The rise of the geeks

One of the key things I’m looking to do in The Geek Manifesto is to chronicle and celebrate what I call the “rise of the geeks”. I’m thinking here of the way in which, over the past couple of years, people who care about scientific issues have started to form communities and networks, largely online but also through initiatives like Skeptics in the Pub.

As they (we) have started to realise that there are more people who agree with them than they might have appreciated, they’re starting to see the potential for activism. This has happened to coincide with a few biggish issues on which to campaign — Science is Vital, libel reform, homeopathy etc. It also led to somewhat higher profile for science in the 2010 UK election (though it was still anything but a major issue). There was the #scivote hashtag on Twitter, and we had the three big debates between the science spokespeople.

I think you can also see this phenomenon in the success of Ben Goldacre’s book, in Robin Ince’s Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People, and even in the popularity of Brian Cox’s TV and radio work (Infinite Monkey Cage as well as Wonders).

What can you tell me about your involvement in all this? What motivated you to start agitating more on this sort of issue? Are there other events and initiatives I should be aware of, and include? And what can we learn from the successes and failures so far?

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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14 Responses to The rise of the geeks

  1. mem from somerville says:

    Oh, everyone I know is motivated by this: http://xkcd.com/386/

    Seriously, though–all of the really active science folks I know are motivated by the same reason they got their degrees on a topic: because they love it. They love to talk about their focus, they love to educate people about it, and they do want to correct misuses and misconceptions on whatever the issue is. And because of their training they love the challenge of working through the ideas.

    That said, it also requires a certain personality and asbestos pantsuits if your topic is controversial in the public arena.

  2. podblack says:

    Hi – I run an SiTP in Australia and coordinate the Australian 10:23 Campaign. Podcaster and blogger for the past 4 years; presenting at QEDCon in Manchester in February and I write for the US site CSICOP. Would love to talk to you about your book, and have emailed. :)

  3. Mark – I very much look forward to your book.

    In my own case, the path to getting involved may have meandered somewhat, but it has been entirely dependent on the rise of new media creating and providing entry to a community that I wasn’t aware existed a few years ago. In early 2008 I registered with the Nature Network blog site and commented for 6 months, which took me to the London Science Online conference in Sept that year, an event that finally spurred me into science blogging.

    Through NN’s Matt Brown I found out about Skeptics in the Pub (SitP). One of the first meetings I attended was the London meeting in May 2009, which was organised in the wake of a judicial decision that had gone badly in Simon Singh’s libel case vs the BCA. That got me fired up and into the libel reform campaign. SitP also alerted me to the 10:23 campaign aimed at ridiculing Boots’ anti-science stand on homeopathic ‘remedies’. Through my blog I was able to reflect on all these activities – and build a conversation with the ‘activist’ community.

    From there — thinking about the two-way impact of science and the public domain — it was a short step to attending the #scivote debates in the run-up to the general election and to paying close attention to ministerial speeches on the science spend after the coalition government had formed.

    It’s been an interesting, confidence-building journey. In part I was surprised to find myself in Sept and Oct last year helping out with the organisation of the Science is Vital campaign but there was also a certain logic in the progression to that point. But as I said at the start — and as you have noted — the key has been the advent of so many different forms of rapid communication on the internet – blogs, twitter, Facebook, podcasts. At the 25th anniversary of CaSE last week, I thought Denis Noble made an interesting comparison about the very different speeds at which Save British Science and Science is Vital sparked into life. It was also striking that SiV could reach so many more people. Both of these differences are due to technology.

    I still think it’s early days yet and that, in some ways, the scientific/geek community is only just discovering what it might be capable of. I touched on some of this in my reflections on the SiV campaign. I wonder will it turn into more than just another lobby group? I do hope so.

    • markgfh says:

      Thanks Stephen. This is really useful — and I think backs up a lot of the ideas I was putting together. Must look up your reflections post again. And I also noted the Denis Noble remarks — I intend to include them!

      • One other thought – is is possible that all this recent excitement about geek power is a bit London-centric? How wide are the ripples spreading in the rest of the country?

      • markgfh says:

        A bit, I suspect… But Skeptics in the Pub has something like 20 branches, and 10-23 and other similar movements seem to have strong regional contributions…

    • mem from somerville says:

      Hey Stephen–

      Just wanted to note that I loved the 10:23 campaign, from across the pond. It was also informative for me as we wrestle with health care for more Americans, would our system fund crap like homeopathy, and how could we stop it from doing so?

      We are still no where near a national health plan, but it’s something I would certainly want to watch if it did develop. And the overdoses was a great media event that I will certainly remember, and possibly use in the future :)

      • Mem – Alas homeopathy is still funded on the NHS in this country, despite no good evidence for efficacy. But I imagine most practitioners make their money on private medicine since there appears to be a willing, albeit deluded (or misled) clientele.

        The over-dose stunt generated some good publicity — hopefully it made some erstwhile customers think twice — but it did not induce Boots the chemist to stop stocking homeopathic products. There was also some disquiet among the skeptic community about such stunts being somewhat too arrogant or sneering in tone — though in this particular case I think it was useful for the sake of the publicity.

        By the way (and not wanting to hijack Mark’s thread) — is your Somerville the one beside Boston and Cambridge in MA? I spent two very happy years living there in the mid-90s.

      • mem from somerville says:

        Yes, I’m am in that Somerville, adjacent to US Cambridge. Very geeky here. Yet a great deal of alt-med infiltrates here too. It’s an odd hybrid of serious sci/tech and hippies.

  4. Jack Stilgoe says:

    On the point about scientists discovering a political voice, there’s a whole lot of interesting stuff to say, linked to the question of whether science is a political activity and whether it is value-driven, value-laden, value-free or something else. I did a thing on this a while back… http://www.demos.co.uk/publications/citizenscientists. My sense was that there is more pressure on scientists now to dampen their political voice rather than engage, as public intellectuals, self-governing researchers, innovators or something else. The most interesting site for this discussion at the moment, I think, is about openness and closedness in the process and publication of scientific research. IP, open access and data-sharing have become the territory for contemporary versions of the discussions once led by JD Bernal, Michael Polanyi, Joe Rotblat, Jonas Salk and the like. I’d be interested to hear where you think the trend is going.

  5. Pingback: The Geek Manifesto | Canvassing your views for my forthcoming book « WorldWright's …

  6. Pingback: The Geek Manifesto | Canvassing your views for my forthcoming book « WorldWright's …

  7. john ricketts says:

    Mark took part in a fascinating panel discussion at the recemt Cheltenham Science Festival, asking at one point “There are dozens of lawyers who are Westminster MPs, but how many MPS have science Ph Ds?” He (and some of us) gave the answer “One; Dr Julian Huppert”. I now discover we are wrong, since at the last election Dr Therese Coffey (Conservative) was elected as MP for Suffolk Coastal.

    John Ricketts

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