I liked the book.  But it had its problems.  Here’s what I posted on Amazon.  (Not glowing text, but I still rated the book four stars.  Heck, I read the things in just a few days — it must have been good!)

This is a really good book. From a science standpoint, it’s a defense of the real thing; that is, that true science follows Popper’s dictum that it’s properly about DISPROVING theories. In this case, Steven Johnson highlights the overpowering desire of mid-nineteenth century English bureaucrats to have events fit their policy predispositions; specifically, that cholera was transmitted through the air and outbreaks were due to the inferior constitutions of the weak and immoral poor. Their “science,” unlike that of the heroes of the tale, is therefore anything but. Meanwhile, one of our two heroes begins by attempting to disprove the theory of the other, that cholera is water-borne; as a result he provides additional overpowering evidence for that theory AND become a believer himself.

Along the way, Johnson also finds common ground with the likes of Hayek in the notion that the best answers are found by ferreting out the distributed knowledge of the common folk, which is what the heroes did.

Johnson’s approach in building his history recalls Cornelius Ryan, in that he tells the story through the accounts and occurrences of the individuals directly involved; this builds a powerful and gripping narrative.

Then Johnson forgets everything he’s learned. He reveals his city-boy biases in opining that our future is in hyper-dense urbanization, and employs statistics that surely conflate the urban vs. rural with the developed vs. developing to show that cities are, by gosh, just the greatest. (When he tells us how green Manhattanites are by virtue of their fossil fuel consumption, he ignores that Manhattan — like every major city — relies on fuel-guzzling long-distance commuters, too. Oh, and transfer payments from the rural parts of the state. But pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!) He also misses the entire point what he just told us about the lure of the popular narrative and waxes ultra-greenish on global warming too — a rather current affair that’s the very reproduction of his public officials’ blindness to the antiscience of their “science”!

Still, the basic tale Johnson tells is a good and valuable one. Indeed, in a way his lapses in his final chapter only provide amplification to his warning that the very smart are often not very smart, and should always therefore be given the greatest of scrutiny and skepticism.