fix.” Finally, Offit applies these lessons to a number of contemporary concerns, including e-cigarettes and cancer-screening programs, providing advice on how to think clearly about these issues and how to avoid the mistakes of the past.
Another rousing, pull-no-punches piece from a physician set on educating the public about the fallibility of scientists.