An interestingly critical review

The Geek Manifesto was always written “on the understanding that not all geeks will agree”. And now it’s been published, that disagreement is starting to come through.

To which I say brilliant. If the book provokes plenty of constructive thinking about engagement between science and politics, it will have achieved one of my goals — even, perhaps especially, if different views from my own come to the fore.

John Whitfield’s review in Research Fortnight is a great example of the sort of criticism I welcome. As he notes up front:

“Geeks like to pick things apart… However much geeky readers might agree with it, they are going to get as much pleasure from quibbling with it.”

Whitfield, while welcoming much of the book’s focus on evidence-based policy, has two particular quibbles. He asks whether there isn’t tension between the idea that science is a way of thinking, and the idea that people who care about science could do more to campaign for its place in politics and society. And he asks whether geekier politics would actually be any better, noting that “attempts to make government more scientific often end up making it less democratic.”

He concludes:

“Stepping back, the causes of science abuse lie at least partly outside science, in more general problems such as the insularity of the political culture, the obsession with spin, and an agenda driven by point scoring and tomorrow’s headlines. Changing these is a daunting task — much harder than ridiculing homeopathy, or lobbying for nuclear power and biotech — but perhaps it’s here that politically concerned geeks could most usefully, and nobly, focus their efforts, rather than in creating another political demographic to be pandered to and appeased.”

These are all fair questions to ask. There is certainly potential for tension between the scientific approach to thinking, and campaigning for better stewardship and use of science.

But that’s why I argue strongly that geek activism can’t afford to be partisan or party-political, that we ought to offer our support to and target our campaigning against politicians of all parties when their actions deserve it. It’s why I quote Evan Harris so approvingly when he talks of the need not to betray the “rationality and circumpection” we value when we make political arguments — even if our opponents do not. And it’s why I support constructive engagement with politics that seeks to introduce MPs and ministers to ideas and evidence they might not otherwise have considered, rather than fighting as factions.

I was sharply critical of last week’s coffin protest against the EPSRC’s funding policies for just these reasons.

I do think that that scientific issues tend to be marginalised in politics chiefly because few politicians have really thought much about them, and because handling them badly doesn’t carry much of a political cost. If we’re to change that, I don’t see an alternative to geeks getting more politically involved.

So far as democracy goes, again, I’m pretty clear in the book that I don’t think evidence should always trump other considerations in policy-making. Democracy must always come first, and I’m explicit that ministers do have a right to overrule scientific advice. I just think that when they do that, they must be clear about explaining why they’re doing so, and not claim a spurious evidence base that doesn’t really exist.

Evidence abuse, indeed, can itself be somewhat anti-democratic. It makes it harder for the electorate to tell how policies have really been developed, and what the evidence behind them really is. That isn’t good for informed voting.

Against this background, is it “rather alarming” that I mention the scientific credentials of the Chinese politburo? I point it out by way of comparison, noting that these leaders are unelected, and I hope the other arguments of the book make it plain that I don’t want to see rule by an unelected scientific technocracy. I’d just like the contributions science can make to be appreciated a little more.

Finally, there’s Whitfield’s conclusion, that geeks ought to be raising their voices against the many aspects of political culture that militate against sound use of science. With which I completely agree. I also agree that this won’t be easy. If we’re to make any inroads at all, I think we have to become more politically active — and more active in communication, public engagement and the media.

If not that, then I really want to know what else might work.

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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2 Responses to An interestingly critical review

  1. Hey Mark

    Can’t find a way to e-mail you so this is really lazy.

    My comment, so you can’t accuse me of being completely fraudulent, is:

    If scientists are convinced as a result of rational thinking that politicians have the power to make real and lasting change for the good of all, how come more scientists don’t become politicians? Or maybe they’ve tried, and people don’t vote for them?

    Anyhoo. Love your work and I want to e-mail you to ask you something.

    my email is

  2. James Semple says:

    John Whitfield makes some good points, but misses others.

    In two important respects, the Manifesto is incomplete and over-optimistic. I have tried to explain how, but ran up against the word limit of this box. Please can you send me a mailbox for which I can clarify my critique.

    Otherwise, an important and timely contribution to serious socio-political discourse.

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