Dissecting Medicine: Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Laws of Medicine

Uncertainty in medicine sounds like a pretty bad thing. But Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Laws of Medicine argues that the science of medicine is indeed rife with uncertainty. This doesn’t have to be a bad thing, though. Rather, Mukherjee insists that this “youngest science” (in the words of Lewis Thomas – an author who had a profound influence on Mukherjee) must confront and address the various forms of uncertainty inherent to medicine if medicine is going to be considered a science at all.

I don’t want to give you the impression this is a heavy or dense book. At a mere 70 pages, it’s a quick read, made all the quicker by the light prose style and frequent use of anecdotes to flesh out more general ideas. But I particularly want to recommend it to you because, while brief, this work offers an entirely new way of looking at a discipline that impacts every single one of us.

So let’s look at the two main reasons you should read The Laws of Medicine.

1. Just like in his much longer book, The Gene, Mukherjee incorporates many anecdotes, as stated above, to illustrate his points (he may do the same thing in The Emperor of All Maladies, a book about cancer, but I haven’t read it yet). There aren’t too many anecdotes, however, and the select few he mentions are compelling little short stories all on their own, especially when we remind ourselves that – while the names may have been changed – these stories are about real people. Mukherjee also does a great job of telling his own story, sharing his journey from a young medical intern to the world-renowned oncologist he is today. He even discusses books that influenced him (I’m a big fan of authors who share books that shaped their ideas). But these glimpses at the author’s life serve a larger purpose, just like his anecdotes – namely, so that he can explain the origin of his three laws. Now, he admits that these aren’t the only three laws of medicine, nor are they universally acknowledged by others in the field. They are instead his three laws, which reflect years of wisdom gleaned from dealing with countless patients and immersing himself in an astounding array of scientific literature (Mukherjee draws parallels at times with other subjects, like quantum physics – specifically the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle – and philosophy, both in a broad sense (i.e., what are the philosophical issues his laws raise?) and more narrowly, like when he references philosopher of science Karl Popper’s groundbreaking The Logic of Scientific Discovery (another book you should read, incidentally).

2. The other reason you should read this book – aside from the engaging stories drawn from his personal and professional life – has already been alluded to. That is, his three laws. I won’t spoil them for you (though they are annoyingly listed right on the back cover with no spoiler warning), but they are all fascinating and show just how human the science of medicine truly is.

Overall, then, this is a short book with a big message, which will not only give you something new to think about – something any good book can do – but do the one thing only great books can.

Change the way you think.

So go read it. Now.

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