September 14, 2023


Inside Science: Revolution in Biology and Its Impact. By Benjamin Lewin. Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press. $29.50.

     Anna Russell (1911-2006), a singer and brilliant parodist of classical music, created a 20-minute summation of Wagner’s 20-hour Ring of the Nibelung that she said would be accessible to anyone – unlike more-typical analyses, which she said were produced “by great experts, for the edification of other great experts.”

     Over on the scientific rather than artistic side of things, Benjamin Lewin certainly qualifies as a great expert: he founded Cell, one of the most highly regarded of all life-sciences publications, in 1974, and remained its editor for a quarter of a century. But Inside Science is not the story of Cell or of Lewin’s other endeavors – rather, it is an exploration, largely through the study of genetics, of how scientific research is actually done and how its realities differ from the views of it among scientists at large, and to an even greater extent from the views of non-scientists trying to absorb nuggets of value from findings that are frequently abstruse even to colleagues of their discoverers.

     If this sounds like a lot of navel-gazing, that is, to a great extent, the case. Lewin’s primary interest is the gulf between perceptions of modern scientific research and the scientists behind it, and the ways that research is actually done and promulgated (through Cell and many other highly respected journals). Certainly in most people’s minds, scientists are seen as loners who come up with occasional amazing insights and then shout “eureka!” while running to inform the world, as Archimedes supposedly exclaimed when he leaped from his bath and ran naked to inform the king of the method he had discovered to distinguish pure from adulterated gold.

     Nudity aside, things may have worked more-or-less that way in the distant past, but it has been a long time since solitary scientists have made amazing discoveries on their own. Some inventors have done so – Thomas Edison is a prototypical example – but their orientation is practical and pragmatic, which is not generally the scientific milieu. Scientists nowadays work in teams, in labs, in groups that meet both in person and virtually, and eventually make significant if less-than-eureka-moment discoveries that appear in journals and are for the most part forgotten as everyone moves on to something else. This publish-or-perish mentality – a characteristic of the academic and economic environment in which modern science is done – is mathematically demonstrable. Lewin cites evidence that “the majority of published papers actually make zero contribution to science because they are never read by anyone except the authors, the reviewers, and (presumably) the journal editor.” He cites statistics showing that about 22% of scientific research is never cited by anyone else – and that rises to 48% in the social sciences (and 93% in the arts and humanities, although that is an entirely different book). So a great deal of the time, all the labor and emotional engagement of science results in real (or at least journal-worthy) science that goes absolutely nowhere and that advances human knowledge only to the most minuscule degree.

     This is just one topic that Lewin explores with erudition and a suitably jaundiced eye in Inside Science. Pointing out that “the scientific enterprise has done a fantastic job of maintaining its mystique,” Lewin mentions the furor over James Watson’s The Double Helix, his 1968 account of the discovery of the structure of DNA – and one of the few genuinely important modern books about science that was written in a way that non-scientists find readily accessible. Lewin points out that the book “personalized how science works” – this is precisely what makes it accessible – and as a result was roundly condemned by many in the scientific community. And the circle-the-wagons mentality of science did not start there, of course. Sticking just with DNA matters – by no means the only ones on which Inside Science focuses – Lewin discusses Oswald Avery’s finding in 1944 that “the material transferring hereditary properties between bacteria contained DNA.” Avery himself was surprised at this, but what interests Lewin is that others’ skepticism about the finding “is an interesting example of group-think based upon an incorrect assumption, an illustration that facts are not necessarily easily assimilated into the canon of science when they conflict with conventional wisdom.”

     Well, facts that conflict with any sort of group-think tend to provoke resistance, as is made clear by pretty much any news headline about pretty much anything at this point in the 21st century. The reality that science too – that supposedly objective, supposedly careful field interested only in what is, not in what one wishes might be – suffers from the perpetual wearing of blinders will not surprise anybody except, perhaps, scientists, whose blinders render many of them incapable of seeing their own limitations or those of science in its broadest sense.

     Lewin’s book is intended to force some light to penetrate those blinders, if not to remove them altogether. His interests and concerns are many and varied – the pluses and minuses of artificial intelligence, the way the recently sequenced human genome actually works, the stultifying effects of the publish-or-perish mentality, the inherent messiness of research and the way published papers assiduously avoid exploring it, and much more. He writes with clarity and understanding, and his grasp of the various topics he explores is always impressive. Whether his book will be widely cited and influential is, however, by no means certain. Its admirable level of detail means that non-scientists will find it heavy going; its concerns with the minutiae of research and publication will be irrelevant to most people; its forms of infighting (“disdain for other fields of science is not uncommon among researchers”) will reek of the schoolyard to those not actively engaged in them. For its intended audience, Inside Science has the potential to have a great deal of value, but even that audience has to be willing to see beyond (or through) some highly opaque vision-blockers in order to gain that value. Even great experts have to be willing to pay attention in order to obtain edification from other great experts.

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