Book review: Rigor mortis

Scientific research should not be attached to particular dogmas or paradigms but, on the contrary, change its methods according to the results obtained. In his book “Rigor Mortis”, the science journalist Richard Harris denounces the cost -financial and human- of a botched science, too often stuck in “animal models”.

As an experienced science journalist, Richard Harris has done a good job in denouncing many of the reasons why much biomedical research, and sometimes even clinical research, is unreliable. This “sloppy science”, in its own words, “creates worthless remedies, destroys hope and wastes billions”.

The purpose of this book review is not to cover the entire content, but rather to focus on some aspects of animal research discussed in the book. Harris provides several examples of the weaknesses and failures inherent in animal research but does not put all the pieces of the puzzle together to make a clear conclusion. The reason for this is perhaps that he does not want to criticize the establishment more than necessary, or simply that he lacks essential knowledge to see the obvious. Harris is a science journalist, not an evolutionary biologist.

Here are some examples in this book on the shortcomings of animal research:

  1. Scientists can delude themselves in 235 ways by unconsciously biasing their studies (page 41).
  2. New research showing that mouse results do not apply to humans has been rejected by scientific journals on the grounds that: “If this paper is published, it will delay the field [of mouse research] of 10 or 20 years … Obviously, the old guard will suffer from a paradigm shift and entire careers will disappear. “(Pages 50 and 51)
  3. “Misleading animal studies have led to wasted effort and dead ends in the search for billions of dollars worth of drugs. Failures in animal studies have also had fatal consequences.”(Page 71)
  4. Harris cites a researcher who continues to use animals and says, “Animal models are a disaster … I’m worried not just that they may be fake … but what if disease models neurodegenerative (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and Alzheimer’s) were not false but irrelevant? Not relevant is much worse than fake. Because irrelevance sends you in the wrong direction. “(Page 82)
  5. One of the scientists interviewed for this book provides a key track on why a treatment that seems effective in animals fails afterwards in humans: “Evolution has created so many systems [backup] redundant that targeting a single path in a complex network will rarely work.” (Page 89)

All in all, this book is a missed opportunity to denounce the scientific fraud represented by animal research, given our current knowledge of complex systems and the biology of evolution. Harris seems to support the idea that animal research could be improved by adhering to strict guidelines on methodology. The real reason animal studies fail is that they are not predictive of how humans react to drugs and diseases. Increasing the number of animals used for a study will not solve the problem. Rather, it is a major revision of an outdated scientific paradigm in light of current scientific knowledge that would be needed.

Review by Andre Menache