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.

The first area of criticism surrounds the idea that there is value in geeks adopting a kind of identity politics:

“Why should we think that geeks really can form a single group, with a homogenous set of interests, from which one could build some kind of identity politics? And even if they do, doesn’t that contradict the broader aim of Henderson’s book, that public life in general ought to be more rational and sensible – surely rationality shouldn’t be restricted to a single interest group?”

There isn’t, he says, a single “geek belief package” to which he, or others who might fit the bill as geeks, can subscribe. Even an appreciation and understanding of the scientific method offers no unifying theme, because of the many varied methodologies that can contribute to scientific knowledge. He writes interestingly about how randomised controlled trials, for example, have little role in his own discipline of physics.

I accept much of this analysis. I did attempt to explain in the book that I don’t think geeks can form an interest group that will agree on everything, and I certainly don’t think that geeks are the only people capable of rationality. One of the goals of the book, indeed, is to encourage politicians without a background in science to engage more with what science might have to offer them. RCTs are, I think, an approach to revealing evidence that could play a much more significant role in policy-making than is currently the case. But I would never argue that they are the only, or always the best, way of deciding issues.

That said, I do think that there are common threads that run through the broad community of people who care about science. Scientists, and those who appreciate their approach to knowledge, are people, and thus not wholly rational by any means. Yet much of the value of science comes from the way the human susceptibility to confirmation bias and cognitive dissonance is actively acknowledged, and the way it tries, if imperfectly, to compensate for these traits. Knowledge is recognised as provisional, always open to revision in light of improved data. These are ideas that could use a greater airing in political discussion. I don’t think — and I say this explicitly in the book — that geeks will ever rally around a laundry list of policy prescriptions around which there is party-line agreement. But I do think many of us are united by a broad approach to public policy.

What’s more, it’s not my intention to argue that the majority of politicians are anti-science, or irrational. They’re not. Rather, there are too many who are indifferent to the way science works at generating reliable, if provisional, knowledge. They simply haven’t engaged. The movement I’m looking to encourage won’t often demand that politicians do this or that. It’ll challenge them to think about policy issues with a sharper eye for evidence, and to ask questions about policy that might otherwise have passed them by.

Richard’s second broad point — made particularly in relation to my chapter about the environment — is that I underplay the politics that are inherent in calling for a greater role for science. In arguing that technical solutions such as nuclear power and GM crops could play a greater role in allowing us to contain climate change without significant change to consumer behaviour or the capitalist system, I overlook that “wanting our current economic system to continue without change is not an apolitical position. On the contrary, it is a profoundly political position in itself, and there’s no reason to suppose it will command universal assent.”

To which I plead half-guilty. Political considerations are of course deeply embedded in wishing to continue with something approaching economic business as usual. I don’t deny that I am broadly comfortable with capitalism, though I wouldn’t go so far as saying I would like it to continue “without change”. I accept that this could and should have been properly acknowledged.

There are two things, though, to say to this. The first is that it wasn’t my intention to argue here in favour of a particular political and economic system, in this case capitalism. Rather, my intention was to suggest that winning popular support for efforts to contain climate change is likely to be more successful without demanding wholesale changes to a way of life, and without writing off entire approaches to energy generation as out the question. A more pragmatic approach, I think, is likely to be a more popular approach, and thus a more successful one. This matters, I think, if slowing or stopping climate change is our main goal. I suspect I didn’t make this point sufficiently clear, and I’m glad to clarify.

My second comment is related. It is that the goal of addressing climate change is very different from the goal of altering political and economic systems, the two can properly be separated. It is reasonable to ask deep greens to break down these goals, and to consider which is more important to them. Is the green movement principally environmental, or economic? It is a fair question to ask. If the two are inseparable, then it is incumbent on those who argue this to make and win their case. I do not believe they have done so.

A couple of further points. I accept Richard’s analysis of why nuclear power will be unable to meet the world’s energy needs alone. That, though, is not my argument: I think it can make a contribution to decarbonisation, which is a much more limited statement that I think stands scrutiny rather better.

And Richard argues that I do too little to assail conservative resistance to the science of climate change. I do go after this, but I accept that I could and probably should have done more.

The final broad area of criticism surrounds my analysis of science and economic growth, and here, I have to acknowledge that Richard makes many fair points. He is right that the relationship is complex — probably rather more complex than I allow — and that there are important factors involved that get little discussion in the book. I found his analysis of the role of the wider innovation ecosystem to be highly illuminating, and I rather regret not finding time to speak to him as I researched the book.

“Given current economic problems – in the wider world but in the UK especially – we urgently need a much better understanding of the link between science and prosperity,” he says. I agree, and while I did allude to the need for better evidence, I wish I had done so more strongly.

Overall, I’m really pleased Richard took the time to review The Geek Manifesto so thoughtfully and at such length. The goal of the book was much more to start discussion about these themes as it was to set a precise agenda. I’m glad to have provoked such an interesting response.

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

  1. Thanks for this reply, I’m glad we can find so much to agree about. I’ll just make one further observation – when you say “my intention was to suggest that winning popular support for efforts to contain climate change is likely to be more successful without demanding wholesale changes to a way of life”, it seems to me that what you are doing isn’t so different from what you are accusing the greens of doing – starting with the politics, and adding the science later. In your case, you’re starting out with what you think is a widely acceptable political position – that it will be possible to contain climate change without major changes to our socio-economic systems – and tailoring the science message to suit. That may well be the politically smart and pragmatic stance to take, but it is still, fundamentally, a stance that starts with the politics rather than the science. To only slightly rewrite your own sentence – “the goal of addressing climate change is very different from the goal of maintaining existing political and economic systems, the two can properly be separated”. What this discussion shows is that that separation is, in fact, very difficult. But thank you for your considered response.

  2. markgfh says:

    Thanks for responding Richard. I’m sure we agree on more than separates us.
    It won’t surprise you that I do disagree with this observation. I’d argue, rather, that I think there’s good evidence that it will be possible to contain climate change while continuing to allow for economic growth and consumerism. It’s also certainly possible to contain climate change by going for zero growth and an end to consumerism. I’d argue that the first is much more acheiveable, and therefore that it’s the one to shoot for if containing climate is really your goal.

  3. Let me try and put the issue another way. Let’s start with the question “can we contain climate change without changes to our current socio-economic system?” This does have a scientific component to it, but it also has a political one. It also is a question that, in our current state of uncertainty, we are not in a position to answer. If the sensitivity of our climate to CO2 is at the low end of the plausible range, and we are successful at developing the necessary technical and social innovations needed to reduce the dependence of economic growth and consumerism on emitting CO2, then it might indeed be possible to contain climate change within the current system (but note that the word “contain” here is doing quite a lot of political work – who gets to decide what acceptable and unacceptable damage from climate change is? Is it ok if Bangladesh floods as long as neighbouring countries are rich and adaptable enough to accommodate the refugees? What do they think about it?) On the other hand, if climate sensitivity is at the high end of plausible ranges, and we don’t do a lot to reduce the carbon intensity of the world economy, then we’re going to be in trouble.

    So we haven’t got two choices about how to deal with climate change, with evidence that either would work – we’ve got (at least) two potential outcomes, neither of which is currently ruled out by what we know now, though we expect that state of uncertainty to decrease as we learn more (not least by observing what actually happens to the climate as atmospheric carbon dioxide rises). To say that “there’s good evidence that it will be possible to contain climate change while continuing to allow for economic growth and consumerism” sounds too much like wishful thinking, driven by a particular set of political preferences, for my comfort.

    To state my own personal view, I suspect my politics aren’t that different to yours. What I worry about is whether our system is set up to deliver enough technical and social innovation in time. Certainly, energy R&D seems to be decreasing, not increasing; the nuclear reactors that people are thinking about building are essentially 1970’s designs, and such efforts in new energy that are going on seem more focused on prising more fossil fuels out of the ground (such as unconventional oil and shale gas) than decreasing the economy’s carbon intensity.

  4. Rachel says:

    When I read your book and your ideas about engaging with government I wondered if you were aware of the actions taken by home educators against the Badman Review and subsequent plans to change the nature of home education in this country.

    As Richard Jones says, can disparate people without a single [insert interest] belief package work together to address these issues?

    Yes we could and we did.

    Home educators are by necessity all very different as we all address our children’s needs in different ways and these all fit into different family circumstances. Some choose labels such as autonomous education, structured education or curriculum based study to describe what they do and these labels sometimes help and sometimes hinder us as a community.

    However, faced with the situation which unfolded in 2009 following reports into the death of Khyra Ishaq and possible compulsory registration of home educators and mandatory home visits with an inspector spending time alone with our children, we all had something we all feared and needed to fight against.

    We pooled our knowledge using existing our Yahoo groups network, collected data via FOI requests co-ordinated via google docs online, booked meetings with our MPs and sent them packs of info prior to meetings then spent an hour or so telling them about our situation. Aided by Graham Stuart MP we went out in to the community at large and got signatures for a petition asking the government to check their facts and use existing legislation to deal with the perceived problem before making new legislation. In the end this was the largest number of single issue petitions ever presented to Parliament (120) and was quite something to watch on Parliament TV! (The first of four very entertaining parts)

    We engaged with the Lords via their blogs, responded to Education Committee requests for submissions, got seats at the Committee hearings, asked questions at Nick Clegg meets… meetings, jumped on data errors in newspapers where they were repeated,and blogged like mad. I don’t think there was any news story online about HE that year that wasn’t commented on robustly by at least one home educator.

    In the end the proposals were lost in the wash-up but we do believe that they would have slipped in some other way if we hadn’t all drawn attention to the issue and MPs were aware of the problem. This action we took wasn’t co-ordinated by just one person and not all home educators took part to the same degree as others.

    There is no reason why geeks of any persuasion can’t all act to address specific issues such as the odd ‘impartiality’ which allows quack to get as much time as scientists on the BBC and elsewhere, misrepresentation of data, missing data and more. You don’t need to re-invent the wheel: do what we did!

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