Book Review: Rigor Mortis by Richard F. Harris

Rigor Mortis: How Sloppy Science Undermines Tomorrow’s Medicine by Richard F. Harris

It seems like every other week a new study hits the news: Red wine cures cancer, coffee is terrible for you, taking vitamins is crucial for good health, red wine might actually cause cancer, caffeine in small amount is good for you, vitamins are worthless. With this whirlpool of conflicting information coming rapid-fire into the public sphere, one could certainly forgive the average person if they stopped paying attention, or even started to doubt everything they hear from a scientific source.

In Rigor Mortis, former NPR science journalist Richard F. Harris seeks to illuminate the systemic problems which underlie this phenomenon. Especially in this political environment, such an undertaking is a double-edged sword. It would be too easy for someone to take the basic concept: that there are structural problems within the field of medical research, and leap wildly to the conclusion that science itself is deeply flawed. However, the current situation within the scientific community needs to be addressed. Improvement can only be achieved with honest admissions of fault, greater transparency, and dedication to change. In this regard, Harris’ book does the field more good than harm.

The current crisis has been labeled one of reproducability. Flawed research, lack of standardized methods, and inadequate analysis, combined with the chaos of working within living systems, result in a nigh-impossibility of one lab successfully reproducing the results of another. The causes of this are multifaceted; lack of training in laboratory and statistical methods, the dog-eat-dog nature of research funding, the press by Universities to “publish, publish, publish” with more regard to quantity of work than quality. Right now, it pays far better to be first to be right.

Harris’ book isn’t just a condemnation of the state of the field, he provides concrete adjustments and changes that can be made to improve the quality of research being done, and shares the stories of those within the field who are working towards those ends. The emphasis here is that we should not throw the baby out with the bathwater. As more and more researchers begin to deal honestly with the flaws of their research and seek solutions, the benefits for medical research, and for doctors and patients, will be profound.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.


Book Review: Gut by Giulia Enders

gut giulia enders

Gut: The Inside Story of Our Body’s Most Underrated Organ By Giulia Enders


“The gut is our body’s most underrated organ. This is its inside story.”

Gut is a rollicking ride through the vast organ that is the human digestive system. Enders takes us through the whole thing from top to, er, bottom, and from inside to out.

The book is similar in tone to Mary Roach’s book: Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal, but where Roach excels at going into the kooky culture behind the science, Enders gives us the low down on the anatomy and physiology of our most ignored organ (appropriate, as she is–at the time of this writing–a medical student). We move through the structure of the various components of the digestive system, on to the structure of the nervous system which services the gut, and make a nice little stopover with the microbiome: the bacterial cells living in our gut that outnumber our or human cells by 9 to 1.

Enders has that rare and precious gift: she is able to impart knowledge in an engaging manner. Many, many nonfiction writers would kill for her delivery. The entire book is written in a wry, accessible tone, making Gut the most fun your going to have with your colon for quite a while. In addition, the book is cunningly (and humorously) illustrated (by Jill Enders) throughout, treating us to images of ballerinas toe dancing on slices of cake, babies diving through a sea of bacteria while being born, and the immune system fitting bad bacteria with little hats, among many, many others.

Gut gives us the best of science writing. You will learn quite a bit while perusing this book, but you won’t realize it right away. I’m almost sad that Enders is seeking a career in medicine, I hope she’ll still find time for her writing; the world needs more books this fun.