Holiday books 2: Evidence-based reading and ranting

As part two of our series of Friday holiday book posts, we’re featuring some reader suggestions. Among these are some of the most popular books now at Children’s Hospital Boston, as judged by their turnover. “We can’t keep them in the library,” says head librarian Alison Clapp.

The Fever: How Malaria Has Ruled Humankind for 500,000 Years, by Sonia Shah (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010). Vampires may be all the rage in some circles, but they cannot compete against female mosquitoes risking a life-ending swat to acquire a drop of precious blood to nourish their eggs. The malaria parasite exploits these fierce maternal instincts to infect more than 500 million people every year, killing nearly one million of them. The parasite can start feeding on the blood cells soon after infection (a cycle studied by Children’s researcher Jeffrey Dvorin) or stay dormant for 70 years. Shah unpacks a complex social and scientific story in an easy conversational style. Clapp recommends the radio interview of the author.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot (Crown, 2010). Ten years in the making, this widely lauded book tells the story of the woman whose 1951 cervical cancer biopsy led to the first immortal human cell line, HeLa. The cell line’s legacy includes ethical and legal struggles over experiments on African Americans and the ownership of our own tissues. The cells launched a multimillion-dollar biomedical industry and continue to reveal new insights: they have been used to test the original polio vaccine, to establish techniques for cloning cells and in-vitro fertilization, to demonstrate that humans have 46 chromosomes (not 48), to elucidate the role of DNA-repairing telomerase in cancer, and the list goes on. Yet, when Henrietta Lacks’s family learned about this biomedical legacy in the mid-1970s, they were too poor to afford health insurance to cover the medical advances made possible by their mother’s cells. After the book came out, a researcher at the Morehouse School of Medicine raised money for a headstone for Lacks’s unmarked grave.

Bad Science: Quacks, Hacks, and Big Pharma Flacks, by Ben Goldacre (Faber & Faber, 2010).

Goldacre rants with brilliant wit and biting aim against the systematic undermining of the public’s understanding of the nature of evidence with absurd distractions, deliberate obfuscations and grotesque extremes. The villains in the new U.S. edition of his book range from the mainstream media, the food supplement and pharmaceutical industries, and the education system. “People have wound up in prison, derided, or dead, simply through the poor understanding of statistics and evidence that pervades our society,” he writes. Genuinely useful science gets lost — even for doctors — in the misleading practice of reporting on science one headline-grabbing study at a time. You can also catch Goldacre’s equally incisive and entertaining Guardian column at http://www.badscience.net/.

Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance, by Atul Gawande (Picador, 2008). In the 1960s, the average cystic fibrosis patient died at age 3. But one doctor had patients living until an average of 21 years. How was this possible? What was he doing better than the rest? Gawande, a surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and a memorable storyteller, explores how physicians can innovate to solve problems from the mundane to the seemingly insurmountable—from getting more hospital staff to wash their hands and stop infecting patients to reducing casualties in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Better also includes some stirring, not-to-be-missed discussions of the ethics of malpractice suits and of doctors involving themselves in the execution of the death penalty. His quest to improve performance, especially in the medical profession, continues in the latest book, The Checklist Manifesto (Metropolitan Books, 2009). (reviewed by Parizad Bilimoria)

NurtureShock: New Thinking about Children, by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman (Twelve, 2009). If you’re so smart, why are you still praising your kids’ innate intelligence or other natural gifts outside of their control, instead of their efforts, which allow kids to take charge of their own success? In a provocative book, Bronson and Ashley explore recent research suggesting that “giving kids the label of ‘smart’ does not prevent them from underperforming,” they write. “It might actually be causing it.” Those in pursuit of highly rational parenting may also be intrigued by other chapters describing new evidence debunking and advancing various child-rearing strategies regarding sleep and intelligence, playing well with others, honesty and lies, talking about race, and early infant language skills.

For more reading suggestions, read last week’s post. Anything you’d like us to include in our next edition?