Review of Pandora’s Lab: Seven Stories of Science Gone Wrong by Paul A. Offit

Science can be Pandora’s beautiful box. And our curiosity about what science can offer has allowed us, in some cases, to unleash evils that have caused much suffering and death.

tl;dr — Pandora’s lab is an an engrossing and detailed look at how we have misused science. It is accessible to all. Go for it.

Pandora’s Lab

What is the book about?

Pandora’s Lab: Seven Stories of Science Gone Wrong is written by Paul A. Offit — long time author and renowned doctor.

Dr. Offit has identified and detailed seven instances of inventions and circumstances surrounding them, whose impact (mostly negative) is still being felt today. These seven instances cover a wide spectrum — ideas and products, time periods, geographies and walks of life. Just to be clear, these seven instances are the stories of how we, human beings, have through our biases, perceptions and poor understanding, have misused science. Science, by itself, is neither good nor bad.

What does this book cover?

Pandora’s Lab consists of 8 chapters with an epilogue. It is an average sized book that does not overstay its welcome.

The first seven chapters cover

  • The Opiod crisis — the rampant misuse of painkillers
  • The hoopla around Cholesterol
  • The Haber Process for fixing nitrogen and how it is killing ecosystems across the world
  • Eugenics and how it lead to Hitler’s rise as well as the current racist tension across the world
  • Lobotomies
  • The hysteria around DDT which lead to the banning of one of the safest and most effective insecticides in the world
  • The craze for magic supplements like vitamins and minerals

The last chapter consolidates all the learnings we have had from the mistakes committed.

What did I like?

Pandora’s Lab is an excellent and engrossing read. The book drew me in and I never felt the need to put the book down. This is due to a couple of reasons. The first reason is the focus on the main characters involved in the inventions — their stories, the circumstances under which the inventions were made, the original uses and misuses and the consequence of the misuses. The second reason is the amount of scientific research that has gone into the creation of this book. Some of this research is as new as 2016 which puts a lot of things, that we take for granted, in a different light.

For example — I was under the impression that vitamins are good for you. But it was not until reading the chapter and understanding the role of phytochemicals, that I got to understand why this was a dumb idea. Similarly, DDT has been replaced by pesticides and insecticides that are worse than it. Research indicates that DDT was a safe chemical and that many of the ills associated with it were not true. Unfortunately, as a result of banning DDT we have lost the battle on malaria and more than a million lives are lost every year.

What did I not like?


My Recommendation

I strongly recommend this book. Dr Paul A. Offit has compiled seven eclectic instances which make us think about historical misuses. Which leads us to thinking about the current misuses that may be happening and what biases we are viewing certain inventions now.

Pandora’s Lab

Originally published at Digital Amrit.