Introducing The Geek Manifesto

Some of you will know me. Some of you won’t. I’m Mark Henderson — I’m Science Editor of The Times*, and I’m also currently writing a book about science and politics. It’s called The Geek Manifesto, it’ll be published next spring by Bantam Press, and this blog is here so that you can contribute to it.

The idea behind the book is fairly simple. The geeks, nerds and dorks of this world are no longer apologising for their slightly obsessive interest in science and critical thinking. Through events such as Simon Singh’s libel case, the sacking of Professor David Nutt as the British Government’s chief drugs adviser, and the Science is Vital campaign to protect British science against spending cuts, they’re beginning to gather the confidence to fight for the causes that matter to them. They are creating an emerging political force, and one that is sorely needed.

Science and politics have never got as much out of one another as they could. Science doesn’t always get the support it deserves from politicians: poor funding, badly-framed regulation, and policy initiatives such as the immigration cap often hamper researchers and their research. Equally, politics doesn’t draw often enough on the problem-solving power of the scientific method — the best tool yet developed for working out what works.

Many of the most pressing social and political issues of our time would be more tractable if politicians were to listen more to the geeks. Whether we want to improve education or cut crime, to enhance public health or to generate clean energy, science and its experimental method is critical.

In The Geek Manifesto, I’ll be exploring some of the policy failures that have emerged from this disconnect between science and politics. I’ll also be looking for answers: what can governments do to improve matters, and what can geeks themselves do to put science more firmly on their radar?

And I’d like your help.

Over the next month or two, as I plan the book, I’d be grateful for any thoughts and contributions you might have. Can you point me towards good or bad practice in political engagement with science? Do you have any bright ideas about how those who value scientific thinking can see it more fruitfully exploited by ministers and civil servants? Who should I talk to? What should I read?

You can comment here, or you can talk to me on Twitter or Facebook. If you’d rather email me, I’ve set up an account at markgfh1 at yahoo dot co dot uk.

I want this to be a book that will draw on all your experience of science and politics, as well as mine. I’ll be very grateful for your contributions.

I’ll be posting more to ask specific questions, and to explain aspects of my approach in more detail, over the coming weeks. Given my deadline, I’m expecting the data-gathering phase of this project to be busiest through January and February, before I have to order my thoughts and start writing — but I’ll be open to ideas right up until I have to submit.

Given my own experience and expertise, The Geek Manifesto is going to be principally British in focus, but I’m keen to include case studies and ideas from other countries as well wherever they’re appropriate. If you’ve got an idea, please share, wherever it might come from.

Thanks in advance for your help!

* – (update 31/3/2012) I’ve struck this through because while I was Science Editor of The Times when I wrote this post, I left the paper at the end of last year to join the Wellcome Trust as Head of Communications. I should point out that the views in The Geek Manifesto are mine, and not those of the Wellcome Trust.

About markgfh

Mark Henderson is Head of Communications at the Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation dedicated to achieving extraordinary improvements in human and animal health by supporting the brightest minds in biomedical research and the medical humanities. The Geek Manifesto contains his personal views, not those of the Wellcome Trust. Before joining the Trust in January 2012, Mark was Science Editor of The Times, where he built a reputation as one of Britain's foremost science journalists and commentators. Mark's first book, 50 Genetics Ideas You Really Need to Know, was published in 2009 by Quercus
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67 Responses to Introducing The Geek Manifesto

  1. jonturney says:

    The (lapsed) academic in me says one might begin by reading Sheila Jasanoff,, but interested to see what others think, and how this conversation develops.

  2. mem from somerville says:

    I think scientists in the US became much more activated when they saw what was being done by the Bush administration’s manipulation of science and science agencies on climate and on stem cells. At the same time, as funding has tightened on all topics due to budget issues, scientists have been more vocal about the importance of the work they do in order to advocate for funding. I think it became clear to all of us that standing aside from political battles–although sometimes for legitimate reasons, to not politicize the science or negatively impact grant receipts–did not serve us well.

    In the US some fraction of science-minded folks have had to battle school districts that want to teach creationism. I find that’s an education issue though–evolution denial did not impact the cutting edge work in that field, unlike climate and stem cell barriers did.

    But I also don’t mean to imply this is uniquely a left/right battle. I’m a leftie scientist, and constantly find myself in battles of policy especially on agricultural issues largely with others on the left (GMOs). Same on vaccinations. One of the most heated things I personally witnessed was a CDC meeting in my city over the H1N1 vaccination strategies. Most of the anti-vaxxers I encountered were also very left. I wrote about that here: http://www.dailykos.com/storyonly/2009/8/29/774141/-The-belly-of-the-anti-science-beast But these meetings were held around the country and the coverage I saw of them suggested the response was quite similar. There was also someone at the meeting doing some kind of social study on what occurred at the meeting. I don’t know if that work was published, but it might be informative. Check with the CDC maybe on that.

    • markgfh says:

      Thanks mem — this is very handy. I’ll indeed be looking at the way these issues tend to cut across normal left/right boundaries. The story from your link is fascinating — I may well follow up with you on this at some stage. Please do keep the ideas coming…!

      • mem from somerville says:

        Sure, contact me if you want. In addition–in my professional capacity, I was in a room at the NIH on a major consortium project where the researchers needed to use stem cells to really get the answers they wanted. But that discussion was shut down by the grant administrator. Not because he wanted to shut it down–I’m pretty sure he agreed with the science. But he was legally precluded from having that conversation he said.

        I watched science stopped by the Bush administration first-hand. It’s a sort of flashbulb moment for me, one I’ll never forget.

  3. alice says:

    Might be worth fishing out Laurie Penny’s review of the Social Network. I remember a good line in that about “a certain type of nerd entitlement”.

  4. Fascinating project, Mark, and there’s definitely a need for a good book in this area….

    But, at the risk of drawing down more fundamentalist wrath on my head… I’m not convinced by the premise advanced above.

    I think the gap between ‘science’ and ‘politics’ in the UK is much smaller than you suggest. Despite the Nutt case I’d argue we have a policy system which strongly values scientific expertise relative to other inputs, often expecting ‘scientific’ answers to questions that are really political ones.

    In fact I’d go so far as to suggest that the science-politics ‘gap’ is about as small as I’d be comfortable with it getting – anything smaller may not be compatible with democratic politics as we know it.

    One thing your web project could usefully do then is to try and collect meaningful evidence that there really is this wide gap and, if so, evidence that this is actually a bad thing. Most of what passes for debate about this topic at the moment is andecdotal and faith-based!

    • markgfh says:

      Thanks Kieron — had a feeling you might have some reservations! Would certainly be interested in any more detailed thoughts you have on this. Just to clarify, I’m absolutely not going to be suggesting in this book that every decision has to be founded on science and nothing else, or that other considerations (legal, ethical, political) can’t sometimes trump scientific ones. But when this happens, it needs to be more properly declared. I think too many pols like to claim an evidence base because it depoliticises their decisions, when they’re actually just quoting whatever evidence happens to support what they want to do anyway.

      I’m also going to be looking in some detail at the disincentives to evaluating new policy initiatives, the poor way in which data is collected and analysed during pilots, and the way in which the sort of scientific principles that work well in medicine (and are expected of it) might be applied in other areas of public policy (eg crime).

      The final key thing is that this is also a celebration of the new-found confidence of the geeks. I’m looking for ideas about how this can best be channelled for maximum good…

      • I think there is definitely something interesting to be done about why and when systematic approaches are taken to policy-making. Although there is some experimental social science, I would again urge caution around the idea that the methods of, say, evidence-based medicine can be directly and unproblematically extrapolated to public policy interventions. But there is a very interesting debate we can have about the conditions under which this might be possible.

        There’s a more general issue about how difficult policy problems are dealt with. Some years ago I was involved in a European comparative project looking at how scientific expert advice was taken up and used in the policy making process in different countries. One thing we found was that, though most countries have standing structures for this, where a topic is particularly contentious amongst the wider public, policy makers are often tempted to turn to ad-hoc approaches instead of or in addition to the existing apparatus. This is not necessarily because they are unhappy with the advice they receive from the existing set-up or because they are looking for a different answer but rather it seems to be because the act of setting up a special committee, an inquiry, a task force etc. is an important symbolic policy action in itself – it is a demonstration that something is being done in a situation of uncertainty.

      • markgfh says:

        V interesting point on the task forces — can see that it taps into the “something must be done” tendency. Suspect we may disagree on the application of the EBM approach elsewhere — but as you say, it will be an interesting debate. I think there are some good examples of it being done pretty well — eg Jonathan Shepherd’s work on criminology, and his idea that we need “practitioner-academics” in fields other than medicine.

        I’m also keen in all of this to chronicle and celebrate the “rise of the geeks”, as it were… I’m thinking back here to a lot of the discussions we had around #scivote etc, and the emergence of a growing group of people who seem to be engaging on these issues more and more. Any thoughts you have on this would be much appreciated. I know you have reservations about the disparate goals of these people, and suggested before on Alice’s blog that this was something of a weakness. But I think it is a real phenomenon, and part of the goal of the book is to think through ways in which this can be channelled more effectively.

    • AJS says:

      In fact I’d go so far as to suggest that the science-politics ‘gap’ is about as small as I’d be comfortable with it getting –anything smaller may not be compatible with democratic politics as we know it.

      But part of the problem is, people will make stupid choices if you let them. Especially where the science is counter-intuitive.

  5. markgfh says:

    Jon, Alice — many thanks for these suggestions.

  6. An idle thought – you might like to cast a light on scientific literacy in the Houses. Most of our MPs seem to come from law and economics backgrounds, how many science-trained MPs are there? How does that compare with other countries? Is this even important, or can something like POST provide sufficient support to decision makers?
    Finally, how many science-policy issues were given free vote? Scientific literacy is fairly inconsequential if MPs are forced to vote along party lines.

    • mem from somerville says:

      That’s a very good idea. It also reminds me of an effort that was going on in the US during the last Presidential election. A group was trying to organize a science-themed debate during the election season. It was going to be a way to compare the candidates based on their science policy positions, which rarely get touched in the current debate system.

      But it didn’t work.

      They still exist, and have morphed into an ongoing not-for-profit group. I would love to see it really happen. http://www.sciencedebate.org/

    • markgfh says:

      Thanks Frank. Definitely part of the agenda. Tho as I point out in my reply to Rebekah, I don’t think you have to be science-trained to be a very effective parliamentary advocate of science. Phil Willis and David Willetts are just two examples… (maybe you just need a surname that starts with Will-)

  7. Hi Mark – I think it’s a very good book idea!

    Just a first thought, there is another point of view that has been pushed for many many years by UCL philosopher of science Nick Maxwell: Science, universities, etc, are very good at pushing knowledge onto students but very bad at communicating wisdom.

    I don’t follow the debates very closely but there are some reasonable points that are often made. Science and philosophy are not so far apart and can learn a lot from each other – scientists can be very dogmatic which is almost always a poor position to hold, while many philosophers seem to have lost the plot.

    What has this got to do with the science/politics interface? I suppose it is what type of exchange would be beneficial – some scientists are full of knowledge but not necessarily wise while many (most?) politicians seems to be neither.

    It might be worth a look, Nick’s website is http://www.nick-maxwell.demon.co.uk/index.htm

  8. Rebekah Higgitt says:

    The first thing that occurs to me reading this post and some of the comments is that it is surely impossible to talk about ‘science’ and ‘the scientific method’ in the singular. We need to think clearly about what methods, what fields of science and what kind of scientist (e.g. funded by who or what, sitting within government or outside etc) are being talked about. Likewise, is the educational background of MPs that relevant? Is having a degree in one science much more helpful in thinking about issues relating to other fields in science, medicine and technology than someone trained in the humanities (and may, perhaps as a result, be very good at searching for, weighing up and presenting evidence)?

    I hope, when I have some time, to write a blog post that looks at some historical examples of this kind of call for science to have more effect on government decision-making and policy. I haven’t yet had a chance to really look over this, but my sense is that such calls tend to speak about the under-representation of science generally, and monolithically, when what they really mean is that my kind of science, interacting in the ways with which I feel comfortable, is not as powerful as I would like it to be.

    • Mary says:

      Um, if you look at this case in the converse–would you want a group of all physicists setting social policy? Have you met these guys at parties? Good lord.

      I don’t think anyone is saying that every MP should have a biomedical PhD. But it would be useful to have members of your party trained in some area to turn to, on questions of policy related to that area.

      And people trained in some science specialty–at least in the US–are required to take courses in other fields. For example, my biology degree required chemistry, physics, and math (among other topics) that the humanities majors didn’t seem to appear in much, in my experience.

      Maybe your system is different.

      • Rebekah Higgitt says:

        @Mary The UK system is different – most undergraduates focus on a single subject, possibly, but not necessarily, dipping a toe into another subject. But even if you do a course or two in a particular science I’m still not convinced that this necessarily equips people for making judgements and decisions in some real-life application allied to that field any better than someone trained in the humanities.

        @Mark I think that a more important point than field or background is asking whether we are talking about academic research scientists, scientists in industrial R&D, those funded by particular interest groups, or all of them and more. There can be a lot of distrust between these groups, as well as from the public at large. What, exactly, is the “constituency” you have in mind? Is it one that you consider independent and, if so, will they remain so if more closely involved with government?

      • mem from somerville says:

        Wow, that is a sad state if people who take courses in stuff have no better handle on a topic than those with Google U degrees. What a shame. That hasn’t been my experience–I find that policy discussions with people who don’t understand the underlying science to be rather uneven, and quite often mistaken.

        But a lot of people don’t know what they don’t know. And don’t know how to evaluate competence in others. I suppose that is part of the problem on some of these issues that get politicized.

    • markgfh says:

      Thanks Rebekah. Do let me know if/when you put that post up. I’d be interested in any historical parallels.

      I agree that the educational background of an MP (or anyone else) need not matter, but my view is that there aren’t that many MPs who really grasp how science works at all. It would also be nice to have a few more who can bring real experience of issues that matter across the sciences — a lot of the migration cap mess has arisen because there was little instinctive understanding that salary doesn’t work as a measure of international excellence in science. Julian Huppert is the only current MP who’s worked as a PhD level scientist. Only 2 other science PhDs at all…

      The aim of this book is very much to encourage MPs/civil servants who don’t have a science background to engage with it — work out what they might have to gain from it, both in developing policy and in winning over a constituency that is starting I think to become more self-aware and important. That’s also something that’s important in the historical context — even 5 years ago, we wouldn’t have been having this conversation because the social media tools weren’t there. I think that’s helped geeks to find each other, and to start realising that more people agree with them than they thought, and thus that it just might be worth campaiging.

  9. Greg says:

    There should at least be a paragraph or two about funding for homeopathy and other voodoo nonsense through the NHS

  10. Geek Manifested says:

    Hi Mark,

    Sounds like an interesting book. Certainly, in my line of work (civil service) we hear a lot of talk about evidence-based policy making, but more often than not end up with policy-based evidence making.

    I have one ‘bright idea’, for what it’s worth. At the moment if you want to take regulations etc. through parliament there’s a legal requirement that you provide various impact assessments, such as an equality impact assessment. When these impact assessments are produced I’d also like to see a statutory requirement for the government to fully set out, and place in the public domain, a fair assessment of the evidence, including the evidence that there’s actually a problem that needs sorting, and also that the proposed solution will work. In addition, I’d require that the government grade the evidence into pre-defined categories according to it’s strength. In situations where evidence based policy is not appropriate, you would grade it as such, and set out the reasons why.

    In the weak version this is all you do – you then rely on journalists, bloggers, backbenchers and select committees to hold ministers to account for any glaring discrepancies between the actual strength of the evidence and what they have claimed for it, whether the evidence set out is a reasonable and fair reflection of the overall evidence base, or whether a non-evidence based approach is appropriate.

    In the strong version, you then send out the evidence paper to independent academics for peer review, which may be a harder sell to politicians. However, even in the weak version you’re creating an evolutionary niche for independent review, which some think tank or collection of academics could soon fill.

    The idea is that this would create pressure on politicians (and therefore civil servants) to fully consider the appropriate use of evidence, and not to overplay non-robust evidence when it fits a broader agenda. Ministers that ignored this would potentially open themselves up to difficult questions from MPs and the media, freedom of information requests, and embarrassing assessments of their performance from academics.

    Of course, this doesn’t stop Ministers pushing through non-evidence based policy, or overselling weak evidence, but if the geeks really are becoming a political force to be reckoned with, they might think twice.

    It’s an idea, anyway – not sure if you’d get any of the political parties to agree to it!

    • markgfh says:

      @GeekManifested Thanks for the great contribution — much appreciated. I too have heard the phrase “policy-based evidence” from the mouths of civil servants!

      I like your impact assessment idea, would be good to explore further. Another concept I find attractive is the suggestion of a Chief Scientist’s annual report, which would call out bad use of evidence across Whitehall. Particularly cases where ministers claimed a policy was evidence-based when it wasn’t. This was originally a select committee suggestion, and I think it’s a good one…

  11. Jack Stilgoe says:

    You could do much worse than look back on Dan Sarewitz’s Nature pieces on the various ways in which science or politics are often confused, by scientists and politicians alike. This territory, described by Sheila Jasanoff, Dave Guston, Roger Pielke, Yaron Ezrahi, John Ziman, Andy Stirling, Erik Millstone and a whole load of others.

    Having been involved in the whole science-as-an-election-issue discussions over the summer, it all seemed a bit… meh. It reminded me too much of Manichean discussions about science in which the public/politicians are either with us or against us.

    Too often, the geek reflex is to assume that science speaks with one voice in political debates, and to choose the debates that seem to be science vs anti-science – homeopathy, creationism etc. rather than get really involved in the political debates that matter. Most of the time, to talk about people being “anti-science” doesn’t make any sense, in the same way as it doesn’t make sense to talk about people being “anti-education” because they want to change the way that children are educated. The politics of science aren’t on the whole about yes or no; they are about yes, but… and no, but…

    • markgfh says:

      Thanks for these contributions Jack. Much appreciated. I’ve discovered the Sarewitz stuff, which is v helpful. Stirling/Pielke familiar too, as is Steve Rayner. I take the point about “anti-science” often being a misnomer… My thesis is going to be more around the idea that indifference to science is also damaging though.

  12. Rick Crawford says:

    I think you should look in to the cull of the quangos. Does this represent a blow against technocrats?
    I think NICE is a particularly interesting case. It’s not being culled, just neutered. This blog suggests that Phil Hammond might be a good person to talk to about it. Certainly, he will have an opinion… he seems fairly knowledgeable and he may know who is even more so:

    http://drphilhammond.com/blog/tag/nice/

    • markgfh says:

      Thanks Rick. Yes, quangos certainly are on the agenda. I happen to think some are justified (eg breaking up HFEA, merging medical research regulators), but the NICE issue is indeed a concern. Thanks for link to Phil Hammond’s blog — will have a good read this weekend.

  13. Raffa says:

    Hi there,

    Scientific method is a big thing… let’s take a step back and see how politicians and people in general have a hard time to even think in a logical way when emotional topics are in the focus. As an example, consider the P. problem… I’ll whisper it… (population).
    It is pretty straightforward as far as science is concerned: resources on earth are limited => the “infinite population growth” model does not hold. If at some point there has got to be an upper limit, then better to think in terms of “equilibrium” rather than growth from as soon as possible starting to discourage reproduction (providing information and making choices possible) instead of rewarding it with economic benefits, social recognition and so forth.
    Is that the case? No, instead we get endless discussion on how to increase food production, address the water and energy shortages expected in next years (necessary discussions needless to say) but not one word on limits to growth…
    When directly asked politicians reply that:
    1) In 2050 population will reach a plateau so we don’t need to bother (can anybody explain why wait until then and destroy the latest bits of nature still left in the effort to accommodate 9 billions?)
    2) If population would not be growing, how could we have enough resources to take care of the elderly?

    Oblivious of the fact that if 2) is a problem then when 1) happens 2) will still be a problem…

  14. Henz says:

    Mark

    I am very much looking forward to seeing what you make of this topic.

    If he isn’t already on your list you should try to speak to A.C. Grayling, Professor of Philosophy at Birkbeck. Evidence based policy and the politics of science crop up occasionally in his writing and I am sure that he would have some very pertinent points to make.

    You could also, time and space permitting, take a look back to the Enlightenment. A historical perspective on the role of geeks, scientists and logic in public life and politics might put some useful perspective on the present. I would be worried about it becoming too nebulous though.

    • markgfh says:

      Thanks Henz. Good idea regarding AC Grayling.

      I’ll be doing a little on the history of the scientific method (which will of course include the Enlightenment) but this isn’t the primary purpose of the book. Of course, a lot of the purpose is to promote Enlightenment values in politics!

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  17. As it happens my late father Dr Jeremy Bray devoted his life to science and Parliamentary politics. I am his rather unscientific daughter and I do not feel I am in a position to rate my father’s career. I merely suggest that you might want to include my father in your initial survey for your forthcoming book.

    My father was born in 1930 in Hong Kong. His academic background was in mathematics (Cambridge and Havard) however his initial attempt for work was in the manual sector . He tried but failed to become a coal miner. His health was too poor for this so instead he joined ICI for a brief period and there he worked on some of the earliest computers in the UK. He then went on to serve as a Labour MP for 33 years. He gained early promotion under Harold Wilson. He served as a junior technology minister but he fell out with the PM and lost his ministerial job. He did a lot of work on Parliamentary committees. Then under Neil Kinnock he served as Labour’s science spokesman for ten years. He died in 2002.

    Tam Dayell wrote his obituary in the Independant.

    http://www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/jeremy-bray-749197.html

    Towards the end of his life he wrote a memoire – Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: Science, Politics and Trust: A Parliamentary Life. This was privately published. If you want a copy I can send one to you. My father’s papers are all at Churchill College, Cambridge.

    I should warn you in advance that if he is looking for raunchy political gossip my father is not his man. He is a heavy weight rather than light weight writer but if you, Mark, want an opinionated example of a Parliamentary life of a man of science he could do worse than check out my old man.

  18. Mark says:

    Mark,

    I recommend trying to count the number of logical fallacies in a session of PMQs. The Ad Hominems alone regularly touch double figures. It just shows how much contempt our policy makers have for reasoned argument

  19. To the lady who suggested that she regarded with horror the concept of a group of physicists being put in charge of social policy – Could you explain how that would be worse than having a group of politicians in charge? If you set the criteria for what you wanted to achieve the physicists would get there first, except they’d quickly understand that you can’t study social policy in isolation. They’d need to work with all the other departments. Eventually they’d say “All politics is either social policy or stamp collecting.” And they’d be right.

  20. phayes says:

    Bad dismal science rather than science-proper ;-) but the most striking example of political failure of this kind that I know of is in the area of IP policy making (and anyway, it does sometimes have serious consequences for science). This article by James Boyle hints at the scale of the folly. The full story is absolutely incredible.

  21. I love the idea, but there are two substantial problems with it. Let’s call them values and assumptions.

    Values can be informed by, but not usually decided by, science. I know lots of scientists who drink alcohol copiously. They know that (a) it’s a poison that’s doing them untold damage and (b) it’s fun and (c) it helps get them through the long dark night of the soul-destroying writing process. Many of my closest friends and colleagues choose, in this instance to sacrifice their health in favour of an aesthetic experience or else a productivity boost. They value the degradation in their health due to booze (a) as less important than the other effects (b,c). Science might inform these values. A study might come out tomorrow reporting an RCT of moderate alcohol drinking in a group of particle physicists, with a matched control group, showing conclusively that the consumption of alcohol only gives the appearance of productivity gains. This would alter one of the facts of the case (c). But if all future evidence continues to maintain the difficult decision between rude health and aesthetic experience, science cannot help the individual decide what’s more important to them. Science cannot decide our values.

    Science makes assumptions about how to view the world, and it cannot in itself prove the validity of its own system. It’s not a million miles away from Gödel’s second incompleteness theorem. With the physical sciences, it’s hard, even intuitively, to accept that we should examine the physical world by means of introspection. But what flavour of empiricism shall we adopt in the social sciences? (And let’s face it, politics is nearer the social sciences than it is to chemistry.) In psychology, different philosophical assumptions, different preconceived notions of evidence in other words, have created entirely separate systems of psychological knowledge. Proponents of all systems claim to be engaged in an empirical science. I’m uncertain about even bothering to make this argument because it seems so very philosophical but it’s certainly an argument that non-geeks will make against the geek manifesto. How many times have you heard a fervently religious person make the argument that religious belief reduces suffering and is therefore right? No matter how many times the phrase ‘teleological’ comes up, such a person remains attached to their assumption that the way to understand the world is through the lens of human experience.

    You can rework the idea, I’m sure, into something ever so slightly less ambitious, that would have none of these problems. The real strength in this idea, and which I’d love to see done well, is that it provides a way to fight against the simple misinformation that’s regularly put out there by governments and large corporations. Once we have agreed on a political goal, science can and should show us the best way to achieve it. One of the cleverest moves of the political right this last decade has been to talk the language of ‘fairness’, ‘progressiveness’, and ‘appeal to evidence’, whilst simultaneously executing policies that are diametrically opposed to these values. They say “doing X will help the poor” then they fail to measure the standard of living of the poor so that they can carry on making the claim without pesky evidence getting in the way.

    I can’t wait to see where you run with this.

    Lee

    • markgfh says:

      Thanks Lee — thoughtful comments and issues I’m certainly aware of. I need to find ways to address these without destroying the popular manifesto feel of the book. It can’t read like a book on philosophy or a PhD thesis (though both would be very valuable approaches to this in themselves).

      I’ll try to post a fuller reply tonight.

    • markgfh says:

      Hi Lee… Thanks again for your post. To expand a little on my last answer, your point about values is of course spot on. Evidence is usually necessary to inform sound policy making, but it is very rarely sufficient. Tracey Brown of Sense About Science makes a very interesting point in this respect. There would, she says, likely be plenty of evidence to suggest that a 9pm curfew would cut crime. But there are of course many other sensible reasons, ranging from personal liberty to political practicality, why this would not be a good idea.

      What I’ll be trying to argue for the most part is not that evidence is the be-all and end-all of policy making. It should be one of the factors that is taken into account, however, when often it is not. It is perfectly OK for a politican to decide on a policy for non-evidential reasons — ideology, manifesto commitments etc. When they do that, though, they shouldn’t claim an evidence base where there is none. And they should make every effort to evaluate that policy as it is enacted, so that if it turns out to be misguided we know about it.

      I do of course realise that the argument about what constitutes evidence and empirical thinking is an important one. I’ll seek to address it where I can — though as I mentioned before, this book can’t get too deeply into that particular branch of philosophy. What I’m intending to argue is that a few fairly fundamental aspects of the scientific approach to problem-solving simply aren’t used enough in a policy context. I’m talking about issues such as running pilots of new sentencing policies or teaching techniques, ostensibly to evaluate their efficacy, without such basic concepts as randomisation and proper controls. Believe me, it happens — see for instance Sheila Bird’s work on Drug Treatment and Testing Orders.

      • I completely agree. What’s at issue is the way evidence is mis-used and cherry picked. And how answers to questions that are clearly empirical questions are arrived at by guesswork because politicians haven’t the inclination or training to develop a robust empirical approach to answering them.

        And you’re right that too much epistemology would be a huge turn off. I wonder whether there would be room, or enough evidence, to start an evidence-based debate on neo-liberal economics? There must be quite an evidence base by now to demonstrate empirically that the free market capitalist assumption of the consumer as a rational agent is false. It’s a bit abstract. More Malcolm Gladwell than Ben Goldacre. Still, could be good fun to read.

        I hope you’ll update the site when the book eventually makes it to the shelves so I know to go and buy it. ;-)

  22. andyrussell says:

    Seems as though I’m a bit late to this party but I’ll throw an idea in to the ring all the same…

    I’d’ve thought that the development of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) would be an interesting case of scientists engaging with policy makers and politics, with mixed results. I don’t know who has written about this. I guess Merchants of Doubt might cover it but I’ve not finished it yet! Bits of the Mike Hulme book might be the best bet: Why We Disagree About Climate Change.

    • markgfh says:

      Thanks Andy. Both are in a package of books that arrived from Amazon for me 2 days ago! Good to know I’m on the right track.

      If you don’t mind, I might well follow up with you further as I get to the environment chapter…

  23. Alyn Gwyndaf says:

    The process of science education is central. It’s not surprising that most politicians and media commentators come from arts/humanities backgrounds, since core parts of these disciplines are 1) the use of everyday language to argue a position and 2) reflecting on the discipline itself. These are the very skills needed for the analysis, advocacy and advancement of ideas.

    Having studied to degree level in science, social science and arts disciplines, I realised that basic science education is very much about learning how to ‘get it right’, which fosters a servile culture. Arts education, on the other hand, seeks from an early stage to draw out individual views and develop the ability and confidence to back these up in the face of opposing views.

    That’s not to say these are the sole determining factors. Strong opinions and the confidence to back them up may also be the product of private education or parental background, but this will always be a small minority of the scientific community. This may also explain why there are a relatively small number of prominent science commentators and advocates, and arguably this leads to an intellectual monopoly, which is also unhealthy.

    So, there will always be some scientists who can argue their case in the public arena, but it’s only when this becomes sufficiently widespread to be the norm that the public debate will be one about scientific ideas, rather than ‘science vs the rest’.

  24. Hi Mark
    Much of the debate about the proper role of scientific method or knowledge in informing policy choice is too easily reduced to an artificial panic about ‘Englightenment’ values under threat by the forces of “unreason”. In this argument Enlightenment values are hopelessly cariacatured and the threat to this cod Enlightenment is used to support actions which are anti-Enlightment in the broader sense. I may have already suggested this but I cannot recommend strongly enough Dan Hind’s thoughtful critique of this tendencyThe Threat to Reason. Hind also has a blog.

  25. Martin H says:

    Hi Mark,

    I heard about your book via the interview you did with The Pod Delusion. It sounds like a very interesting project!

    I have a question which I hope is within the scope of your book: To what extent are the British public equipped to deal with scientific information and if the answer to that is “not very well” what can or is being done to improve this?

    Cheers,

    Martin.

  26. Bewildered says:

    Hi Mark,

    I like the general idea. I think the issue isn’t simply letting “geeks” or scientists make the decisions or have greater direct influence. I’d also be very wary of simplifying this to scientists vs others, as everyone has their blind spots. The point is to look at the objective evidence, an overview of which can be found by consulting the most relevant experts for the question.

    In most cases, excluding medical ones where the best treatment really should be based directly on the objective evidence, science cannot tell us what the policy should actually be, but I strongly believe that people make decisions better matched to their interests and values if they are provided with an honest representation of the objective facts, around which arguments can be formed. Instead politicians and polemicists dispute evidence they don’t understand and misrepresent the facts, confusing everything.

    A good example of this are drug laws (and one I cannot claim any relevant expertise on). Science can’t tell you how to legislate here since that can depend crucially on moral values. Nor can science tell us what the impact of changing the law will be, any evaluation of the impact of previous policies depends on too many other variables. However one can present an overview of studies on how drug use and harmful effects from drugs has varied between countries and following changes in the law and one can certainly provide objective evidence on the various risks involved from taking different substances. Sadly this is done neither by the media nor politicians.

    It is very important that this changes, perhaps through legislation placing tighter restrictions on the media publishing false statements about evidence, which would hopefully encourage them to then criticise politicians who do the same, or perhaps through better education of the general public about scientific methodology and statistics.

    The title with “geek” might attract a wider audience but I hope it doesn’t trivialise the issue however, as this is not merely a quirky issue where some “geeks” are being pedantic about things which don’t really matter to everyone else. The problem of scientific illiteracy or indeed deliberate misrepresentation in politics and the media is very serious, and can result in deeply flawed policies that effect everyone, potentially increasing crime, damaging medical services etc.

    • davidflint says:

      Bewildered, I think we can do better than you suppose in applying scientific method to the drugs policy issue. The UK Thinktank Transform has estimated the economic benefit of more rational drugs policies at £4-14B for the UK alone. (The uncertainty reflects the weakness of current evidence.) This is a case where saving money, increasing choice and harm reduction go together. That would be even more true if we included the death toll of the drugs trade in Mexico, Columbia, etc.

      I would never say that morality is irrelevant but I can’t see what moral principle would demand that we spend additional money in order to restrict choice and increase harm. That’s true even for much religious morality.

      Most of the public argument here is about the consequences of policy changes but the real driver of drug prohibition seems to be the sense that it’s wrong to get pleasure from drug use. I call this a ‘residual religious sensibility’ and it’s not restricted to nominal believers.

      • Bewildered says:

        @davidflint morals enter pretty much as you suggest – if you think recreational drug use is morally wrong and drug users should be punished, evidence on harm reduction doesn’t matter.

        I have a lot of time for transform btw, and I don’t disagree with the case you are making, I have made it myself (see http://ill-conceived-rant.blogspot.com/2010/11/my-drugs-rant.html ) but you need to recognise also the limitations of the kind of studies one refers to in doing so, we haven’t (and can’t!) peformed randomised controlled trials to test the effect of changing the law. This is very often the case when we consider evidence on the effect of various policies, which tends to mean there is still a fair amount of room for alternative interpretations and that also needs to be explained.

    • markgfh says:

      Thanks Bewildered. You’re of course right that this can’t be framed as simply as science vs anti-science. It’s a bit more complicated than that. Evidence, I’m going to suggest, is generally necessary but not sufficient. Politicians are at liberty to ignore evidence for ideological or electoral reasons, but only so long as they’re clear that that’s what they’re doing. Lee puts it very well in another comment.

      As for geeks, there’s certainly no intention of trivialising. I think the book will be pretty clear in that respect. I fully agree that this issue needs a wider and more serious hearing — that’s the motivation behind the project.

  27. davidflint says:

    James,
    I support what you say about evidence-based policy. Humanist4Science has taken a similar position and the scope for ‘following the evidence’ on drugs, crime, mental health, inequality, etc. is huge.

    But I think it would also be interesting to look at the ‘rise of the geek’ as a social movement. I’ve been a humanist for over 40 years but for most of the time since the 60s humanism has felt like an eccentricity. Now it’s part of a wider movement which includes organisations like Sceptics in the Pub but also the shift in the nature of funerals to which humanist officiants have contributed and the people who simply enjoy Infinite Monkey Cage.

    This emerging culture is very different from the dominant political culture of the UK. It’s numerate, knows science, laughs at religion and is libertarian on sex and drugs. This mismatch explains in part the difficulty in getting traction for scientific approaches to the more emotional policy issues. Other barriers include fear of the tabloids and a residual religious sensibility that is unrelated to traditional doctrine. Not to mention confirmation bias and the sunk investment fallacy. I hope you will look at these barriers.

    I should explain “residual religious sensibility” shouldn’t I?

    In discussions about drugs and GMOs it’s often apparent that the antis start from hostility rather than asking what the evidence tells us about costs, risks and benefits. Some of this is simple prejudice but, especially re GMOs, it seems to derive from a fear of ‘playing God’. That’s why it focuses on the technique rather than on the products. This is expressed in secular terms but I think its roots are religious.

  28. Rick Crawford says:

    @Bewildered – That is a good point about not being able to do a randomised controlled trial of drugs policy. Although sometimes people say that to oppose legalisation is unscientific I would say that supporting it isn’t entirely scientific either. It tends to be that the case in favour contains a lot of scientific evidence, but there is also a certain amount of argument that is required to join the pieces of evidence together. That argument is not in itself scientific. I would go so far as to say the people who say that their argument is entirely scientific are doing the reputation of science a disservice.
    A simple example is the idea of measuring harm purely in terms of death rate. OK, so a lot of other harms are hard to quantify, but that does not mean that to ignore those harms is scientific.

    • The science-isn’t-everything debate can surely be sidestepped very often, thus: (1) Where evidence already exists, don’t dismiss it because it’s inconvenient; (2) where there isn’t much evidence but it’s practicably obtained, obtain it; (3) under no circumstances misrepresent the evidence. That’s it. There may be questions where evidence is hard to come by. But if our moral feelings are in contradiction to the evidence, we’re in dire trouble. “I think all drugs should be banned because they all cause irreparable harm” is a statement that /can/ be tested empirically.

      Case in point: Lansley’s recent discussion of NHS reforms flits between 1 and 3 in each interview he gives.

      There will remain tensions that we want to debate between paternalistic harm reduction and liberty, of course, but even the modest rules above would improve our public life to a huge degree.

      Right. Next student’s here… ;-)

      • markgfh says:

        Thanks Lee. Your three rules are spot on. Evan Harris has five, and these are three of them. I’ll look up the other two from my notes later!

  29. jimbrux says:

    Hi Mark.
    This site inspired me to write an article which is published over at Elements: http://bit.ly/dWA2lt
    Would welcome your response.
    Best regards,
    James

    • markgfh says:

      Thanks James. I’ve seen your piece — will reply properly as soon as I get time. Broadly, though, I don’t think your charge here is fair (of course, hard to be fair to a book that’s not written yet!) I’m actually with you that science doesn’t always trump politics — what’s important, though, is that politicians should be clear when it’s politics that’s guiding their decisions, and not claim a spurious scientific justification that doens’t exist.

      • Rick Crawford says:

        That’s a good point about spurious scientific justification. It ties in quite nicely with my point of February 17, 2011 at 12:41 pm. i.e. Sometimes even scientists make a scientific justification that is actually spurious.

  30. You may not have seen this article on by David Perlmutter on how politicians should be more like professors…

    http://chronicle.com/article/Why-Politicians-Should-Be-More/126429/

    Right up your street I should think.

  31. Toby Mottram says:

    I think this is a very interesting project. I have had a career in agricultural engineering research trying to improve productivity and animal health and welfare. It has never been well paid or recognised as worthwhile probably because of the food surpluses our own successes engendered. In fact for many years the achievements of agriculture have been denied or denigrated based on some justifiable but exaggerated criticism of animal health, pollution, etc. The biggest worry has been the rise of anti-science in dialogues about food sources.

    In the UK one of the world’s best agricultural research and extension services has been systematically dismantled first by Thatcherite market oriented delusions that the market would solve all problems (post Barnes cuts farmers have had difficulty organising research), then by handing the control of funding to the blue sky genomics academics (renaming the Agriculture and Food Research Council the Biotechnology and Biological Science Research Council in the early nineties was a signifier of great change), then by closing down experimental husbandry farms and dedicated research institutes. Enough has survived, largely through the keenness of the scientists to stick to their ideals rather than any institutional support, that we can rebuild a system to face the new challenges of climate change and expanding population.

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