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Pandora's Lab: Seven Stories of Science Gone Wrong Hardcover – 20 Apr 2017
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"This is a much needed book -- especially now."--NPR"After spending years compiling a list of 50 of the world's worst inventions, [Offit] conducted his own sad version of March Madness to whittle it down to just a handful of finalists...all have proved to be disastrous for human health."--The Washington Post "A fascinating and sometimes shocking look at how science can sometimes lead to disaster."
--Booklist "In warning the public of pseudoscientific danger, Offit urges the public to examine available data; beware of quick fixes, fads, and charismatic health gurus; and understand that every advance comes at a price." --Publishers Weekly
"Another rousing, pull-no-punches piece from a physician set on educating the public about the fallibility of scientists." --Kirkus Reviews
About the Author
PAUL A. OFFIT is a pediatrician specializing in infectious diseases and an expert on vaccines, immunology, and virology. He is the co-inventor of a rotavirus vaccine that has been credited with saving hundreds of lives every day. Offit is the Maurice R. Hilleman Professor of Vaccinology, professor of Pediatrics at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases, and the director of the Vaccine Education Center at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. He has been a member of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices. Offit is a board member of Every Child By Two and a founding board member of the Autism Science Foundation (ASF).
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1. Opium and opioids (“God’s Own Medicine”)
2. Oleomargarine and trans fats (“The Great Margarine Mistake”)
3. Nitrogen fertilizers and ammonium nitrate. (“Blood from Air”)
4. Eugenics (“America’s Master Race”)
5. Lobotomies (“Turning the Mind Inside Out”)
6. Rachel Carson and DDT (“The Mosquito Liberation Front”)
7. Linus Pauling and vitamin C; Peter Duesberg and AIDs; Luc Montagnier and the antibiotic “cure” for autism (“Nobel Prize Disease”)
Additionally there is an eighth chapter entitled “Learning from the Past” which is about the MMR vaccine and autism, e-cigarettes, Bisphenol A, cancer screening, and GMOs.
One of the themes in the book is the hubris of some very famous scientists who won Nobel prizes and then went on to do and/or promote some very bad science mainly because they could not admit they were wrong. But the real villain in these pages is not the science itself; it is instead the failure of people in the political arena, in the media and even in the medical and scientific journals to weigh the evidence properly thereby lending support to the bad science. Dr. Offit indicts the Environmental Protection Agency (p. 188); Time Magazine, Newsweek, the New York Times (p. 145); the Journal of the American Medical Association, the American Journal of Public Health, the New England Journal of Medicine (p. 124) and others (see page 226). Naturally these mistakes from prestigious organizations are reflective of earlier more ignorant times. Today most are much more thorough before passing judgement. However Offit warns near the end of the book that new mistakes by currently prestigious institutions will be made.
Offit, who is a doctor of medicine and a professor of pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania as well as the author of more than 160 papers in medical and scientific journals, writes in a clear and readable style that is packed with concrete detail and facts, especially historical facts, some of which are appalling and horrific.
Here are some tidbits reflective of Offit’s engaging style:
“Francis Galton, Charles Davenport, Harry Laughlin, Madison Grant, and Adolf Hitler all shared several features: All were, by their definition, Nordic; all believed that Nordics should procreate freely while non-Nordics should be prevented from procreating; and all were childless.” (p. 122)
Today’s view of lobotomies includes the comical: the “Frontal Lobotomy” is a drink made with amaretto, Chambord and pineapple juice; a joke, “I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy” (from Tom Waits); and a T-shirt with a picture of George W. Bush and the words, “Ask me about my lobotomy.”
In regard to Rachel Carson and her imagined Eden-like world before pesticides, Offit quotes William Cronin: “It is not hard to reach the conclusion that the only way human beings can hope to live naturally on earth is to follow the hunter-gatherers back into a wilderness Eden and abandon virtually everything that civilization has given us.” (p. 186)
Writing about Linus Pauling and other august scientists who couldn’t bring themselves to admit they were wrong, Offit offers: “When anybody contradicted Einstein, he thought it over, and if he found he was wrong, he was delighted, because he felt he had escaped from an error.” (p. 197-198)
The essence of Offit’s argument in this book is this quote from page 212: “…all scientists—no matter how accomplished or well known—should have unassailable data to support their claims, not just a compelling personality, an impressive shelf of awards, or a poetic writing style.”
--Dennis Littrell, author of “Hard Science and the Unknowable”
I buy a lot of books, but don't read many of them right away. This book was an exception - I was engrossed in it immediately, and couldn't wait to pick it up again.
I love the way the author put scientific discovery in the context of history. I'm amazed at the depth of his historical and scientific knowledge.
I knew something of the history of the poppy, but the author's treatment of the opioid crisis and history was masterful, and put it all into perspective in terms of human health.
Each chapter is extremely well researched, and provides numerous and rich insights into the consequences of informing massive, life-changing, and sometimes planetary level policy decisions, from arrogance, or from willfully ignored settled science. All of the stories have one or more protagonists who tragically pursue action without proof, leading to needless, tragic, and often monumental human suffering and death as a result of their hubris.
In these trying times, where conspiracy theories and propaganda abound in untold quantity, this book is a breath of fresh air. I hope you read it, and then pass it on to your children to read.
Paul Offit's answer to the question is somber, constructive, and close enough to provoke a little fear for what we are capable of doing to one another in the name of war, uncertainty, ideology, incompetence, ego and even hope. Each of the seven fables of Pandora's Lab draws on a deep psychological feature, flaw, of human nature.
The first fable shows how greed plus aversion to pain fed of each other to turn opium, that herb Sumerians called "the plant of joy", into the deadly OxyContin -a drug that draws more deaths than car accidents in the US. Offit's description of how the painkiller epidemic came to be is enraging, as it forced into alignment the worst incentives from the medical profession, pharmaceutical industry, media and regulatory agencies. The second fable adds advocacy to the mix, showing how health activism facilitated the introduction of deadly partially hydrogenated vegetable oils (trans fats) into world diet due to some well-intentioned policy that, trying to eliminate one evil, invited a worse one in. The next fable draws on the unintended consequences of new technologies, showing how synthetic fertilizers made possible the demographic explosion of world population during the XX century, but at the hefty price of environmental degradation and its inventor's dwellings into the origins of chemical warfare.
Of all the fables in Pandora's Lab, perhaps because it resonates to current sentiments in developed countries towards migration, none is more gripping than the history of eugenics -an ideological virus that took hold of some of the brightest minds in biology, statistics and law, and through the zealotry of people like Madison Grant, lent the base for forced sterilization in the US and the horrors perpetrated by the Third Reich. Bad science can turn a political cause into an unfathomable weapon, or as Offit puts it: beware the zeitgeist.
The next three fables show how desperation for medical treatments can lead to unspeakable things being perpetrated on the weakest among us, as shown by Walter Freeman's indiscriminate applications of transorbital lobotomy, and how the radical application of the cautionary principle on DDT hampered the fight against malaria. The last fable speaks about the dangers of authority disguised as science, retelling how brilliant scientists like Linus Pauling, Peter Duesberg and Luc Montagnier lost their way and recurred to conspiracy theories to back their theories when evidence went the other way.
In the epilogue, Offit writes: "Although we hold on to the hope of a better life through science, we need to approach all scientific advances cautiously and with eyes wide open" (p. 241). All fables point to the disastrous outcomes that follow the coincidence of greed and need. The dangers of listening to the loudspeaker of ignorant activism. How political environment that sees a new technology being born matters. How our hope for easy solutions to complex problems is misguided. Why we can rid ourselves from parroquialism us-vs-the. And, worse of all, how our deference to authority can turn science into the weapon of the whimsical.
Hopefully now we’ve learned the lessons.
I suggest to you that corporations have proven to untrustworthy when providing complete information while bonafide scientists have a much better reputation. That has been particularly true when the vast majority agree. Corporations have a great deal more to gain than a bunch of independent scientists.