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Pushing against paradigms

2013 Books Issue | Science books proposing new perspectives on drugs, death, and design

Issue: "Terrific and timely," June 29, 2013

In an era when uppity scientists like to portray establishment thinking as settled truth, it’s worth pointing out when free thinkers try to unsettle the establishment. Here are books by three researchers bent on challenging status quo science.

In Bad Pharma: How Drug Companies Mislead Doctors and Harm Patients (Faber and Faber), Ben Goldacre upends the naïve assumption that the world of drug research is a land without bias or blemish. Drug companies fund trials to test the effectiveness of their medicines, but tend to publish flattering results and withhold data that’s unflattering. The result is “publication bias,” where medical literature is filled with positive studies that, taken together, suggest a drug works better than it really does. Example: During an 18-year period, the FDA tracked antidepressant trials showing 38 positive outcomes and 37 negative. In published literature, though, only three negative trials showed up, and 48 were portrayed as positive.

Since Goldacre is himself a doctor, he writes as an insider and patient advocate who seemingly delights in poring over arcane medical studies. Yet he transforms mundane data into an intriguing exposé, and offers important cautions to doctors: Watch out for the superfriendly, gift-laden drug reps who work for large pharmaceutical marketing departments. Watch out for drug studies ghostwritten by the industry. For the rest of us: Watch out for shiny ads promoting expensive new drugs that may be no more effective than old ones.

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Another doctor, Sam Parnia, wants to improve the lives of patients, but he’d also like to know what happens when they die. His book, Erasing Death (HarperOne), argues for the unorthodox conclusion that the human mind or consciousness “could be a separate, undiscovered scientific entity that is not produced by the brain.”

The latest resuscitation science shows death is an hours-long process that can be reversed. Parnia uses science and patient testimony in an attempt to assess multiple accounts of out-of-body experiences, where, in some strange cases, patients accurately describe hospital room events (from the vantage point of the ceiling) that took place while they were lying without a heartbeat or brain activity, waiting to be resuscitated.

Philosophical spiritualism influences Parnia’s vantage point, however, and out-of-body experiences aren’t doorways to truth, since patients have reported meeting not just Jesus but Krishna and the Hindu god of death, Yamraj. But the book’s mind-brain research—including the discovery that some drugs temporarily restore consciousness in brain-damaged patients—is fascinating.

Speaking of death, there’s no greater monument to dead things than the fossil record. Neo-Darwinists say the record is evidence of macroevolutionary change over time, but Stephen Meyer in Darwin’s Doubt (HarperOne) explains Charles Darwin himself was mystified by the sudden appearance of novel and numerous animal forms in the fossil layer now known as the Cambrian. Interpreted by evolutionists to be one of the oldest fossil layers, the Cambrian should display fossils illustrating Darwin’s “tree of life,” showing transitional forms branching off a common ancestor. Instead, the Cambrian is more like a green lawn, with all the blades of grass (the animals) sprouting at once.

Meyer, a maverick who helped launch the intelligent design movement, shows how both fossils and theories of genetic evolution fail, by laughable odds, to support the idea of macroevolution by random mutations. Working within a uniformitarian, old-Earth interpretation of the rocks, he argues that intelligent design is the most reasonable explanation for the fossils and complex DNA we observe.

Daniel James Devine
Daniel James Devine

Daniel is a reporter for WORLD who covers science, technology, and other topics in the Midwest from his home base in Indiana. Follow Daniel on Twitter @DanJamDevine.

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