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Independent on Sunday, 14th February 2010
If you are the kind of person who generally wears (and is worn down by) a metaphorical sandwich-board proclaiming that “The End is Nigh”, then you will no doubt enjoy reading prophecies of doom, be they in works of science fiction, fantasy or in The Daily Mail. For a true prediction of Armageddon though, where better to go than to that bona fide soothsayer, the boffin?
As it happens, the bogus image of scientists as fortune-tellers or near-deities is exactly the kind of thing Robert Winston, professor of science and society at Imperial College, wants to be rid of. His book, Bad Ideas?, provides a litany of examples to suggest that for “every act of creation and innovation there exists the potential, also, for our undoing”. So, farming feeds the millions but has led to new diseases; antibiotics both kill and cure; literacy and zealotry are two sides of the same coin; medicine has gone from healing the sick to aiding some kind of eternal life fantasy, and genetics raises the spectre of eugenics.
Straight-talking, matter of fact and rational, Winston provides a useful patch for anyone who abandoned scientific study at the tender age of 16, then grew up wondering why they knew relatively little of what makes the world go round unless, perhaps, it involved money, career, celebrity or sport. While there are dense sections on linguistic development and agricultural practices that had me daydreaming at the back of the class, Winston absorbs elsewhere, manipulating research and historical anecdote to investigate many of the challenges that have caught the headlines (and have sometimes been distorted by them, he argues), including climate change and our reliance on oil.
Alongside Winston’s account of the see-saw effect of human innovation runs his preoccupation with conveying a clearer picture of what scientific findings actually mean, and a massaging of the expectations of science. The manifesto climax to Bad Ideas? comprises a noble attempt to bring science and society closer. But the professor has already identified the key problem, some chapters back, that may stymie a global understanding of, well, the world. The problem stems from exactly what you are doing now – reading. According to Winston, “As reading matter became cheaper… and the market more fragmented and specialised, it became increasingly possible for people to descend into separate, private worlds.” Extend this to, for example, cinema/ DVDs, cable TV and gaming (surely a section on cultural innovation would have been apposite?) and you get a fuller picture of why too few of us will know what has hit us and why, if and when Doomsday comes around.