A straw man criticism of The Geek Manifesto, and a supporting extract

Ian Scoones, of the ESRC STEPS Centre, has written today in the Huffington Post about how the Rothamsted GM crop protest and the themes of The Geek Manifesto amount to “scientific self-righteousness” that advocate “a linear technocratic vision”.

The argument of the geek manifesto is that more scientists should be in politics. Only one of 650 Members of Parliament (MPs) in the UK is a scientist, Henderson claims. More scientists need to be politicians, he argues, and then better policy will result. A linear, technocratic vision is laid out where science leads politics. This is a potentially highly dangerous view. A democratic political process, surely, should have a more accountable relationship with scientific expertise. Scientists should be ‘on tap, but not on top’, as was famously said by Winston Churchill. It seems this is not the idea behind the Geek Manifesto. It states “As those of us who care deeply about science and its experimental method start to fight for our beliefs, geeks have a historic opportunity to embed critical thinking more deeply in the political process. But if we are to achieve anything, we need to turn our numbers and confidence into political muscle.” It continues: “Let’s create a political cost for failing science. Politics has had it too easy for too long. It’s time for a geek revolution.” Bizarrely, the Chinese politburo is seen as a model. Because it is full of highly expert engineers, this is seen as a good thing. It seems issues of representation, accountability and democracy are of lesser importance for the revolutionary geeks!

I’ve responsed in comments, but repeat my argument here. I think this is a criticism of a book he would like to have attacked, rather than the book I have actually written. In particular, there is a lengthy section entitled “The Limits of Evidence” that explicitly explains why science and evidence do not trump democracy. My comment, and the extract, follow:

The criticisms Ian Scoones makes here would be fair and important if they were aimed at the book I have written, rather than at the book it appears he would have liked me to have written.

Do I think science could contribute more usefully than it does to public policy? Yes. Do I think more scientists in politics might help to achieve this? Yes. Do I think geeks and scientists should engage more actively with politicians, and that this would ultimately benefit both groups? I do. But the book decidedly does not make, as Ian suggests here, an argument for technocracy that overrides democracy. In fact, it explicitly argues the opposite.

There is no “linear technocratic vision”. The engineering credentials of senior Chinese leaders are described, not held up as a model. The Geek Manifesto is actually critical of Dick Taverne’s argument in The March of Unreason, as this article is.

Ian writes: “It seems issues of representation, accountability and democracy are of lesser importance for the revolutionary geeks!” But I agree with him that “a democratic political process, surely, should have a more accountable relationship with scientific expertise” — and I say so at some length in the book, particularly in a section entitled “The Limits of Evidence”.

In case Ian has not read it, here’s an extract:

“Ministers are entitled to take all sorts of factors into account when they reach decisions – indeed they must do so – and science will usually be just one of them. They are democratically elected; their advisers are not. They are right to think about the expectations and aspirations of the people who voted for them, the promises they have made and the ideologies they espouse, when they weigh how to act.

“Tracey Brown, who campaigns for greater use of evidence in public policy as director of Sense About Science, is clear on its limitations. ‘There’s strong evidence that a 9pm curfew would cut crime, but it’s clearly an infringement of civil liberties,’ she says. ‘It’s as important to me that politicians are democratic as it is that they respect science.’ Evan Harris, the former Liberal Democrat MP who now runs the Centre for Evidence-Based Policy, agrees: ‘It’s reasonable to expect questions of ideology, social justice and, yes, politics to feature in political decision-making.’

“In his book The March of Unreason, Lord Dick Taverne, who founded Sense About Science, argued that politicians should leave independent experts alone to decide on fundamentally scientific issues, such as safe levels of pesticide residue in vegetables, public health measures such as vaccination schedules, or the best method of storing radioactive waste from nuclear power plants. He’s right that ministers and civil servants without specialist expertise have little of note to contribute to the technical aspects of such questions. But while the best scientific evidence is of paramount significance to this type of decision, and ministers need exceptionally good reasons for rejecting it, it remains important even here for democratically elected representatives to have the final say.

“It is exceptionally rare for scientific evidence to mandate a single solution to a policy problem; rather, it informs the range of solutions that might be feasible, and predicts what the outcome of each is most likely to be. Questions of ethics, law, public acceptability, fairness, personal liberty and economics are usually relevant too, and scientific experts are often no better placed than anyone else to judge these. If we value democracy, advisers should advise and ministers should decide.

“The degree to which pesticide residues potentially damage health is a scientific question which science can answer. Science can also help to explain whether the higher cost of vegetables that would result if pesticides were more strictly controlled or banned would lead to better or worse overall public health. It can’t, however, decide how society should balance risks and benefits: that is a political question for elected representatives to take.

“Science can tell you how requiring children to present an immunisation certificate to attend primary school, as happens in many US states, would improve herd immunity, but not whether this is an acceptable infringement of parental rights. On drug control, global warming, embryonic stem cell research and abortion, science can describe the challenges and the likely effects of the possible solutions. The value judgements of democratic societies, however, matter too.

“Few civilian politicians have much knowledge of how to drive a tank, to fly a Typhoon strike jet, or to plan a military campaign. Yet we do not leave decisions about warfare to army officers: in democracies, we expect them to take their lead from elected governments. Science shouldn’t expect to be treated differently. Geeks are as important as generals in the specialist advice they have to give, but they aren’t more important.”

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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5 Responses to A straw man criticism of The Geek Manifesto, and a supporting extract

  1. George Crews says:

    “A linear, technocratic vision”?

    I’m one geek who thinks it’s quite obvious that not only is technological risk not linear, its metric is not a scalar. There’s no proof that the dimensions of risk are commensurable. Not only that, but the benefits and costs of technology vary in sign and magnitude from stakeholder to stakeholder. I am sure I not the only geek that thinks this way. I see no merit in Scoones’ criticism.

  2. Pingback: Read extracts from The Geek Manifesto for free | The Geek Manifesto

  3. Alan says:

    I have just finished reading the Geek Manifesto courtesy of the MP I work for.
    I think it makes a powerful case for critical analysis of issues and questioning assumptions based on so called scientific evidence.
    However some insight into how the political system works may enlighten some assumptions made in the book.
    Firstly it is wrong to assume that politicians are not exposed to a great deal of scientific data, indeed pressure groups and lobbyists use a wide range of scientific data to pursue their aims.
    The problem is that this data is often baised to support a particular argument or stance.In this environment it is very difficult to balance the validity of one research over another.
    Therefore it is not suprising politicians are led up a few dead ends.
    Secondly the Geek manifesto carries it own bias and prejudices about “non scientific thoughts and ideas”. One has to acknowledge that even the “doyen” of the geeks, Brian Cox often offers conjecture as scientific fact in his bid to popularise Science.
    Thirdly politics does depend a great deal on social and persuasive skills, qualities that have not always been associated with Geek culture.
    Nevertheless I agree that Geeks have an important role in politics if they can pursue an independent verification of “scientific facts” touted in parliament and in the media.
    To do this you need to set up an organisation that explores these issues without bias and prejudice and gain credibility amongst politicians,media and the general public.
    There is an important role out there for Geeks, but are they willing to undertake it?

  4. Pingback: Responding to some interesting criticism of The Geek Manifesto (part 1) | The Geek Manifesto

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