When Science Goes Wrong

When Science Goes Wrong

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by Simon LeVay

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Brilliant scientific successes have helped shape our world, and are always celebrated. However, for every victory, there are no doubt numerous little-known blunders. Neuroscientist Simon LeVay brings together a collection of fascinating, yet shocking, stories of failure from recent scientific history in When Science Goes Wrong.

From the fields of forensics


Brilliant scientific successes have helped shape our world, and are always celebrated. However, for every victory, there are no doubt numerous little-known blunders. Neuroscientist Simon LeVay brings together a collection of fascinating, yet shocking, stories of failure from recent scientific history in When Science Goes Wrong.

From the fields of forensics and microbiology to nuclear physics and meteorology, in When Science Goes Wrong LeVay shares twelve true essays illustrating a variety of ways in which the scientific process can go awry. Failures, disasters and other negative outcomes of science can result not only from bad luck, but from causes including failure to follow appropriate procedures and heed warnings, ethical breaches, quick pressure to obtain results, and even fraud. Often, as LeVay notes, the greatest opportunity for notable mishaps occurs when science serves human ends. LeVay shares these examples:

  • To counteract the onslaught of Parkinson’s disease, a patient undergoes cutting-edge brain surgery using fetal transplants, and is later found to have hair and cartilage growing inside his brain.
  • In 1999, NASA’s Mars Climate Orbiter spacecraft is lost due to an error in calculation, only months after the agency adopts a policy of “Faster, Better, Cheaper.”
  • Britain’s Bracknell weather forecasting team predicts two possible outcomes for a potentially violent system, but is pressured into releasing a ‘milder’ forecast. The BBC’s top weatherman reports there is “no hurricane”, while later the storm hits, devastating southeast England.
  • Ignoring signals of an imminent eruption, scientists decide to lead a party to hike into the crater of a dormant volcano in Columbia, causing injury and death.

When Science Goes Wrong provides a compelling glimpse into human ambition in scientific pursuit.

Editorial Reviews

Scientists do not always get it right. Sometimes, their mistakes require subtle modifications of postulates; other times, they cost lives. Harvard Medical School neuroscientist Simon LeVay knows from professional experience the high potential cost of erroneous theories and bad information. In When Science Goes Wrong, he presents a sobering recap of major blunders, including the story of a team of less-than-astute volcano watchers who hiked steadily into the crater of a mountain about to erupt. Several of LeVay's other tales of human error also read like possible nominees for the Darwin Awards. An engaging look at scientific and medical mishaps.
Publishers Weekly

Experimental brain surgery goes horribly awry; a dam fails catastrophically; a geologist leads an ill-equipped party to its doom in the mouth of an active volcano: these are the amazing and sometimes horrific stories of technical errors and scientific mistakes that LeVay (The Sexual Brain) relates. Some, like the case of the British meteorologist who failed to predict a hurricane that killed 18 people, seem due to arrogance. Others-the loss of a costly spacecraft, a criminal conviction based on inaccurate DNA analysis, multiple deaths after an accidental release of anthrax-are the result of ordinary human error. Some incidents may well have been deliberate, such as a nuclear reactor error that was possibly the result of a love triangle gone bad, or the data falsified by a physicist seeking fame as the discoverer of a new element. LeVay surveys a range of fields, offering several reasons why things go wrong and noting that "for every brilliant scientific success, there are a dozen failures." Readers curious about particularly notorious cases will find LeVay's book both entertaining and thought provoking. (Mar. 25)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Kirkus Reviews
Venturing into the unknown can have unexpected consequences. Neuroscientist/journalist LeVay (Queer Science: The Use and Abuse of Research into Homosexuality, 1996, etc.) offers many different explanations for what caused the calamitous mistakes he examines. Sheer bravura could account for the volcanologists who were killed climbing into the crater of an about-to-erupt volcano. Imperfect information and a TV weatherman's vanity led to misreporting on a hurricane that killed 18 Britons in 1987. Bad geological advice, combined with design changes made by an engineer with a God-like reputation, built a dam in the wrong place in 1920s California. That pounds-to-Newtons mistake that doomed the Mars Climate Orbiter? Faulty software that someone should have caught, but didn't. The Houston Crime Lab's errors in DNA testing wrongfully imprisoned a rape suspect for nearly five years, but lab reforms and the work of Innocence Network lawyers give this cautionary tale a moderately happy ending. Research on human subjects provides LeVay with some grim examples: brain surgery using fetal tissue to "cure" Parkinson's disease; a gene-therapy experiment that killed a teenager with a genetic metabolic disorder; and a 1939 study that tried to determine whether people could be induced to stutter by telling normal children they had symptoms and should try to stop. There is little question that these cases flagrantly violated ethical considerations, primarily because the designers fervently believed their hypotheses and employed questionable methods in order to be "proved" right. In only a few instances does the author suspect coverup or deliberate intent: the horrible story of the release of anthrax spores ina Russian biological warfare factory; the alleged tampering with readouts to show production of a transuranium element; and the unresolved case of a runaway nuclear reaction that killed three scientists. LeVay's epilogue notes that oversight and regulation have helped, but reminds us that research involves risk-taking. Far from cheerful reading, the only comfort being that these "wrongs" were eventually found out.

Product Details

Penguin Publishing Group
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Product dimensions:
5.35(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.65(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

Meet the Author

Simon LeVay is a British-born neuroscientist who has served on the faculties of Harvard Medical School and the Salk Institute. He is best known for his brain research and work on the biology of sexual orientation. LeVay is the author of Human Sexuality (with Sharon Valente) and The Sexual Brain, among other books. He has also written for Scientific American, New Scientist, and the Los Angeles Times Magazine, and has appeared on Oprah. LeVay lives in West Hollywood, CA.

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When Science Goes Wrong: Twelve Tales from the Dark Side of Discovery 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
MicheleLeesBookLove More than 1 year ago
Review by Jason Lush Really should have been called "When Humans with College Educations Do Really Stupid Things", but I guess that wouldn't be sensational enough. When Science Goes Wrong is informative and engaging, but I believe it may have been rushed to press to capitalize on some event. The book covers twelve events in recent history in which seemingly smart people committed decidedly careless or outright stupid deeds, always at the cost of others. Each of the twelve stories are factual and informative, but every one of them is jam-packed with worthless fluff and personal anecdotes that distract from the point. My advice is read the first three and last three pages of each chapter and you'll get all the relevant information you need.
The_Book_Wheel_Blog More than 1 year ago
Loved it!  When I first picked up this book I immediately went to Goodreads to see what other people thought. One of the biggest complaints is that it was too “sciency” or technical, which baffled me because it’s about science going wrong. That’s right – science. Of course it is going to have some scientific jargon! A chapter about hurricanes would be incomplete without a mention of the Coriolis effect, so I didn’t factor these complaints into my decision to read it. But while most of the scientific sections were about things I learned in high school, there were parts of the book that were really heavy on the technical terms. To be fair, they were necessary to understanding how and why things went wrong, but I did find myself skimming over the chapters about engineering and chemistry. Not that that detracted from the book whatsoever. In the end, morbid curiosity and extremely approachable writing by Simon LeVay propelled me through the book. If you had asked me a week ago whether I thought human experiments were actually happening with catastrophic implications, I would have said no. Between the FDA, the review boards, and the internet, there couldn’t possibly be genetic testing that resulted in an ear bone growing in someone’s brain or blatantly ignoring FDA regulations, right? Wrong. Dead wrong. In fact, When Science Goes Wrong: Twelve Tales From the Dark Side of Discovery by Simon LeVay (who is interesting all on his own – check out his page) proves that these things are still happening and it kind of freaked me out. I should mention from the get-go that the title can be interpreted in two ways – one is that the science itself went wrong and the other is that science as a field has gone wrong. This book is more about the latter and focuses predominantly on human error or lack of information rather than failed science.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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