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Book Review: Bad Ideas? An Arresting History of Our Inventions

14 June 2010
Appeared in BioNews 562

Bad Ideas? An Arresting History of Our Inventions

By Professor Lord Robert Winston

Published by Bantam Press

ISBN-10: 059306027X, ISBN-13: 978-0593060278

Buy this book from Amazon UK

'Bad Ideas?: An Arresting History of Our Inventions' by Professor Lord Robert Winston

'Take what you want', said God, '- and pay for it'. Or, to put it another - rather longer winded - way: society rarely, if ever, advances to the point where some new technology can be seen as an unmixed blessing. Robert Winston has further expanded God's nugget of wisdom into an entire book. Farming, writing, oil, IT... even medicine, would you believe - the technological mainstays of a modern developed (or not so developed) nation all have to be paid for, though not necessarily by those reaping the benefits nor always in cash.

It's a big subject for a book and Winston does not restrain himself. 'Eclectic' hardly comes near an adequate description. Fallujah to fertilisation; epigenetics to empires; Greek fire to Goebbels; Kinnock to Kazakhs; Lamarck to language... the passing show of the human predicament, Palaeolithic to present, painted by a 'pointillist'. The finished picture is that of a species clever rather than wise or sensible or tolerant or compassionate.

How does Robert Winston know all this stuff? Is it true? The book's blurb describes him as one of Britain's best-known scientists, although it doesn't say what science he actually does. Having been a scientist is hardly the same thing. 'Emeritus Professor of Fertility Studies' doesn't tell us a lot. And, of course, he is well known because he appears on television as a presenter of science programmes and through writing books: at least 13 before this one. This matters because calling him a scientist implies specialist, and probably narrowly-focused, knowledge acquired at first hand. It is on this that any justifiable reputation of authority and reliability rests. In contrast, 'Bad Ideas' is compiled almost exclusively from secondary sources. Nothing is necessarily wrong with that, but it is important to know. It puts the book into the journalism camp rather than that of the professional historian or sociologist.

Television has schooled us in the art of the short attention span. We are not expected to hold a line of thought for long. The rapidly changing image is normal, even required. The serious content is in thin slices separated by often barely relevant chunks of visual padding. 'Twenty minutes of content squeezed into an hour's programme'. 'Bad ideas' gives me the same sense. There is a lot of historical packing. What is the relevance of Joseph Priestley thinking the idea of the Christian Trinity was rubbish? So what? The impression is lots of bits of semi-popular history: scientific, evolutionary, archaeological, cultural, medical and political - loosely strung together. It isn't uninteresting, at least to me, but tastes like lots of separate ingredients heaped on a plate rather than a meal designed from those ingredients by someone winning 'Masterchef'.

Lord Winston clearly sees himself as a bit of an alpha male. He can't resist introducing himself into the story (some of you will remember that when he did a TV programme on fertilisation, he used his own sperm). So we have a story of him, when a house officer, getting one over his consultant by giving a treatment he had been expressly forbidden to administer, though not recording it in the patient's notes. Needless to say, the woman made an immediate and successful recovery. I'm not sure of the relevance to the book, but can't help thinking that, had she died as a result, we might not now be reading it.

Buy Bad Ideas?: An Arresting History of Our Inventions from Amazon UK.

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