Four questions…

Thanks everyone who has commented here over the past few days, or who’s been in touch with me with their thoughts and ideas. It’s much appreciated and tremendously useful.

I thought I’d mention the four main questions I’m keen to get your answers to at the moment:

*  What are the best examples of geek activism, what have they achieved and what can we learn from them?

*  What else can geeks do to hold politicians and civil servants to account, and to promote better use of science in public contexts?

*  What are the best examples of bad practice, where poor use of evidence or poor awareness of the methods of science have led to policy failures?

*  Where have politicians and civil servants done well? Are there examples that could be emulated elsewhere?

Any specifics on these gratefully appreciated.

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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23 Responses to Four questions…

  1. Does Einstein and Szilard lobbying Eisenhower regarding the atomic bomb program count as “geek activism”? I’m not sure what you have in mind here: in a way the wartime efforts on radar, codebreaking and jet engines are fine examples of where geeks have been active and politicians and civil servants have done well in enabling and utilising that work. I think Vannevar Bush is probably also interesting in this context.

    In a sense climate change is an example of geek activism dating back to 1957, that it hasn’t been entirely successful is perhaps an indication of how intractable the problem is rather than a failing on anyones part.

    Reading about the early Royal Society, it’s striking that the trick to effective “geek activism” is not to be activists from the outside but to get yourself (or your representatives) in close to the levers of power. It’s also a case of offering solutions to problems the government perceives: not those which are your personal hobby-horse, or perhaps the government feels it already has a solution for.

    I’m not sure if it’s significant that the examples I’m most familiar with are relatively old.

  2. Jamie Rodgers says:

    Good example of geek politic is the Science and Technology Select committee report on homeopathy and its recommendations. The fact that these are not being fully implemented is an example of the magnitude of the task ahead.

    And a great example of bad practice is the castration of NIHCE by Cameron et al., and the undermining of evidence based medicine and the kow-towing to vested interests that will result. Instead of the rigorous cost benefit analysis and reviews and cosntant re-appraisals of the evidence (by those who understand it) that has made the NHS the MOST efficient healthcare system in the developed world , NHS funding and prescribing policy is now going to be set by the whims of the Daily Mail headline writers.

  3. Della says:

    Hi Mark,

    The best examples of geek activism, for me, has to be the Science Is Vital campaign, having been part of the core team right the way through, the libel reform campaign and also the Voice of Young Science (Sense about Science) campaign against the Department of Health’s proposals to accredit practitioners of traditional medicine (which I wrote about here http://dellybeandiary.wordpress.com/2010/09/11/d-h-stands-for-quacks/). I’m convinced you don’t need me to divulge into what the first two achieved, however, the latter (although still awaiting a final result) managed to reach out to people not associated with the putative “echo chamber” of Twitter or Facebook circles and it raised awareness of the seriousness of the DH’s proposals. What have I learnt from all this? Answer: the information just isn’t getting out into the general public effectively – if at all – and people just don’t know what the imperative and crucial questions & answers are (granted, some won’t actually care).

    Sadly, I feel that the impact of science on the general public varies greatly. If the science isn’t fun facts (e.g. astronomy – which is very inviting and engaging to non-science types) and we’re talking about medicine/healthcare science, most of the time the only non-science people who are genuinely attentive are those who have been/are being affected by the particular illness/treatment that is being discussed, otherwise this area is seen as preachy, parochial and a damn right nuisance – I mean, who wants to be told that their only guilty pleasure could be killing them?

    The “good” science needs to beat the “bad” science to the post – particularly when advice is being sort about an illness. But the worry lies with the fact that most people turn to their family or friends for this kind of advice and there is a high chance that they will recommend alternative medicine treatments because they have seen clinics on the high street that profess to cure anything, including serious ailments such as cancer, malaria and HIV. The government needs to regulate these clinics, including any online companies who also make such claims. The fact that these companies exist at all are good enough evidence to most of the general public that they must be safe and also that their claims are true – also possibly thought of as if their treatments are backed up with evidence that they work (beyond the placebo effect).

    I think a really big problem lies with the fact that the government has very few MP’s who have scientific PhD’s/backgrounds/interest and so I worry that science is not very high on the priority list – we need to get more of a science influence into politics. We need more scientists to become councillors and we especially need more scientists to run for MP. If this were to happen, I feel there would be more effective “good” science awareness campaigns and then the general public will be more informed and, hopefully, choose for themselves that evidence-based science is paramount. If the government are on board with this idea and understand that it is crucial, there would be less of a need for the “grass-root” struggle to fight for what is right.

    The best example of bad science, for me, has to be the availability of homeopathy on the NHS.

    I’m not really au fait with what you may be looking for in your last question, sorry.

    I do hope that what I’ve written is OK and it makes sense – just let me know if you need me to clarify or expand on anything. If I think of anything else, I’ll let you know.

    • markgfh says:

      Thanks for all this Della. All v much the sort of thing I’ll be featuring — SiV will be big. Like your point about the turning to family/friends too. Not certain that regulation is the best way around this though — the problem is that regulation can confer legitimacy…

      • Della says:

        That is true, as far as the current government stands. It therefore also strenghtens my point about getting more science into politics so that the regulation comes from an established, reputable science-based and, most importantly, evidence-based background so that we are confident that the decisions (particularly in health/medicine) are being made correctly, safely and based on evidence, rather than apathetical judgements. The structure of panels/advisory boards etc who contribute to drawing up these regulations obviously need to be shuffled in order to achieve such confidence in these decisions.

  4. alice says:

    I started typing “libel reform, science is vital…” but it didn’t feel right. The successes of these notwithstanding, they are quite limited. This doesn’t mean they weren’t achievements, or that campaigns of a limited scope and audience can’t still have impact, or act as seeds for further impact (as <a href="http://alicerosebell.wordpress.com/2010/09/04/scientists-and-the-vote/"I argued at SciLo10, I think pessimistic talk of echochambers is just simplistic). But they are limited campaigns, and we have to remember that.

    (several of the commentators above focus on the challenges ahead still…)

    And that makes me think these are the wrong questions, or at least they need supplementing with a something a bit more self-critical. The questions, as they stand, seem to be set up as a way of listing the great past and possible achievements of the science lobby, and the failings of people outside this group. Aside from being a bit tribal, I don’t think it’s realistic. Or constructive.

    A manifesto has to be self-critical. Or at least it has to look at how its signatories can be better, not just how their increased power might make the world better. Otherwise it’s more of a battle plan than a manifesto.

    I wonder if this piece on “placebo activism” is worth a read http://bit.ly/dSusGg You might like to talk to the OU student who’s research the post was based on. I’d also stress Paul Nurse’s point on Horizon tonight about science needing to learn how to open up – this might be in a cultural way, or administrative (or economic, especially in terms of publishing), and I really don’t think it’s easy. But it is a key point.

    To take a slightly different track, I quite liked the point (above) about Einstein, I think it points to something else I think is important here – the ways in which experts can use their position to draw political attention to issues that might not otherwise be noted – it makes me think of the role medical professionals can play/ are playing with respect to the NHS – explaining their perspective to others. Similarly, I think science writers have been really good at outlining exactly how libel reform effects not just them but, through them, the rest of society.

    Also to pick up on above, Vanavar Bush is a fascinating character. The story of the administrators of science is important here, and I might say similar of advocates of science in the media (journalists, but press officers too).

    • markgfh says:

      Thanks Alice. We must meet up to discuss this soon. Certainly agree about the Nurse point around opening up — that will definitely be part of it. And thanks v much to the link to the “placebo activism” post. Very interesting and will certainly follow up.

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

  6. I would think in Australia the two big wins were the PowerBalance band, that Powerbalance admitted didn’t actually work
    http://gizmodo.com/5723577/powerbalance-admits-their-wristbands-are-a-scam

    http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/nation/power-band-no-better-than-a-rubber-band-accc/story-e6frg6nf-1225975636888

    The second would be Stop The AVN http://www.stopantivaxnetwork.com/
    who have been quite successful in having the Australian Vaccination Network, now look like a typical bunch of anti-vaxxer crazies.

    Previously it’s leader Meryl Dorey would be asked to provide “Balance” on TV or radio to any stories that concerned vaccination, and all of their predictions have failed to materialize when mass vaccinations have oocured, such as the one for measles.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Australian_Vaccination_Network

  7. A few thoughts, not necessarily cleverly assembled:

    I was of course going to point to the obvious recent successes of libel reform and SiV. In the case of SiV, there are interesting parallels and contrasts with the earlier Save British Science campaign that evolved into CaSE.

    What surprised me most about SiV was the level of popular support for science – as indicated by the variety of people who signed the petition. In contrast, among some of my scientific colleagues I encountered a certain amount of resigned shrugging when I asked them to sign. I wonder if that was due to an erosion of confidence in the scientific community (unsure of its place/status in society?), but I hope the campaign might have done something to show scientists what it *might* be capable of in the political sphere (though I acknowledge it was a campaign limited in time and goals – and not a mass movement)

    But, as I think Alice is saying, it’s probably useful to consider failures as well.

    My recollection is a bit fuzzy, but I remember the BSE crisis being a low-point for British scientists. I don’t think scientists were vociferous enough in coming forward to clarify the evidence, or the risk factors. In part they may have suffered from restricted access to the media (scientists probably need media advocates – science-loving journalists like yourself and the SMC. Are they more powerful now, I wonder? Do editors take more notice?) But in the end I was left with impression that scientists had been tainted by association with bad govt policy.

    More recently I was struck by the impact of the MMR/Wakefield débâcle. I remember being very frustrated by my own inaction – probably typical of many scientists. I was never impressed by his findings but hesitated to speak out. There is a strong scientific instinct not to speak outside your area of expertise, or without being in good command of the evidence, and perhaps this is over-inhibitory. This tendency may also be a consequence of the extreme specialism of modern science – we don’t think enough about the big picture. Perhaps that’s starting to change…

    Again, media had a very strong influence in this particular crisis – celebs had more column inches in press & time on TV to defend Wakefield. I did have a go at challenging the scientific merit of comments by Melanie Phillips on her blog but that felt like an exercise in futility!

    However, and perhaps contrarily, the care that scientists (usually) take over evidence may be inhibitory but is also an important facet of our voice in the public sphere – because it is a source of authority. As more scientists enter the political arena – or speak out on scientific issues that are politically charged (vaccines, climate change etc), there is the risk that they will just be seen as another lobbying group. Perhaps that is all we are, but I’d like to think there was more to it than that (!). The *tone* of contributions is therefore important – Nurse’s recent encounter with Delingpole – not altogether successful – provides an interesting case study.

    On the question of openness – again in relation to climategate which was raised in Nurse’s doc – there is no question that more is required. In my view this was the most notable failing of the climate scientists at the CRU. The structural biology community went through this debate more than a decade ago – and now it is impossible to publish new protein structures without depositing the data in publicly accessible databases. The trend to open access publishing (now required of all publicly funded research? – not sure), will hopefully reinforce the idea that all data supporting a reported conclusion should be accessible, even to opponents of the science. We have to tackle these people head on, not by trying to silence them.

    Anyway – sense I may have wandered a bit. I’ll stop now.

    P.S. One final thought – is the ‘geek manifesto’ a facet of a wider Internet-powered politicisation of the populace? Mumsnet anyone?

    • markgfh says:

      Stephen,

      Thanks very much for these tremendously thoughtful comments. A couple of these themes are coming through very strongly in my soundings — especially those regarding reluctance of scientists to stray outside their expertise, and openness as key to trust.

      I’m very interested in your thoughts about SiV too. It’s intriguing how broadly-based the support was for what many might have considered to be a very niche campaign. I don’t suppose you have any good examples of surprising signatories? Also fascinated by the indifference of many more senior people in science. Jenny and Richard made this point to me also.

      Finally, I love the Mumsnet analogy! It hadn’t occurred to me, but it seems (at first glance at least) that there is a parallel. I shall explore!

  8. Jenny Woods says:

    So many interesting thoughts triggered by last night’s discussion. Will try to post here as & when they fall into some sort of order in my brain.

    One thing that surprised me was the grumbling about the book name – I had seen it as kinda fun and snappy (and no doubt the publishers do too!) but a bit of mulling today makes me wonder – there are a couple of points I wanted to comment on.

    Firstly, if I understood correctly, last night’s concerns were aired by a group who identified as ‘geeks’ but could not see what you were proposing here as their manifesto… a sort of ‘not in my name’ view – and there seemed to be differences in outlook between science geeks and technology geeks – although you acknowledged last night that if any of us individually agreed with 75% of the book’s contents, you’d call that a win!

    Secondly, and more importantly to me, is the fact that by referring to this as a ‘geek manifesto’ you may be belittling its contents to those outside our world. Whilst we may be happy to self-identify as geeks and view that as a positive thing, that’s not necessarily to case to external observers… and the arguments that came across to me last night were so powerful that they shouldn’t be trivialised in a way that could give anyone an excuse to shrug them off as ‘just’ the view of a ‘bunch of geeks’- though maybe we are straying from the content of your book and perhaps into the follow-up activism that Dr E seemed to be suggesting? The case that I understood being made last night was:
    1) policy should be driven by logical deduction from gathered evidence;
    2) where that might lead to policies that were inappropriate for society or the rights of the individual, we should explain why we are choosing to do something other than the evidence suggests;
    3) where policy is driven neither by evidence, nor on social grounds, but on ideological views this should be honestly stated and “spray on evidence” not fabricated to support it.

    Surely that goes way beyond the geek and is the very foundation of an honest democracy? Doesn’t every voter have the right to expect and demand this?

    I’m part of the rise you describe – having in the past being on the wrong end of politics driving science, I’m newly politically-active, with the events discussed in other people’s comments above, such as SIV and Solo10, making me realise that scientists can have a say in policy making – so maybe I’m still a little naïve and wet-behind-the-ears, but I feel there is poor understanding of how much policy is driven by dogma not evidence. I certainly agree that the rational message should be spread as widely as possible – but I fear the ‘geek’ label may hinder not help?

    • markgfh says:

      Thanks Jenny — first for coming to the event and second for this thoughtful comment. Please do keep contributions coming.

      Regarding the title, all the conversations we had on Monday night have been very much had with my publishers. On balance, they think the pluses (snappy, encapsulates the subject concisely) outweigh the minuses that you mention. Some of this I hope to deal with in the subtitle, which will explain in a bit more detail what is involved — specifically the focus on science.

      I’m obviously aware that science geeks and tech geeks are somewhat different (not to mention film geeks, music geeks, comic book geeks etc). There is often some overlap though, and I’m planning very much to clarify what I mean by the term “geek”. For me, it’s someone with an affinity for science and critical thinking (and perhaps at least a small degree of obsessive enthusiasm).

      I take your point about exclusion, but I don’t think that need necessarily be the case. More and more people are getting comfortable about embracing their inner geek — it’s just not the insult it once was. I hope this can be a short-cut towards making them more comfortable still.

  9. Dave Cole says:

    I’ve put a few thoughts up in a video but the short version is that we need to look at political structures as part of this, particularly reform of public bill committees.

  10. Phil Alexander says:

    Seeing as your contributors above have already mentioned (and far more eloquently that I would have) everything I had in mind to comment on, rather than leave without saying anything, I’ll give you a pseudo-Latin not-quite-quote to use:

    Timeo technos et dona consilia

    ..I fear when geeks come and give advice :-)

  11. 3dbloke says:

    “What are the best examples of bad practice, where poor use of evidence or poor awareness of the methods of science have led to policy failures?”

    Woolly language and an imprecise approach to dealing with facts. Example: the debate surrounding the Digital Economy Act in 2010.

    There was so much noise from the pro-Act lobby and the headlines this generated, it drowned out much of the voices of the skeptics arguing against the Act and its shortcomings. The lack of understanding of the issues among MPs and the farcical “debate” that lead to the Act being enacted.

    Internet Service Providers warned of technical issues in the controls that they’d be required to enforce over their customers’ online activities.

    The voices of independent musicians with a more open approach to digital media rights were largely ignored, and the argument that most people who share music files also go on to buy music, more so than those who don’t share.

    More generally, on the woolly language point, as a Radio 4 listener, I am still amazed at how imprecise the language can be on programmes like Today. Stating that “X could happen” when it is known that the probability of this is thousands or millions to one against. The BBC have improved science coverage on their networks in recent years, and Radio 4 has its share of these, but key programmes like Today are still presented by people who come across, at best, as only marginally scientific. The effect of this is polarization of views and inadequate cross-examination of guest speakers.

    One final point, another go at the BBC: There is too much unquestioning broadcast of religious views and rituals on the BBC. Many people in the UK (and around the world) respect the BBC for its impartiality and news reporting. If the same opinion is applied to the religious broadcasts, the atheist listener could be forgiven for thinking that he/she is truly in a minority and had best keep quiet about it. I think it’s about time the BBC faced the fact of secularism in the UK and adjusted its output accordingly. (rant over)

    Good luck with the book. Will it be available as a beta in eBook form so readers can provide feedback?

  12. Rachel says:

    I’ve just been studying soft systems methodology (Checkland) and the issues about unsolvable problems which are not clearly defined. One of my concerns with “geeks” is an apparent tendency to see everything as a solvable problem which reason has supplied a solution and all people need to do is apply it. Obviously politics is largely dealing with intractable problems, and scientific methods will not always work. However the one scientific technique that would be interesting to apply is defining the problem that they are trying to solve (or improve), how they expect the measures that they are recommending to work and what evaluation criteria they are going to use to check if something has worked.

    • markgfh says:

      Thanks Rachel — very interesting point. I do accept that scientific techniques won’t always work — though I do think that what they can contribute isn’t acknowledged sufficiently often. Your point about defining the problem, what a solution might look like and how it might be evaluated, though, is a key one. Doesn’t happen nearly often enough. Indeed, there’s a positive disincentive to doing this often — heaven forbid, you might find out your policy didn’t work!

  13. Alex Gilbert says:

    Mark

    If it hasn’t been passed your way yet, take a look at how India is embracing science as a policy-tool.

    Could we learn some lessons??

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