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

Lord Robert Winston, scientist, broadcaster, writer, is brilliant, erudite and charming. So his book, Bad Ideas?, should be terrific.

Bad Ideas? An Arresting History of Our Inventions

Bad Ideas? An Arresting History of Our Inventions

By Robert Winston (Random House, 2010) $45 Buy@Fishpond

Sometimes people know too much.

Lord Robert Winston, scientist, broadcaster, writer, is by all accounts brilliant, erudite and charming. And he has an awesome moustache.

So Bad Ideas? should be a terrific book. Imagine someone grandfatherly with vast knowledge and a voice made for the BBC, spinning yarns about Neanderthals and nematodes, the fire crackling, brandy warming, all the world making sense.

So why isn’t it? It’s not for lack of information—Winston is encyclopaedic in his reach across history, warfare, anthropology, politics and personalities. And it’s not a poverty of prose. He writes beautifully. Here’s him on Namibian huntsmen: “Compared to the pursuits of the average 21st-century Londoner, hunting and gathering sounds more like being a leisured member of the Garrick Club—so leisured in fact that we might well wonder why anyone chose agriculture.”

The problem is that the honeyed tones and the brim-filled pages of facts amount to scientific sound and fury. I cannot fathom the point of this book. The clue to its cluelessness is in the title. The question mark is confusing—is he saying the ideas are bad, or questioning the proposition of ideas being bad? And who has time for a pointless meander through the history of science these days? Bill Bryson cornered that market with the impressive toilet read A Short History of Nearly Everything.

Maybe I’m missing something, but Bad Ideas? seems to lack an argument, a reason to disagree or even much of punch line.

It’s churlish to criticise because, let’s face it, how many books have I written so far? But this book needed an editor to ask: what’s the point, Winnie?