Rigor Mortis

Richard Harris / Basic Books / 288 pages

In Rigor Mortis: How Sloppy Science Creates Worthless Cures, Crushes Hope, and Wastes Billions, award-winning science journalist Richard Harris takes a harsh look at biomedical research and exposes widespread failures. Harris describes problems with the animal models that are used, the experimental design, the analysis of the data, reporting of results and overall rigor. He details the enormous failure to produce study results that are reproducible and describes results that are just plain wrong. He also reports on the impact of unconscious bias among researchers and how the business of doing research so as to advance one’s career and reputation is a huge stumbling block to sound science.

Harris writes, “Misleading animal studies have led to billions of dollars’ worth of wasted efforts and dead ends in the search for drugs”—not to mention countless animal lives. An entire field may experiment using a certain animal model even though it may not be an effective model of disease. For example, he describes studies on ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) using mice with a specific mutation (SOD-1) who have shorter lives and symptoms indicative of ALS, but who don’t actually develop it. Harris states, “Scientists developed this mouse model after discovering the SOD-1 mutation in some people who have an inherited form of ALS. But only 2 percent of people with ALS carry this mutation, so it’s hardly the whole molecular story behind the disease.”

The book serves as a caution to a public that has blindly trusted and relied on biomedical research, and as a call to scientists to reform the process so as to improve upon research outcomes.