Views & Reviews Review of the Week

A funny thing happened on the way to the lab

BMJ 2007; 335 doi: (Published 29 November 2007) Cite this as: BMJ 2007;335:1157
  1. W F Bynum, professor emeritus of the history of medicine, University College London
  1. w.bynum{at}

    W F Bynum is impressed by a book about the role of chance in medical innovation

    It is no news that science is messy. Louis Pasteur said it most famously: “Chance favours the prepared mind.” His compatriot the physiologist Claude Bernard chipped in with: “Experimental ideas are often born by chance.” The Nobel prize winner Peter Medawar probably argued it most subtly, when he wrote a paper, cheeky but serious, announcing that the scientific paper is a fraud. Medawar wasn't a whistleblower; he merely analysed, in his inimitable style, the fact that scientific papers routinely present the route to their results through a series of logical experiments, correct deductions, and obvious conclusions.

    In practice, things rarely go as expected. Abortive experiments are abandoned, and results are tidied up to be presented in their strongest form. This is normal experimental practice, although it took someone of Medawar's stature to make it public quite so blatantly.

    It is significant that Morton Meyers draws his examples from major medical innovations and can usually draw on the authors of those …

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