Oxford Literary Festival: Robert Winston

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The Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival takes place in and around Oxford until Sunday, hosting talks by some of the biggest names in literature, science and the media. Read regular reviews from Cherwell‘s correspondents here on cherwell.org

Robert Winston is one of the foremost scientific voices in political debate in this country at the moment. Less abrasive than figures like Richard Dawkins yet well-recognised outside the scientific community for his media appearances, he is not only a highly respected medical scientist with hundreds of published papers and pioneering research under his belt, but a life peer. As a speaker he is eminently calm and sensible while never dull; even when one disagrees with him, one cannot help but respect him.

His introduction, however, as a controversial man who turns your understanding of the world on its head, was frustrating and far from the case, for, engaging as he is when explaining early man’s stone tools or modern experiments with lasers, very little of what he says is controversial. Winston has countless historical anecdotes and snippets of scientific research about the fat content of brains or the development of swine flu, but his warnings over the dangers of battery farming or global warming are eloquent examples of points broadly accepted by scientists which need to be better communicated to the public, rather than surprising revelations.

After all, his latest book, Bad Ideas?: An Arresting History of Our Inventions, is part of his more general mission in his other books and media appearances to improve the public’s understanding and relationship with science. Its particular purpose is to look into a history of human invention and argue that every significant invention has had both good and bad consequences. We must learn our lessons from the sort of dangerous inventions of the past which have led us to destruction of the environment, new diseases and the threat of nuclear war.

His talk, sadly, seemed to lack many specific lessons; he preferred rather to ramble through various examples of human invention which, while interesting, made the experience seem rather like reading Aesop’s fables and skipping the morals.Even when he did come to a point he went into little detail. For example, he was eager to stress the importance of research with no foreseeable positive benefits for humanity, for expanding human knowledge itself is a wonderful thing which may well unexpectedly lead to discoveries of vast benefit. However, with the distribution of research funding such a big debate in the scientific community and amongst politicians, he failed to address how it should be dished out if not in light of foreseeable outcomes.

Indeed, one of the best moments of his speech was when he discussed how the Genome Project, often described, not least by the scientists involved in it, as one of the most significant steps forward in our knowledge of genes in decades, has so far led to no practical outcomes of any use to humanity. He seemed oddly pleased by the notion, despite the sort of media distortion the project has obtained being opposed to his fundamental beliefs about the way the public should engage with science.

Winston has warmed up the book festival’s science audience: Simon Singh and Ben Goldacre are revisiting Oxford to discuss their books later this week. Though I doubt they will be quite as agreeable figures, or as authoritative representatives of science in national political debate, their talks will hopefully do a better job of turning the world around you on its head.

 

Bad Ideas?: An Arresting History of Our Inventions by Robert Winston was released by Bantam Press on 18 Feb 2010 Simon Singh ( event 681) will be speaking at on Thursday 25th March at 6pm. Ben Goldacre (event 843) will be speaking on Saturday 27th March at 2pm. More information about the festival can be found at www.oxfordliteraryfestival.com 

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