NPR’s Richard Harris Breathes Life into the Reproducibility Crisis with Rigor Mortis

The key to good science, according to the late physicist Richard Feynman, is that “you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.”

In Rigor Mortis: How Sloppy Science Creates Worthless Cures, Crushes Hope, and Wastes Billions (Basic Books, 2017), Richard Harris, a seasoned health and science journalist, uses this quote to lay out his argument that the reproducibility crisis was brought on by biomedicine’s failure to live up this standard.

Many of us in science PR and marketing are immersed in the reproducibility crisis. The alarming difficulty of replicating published scientific results has been a hot conversation for several years now. If you’re like me, you’ll raise an occasional eyebrow at chapters that condense entire areas of research to a few pages. Antibodies have been the subject of entire conferences; Harris covers it in about 10 pages as a secondary point in a chapter mainly about cell lines. So be warned: if you have a stake in this crisis, you’ll feel short-changed somewhere. As the author scales the biomedical field in leaps and bounds, he lands on certain key players and issues but not others.

But Harris’ holistic approach is exactly what I found refreshing and relevant. Reproducibility has become such an anthem in science communications that some companies may be tempted to turn a quick sale by touting solutions to the reproducibility crisis. But do we fool ourselves with such claims? We and our audiences need context, and that’s exactly what Harris offers.

Reading Rigor Mortis brought me out from deep within my clients’ perspectives to see the whole landscape. Equipped with that context, we can more effectively position products and services in ways that resonate with the true pain points of their audiences. We can support sales with substantive messaging instead of sounding a shallow alarm.

In the first place, Harris’ bird’s-eye view renewed my sympathy for the difficulties and frustrations of science. There are no easy answers, because every step toward new knowledge presents roadblocks, both natural and institutional. Researchers need statistically significant sample sizes, but funding to do so is scarce. Science depends on repeating and confirming published studies, even failures, but the pressure to publish new and original findings is immense. Even with excellent research, biology is fickle, and the slightest change in protocol (like the kind of soap used to wash glassware) can mean the difference between success and failure.

But it’s apparent that Harris’ own sympathies have a limit. Extensive reporting reveals a research culture, mainly in academia, that fools itself into thinking a status quo of routinely failing to protect against bias, failing to use statistics correctly, and refusing to adopt new standards will somehow produce anything of value to medicine.

He galvanizes this opinion with compelling narratives of people who depend on this lousy research. I found myself emotionally drawn into the struggles of people with ALS, where millions have been spent and inches gained toward new medical advances.

I was equally fascinated by the stories of people, organizations, and technology making a difference. Organs-on-a-chip, literature review services, data-sharing frameworks, and good old fashioned watchdogs are some of the solutions that fill their fair share of pages. Although there’s no panacea, these examples provide a welcome counterbalance to what could have otherwise descended to apocalyptic doom and gloom.

Rigor Mortis is an excellent read for science communications professionals looking to recognize the strengths and errors of their own messaging strategies. It’s also a compelling read that inspires readers with tales of science, good and bad, and determined individuals unwilling to submit to the status quo.