The good in Robert Winston's bad ideas

The three-tiered Opera House in Wellington was packed out last night as people flocked to see Lord Robert Winston present the ideas from his 2010 book Bad Ideas?

The lecture was the culmination of a trip that saw Winston lecture in Nelson and take part in the 90th anniversary celebration of the Cawthron Institute which is based there. Winston also took time to visit a school in quake-ravaged Christchurch and to spend time with Chief Science Advisor to the Prime Minister, Professor Sir Peter Gluckman. Winston is a patron of the Liggins Institute which Gluckman founded 10 years ago.

Given Winston’s profile as a scientist and presenter of popular science documenataries such as The Human Body you would expect him to be a cheerleader for science. Indeed he is, but in Bad Ideas? – the book and the presentation on which it is based, Winston looks at the dark side of science and catalogues numerous instances where scientific progress has been accompanied by unforeseen consequences, ethical atrocities and detrimental impacts on society.

His talk spans genetics, the oil industry, the rise of agriculture, the internet and mobile phone technology to name just a few subjects. The overall message is that science can’t remain aloof from society, that scientists must engage and better understand the needs and concerns of society as they introduce new technologies that could bring about profound changes.

The most interesting part of the talk for me was Winston’s warning on the malign role governments can play in science as illustrated by the case of Trofim Lysenko, a Russian “peasant scientist” who won the admiration of Joseph Stalin to the extent that his unorthodox experiments on crops in Russia became the official policy of the communist state – which distrusted conventional science.

Lysenko (left) watched by his admiring leader, Comrade Stalin source: Wikipedia
Lysenko (left) watched by his admiring leader, Comrade Stalin source: Wikipedia

After the devastating crop failures and famine of the 1930s, Stalin was looking for scapegoats and scientists were among his targets.

The results were disastrous for Russian science – and for crop management. It became illegal to criticise Lysenko who was given his own journal to espouse his views on vernalization – views that were discredited only after Stalin’s death when it was safe for scientists to air their doubts about Lysenko’s fraudulent science.

After dwelling on Lysenko, Winston went further displaying a chilling slide showing SS officer and Nazi doctor Dr Josef Mengele posing casually at Auschwitz with slave labourers toiling in the background. The ultimate example perhaps of what can happen when science is perverted by the unethical.

An interesting part of Winston’s lecture was when he listed what he considers to be the ten most significant scientific advances of the last 50 years. We weren’t allowed to take photos or record the proceedings so alas, no podcast of the  lecture – or photos of his slides.

But it seems his list has changed a fair bit from when he first put it together last year:

# Stem cell research
# Bio-mechanics
# The Contraceptive Pill
# Decoding the Human Genome
# The Internet
# The laser
# The microchip
# MRI scanning
# Increasing Evidence for the Big Bang

Last night, Winston had dropped decoding the human genome from the list, as well as bio-mechanics and had added the invention of the atomic clock to his top ten. He dealt with genetics seperately, suggesting that the sequencing of the human genome had been over-hyped and hadn’t really delivered much value to science.

Winston finished with his 14 point science manifesto, which is reproduced here.

But as science minister Dr Wayne Mapp suggested at a cocktail function for Winston at parliament after the lecture, the first point of the manifesto pretty much sums up all of the others:

We should try to communicate our work as effectively as possible, because ultimately it is done on behalf of society and because its adverse consequences may affect members of the society in which we all live. We need to strive for clarity not only when we make statements or publish work for scientific colleagues, but also in making our work intelligible to the average layperson. We may also reflect that learning to communicate more effectively may improve the quality of the science we do and make it more relevant to the problems we are attempting to solve.

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