Congratulations to Sir David Payne, and an extract from The Geek Manifesto

Brilliant news in today’s new year’s honours list, of a knighthood for David Payne, Professor of Photonics at the University of Southampton. He deserves to be far better known than he is — I explain why in The Geek Manifesto, and to celebrate the honour, I’ve reproduced the passage in question below.

I’m also delighted by another knighthood, for Simon Wessely, Professor of Psychiatry at King’s College London. Simon is a compassionate and open-minded scientist who has had to put up with some remarkable poison and smears because of his work on ME/CFS and Gulf War syndrome. He’s also done some remarkable research on military psychiatric medicine. The reasons he deserves his honour are well summed up in the citation for the inaugural John Maddox Prize, which he won earlier this year. In short, he stands up for his science — in just the way I advocate in the book.

Oh, and the paperback of The Geek Manifesto is out on January 3. Amazon seems to be selling it already. So if you didn’t get it for Christmas, now’s the time to order!

Anyway, here’s the Payne extract — it’s from the Geekonomics chapter, in a section headed “The serendipity of science”. Together with other examples of how science has driven innovation, but not necessarily in a predictable way, Payne’s story is worth remembering as George Osborne sets out priorities for UK science spending.

When Sir Tim Berners-Lee, a CERN computer scientist, developed the hypertext transfer protocol – the ‘http’ of web addresses – he wasn’t trying to invent a revolutionary form of mass communication that would transform countless businesses and enable the creation of entirely new ones. He was seeking a better way for particle physicists to share data, and his elegant solution happened to give birth to the World Wide Web.

David Payne is not as well known as Berners-Lee, yet the Professor of Photonics at the University of Southampton can be just as fairly called a father of the modern internet. Every time you download a track to your iPod or watch a video on YouTube you are probably making use of his research, which laid the foundations of the fibre-optic cable technology that made broadband possible and brought significant economic benefits in its wake.

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Urgent: 48 hours left to respond to the HFEA consultation on mitochondrial disease

In The Geek Manifesto, I point out that it’s important for those of us who care about and appreciate science to respond to public consultations, so that our views can be heard and taken into account.

There are just 48 hours left to respond to rather a significant one.

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority is currently consulting over whether new IVF techniques for preventing a group of severe disorders known as mitochondrial diseases should be permitted for clinical use. These involve replacing defective mitochondria — the “power plants” of the cell — in eggs or embryos, so that any children born as a result are free from the disease.

Here’s a great feature explaining the work, the diseases, and their impact on families.

I think it’s important that this should be permitted (disclosure: I work for the Wellcome Trust, which funds this research).

My response to the consultation is here. Please submit yours — the consultation closes on Friday.

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Nate Silver, the audacity of maths and the innumeracy of political commentary

So maths works. Who knew? For weeks, the statisticians Nate Silver and Sam Wang have been predicting an Obama victory, on the strength of proper statistical models that include all relevant state polls. This morning, they’ve been utterly vindicated.

Assuming Florida indeed breaks for Obama, as returns indicate right now, Silver will have called all 50 states correctly. Wang will have 49 out of 50. Both have effectively gone 100 per cent — they each pinned Florida as a coin toss, but one took heads and the other tails.

As the US election drew nearer, Silver, in particular, has had to contend with some frankly awful political punditry that betrayed dreadful statistical innumeracy. Right up until yesterday, most of the mainstream media was still declaring the race too close to call. It wasn’t. Mitt Romney still had a chance of winning, particularly if the Silver/Wang assumption that all the polls were not systematically underestimating his support was incorrect. But Obama was overwhelmingly likely to win.

I think the hostility of many media pundits to Silver and Wang, and the way so much of the media essentially ignored their predictions and stuck with the “too close to call” narrative, says something interesting and important about political commentary. It’s a theme that plays a significant part in the Geek Manifesto’s chapter on the media. And it’s that the media is systematically unwilling to grant mathematics, statistics and science a significant role in politics.

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Responding to some interesting criticism of The Geek Manifesto (2)

This post is long overdue. It’s now almost two months since Richard Jones wrote his thoughtful review of The Geek Manifesto, and I’ve been feeling guilty about my delayed response for a while. Especially after responding last weekend to some more recent thoughts from Alice Bell and Adam Corner. Anyway, better late than never.

Richard’s review made it clear that though it reads somewhat critically, he agreed with much of the book, and that he was pleased it has provoked so much discussion of the relationship between science and public policy. I’m grateful for these comments, and for the time he took to look at some of the areas where we disagree in such detail. I invariably find Richard’s writing interesting, and this piece was no exception.

Broadly, I think it’s fair to say that Richard’s criticisms of the book fall under three broad headings. I’ll share some thoughts provoked by each of them.

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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.

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Jeremy Hunt, abortion and evidence

I don’t agree with Jeremy Hunt about abortion. I think the 24-week limit is about right where it is, and that reducing it to 12 weeks, as he would like to, would have very damaging consequences for women’s health. It would also derail prenatal screening for serious abnormalities, most of which can only be detected at more advanced gestational ages than this.

I accept, though, that the Secretary of State for Health’s position is one which he is wholly entitled to hold. Abortion is rightly seen in this country as a conscience issue, rather than one on which politicians must follow the party whip. If he feels that abortion after 12 weeks is incompatible with his value system, that is a judgement that is his to make.

Abortion is not an issue that can be decided by science and evidence alone. If you believe that an early embryo is a fully formed human being with the rights of a born person, evidence about viability and capacity to feel pain is not going to shift your position. That’s not my belief, but if it is Hunt’s then I understand why he thinks as he does.

What I do have a problem with, however, is the way in which Hunt explained his stance on abortion in his interview with The Times. Hunt didn’t simply state that this was a decision he had reached for personal, moral or ethical reasons. He implied strongly that his position was reached rationally in accordance with evidence. And that, I think, makes him guilty of two of the different sorts of evidence abuse that I highlight in The Geek Manifesto.

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MPs respond to The Geek Manifesto

Over the past few weeks, it’s been great to see so many positive responses from MPs who’ve received a copy of The Geek Manifesto from a constituent. A fair number are reading it already, with others looking to do so over the summer recess.

Here are a few I’ve gathered already. I’ll also post a collection of letters sent to Dave Watts, who started the Pledgebank campaign.

Please do add more in comments.

First up is Jenny Willott MP, who highlighted the book as her summer reading on The World at One. Listen here.

Barry Sheerman (@bsheermanmp) tweeted that he was already enjoying the book:

Just getting in to The Geek Manifesto- Why Science Matters good stuff so far @GuardianEdu
Sent 20 hours ago
Twitter for iPad

Hilary Minor heard back from Jeremy Hunt:

I’ve had such a great reply from Jeremy Hunt, M.P. He said:

Dear Hilary,
Following yesterday’s email the book has now landed on my desk As the Minister responsible for technology, I am sometimes called a geek myself! So I will read the Geek Manifesto with great interest. Thank you for so kindly sending it to me.

Best wishes,
Jeremy
Hilary Minor

Richard Chiswell heard from Damian Green:

Letter received from Damian Green MP:

Thank you very much for sending me a copy of The Geek Manifesto.

I have had this recommended by friends of mine and I will read it with great interest.
Richard Chiswell

My editor, Susanna Wadeson, heard from Philip Dunne:

Letter received from Philip Dunne, MP for Ludlow, thanking me for his copy of the book: ‘I agree that knowledge of good science has been under represented in parliament in recent years. As the Government Whip to the Education Dept, I can reassure you that the Government is seeking to reinvigorate teaching and our examination system, and the good news is that more students are already seeking to undertake the three sciences at GCSE that in recent years’. I’ll write back to explain that it is not simply a matter of improving the scientific education available but also about bringing the scientific method to bear on policy-making. He needs to read the book. Good that he took the trouble to reply though.
Susanna Wadeson

Jane Ellison MP wrote to Dave Cross:

Today I got a really nice handwritten letter from my MP, Jane Ellison (Com, Battersea).

She thanked me very much for the letter and said that she already has one self-described “hardline rationalist” working in her office.

She said that she planned to take the book home to read over the weekend.

I’ve had a lot of contact with her in the two years since she became my MP, but this is the first time she has taken the time to write a letter by hand.
Dave Cross

Sean Ellis (@sean_t_ellis) tweeted:

Nice letter this morning from @JDjanogly MP thanking me for copy of The Geek Manifesto by @markgfh. Something to read during recess, he says
Sent 3 days ago
Twitter for Android

Iain Duncan Smith was less interested:

My MP, Iain Duncan Smith, acknowledged receipt of the book (well, his staff did…!), but has turned down the offer of a meeting to discuss it owing to being a busy Minister…

Just sayin’…
Prateek Buch

And finally Martin Horwood MP, who introduced me at the Cheltenham Science Festival, wrote a nice piece in his local newspaper column:

WAS I ambushed by the Science Festival? In a good way, yes.

I was introducing Mark Henderson, author of The Geek Manifesto which argues for a closer and better relationship between science and politics. He suggests not only that politicians need better understanding of matters scientific, but that the scientific method itself – evidence-based, keen on testing and flexible when presented with evidence of error – could improve policymaking no end.

It’s an important message and, of course, I was the target as well as the warm-up act. What about all the other MPs? Only one is actually a working scientist – Cambridge Lib Dem Dr Julian Huppert, with whom I shared an office for several months. He used to have unintelligible phone conversations about genetics and the sex lives of fruit flies.

The rest of us are all to receive a copy of Mr Henderson’s book, each one paid for by a science-friendly constituent. Mine is in the post, courtesy of one Maggie Cunliffe. Thank you, wherever you are.

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