Richard Harris: Rigor Mortis

Cover: Rigor Mortis

Cover: Rigor Mortis


Richard Harris
Basic Books (Hachette), April 4, 2017, $28
ISBN-10: 0465097901; ISBN-13: 978-0465097906
Available on Kindle

Harris reports:

In 2014, NPR asked me to shift my attention from climate and environment to biomedical research. I quickly discovered that biomedicine was suffering from deep structural problems, which are helping to drive what’s been dubbed the “reproducibility crisis.” The idea for a book was born. It’s my first; I wrote it in my first extended break from NPR in nearly 30 years.

Rigor Mortis explores the depth and scope of the problem. I examine the assertion that most published research findings are false, and explain that while failure is a necessary element of science, there is also a lot of needless failure in biomedical research.

Richard Harris

Richard Harris

After laying out the problem, I explain what’s gone wrong. The problems start with bad ingredients such as bogus cell lines and untrustworthy antibodies and animal models. Poor experimental design and improper use of statistics are also to blame. Biomedicine’s funding crunch and perverse incentive system also drives scientists to puff up their findings and to cut corners along the way.

Rigor Mortis is loaded with cringe-worthy anecdotes, Nobel laureates included. Despite the publisher’s gloomy subtitle, I also explore the growing efforts to improve rigor and reproducibility in biomedicine.

I assumed that many scientists would be reluctant to talk about the problems facing biomedicine. This was surprisingly not the case. (Of course, this was well before anyone imagined President Donald Trump would try to eviscerate the NIH budget.) Dozens of scientists and officials talked to me, and many were pleased I was airing this issue.

I gathered inspiration and sources for one thread of the book at a 2015 National Research Council meeting on statistics and reproducibility, where I met Keith Baggerly and Steve Goodman, two experts in these areas, who figure prominently in Rigor Mortis.

Dan Sarewitz, co-director of Arizona State University’s Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes generously provided me workspace down the hall from his office in DC, along with sage counsel. He also dubbed me a visiting scholar and offered me a stipend, which was a welcome supplement to my solid advance from Basic Books.

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