My Geek Manifesto talk at TEDxBrixton

I live in Herne Hill, south London, so it was great to be invited to take part in my local TEDx this summer — TEDxBrixton. Thanks very much to Linnie Rawlinson and Stephanie Busari for asking.

My talk on the Geek Manifesto — with a local twist about how randomised controlled trials might be used to inform rubbish collection policy — has just gone onto YouTube. Here it is.

(It should have been called TEDxHerneHill btw — Shakespeare Road, where it took place, is totally Herne Hill not Brixton…)

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Five things not to do if you must write up an Andrew Wakefield press release

I wasn’t the only person to be pretty disappointed in the Independent’s decision to give a platform this weekend to Andrew Wakefield’s ludicrous and self-serving claim that the Swansea measles epidemic is not his fault, but the Government’s.

Martin Robbins and Phil Plait have already written excellently about this, so I don’t have to at length. But I thought I’d add a few thoughts on the saga from my own experience as a science journalist.

When I worked at The Times, I used to judge myself as much by what I kept out of the paper as by what I got into it. This would have been one I would have been proud to see land on the spike.

Andrew Wakefield attempting to justify himself and blame the Government for the outcome of his own scaremongering is not news. The content of a Wakefield press release is about as illuminating as the things people shout at cars. It is ok to ignore him. That is what he is desperate for you not to do.

That said, I can see how it might be tempting to write this one up — Wakefield’s claim is pretty brazen, and that does have a certain news value. But if you absolutely must write up his press release, here are five things you would certainly want to avoid:

1. Don’t splash on it. Or put it on the front page for that matter. Prominence matters, and rather suggests that you, the editor, think that the person you’re writing about is making a point that deserves to be heard, even if you disagree with it. The proper place for a story like this is inside the book.

2. Don’t pick the headline he’d have picked. “MMR scare doctor Andrew Wakefield breaks his silence: Measles outbreak in Wales proves I was right” doesn’t cut it. “Outrage over struck-off MMR scare doctor’s latest bizarre and dangerous claim” just might.

3. Don’t wait until paragraph 15 — paragraph 15! — before introducing a critic who can explain why Wakefield is wrong. Yes, the quotes to that effect are there. But most readers won’t get to them, and for those who do, the placement suggests a lack of importance.

4. Don’t run the whole Wakefield press release as if it were a commissioned op-ed. How to give the guy’s scaremongering the imprimatur of a respectable newspaper.

5. Don’t forget that the story is about the chutzpah of the man, not about the substance of his claim. Write the whole thing as a critique. This has to start in the intro, and continue to thread through the piece. Don’t even allow the slightest possibility that the odd paragraph could be quoted out of context. If you do, it will be.

The Indy usually covers health and science very well, and wasn’t one of the offenders during the original media debacle over MMR. It’s a shame that it managed to score 0 out of 5 this time.

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What my bad story taught me about constructive complaints

As those of you who follow me on Twitter will know, I was, like most science writers, appalled to learn that the plagiarist and fabricator Jonah Lehrer was paid $20,000 by the Knight Foundation this week to lecture about his plagiarism and fabrications. What a dreadful message for a foundation dedicated to promoting journalism to send to, well, journalists.

Others have written eloquently about this, and often with more personal reasons than me to be upset. But I was especially struck by a post by Kathleen Raven, in which she listed her own journalistic mistakes. Her point was to show how every one should be a learning experience, “seared into memory” — not something to be brushed aside as colour to support a career in professional redemption.

I made plenty of mistakes in my career as a science journalist at The Times, many more than I’d have liked to. There is one, though, that particularly sticks in my mind, for the incredibly constructive way in which a scientist who was justifiably irritated by it complained. Tony Weidberg, a particle physicist, approached me so constructively that I think it provides a great example of how to engage with the media to achieve better coverage of science.

I’m reproducing the passage of The Geek Manifesto in which I describe the story, and what I learned from it, here. Unfortunately, I can’t find the offending article on the web — it doesn’t seem to have been archived, though if anyone can find it I’ll gladly link to it.

Constructive Complaints

Adversarial approaches to bad science reporting are important weapons in the geek arsenal. But they shouldn’t always be the first ones we deploy. Start by attacking a journalist in abrasive fashion and he is as likely to become defensive and deaf to criticism as he is to take it on board and change his approach. Plenty of science reporters are broadly sympathetic to the aims of [Ben] Goldacre and his allies, but nonetheless brush off their views because they consider them relentlessly negative. Complain constructively, couching criticism as helpful advice, and a surprising number of hacks will listen.

Media professionals are as prone as anybody else to ‘cognitive dissonance’. This term from psychology describes the difficulty of holding two pieces of mutually incompatible information in your mind at the same time, and it is easily activated by our own errors. Most journalists like to think they are covering their beat responsibly, thoroughly and accurately. If they are then confronted with a serious error, that information can be difficult to take on board – especially if it’s implied that they have made the error because they are slipshod, conniving, venal or stupid. And dissonance is often more easily resolved by rejecting inconvenient facts than by acknowledging them.

To achieve a culture change in media attitudes to science, we must work with the grain of cognitive dissonance, rather than against it. As Abraham Lincoln said, ‘If you would win a man to your cause, first convince him that you are his sincere friend.’

I can vouch for the value of Lincoln’s aphorism. Soon after I began covering science for The Times in 2001, I picked up on a story in New Scientist about the forthcoming shutdown of the Large Electron-Positron Collider at the CERN particle physics lab near Geneva. The piece suggested that the Higgs boson – the so-called ‘God particle’ that is supposed to give matter its mass, and for which the accelerator was searching – was unlikely actually to exist. My story strongly implied that the search for it had been a waste of money. ‘The results of these recent experiments have convinced many of the 5,000 scientists working in the field that the whole investigation has been a wild goose chase.’

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The Geek Manifesto on new Science Select Committee member David Tredinnick

Well well. This was not news I was expecting. Via Beck Smith of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, I’ve just learned that David Tredinnick has been chosen by his fellow Conservative MPs to fill a vacant place on the Commons Science and Technology Committee (see point 69 in the link).

Tredinnick is one of the stars of the Geek Manifesto — and not in a good way. I’ve thus posted the section about him here.

What is sad about this is not so much Tredinnick’s views — there are always likely to be eccentric MPs like this. It is that he has been elected by his Tory colleagues to represent them on the main parliamentary scrutiny committee for science. I’m sure few of his MPs agree with him on astrology and alternative medicine. Yet they’ve betrayed a worrying indifference to science in supporting his candidacy.

It’s this indifference to science, not Tredinnick’s (rare) hostility to science, that is the chief cause of disconnects between science and public policy. The Geek Manifesto has plenty of ideas about how we might attempt to change it.

Anyway, here’s the extract:

On the evening of 14 October 2009, David Tredinnick got to his feet in the House of Commons to open a debate. The Conservative MP for Bosworth, in Leicestershire, was desperately worried that the Health Minister, Gillian Merron, had overlooked a grave threat to the wellbeing of the public. The object of his concern wasn’t pandemic flu, or air pollution, or childhood obesity. It was the moon.

‘At certain phases of the moon there are more accidents,’ he gravely informed the House. ‘Surgeons will not operate because blood clotting is not effective, and the police have to put more people on the streets.’ It wasn’t the first time he had raised the subject in Parliament. Back in 2001, Tredinnick told the Commons that ‘science has worked out that pregnancy, hangovers and visits to one’s GP may be affected by the awesome power of the moon,’ and quoted a newspaper report suggesting that arson attacks double when the moon is full.

He stopped short of mentioning werewolves, but you probably don’t need to be told that their existence is about as well supported by science as his other claims.

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The Geek Manifesto shortlisted for Political Book Awards

A new set of literary awards launches next week, the Political Book Awards, sponsored by Total Politics magazine and the bookmaker Paddy Power. And I’m very excited to say that The Geek Manifesto has been shortlisted!

I’m in the running for the Polemic of the Year prize, against a fine shortlist. I’m honoured to make the same list as such thought-provoking figures as Andrew Adonis, Nick Cohen, Daniel Hannan and David Nutt.

The awards are next Wednesday evening, February 6. Many thanks to the judges for shortlisting me!

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A foreword/afterword to the Geek Manifesto, by David Dobbs

When we published The Geek Manifesto in the United States last year, the fabulous science writer David Dobbs agreed to provide a short foreword that would explain why its message mattered to an American audience. It’s already available with the US eBook, and it’ll be in the paperback.

It turned out to be so good that we decided to include it in the UK paperback edition too — this time as an afterword, a DVD extra, if you like. That’s out tomorrow, and David and I have agreed to post it on our blogs as well.

A Geek Manifesto for America

Foreword to the US edition by David Dobbs

Nothing illuminates like a close analogue.

So I found during a recent year in London, as I watched scientists and science-writing colleagues there, including Mark Henderson, the author of this book, wrestle with translated forms of the threats that haunt those of us in America who would like to see our country run according to honest airing of fact and principle rather than lies and fear. In the US, we deal with virulent creationism, medicine-by-advertising, and deeply institutionalized resistance to the reality of climate change; in the UK, the assault on empirical thinking ranges from ridiculous prescriptions for colonic irrigation to the sublimely sad savaging of researchers by those who would have us ignore drought, fire and the melting of the ice caps. In noisy pubs and cafés, on the slightly less noisy sidewalks outside pubs and cafés, and in quieter halls of inquiry such as universities and the Royal Society, Henderson, colleagues and I talked and ranted and laughed about these things and, comparing notes, saw how alike the battles raged in Old England and New America.

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The Geek Manifesto is now out in paperback (and in the US)


The paperback edition of The Geek Manifesto is out on Thursday, January 3, and all the usual outlets are already taking orders. You can find it on Amazon here, and if you’re avoiding Amazon for tax reasons, you can get it from Waterstones too.

I’m delighted to report, too, that the paperback comes with an afterword by the fabulous American science writer, David Dobbs. It’s a piece he wrote as a foreword to the US edition — also now available — which was so good and apposite that my publisher decided to add it to the UK paperback as well.

David and I will both be posting his piece on our blogs very shortly.

The new edition also comes with some nice words about the book from Professor Brian Cox:

“Powerful and important, The Geek Manifesto eloquently lays out a programme to make the UK a more rational and therefore prosperous and successful country. And it’s not that hard to do! Base policy decisions on evidence, invest in our knowledge-based economy by supporting education and research, and above all promote reason above opinion. Everyone interested in importing the scientific method into public life should read this book, and then lobby their MP!”

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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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