Pandora's Lab by Paul A. Offit, MD
What happens when ideas presented as science lead us in the wrong direction?
History is filled with brilliant ideas that gave rise to disaster, and this book explores the most fascinating—and significant—missteps: from opium's heyday as the pain reliever of choice to recognition of opioids as a major cause of death in the U.S.; from the rise of trans fats as the golden ingredient for tastier, cheaper food to the heart disease epidemic that followed; and from the cries to ban DDT for the sake of the environment to an epidemic-level rise in world malaria.
These are today's sins of science—as deplorable as mistaken past ideas about advocating racial purity or using lobotomies as a cure for mental illness. These unwitting errors add up to seven lessons both cautionary and profound which can be used to investigate how we can separate good science from bad, using some of today's most controversial creations as case studies.
Science is wonderful and amazing, and has contributed immensely to our wellbeing and longevity - but it's not perfect, and neither are the people who practice it. Pandora's Lab is a vindication of the principle that science and scientists can do just as much harm as good.
While this is an especially important lesson for young scientists to learn, it's something we all need to be aware of - especially in the age of the internet, when information is everywhere but evidence is sometimes lacking. Luckily, you don't have to be a scientist to understand and learn from Pandora's Lab. Written in clear prose that avoids being unnecessarily pedantic, with chapters that strike a balance between detail and conciseness, the book manages to be packed with information without reading like a textbook.
The first seven chapters contain a mix of scientific information and historical context and follow important personages, so that they read more like stories than dry recitations of facts. And while the history of these discoveries and their impact on our world - both historically and today - is fascinating, Offit is careful to point out that pseudoscience, misinformation and misunderstanding, and overreaction aren't confined to the past. Linking the mistakes that led to the disasters reported in the first seven chapters to the scientific discoveries and inquiries of today, the last chapter of Pandora's Lab serves as a guide for how we can prevent such disasters in the future.
Meticulous, thoroughly researched, and thoughtfully written, this is a book that science and history enthusiasts will enjoy reading and learning from. But it's also a book with a very important lesson that everyone needs to hear - not just scientists, but the public who is their audience and whose lives are altered by the implementation of their findings. It's very rare that I come across a book that I truly believe should be required reading, but this is one of them, and it comes with my highest recommendation.
Once Upon a Time...
As a longtime lover of stories and a believer in the power and magic of books, I've spent my life seeking out the best reads. This blog is dedicated to reviewing the books I read - good, bad, or magnificent - to help other readers find their next favorite books.