As a writer and broadcaster, Professor Winston has developed an impressive skill in communicating to the layman the complexities of the subject to which he has devoted much of his life - namely science. Previous books like Human Instinct and the Human Mind explored and explained the riddles of inherited behaviour and the brain, but here Winston goes much further, in what is perhaps his most impressive work. 'Bad Ideas?' is a fascinating take on the history of science, posing the question 'have our inventions really helped us, or have they continually sowed the seeds of our own destruction'.
From the very start the book asks us to really think about the implications of innovation. 2 million years ago, our ancestors began using stones as tools - gradually sharpening them to allow us to hunt, to cut meat, and so on. Winston suggests that human technology, which enabled us to control our own environment - even to the point of modifying the evolution of the species - stemmed essentially from the development of the stone hand axe. But what could be used to hunt for food could also be used to kill other humans. That tool that helped our brains develop through consumption of fat rich meat, also refined murder and enabled war and weaponry. What becomes clear over the many wonderful anecdotes that fill this book is that, from those very first innovations, every scientific progress has its light and dark sides. Which brings us to what seems to be the crux of 'Bad Ideas?'. Although warning that science has brought humankind to perhaps the brink of its own destruction - through nuclear fission, climate change, pandemic threats, even nanotechnology - Winston makes clear that the the key to our future, and the future of science, is communication. The book suggests we must have more dialogue about innovation, more consideration of ethics, and make science as open, accessible and exciting to the general pubic as possible.
The subject that many claim bored them at school is truly key to every aspect of our modern lives. 'Bad Ideas?' is a call to the lay person that science is really ready to talk everyone's language.
Bad Ideas could easily be the historical, moustached daddy of Ben Goldacre's similarly indignant calls under book-titles prefixed Bad (Bad Science, Bad Pharma) for better scientific reporting and less participation of the pharmaceutical industry in contemporary medical practice. I have come off this book with my critical faculties and skepticism for science rejuvenated. Being a medic myself, it's nice to get a booster shot of erudite, critical deconstruction of everything one holds close.
The past and the journey to the present is often romanticised, but Winston here in twelve biting chapters takes us down twelve strings of human "development": from creation of the first man made tools to epigenetics, from discovery of fire and oil to modern medicine, from the first evidence of language use to the modern information epidemic. After making us quickly leap from key developmental milestones down the ages, he informs us about how we have let these developments to channel both our productive and destructive instincts. The tone he takes is compelling, if a tad dispiriting. Halfway through the book, I was almost dreading reading another chapter of a tirade against a human discovery that has morphed us beyond recognition by bringing out the worst.
But this is essential reading. Understanding of the fabric of the world is incomplete without knowing the reasons behind the misery and inequality that plagues the contemporary society globally, especially as most of these reasons are bound within the innovations in science. Ultimately Winston wants more transparency in scientific institutions' output and increased engagement with the general public who are the rightful stakeholders. A remarkable ideal, considering all our discoveries in the past and present have become a victim of obfuscation, power-play and nefarious interests. More pressing questions, which are not quite the book's endnote hang around: are we really moving forward? Are we really living better? Is there any hope for us as a species as we hurtle along towards certain destruction of our own selves over our egos? There is much food for thought and rest assured I won't be treating every new innovation in a journal or news-rag with the same glee as I would have before.
Erudite and richly informative, this is a brilliantly written book whose arrival couldn't be more welcome and timely. Ostensibly it is the history of man's technological progress from thousands of years ago to today - R Winston asks whether it really is progress at all: in pursuing better lives for ourselves have we set ourselves on a collective march towards self-annihilation, of our own species and of the rest of the planet? Fairly portentous stuff then. Though don't be mistaken into believing that this book is all doom and gloom or relentless pessimism...in fact much of it is also a celebration of man's inventiveness, creativity, adaptability and versatility - indeed no other animal has come close to what we have achieved in this respect. Plus the book is peppered with regular doses of good humour and humility - refreshingly there are many instances where Winston generously acknowledges and praises fellow doctor's or scientists's achievements (and one wonders whether this is a grace sorely lacking in other scientist's repertoire). By chronicling man's inventions and their unexpected consequences, Winston covers a whole myriad of topics: farming, medicine, weaponry, even writing and communication -but for me as a lay person, the most arresting and interesting chapters were the those about science and the scientific community, and I suspect that will be the case for most people. As a whole, the book is brave, inspiring fascinating and compelling - it encourages us to embrace the ethical challenges of the future and offers us hope in doing so. Above all, it's a really really good read.
Erudite or what? Robert Winstone has a phenomenal understanding and overview of an amazing number of scientific subjects from the origins of farming, communications, writing, and the use of fire, to transport, weapons, genetics and, of course, medicine. The breadth and depth of his historical and contemporary knowledge is impressive and he develops his themes compellingly and interestingly.
His themes are, firstly, that, although an ardent advocate of the importance of science and scientific development and public understanding of science, many discoveries and developments also pose a latent threat. Secondly that because of this latent threat, science and technological development need regulation. Even democratically elected governments cannot always be trusted to use science wisely and he urges the greater understanding and informing of the general public to assist sensible regulation. For example the refusal of Europe to accept genetically engineered foodstuffs, despite their widespread use in other parts of the world (the majority of soya, maize, cotton, alfa alfa are genetically modified to the benefit of farmers and, as for example golden rice with its high vitamin A, to the benefit of huge numbers of people) is due to the lack of consultation and information provided to the general public and hence their misplaced fears which sway supermarkets and politicians. But he remains very positive about the beneficial effects of a large proportion of discoveries and innovations and contends many have beneficial applications that were not originally envisaged. Technological development, he maintains, has often happened and is happening simultaneously and independently in many parts of the world. Whilst individuals are often credited with "discoveries" usually such developments are a cumulation of work of many people. And he describes the origins and developments of many of his subjects. Unsurprisingly he is most powerful on medicine and his detailed and intricate knowledge and personal involvement with medical research and particularly fertility is evident. Even the most seemingly valuable medical ideas need to be considered with wisdom and discussion.
In some respects it is a dissatisfying book in that you are waiting for the implications and conclusions from his descriptions. But he maintains that opinion should be based on evidence and the evidence is frequently open to different interpretations, so the interpretation is not necessarily conclusive. Climate change is the obvious example where he sensibly questions the blind following of the precautionary principle whilst open to the unfolding evidence. But the fascination and detailed description of such a wide range of scientific and technological developments and thoughtful consideration of their implications outweighs any reservations.
Robert Winston has a desire to explain science rather than preach it. In the case of stem cells Winston was the first writer who provided for myself a clear picture of what was involved in stem cell research. It was not the story running in the tabloid papers or the anguished claims of the scientific establishment. His explanations are clear, concise and based on the assumption the reader is intelligent and enquiring. Even when he commits himself to scientific concepts, which may appear as assumptions to non-scientific readers, he does so with erudition and depth. He reaches the heart of the matter very quickly. In addition he understands why non-scientists are sceptical of the claims of scientists and are unable to accept changes which may be beneficial.
Winston possesses none of the arrogance many scientists seem to regard as imperative to maintaining their social status. He reminds readers that "scientific knowledge may be abused by scientists themselves", citing the way in which Lysenko's personal ambition and political support over-rode the interests of science at the expense of Vavilov. British Marxist scientists closed their eyes to the injustice in favour of political dogma in order to maintain their status as transmitters of truth. Winston is committed to having dialogue with the general public to explain the nature of progress and enable them to reach informed judgements on public issues. Science belongs to the public not to the scientists and "every citizen has a part to play a part in understanding scientific achievement and ensuring that it is used for good".
Science never reaches a situation of perfect knowledge. The discovery of the Piraha people in the rainforests of north western Brazil provided challenges to previously held views about the origin and universality of language. The Piraha have a very limited number of words and apparently no proven connection with any other known language. The tribe live as hunter-gatherers, have no social hierarchy, no memory beyond yesterday and are innumerate. This undermines Chamsky's notion of a universal language characterised by recursion.
According to Winston it was probably a rapid climate change which put an end to the historical large mammals. This requires assumptions not directly supported by scientific evidence. However, Winston's assumptions are used in a non-dogmatic way. Thus, in referring to the origins of agriculture, he claims, "we can talk with some certainty" and "take a reasonable stab at explaining why" but wisely states, "whatever the cause", as an admission of the limits of knowledge. Other scientists would benefit from his cautious approach. With regards to modern agriculture he is critical of the techniques used in the production and packaging of foodstuffs. He considers they may have a negative impact on the long term health of the population. While he recognises the rights of activists Winston is concerned that their misunderstanding of the benefits of genetically modified foods may undermine scientific experiments and adversely affect people, especially in the Third World where poverty and basic foods are prevalent.
Winston bewails the inference of politicians, especially in the spin of the past decade. He believes policy decisions have led to a decline in the trust shown to the political class. Some years ago journalists were warned they were drinking at the Last Chance Saloon, now it's politicians. Winston recalls how Alistair Campbell strictly controlled New Labour's news output. Winston broke ranks to express concerns about the under-funding of the NHS and was treated to "vicious bullying" and "venomous behaviour" by Campbell. Winston is also critical about medical practice, deploring the inefficiency of the system and criticising it for the pursuit of fashionable rather than useful research. As politicians have shied away from the debate over rising costs and the provision of free health care for all, Winston suggests doctors should lead the debate in the interests of all, including the patients.
Winston's descriptions of the history of scientific ideas is excellent. He also describes how each generation has faced the ethics of their time by taking decisions, some of which, for example, book burning, caused lasting damage. He suggests medical trials should be conducted cautiously rather than be driven by competition. He disparages the idea of DNA screening which he characterises as another attempt to provide certainty where none exists. He notes that many scientific discoveries are "heralded by exaggerated claims for its immediate or imminent value". Many discoveries have beneficial affects not envisaged when they were first made and the use of the term "breakthrough" is usually inaccurate.
Scientists "are no better than anybody else at forecasting the future. In fact their predictions are usually widely inaccurate." Ultimately science is not truth but a version of it. That's what makes this book such a gem, even for those of us who think he makes assumptions and draws conclusions we regard as inaccurate. Our truth, like that of science itself, is only a version. Winston puts all this in perspective. Buying this book is a good idea and I highly recommended it. Five stars.
I wasn't too sure what to expect when a friend gave me a copy of this book as a present. For some reason, I thought it was going to be a variation of the Darwin Awards. Instead I found the book a wide-ranging and provoking read giving different views on many commonly used discoveries/inventions. I found the easy style of his writing made the book entertaining while being informative (something I didn't always encounter at school). I thoroughly enjoyed this book and would highly recommend it.