Bad Ideas, cover

Bad Ideas? is a history of science and its unintended dangers. It argues scientists and public must work together for a shared understanding and vision.

Robert Winston is a distinguished scientist and doctor. He was made Lord Winston for his work in reproductive biology and the treatment of infertility. In Bad Ideas? he sets out his argument that whilst science and its application has achieved much that is good it has also had unintended consequences. As well as improvements to humankind’s lot almost every idea has also exposed us all to greater dangers and vulnerabilities.

Anthropological and Cultural History of Science and Technology.

The first third of Bad Ideas? is a mix of early history as humans started to walk on two legs and make tools. It mixes scientific and cultural history with anthropology to show that the move from hunter-gatherer to farmer resulted in poorer nutrition leading to the average height declining, at least initially. The suggestion is that although on the surface many developments had benefits they were not free from flaws. This sets out the intended theme of the book.

At first it feels that Bad Ideas? jumps around chronologically before setling into the middle third. This feels more structured as various aspect of science and technology, such as writing and communication, are chronicled as a piece. However the negative aspects are rather glossed over and it is more of a competent history of scientific and technological progress than an expose of its weaknesses. So the basis argument of the book is somewhat understated.

Strong Arguments on the Misuses of Medical and Scientific Knowledge

However it is in the final third that Bad Ideas? comes alive with a bang. This where Lord Winston explores the history and science of medicine, his own specialist field. Here he fully develops his premise about unintended consequences. He also targets poor science and worse application in the field of health. He shows how very narrow understanding is or was used by both doctors and politicians to justify inappropriate messages and treatment.

This later part is the meat of the book and with a shorter introduction would have stood alone and produced a much tighter argument. It is not possible to treat all scientific and technological progress with this level of detail which makes Bad Ideas? a little uneven or overly ambitious.

The Way Forward – Aphorisms About Science and A Scientist’s Manifesto

In isolation the first two thirds are a readable history of human progress and some of its unintended consequences. The final part makes a better case to lead into the final chapter “Scientists and Citizens” where Robert Winston describes how scientists and the wider population should interact. He sets out “Twelve Aphorisms About Science” which leads into the final few pages which form a 14-point “Scientists Manifesto” . The first two points of the manifesto are:

  • Scientists’ responsibility to communicate the work they have done on behalf of society as effectively as possible and
  • Effective communication is two-way and scientists must engage with the public to make the work more relevant and less dangerous.

Finally in the last two points of the manifesto he addresses:

  • Education and that scientists “should encourage young people to see the magnificence of the natural world”.
  • Science as part of our culture and that in the modern world an educated person should have an appreciation of science and its disciplines; just as in previous generations to be seen as a civilized and learned person one needed to appreciate the likes of Shakespeare, Goethe, Thucydides, Rembrandt and Beethoven. Now science in all it forms should be added.

An Interesting, Challenging but Readable Book

An interesting and challenging book but there is a slight concern that the first parts of the book do not build the argument as effectively as the last. Very readable and it adds to literature on the failures of society to ensure science and technology is not misused, or used before it is understood.

Bad Ideas? An arresting history of our inventions (2010, ISBN: 978-0-593-06027-8) by Robert Winston is published in hardback by Bantam Press at £20.


First appeared on Suite101

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