Responding to some interesting criticism of The Geek Manifesto (part 1)

The Geek Manifesto has triggered plenty of debate, some of it critical, which is something I find entirely healthy. The book was always meant to be a starting point, not a finishing point, and I welcome constructive disagreement — if not straw man attacks on the book’s supposed “linear technocratic vision”.

I’m keen to reply to two particularly interesting critiques, one posted a couple of months ago by Richard Jones on his excellent blog, and another published yesterday by Alice Bell and Adam Corner in the New Left Project.

I’ll start with the piece by Alice (who I know and enjoy discussing these things with) and Adam (who I don’t, but who I follow on Twitter and find interesting). With continued apologies to Richard for my tardiness, I hope to reply to his post very soon.

Their argument (apologies if I have incorrectly summarised), is that my analysis of the green movement in the book, and similar criticisms made by figures such as Fred Pearce, Mark Lynas and George Monbiot, takes insufficient account of the political narratives that are inherant in discussions of scientific evidence and the environment. The green movement, they argue, was born out of scientific thinking (such as that of Rachel Carson), and that while “there are times where some members of the green movement could take a more nuanced approach to scientific evidence but that is true of most groups, scientific ones included.”

“Serious green critiques of science have always been about power, not data,” they say. Issues such as nuclear power and GM crops, they argue, cannot be reduced to evidence of potential harm and utility alone:

“It’s tempting to read nuclear debates as being about scientific evidence versus ideology: hard-headed rationalists dismissing those misty-eyed greens who maintain arguments against nuclear as ageing hippies that need to catch up. Except that the nuclear debate is economics too – lots of economics – and politics, lots of politics.”

It’s a thought-provoking piece, which touches on much that is of value. I agree wholeheartedly that it isn’t usually helpful to throw around terms such as “anti-science” and “Luddite” in this sort of debate. I also agree that there are many questions beyond scientific evidence that need to be considered when deciding whether technologies such as GM and nuclear should be embraced by society. I agree, too, that people who appreciate and seek to promote science — the geeks of my book — could learn much from the success of the greens in building a broadly-based lobbying movement (though I also think we must be cautious about adopting tactics that play fast and loose with evidence in pursuit of a larger goal).

Yet as I read the piece, I kept thinking “yes, but…” (which incidentally was Alice’s reaction to reading my book!) It’s absolutely correct that there are important and unresolved economic debates to be had about nuclear power, for example. But if the green movement sometimes raises legitimate arguments about economics here, it too often makes bad ones about nuclear safety. If we’re to answer the good questions about nuclear, we need to make sure the bad ones don’t get in the way. I’d be much more comfortable debating the cost-effectiveness of nuclear power if those who oppose it most vociferously on economic grounds didn’t also oppose it in principle.

It’s a similar story with GM crops. I absolutely agree with Alice and Adam that serious critiques of GM are about power and control of the food chain, not about evidence of safety or environmental damage (I accept I’m inferring this from their article, and if this isn’t what was meant I will happily correct). But I would disagree profoundly that that has been the central argument of most green campaigners against agricultural biotechnology. The argument has far too often been framed in terms of risk to health and planet, which is then used to support calls for a ban or moratorium on all the many different applications of GM, in all crops for all purposes, by public and private sector alike.

If it’s really all about power, rather than a faith-based rejection of a particular class of technologies, then let’s have a debate about power, and consider how public-good GM projects (which have suffered from the greens’ blanket opposition) might fit into the picture. Let’s accept that it makes much more sense to debate the specific applications of GM, on a case by case basis, than to accept or reject it wholesale. I accept that that will certainly mean some applications of GM should be rejected. I’m not sure most green opponents of GM are ready to say the same in reverse.

What both examples give rise to is a strong suspicion that technology has been rejected out of hand, and that there is no evidence that could be expected to change deep green minds. Indeed, when I’ve asked representatives of the Soil Association what might give them cause to reconsider blanket opposition to GM, they’ve dodged the question.

As I’ve been writing this response, I’ve also been struck by what may be an important contradiction in this piece. Alice and Adam point out, very reasonably, that the green movement is historically grounded in science. Yet they then also assert that “serious green critiques of science have always been about power, not data”. For me, these statements jar against one another, in a way that I think illustrates the problem.

Critiques of science that dwell on power have their place, and it’s important that they are made, but should these really be the basis of the green movement’s core arguments? Don’t these strike towards different political goals from protecting the environment? And if so, are not those goals often undeclared? Isn’t there a good case that green critiques of science should in fact be about data?

The politics and the economics matter, a lot. But so too does the science, and having political and economic debates against a background of good scientific evidence makes I think for a richer and more productive discussion.

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 Responding to some interesting criticism of The Geek Manifesto (part 1)

  1. drleehw says:

    It’s fascinating to hear once again of these arguments against the scientific method, from rational, intelligent people. Fascinating, but for me, scary.

    Two things leap to mind: First, any argument that support for science fails to take account of power and politics is itself either incomplete or disingenuous. The scientific method is society’s best weapon to date in the struggle against usurped power. Science has no priesthood. It is admittedly rare, now that the extant body of scientific knowledge is fairly advanced, but even those with little or no training can contribute (e.g. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rhys_Morgan and http://www.wired.com/wiredenterprise/2012/06/ari-dyckovsky/ ). Authority and power, in science, come from correspondence of theories and models with the physical universe. Compare this with special interest groups, religions, political movements, and cults, which gain momentum and power when charismatic leaders accrue followers.

    Second, the scientific method has no built-in values, beyond the universally lauded ones of honesty and straightforwardness. The scientific method does not insist on technological progress, or much else. Those things are imposed on science by politics. It is not the job of scientists to decide the values of society. And frankly, I’m surprised that anyone who’s read The Geek Manifesto would conclude that it argues for scientists in charge of society’s values. The role of science, rather, is to fact-check. If a politician says “We would like to help children who struggle to read by way of Policy A”, it is not the place of science to decide whether or not to help these children, but to test whether or not Policy A does what its proponents claim. It is also the role of the more scientific arm of economics to test out and provide real, concrete, fact-checked information on the costs and benefits of Policy A. Even that isn’t the clincher. It doesn’t decide whether we ought to implement Policy A, it simply tells us exactly how much it’ll cost, and what we’ll get for our money. In other fields we’d call this “full disclosure” or even “informed consent”.

    So perhaps that’s what science does for democracy: Science ensures that government policy is implemented with the informed consent of the electorate, not on the whim of some charismatic but delusional leader.

  2. James Aach says:

    Frankly, as someone who has been working at nuclear reactors (in the US) for over two decades, I can tell you that most of what passes for scientific or technical discussion when it comes to atomic power is neither very informative or based on much in the way of experience. To me, it often sounds like someone describing Grand Prix auto racing who has never seen a car before.

    I can’t really solve the above problem, but I have written a profile of what real life is like in a US nuclear plant in good times, and what it might be like in bad times. I have posted this online free (with no ads or sponsors). The novel “Rad Decision” is available at my homepage (or just google the title) with plenty of reader reviews. It features a plant and event not unlike Fukushima. Lay persons seem to find it both informative and entertaining. The media has shown little interest in this inside story. (They’re too busy, I guess.)

    There are compelling arguments against nuclear (duh!) and arguments for it. We’ll make better decisions about our energy future if we first understand our energy present. Rad Decision might help that a bit.

  3. alan says:

    I have recemtly 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?

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  4. alice says:

    Thanks Mark – though I’m not sure I’d go as far as to I agree it’s a “contradiction”, I think that’s a valid point and it *does* jar with me too a bit, so maybe the following clarifies my position.

    Here are two things I think are important in this issue which, for various reasons, might have been a bit lost in that piece:

    1) What I really want is dialogue between the two. We didn’t want to simply repeat criticisms of the green movement others had said recently, even though we agreed with a fair bit of many of them, which is why we lead with them but then went on to talk about other things. Several people seem to have misunderstood and assumed we didn’t care about these criticisms. We do, just we think they are also problematic in places and well, zzzz haven’t we all head that already. But yeah, totally agree there are places where bits of the green movement could nerd up, but it’s not simply mo-ar science. The line is that the green critique is about power, not that environmental politics is simply that, and as you say, some greens don’t have the economic and political analysis you’d necessarily want (though disagreement here is sometimes a matter of disagreement in political ideology not simply ideological blinkered-ness*). What I want is more discussion, not only for different areas of expertise to learn from the other side, but find ways to put the sci and the political together. Because it’s not a simple matter of unravelling/ doing politics vs a scientific understanding nature, it’s a big old mix. It’s an “assemblage” if you want to be sociological, or rather the best analysis of environmental issues puts everything in it’s sci as well as political context.

    (NB: this already happens, we need to acknowledge that more I think, it’s easy to get lost in a few loud voices and there is wa-aa-ay too much strawmanning here, which brings me to point 2…)

    2) Both “greens” and “science” are really diverse groups, with a fair bit of overlap. For me this is why a notion of one against the other is so silly (ditto claims to be “anti-science” or “anti-green” for that matter). The green movement does indeed, include people who self-identify as luddites not for the more complex, thoughtful reasons we outlined but really, frankly because they are a bit reactionary. There are also people who take anti-nuke as a faith. This is one of the reasons your call to clause four moment resonates with so many, even if there Blair comparison doesn’t sit too well with many. But that doesn’t mean more rational critique isn’t out there. What I’d *really* like to do given the time and money is some more empirical research on this. If not a full sociological study, at the very least some thorough journalistic digging to uncover a few more of the voices outside of the shouty ones. I know from basic interest and the rough research I’ve done so far they are there, but we could pull them out a bit more.

    * An application of political ideology you are as guilty of as anyone else, and the lack of self-reflection of this in the last chapter of your book sticks out like a sore thumb, something Richard Jones points out very well in his review I thought. We could all question our ideological blinkered-ness at times. Of course the sociology of science movement – not the greens – laid down this larger challenge decades ago, for those man enough to take it…

  5. Pingback: Links 11/2/12 | Mike the Mad Biologist

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