The author’s easy-reading but hard-hitting exposé of a dysfunctional biomedical research system will inform and alarm...

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RIGOR MORTIS

HOW SLOPPY SCIENCE CREATES WORTHLESS CURES, CRUSHES HOPE, AND WASTES BILLIONS

An award-winning science journalist reports that research in the biomedical sciences is too often guilty of wasting time and money and, worse than that, actually slowing scientific progress and misinforming the public.

Harris, who has been reporting on science for NPR for 30 years, talked with dozens of scientists in preparing this report on the lack of rigor in biomedical science. Among his sources are C. Glenn Begley, whose study of experiments in cancer research revealed that barely 1 in 10 was reproducible, and John Ioannidis, whose paper, “Why Most Published Scientific Research Findings Are False,” exposed problems caused by poor study design and analysis. Harris considers specific problems such as the failure to run proper controls, contamination of cell lines, bad antibodies, untrustworthy biomarkers, and small sample sizes; more importantly, he looks at the entire culture of biomedicine and finds it in serious need of repair. With numerous personality-rich examples and anecdotes, he describes what amounts to a rat race. The changes required are vast: the enormous pressure on researchers to obtain grants and publish, the emphasis that hiring universities place on the quantity rather than the quality of publications, the selection and review practices of science journals—he cites several high-impact ones, such as Cell, Nature, and Science—the reluctance of researchers to share data, their lack of a firm grounding in statistics, and their tendencies to select easy projects, cut corners, get results out fast, and hype results. In the final chapter, Harris examines the progress that is being made in fixing the system. One development is the increasing use of social media, which is enabling scientists to communicate more smoothly and blog about each other’s research.

The author’s easy-reading but hard-hitting exposé of a dysfunctional biomedical research system will inform and alarm general readers, and it is sure to stir controversy and arouse ire among those who feel their ox is being gored.

Pub Date: April 4, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-465-09790-6

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Basic

Review Posted Online: Feb. 2, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2017

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Ackerman writes with a light but assured touch, her prose rich in fact but economical in delivering it. Fans of birds in all...

THE GENIUS OF BIRDS

Science writer Ackerman (Ah-Choo!: The Uncommon Life of Your Common Cold, 2010, etc.) looks at the new science surrounding avian intelligence.

The takeaway: calling someone a birdbrain is a compliment. And in any event, as Ackerman observes early on, “intelligence is a slippery concept, even in our own species, tricky to define and tricky to measure.” Is a bird that uses a rock to break open a clamshell the mental equivalent of a tool-using primate? Perhaps that’s the wrong question, for birds are so unlike humans that “it’s difficult for us to fully appreciate their mental capabilities,” given that they’re really just small, feathered dinosaurs who inhabit a wholly different world from our once-arboreal and now terrestrial one. Crows and other corvids have gotten all the good publicity related to bird intelligence in recent years, but Ackerman, who does allow that some birds are brighter than others, points favorably to the much-despised pigeon as an animal that “can remember hundreds of different objects for long periods of time, discriminate between different painting styles, and figure out where it’s going, even when displaced from familiar territory by hundreds of miles.” Not bad for a critter best known for bespattering statues in public parks. Ackerman travels far afield to places such as Barbados and New Caledonia to study such matters as memory, communication, and decision-making, the last largely based on visual cues—though, as she notes, birds also draw ably on other senses, including smell, which in turn opens up insight onto “a weird evolutionary paradox that scientists have puzzled over for more than a decade”—a matter of the geometry of, yes, the bird brain.

Ackerman writes with a light but assured touch, her prose rich in fact but economical in delivering it. Fans of birds in all their diversity will want to read this one.

Pub Date: April 12, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-59420-521-7

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: Feb. 17, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2016

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Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science...

A SHORT HISTORY OF NEARLY EVERYTHING

Bryson (I'm a Stranger Here Myself, 1999, etc.), a man who knows how to track down an explanation and make it confess, asks the hard questions of science—e.g., how did things get to be the way they are?—and, when possible, provides answers.

As he once went about making English intelligible, Bryson now attempts the same with the great moments of science, both the ideas themselves and their genesis, to resounding success. Piqued by his own ignorance on these matters, he’s egged on even more so by the people who’ve figured out—or think they’ve figured out—such things as what is in the center of the Earth. So he goes exploring, in the library and in company with scientists at work today, to get a grip on a range of topics from subatomic particles to cosmology. The aim is to deliver reports on these subjects in terms anyone can understand, and for the most part, it works. The most difficult is the nonintuitive material—time as part of space, say, or proteins inventing themselves spontaneously, without direction—and the quantum leaps unusual minds have made: as J.B.S. Haldane once put it, “The universe is not only queerer than we suppose; it is queerer than we can suppose.” Mostly, though, Bryson renders clear the evolution of continental drift, atomic structure, singularity, the extinction of the dinosaur, and a mighty host of other subjects in self-contained chapters that can be taken at a bite, rather than read wholesale. He delivers the human-interest angle on the scientists, and he keeps the reader laughing and willing to forge ahead, even over their heads: the human body, for instance, harboring enough energy “to explode with the force of thirty very large hydrogen bombs, assuming you knew how to liberate it and really wished to make a point.”

Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science into perspective.

Pub Date: May 6, 2003

ISBN: 0-7679-0817-1

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Broadway

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2003

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