Tuesday, 11 April 2006

Sex, Drugs & DNA – Michael Stebbins ****

“Science’s taboos confronted,” shouts the subtitle, and that’s a fair summary of Michael Stebbins’ thought-provoking and readable book, though perhaps it should be “biological and medical science’s taboos”, because the hard sciences don’t get much coverage, not entirely surprising as Stebbins is a geneticist.
The first section of the book is a fascinating look at the reality of working in science, taking a fictional character through a typical career, and emphasizing how difficult it is to be a working scientist – a useful background to the rest of the book, which is largely about the inability of politicians (and to some extent the general public) to deal with science. Stebbins largely puts this down to ignorance, in part the fault of science education, which we’ll come back to in a moment.
His book is a real indictment of US policy. It reads like a rather more moderate, but still very passionate scientific equivalent of a Michael Moore book. Chances are, if you enjoy reading Moore (whether or not you agree with his manipulative methods), you will want to read this book too. If Moore irritates you intensely, so will Stebbins, though with less reason, because he is less sweeping in his claims.
You will see how badly the US government has handled everything from its approach to GM to global warming, from medical care to science education. For a European reader, the description of the US primary medical service is terrifying, while Stebbins rightly lays into the sort of witless testing that can result in increasingly good test results while at the same time a nation’s children become less and less capable in the sciences.
There are a couple of problems with this book, which is why it got four stars rather than five. I don’t mind the fact that it’s something of a polemic – what’s said needs saying – but I do think in the list of a science publisher that aims to be global in reach, Stebbins should have put some effort into taking a more global view. This is a totally parochial US view, and after a while, for the rest of us, “Senator this said that” becomes a little tedious. The non-global view at its worst when he’s talking about science education. “Next time you crack a joke about the Brits or French, remember: their children are smarter than yours,” he says. The only Brits I crack jokes about are the Brit Awards (the UK’s pop awards, sometimes dire events), and “their” children aren’t smarter than mine, because my children are Brits.
I also found his tendency to throw in excreta related swearing every couple of pages just to show how trendy he is, a little wearing after a while. Generally the book’s style is admirably light and well phrased, and it’s not an objection to the swearing per se, but he could have used more than about two words for a bit of variety. (Having said that, as my mother would have said, it really isn’t clever, Michael. You don’t have to show off this way.)
Don’t be put off by the US content if you aren’t American, though. The US has a huge influence on the rest of the world, and it is vital we all know, US citizens or not, what’s going on there. And Stebbins rightly points out the bizarre inconsistencies and idiocies that science policy throws up. This is, without doubt, a book that anyone who really wants science to succeed should read.
Review by Brian Clegg

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