Breathtaking sweep across time and geography, flying along on the coat-tails of a theory that is so intuitively acceptable that it almost makes you say 'duh'. A society's institutions, extractive (bad) or inclusive (good) explain the wealth of the society and the health and happiness of the common man (and, if you are really lucky, woman). I hated history at school because it didn't explain: just one damn thing after another. This does, right up to the end where they use their theory to predict the future success of current societies. It explains why 'state building' (e.g. in Afgahanistan) is such a challenge. The UK (a pioneer in modern state building) got properly started on the process in 1215, brought in universal education in about 1890 and gave women the vote in 1928. Mind expanding book.
Tim Harford gets better and better, now with a whole thoughtful book exploring the concept of evolution as applied to markets and other complex systems. He is really becoming the UK's Paul Krugman with his colourful analogies that bring to life economic concepts for the lay person - Coco bonds as airbags and 'economic Bulldogs' for the unintended consequences of well intended policy. So why only four stars? Well, most unfortunately, Tim (who, as we all know, is himself a highly competent presenter, well able to read his own book) delegated this task to some actor who decided to deliver various lengthily quoted passages in the supposedly appropriate accent. So Adam Smith appears with a rich scottish burr, and various Americans with a transatlantic drawl. This is irritating and unnecessary (and probably inaccurate) but tolerable. It becomes unbearable when we have third world economists such as Muhammad Yunus (founder of the Grameen bank). The narrator can't actually face the horror of putting on a faux-Bengali accent so he does a sort of 'humble peasant voice' instead. Made me squirm. Tim - read your own books - please.
This book isn't really about science, but about its misrepresentation. It is particularly topical as the NHS is currently mopping up the damage caused by the MMR scandal and scam of 2002-2005. Was it all done just to sell newspapers? Basically, yes, even though children may (this year) die as a direct result.
I got a bit tired of Ben Goldacre's polemical style, and overuse of adjectives such as exquisite and spectacular. The problem is that Mr Goldacre does not really understand rhetoric. He criticises humanities people for not understanding science (bravo) but he could do with understanding the rules of rhetoric better himself. He actually goes out of his way to alienate his scientific readers (by assuming that his reader knows less about e.g. statistics than himself, which will not always be true) as well as non-scientific readers who are bound to find him unsympathetic. Who did he want to appeal to? The first rule of rhetoric is to get your audience to identify with you, to feel that you are one of them. No one wants to identify with Mr Superior and Mr Outraged. You could blame the narrator for the constant and fatiguing tone of moral outrage, but I think he is genuinely reflecting the tone of Dr Goldacre's writing. Lighten up, laugh, you will communicate better!
So, Mrs Picky Moaner, why did you give the book five stars? It is a cracking tour of a fascinating subject, there is much thoughtful content, I was gripped throughout, and I didn't want to put anyone off audioing this illuminating tome.
Reviews of this book on Amazon are mixed but I have always liked Niall Ferguson's wwork so took the plunge. I am glad I did so. I thoroughly enjoyed the book - full of interesting facts and anecdotes, novel and thought-provoking ideas, global in scope and outlook, and very well written. I was genuinely sorry when it finished and I am sure I will read it again.
A real bonus is the excellent narration by the author himself. He was clearly enjoying himeself, does all the accents very entertainly, paces himself perfectly, and his enthusiasm and energy come through loud and clear. Tremendous stuff.
Strongly recommended, particularly if you like history.