The science we are taught in school is nice and neat. However, the realities of scientific research, like all human endeavors, is messy, and has its share of controversies. There are two flavors of scientific controversy. There’s the political type of controversy, where people who are not part of the scientific community feel very strongly about the implications of the scientific theories: think climate change, or the Scopes Trial. Then there are controversies within a scientific community about theories. For example, the theory of plate tectonics was so controversial among geologists when it was proposed that it was considered pseudo-science.
Alice Dreger plants herself firmly in the intersection of political and scientific controversy. The book is a first-hand account of her experiences as an activist among various episodes of controversy. Here she’s defending an anthropologist from false accusations of deliberately harming the native Yanomamö people of South America, there she’s crusading against a medical researcher treating pregnant women with an off-label drug, as part of experimental research, without properly gathering informed consent.
The tragedy is that Dreger, a trained historian, isn’t able to tell a story effectively. Reading the book feels like listening to a teenager recounting interpersonal dramas going on at school. Her style is a strict linear account of the events from her perspective, but that doesn’t help the reader make sense of the events that’s going on. It’s too much chronology rather than narrative: “this happened, then that happened, then the other thing happened.” She loses the forest for the trees.
The result is a book about a fascinating topic, scientific controversies that intersect with politics, turns out to be a slog.