(My review on goodreads)
A Tapas Bar of Science? An Izakaya of Science? Lots of small bites, anyway. The general theme is the practical use of scientific results to influence public policy and practice. Vaccines, nutritional supplements, pesticides, various medical procedures: Schwarcz outlines both the science and the widely believed but probably not true beliefs around these and many other topics. And for the most part this is really useful.
My one mild criticism is that Schwarcz relies a bit too heavily on putative benefit / risk analyses regarding practices whose effects are not yet fully known. That is an approaach that, in practice, favors the status quo. The use of neonicotinoids in pesticides, for example, has been proposed as a cause of the collapse of bee colonies. The EU concluded in 2013 that there was enough evidence to justify a moratorium on the use of certain neonicotinoids in pesticides. And recently (after the publication of Schwarcz’ book) the EU concluded that there is a proven risk (see Neonicotinoids: risks to bees confirmed and the supporting analysis linked from there). Schwarcz somewhat downplays the evidence that was available at the time, and points out the counter-evidence: there have been bee colony collapses in areas where neonicotinoids haven’t been applied. This comes down to a question of how we should deal with large systemic risk in the face of uncertain knowledge or contradictory evidencce. My view is that we should be cautious and conservative, in the sense of restricting the use of new chemical compounds or technologies until they have been proven to exceed a very high safety bar. The downside of that approach is that we might miss out for a time on benefits from a practice that is in fact safe. Another downside, the only one that actually matters, is that large multinational corporations will miss out on substantial profits while the safety evaluation is conducted. But the downside of the “innocent until proven guilty” approach is that it can result in widespread human suffering and death, ecological destruction, and displacement of stable agricultural practices and social structures. And once a technology, or checmical, or drug, is introduced and is generating profits, it is possible that even when hazards of its use are known, the companies that profit from its sale will hide or attempt to discredit that evidence. Thalidomide, tobacco, asbestos, and CO2 driven global warming come to mind.
But despite that rather lengthy discursion, this really is a good and useful book.