This book was a major disappointment. I'd seen an interview with the author on "The Daily Show" and wasn't that impressed, but bought the book anyway because of the promise inherent in its subject matter. Sadly, that promise remains largely unfulfilled in this pedestrian, and often irritating, effort by LeVay. The book is arranged in twelve chapters, each considering a specific instance of what LeVay deems to be 'scientific failure'. These specific aspects of the book bothered me:
1. Several vignettes (e.g. the 1928 St Francis dam break, a 1961 nuclear reactor explosion at the Idaho National Laboratory) clearly deal with *engineering*, rather than scientific, failures. But throughout the book, LeVay makes little distinction among science, engineering, and technology, which makes the title misleading.
2. "I had hoped to find out more about this from Tudor herself but ... she had died a few weeks earlier"
"Dyer ... seems to have disappeared from public view"
"Williams ... didn't respond to my requests for an interview"
The book is studded with this kind of admission. Failure to represent all points of view adequately may be inevitable in an exercise like this, and LeVay does acknowledge this difficulty. Nonetheless, the reader is left with some niggling doubts about his credibility. In a story about an experiment conducted almost 70 years ago, to miss obtaining testimony of the main protagonist by three weeks seems unfortunate, to say the least. And in almost every chapter, it seems, LeVay is forced to admit that testimony of at least one key person was unavailable.
3. One chapter, about the 'failure' of the BBC Met Office to predict a severe storm in 1988 has no discernibly useful comment to make about science, except maybe that computer weather prediction models are often inadequate. But it does give the unsettling impression that LeVay constructed a 'story' where none existed, then collected a bunch of selective quotes to buttress his preformed prejudices. Several times I found myself wondering about LeVay's status as a neutral observer, not the feeling one wants to come away with after reading a book like this. Similarly, the reason for including a vignette about a patient with late-stage Parkinson's disease, who flies to China for fetal-implant surgery forbidden in the U.S., with predictably disastrous consequences, is murky. What point is LeVay trying to make - that submitting to experimental surgery under poor supervision in an inadequately equipped facility is a bad idea? Well, duh! This type of pandering to lurid curiosity seemed better suited to World Weekly News than to a serious book.
4. Maddeningly, in several vignettes, one feels that an opportunity was missed to write a far more interesting story. A story about confusion of units leading to the loss of the Mars Climate Orbiter and its aftermath suggests at least two more interesting possibilities: an analysis of the culture at NASA which made such errors possible, even likely, or a discussion of the high prevalence (with often deadly consequences) of serious dosing errors in U.S. hospitals. Similarly, LeVay's account of the death of Jesse Gelsinger in the now-infamous gene therapy trial at U. Penn was an even-handed presentation of the facts of the case, but left me wishing for a more illuminating discussion of its implications. The reader is left with the impression that the case dealt a death blow to the future of gene therapy (which seems unlikely). Several interesting questions raised by the case are left largely unexamined, e.g.:
* how scientific ambition can corrupt the scientific process
* the potentially destructive hegemony of the status quo in the biomedical and scientific establishment
* direct funding of clinical research by pharmaceutical companies and associated issues
* the appropriate balance of risk and caution in the regulation of biomedical research
Pointing out cases where things have gone wrong is necessary and useful. But ultimately, unless it fuels a discussion of how things can be improved in the future, it starts to feel like a slightly smug exercise in playing Gotcha! LeVay's idiosyncratic selection of case studies, his conflation of science, technology, and engineering, as well as a repeated failure to explore the more interesting questions raised by his examples combine to make this book a real disappointment.