This is the story about unintended consequences, and unleashing discoveries on the world without enough testing beforehand. The frontal lobotomy, trans fats, eugenics, the synthesis of ammonium nitrate, megavitamins, opioids, and the banning of DDT are the seven that Offit has selected as big mistakes. Some, like lobotomies and trans fats, were a horrible idea from the start. Others, like ammonium nitrate and opioids, have been used indiscriminately and created problems.
Offit gives a good history of each of these problems, from the discovery of the thing to today’s results. He gives a bibliography to back up his thesis, and the last chapter is a warning: how to learn from the past, and how to identify bad science. The book is well researched and well written, and is interesting from beginning to end.
Do I agree with everything he says? Well, no. While I agree that deaths from overdoses of opioids are a bad thing, I certainly don’t want them not used any more. Too many people with chronic pain rely on them to get up and do a day’s work; for acute pain, as in post-surgery use, there is nothing else like them. A way needs to be found to keep them from being *over* used, rather than banning them. Yes, banning DDT meant that a number of mosquito borne diseases, which had become scarce in some area, came back with a vengeance, but I don’t agree with him that no damage was ever done with DDT. We need to find a better way, such as vaccines, to deal with those diseases, not bring back a substance that is still in every single person in the world. I do love his lessons on identifying bad science; if something seems to be the answer to all kinds of questions, it’s probably bogus. Nothing cures everything. Nothing cures without the possibility of side effects. As Heinlein said, there ain’t no such thing as free lunch.
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