Richard Harris’ book Rigor Mortis inspires scientific soul-searching.

Let’s start out addressing the elephant in the room: There are a lot of scientific studies that are just not reproducible, period. It’s not about one lab, or one theory, or one field.Everyone in science is affected by what has been called the “reproducibility crisis.” Drug development is slowing down. Major initiatives to find cures for diseases are turning up empty-handed. Vast sums of money are being spent for little to no gain – it’s the scientific equivalent of trench warfare.

So why is this happening? It’s not a conspiracy or a hoax (outright fraud in science is actually quite rare) but something much subtler. In Rigor Mortis, award-winning journalist Richard Harris strips away the white coats and jargon, providing a rare glimpse into the inner workings of academic science in a clear, well-researched book that is an eye-opener for both the casual reader and the serious scholar.

Each chapter of the book peels away a specific layer of the onion, highlighting problems but also potential solutions.

Slowing down to speed up

rigor mortis
Richard Harris
Rigor Mortis:
How Sloppy
Science Creates
Worthless Cures,
Crushes Hopes
and Wastes Billions
(Basic Books, 2017)
288 pp.

Let’s take one example of a counter­-intuitive solution: big data.

The last few decades have witnessed a number of flashy big data projects (think genome sequencing). Instead of analyzing a few data points, scientists are now analyzing millions, faster and cheaper than ever before. But interpreting all this data takes time and skill.

Training to be a scientist is still a pretty haphazard process, with little formal coursework at the graduate level. Techniques are passed down from well-established mentors to their postdoctoral scientists, making it easy to perpetuate ideas that may be out of date. Today, few PhDs, mentors or funding agencies have the statistical training to tell whether the conclusions being drawn from these big data projects are sound or meaningful. There is more data but fewer answers.

At the same time scientists are under immense pressure to keep pace with technology and their peers. In practice that means publishing as quickly and as often as possible, which encourages cutting corners to save time and money. And a lot is riding on it. If you don’t keep up as a scientist, you risk losing necessary funding for your experiments and possibly even your job.

Science is meant to be a self-correcting system. Scientists propose ideas, test experiments and publish their findings. Others will test that theory and studies that are supported over and over again make it into the textbooks, sometimes giving us new drugs and Nobel laureates.

But with the incentives shifted to value quantity over quality, lots of sloppy science gets published, making the whole self-correction process take longer. That means new drugs and potential advances delayed in turn.

How to fix the system

Although Richard Harris suggests a number of ways that the rigor of contemporary science can be improved, there are no easy answers. Scientists, politicians, funding agencies and journals all share some of the blame. An overhaul of the whole system is required. And that will take time. Scientists need to be given an environment that encourages the production of quality data, but the community as a whole also needs to be held accountable when money is poorly spent.

Richard Harris is not a whistle blower; he is a member of a growing community of scientists trying to fix a broken system, because when science is working well everyone benefits. So while Rigor Mortis is critical of the state of scientific research, it is not the least bit cynical of its potential.