Venturing into the unknown can have unexpected consequences.
Neuroscientist/journalist LeVay (Queer Science: The Use and Abuse of Research into Homosexuality, 1996, etc.) offers many different explanations for what caused the calamitous mistakes he examines. Sheer bravura could account for the volcanologists who were killed climbing into the crater of an about-to-erupt volcano. Imperfect information and a TV weatherman’s vanity led to misreporting on a hurricane that killed 18 Britons in 1987. Bad geological advice, combined with design changes made by an engineer with a God-like reputation, built a dam in the wrong place in 1920s California. That pounds-to-Newtons mistake that doomed the Mars Climate Orbiter? Faulty software that someone should have caught, but didn’t. The Houston Crime Lab’s errors in DNA testing wrongfully imprisoned a rape suspect for nearly five years, but lab reforms and the work of Innocence Network lawyers give this cautionary tale a moderately happy ending. Research on human subjects provides LeVay with some grim examples: brain surgery using fetal tissue to “cure” Parkinson’s disease; a gene-therapy experiment that killed a teenager with a genetic metabolic disorder; and a 1939 study that tried to determine whether people could be induced to stutter by telling normal children they had symptoms and should try to stop. There is little question that these cases flagrantly violated ethical considerations, primarily because the designers fervently believed their hypotheses and employed questionable methods in order to be “proved” right. In only a few instances does the author suspect coverup or deliberate intent: the horrible story of the release of anthrax spores in a Russian biological warfare factory; the alleged tampering with readouts to show production of a transuranium element; and the unresolved case of a runaway nuclear reaction that killed three scientists. LeVay’s epilogue notes that oversight and regulation have helped, but reminds us that research involves risk-taking.
Far from cheerful reading, the only comfort being that these “wrongs” were eventually found out.