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.