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Bad Ideas?: An Arresting History of Our Inventions: How Our Finest Inventions Nearly Finished Us Off - Robert M.L. Winston

Bad Ideas?: An Arresting History of Our Inventions: How Our Finest Inventions Nearly Finished Us Off

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Robert M.L. Winston

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Pages: 432 (Hardcover)

ISBN: 059306027X

Pub: Bantam Press

Pub date: 2010-02-18 Sales Rank: 7031

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Reader Reviews:

5/5 stars

Powerful review of ideas, science, technologial development and the need for regulation. (0/0 people found this helpful)

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.

3/5 stars

Written in a hurry! (0/1 people found this helpful)

Interesting - but reads like a collection of course notes. A good editor could make a book out of this.

5/5 stars

Bad Ideas Are Super (0/0 people found this helpful)

I am reminded of the quote from Pope," and still they marvelled, still the wonder grew,
that one small head could carry all he knew."

Robert Winston must have one of the cleverest minds on the planet. His knowledge is all-embracing and interesting in the extreme and his writing is effortless both to read and understand.

A fine book from a fine author.

I recommend it to all ages.

Jean Sampson

5/5 stars

A Good Idea For A Book (0/0 people found this helpful)

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.

5/5 stars

It's all about communication (5/5 people found this helpful)

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.

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Categories places this book into the following categories:

Books -> Special Features -> Kellogg’s
Books -> Special Features -> Content Stores -> The Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival 2010
Books -> Subjects -> Science & Nature -> General
Books -> Subjects -> Science & Nature -> Popular Science -> General AAS
Books -> Subjects -> Science & Nature -> General AAS
Books -> Refinements -> Language (feature_browse-bin) -> English
Books -> Refinements -> Format (binding_browse-bin) -> Hardcover
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