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,
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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MP pledge update, and my letter to my MP, Tessa Jowell, about The Geek Manifesto

The Geek Manifesto has now been sent to more than 600 MPs, thanks to the terrific pledge campaign started by Dave Watts. A few pledgers have yet to send — please do fill out the spreadsheet and send a copy your copy if this applies to you.

My publisher, Transworld, has confirmed that they will mop up the last remaining MPs who haven’t received a book yet in due course, but the books will have much more impact if they come from individuals.

I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the level of positive engagement that so many pledgers have had from their MPs, and I’ll blog on that separately shortly. But it’s a good sign that sending these books really will encourage some MPs, if not all of them, to engage more constructively with science.

Anyway, my own pledged copy has gone to Tessa Jowell, who represents the constituency I live in, Dulwich and West Norwood. Here’s the letter I sent her. I’ll also blog here if and when I get a reply.

Dear Tessa,

I hope you received the copy of my book, The Geek Manifesto, which I sent to you at the House of Commons last month. As my MP (I live in Herne Hill), I was very keen for you to have it. I hope that you might find time to read it over the forthcoming summer recess.

The book deals with the links between science and politics, and the way in which I think politicians could both manage science more effectively, and make better use of it to create policy that is properly fit for purpose. As I’m sure you’re aware, the methods of science are the most effective that humanity has yet devised for generating reliable knowledge, yet they are I think insufficiently deployed in the formulation of public policy.

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Ben Goldacre’s Ladybird book of RCTs — and a free Geek Manifesto extract about RCTs and education

The randomised controlled trial (RCT)  is one of the greatest inventions of modern science — a tool that allows you, more reliably than any other, to compare two or more interventions and determine which is more effective for a given purpose. It’s the standard by which we rightly demand that most medicines are tested before they’re approved. And one of the core arguments of The Geek Manifesto is that RCTs could be profitably applied to public policy in education, criminal justice and social issues much more frequently than they are.

There are, fantastically, voices in the Cabinet Office who agree. Last month, it published the results of a terrific collaboration between Ben Goldacre, the author of Bad Science, Professor David Torgerson, Director of the York Trials Unit, and Laura Haynes and Owain Service, of the Behavioural Insights Team at the Cabinet Office.

Their paper, Test, Learn, Adapt: Developing Public Policy with Randomised Controlled Trials, runs through several great examples where RCTs have already revealed powerful policy-relevant evidence — such as the effectiveness of sending personal text messages to remind people to pay court fines, and the ineffectiveness of paying people to attend adult literacy classes. It also offers a great introduction to the purpose and structure of well-run randomised trials. Goldacre describes it as the “Ladybird book of RCTs”.

Everyone should read this paper, especially if you work in Whitehall or Westminster. And everyone should email their MP to tell him or her to read it as well.

It’s a good moment to post another free extract from The Geek Manifesto — this time, about the role that RCTs could play in education policy. It begins here:

Teaching to the test

When people are asked what they consider to be the most important issue on the political agenda, education generally ranks second only to health. It is understood and accepted by British politicians of all parties that providing universal access to first-class medical care and providing excellent state schools that offer opportunity to all are among the core functions of government. Yet when it comes to evidence, these two central policy concerns are held to entirely different standards.

In healthcare, we expect drugs and medical procedures to be assiduously tested by the most rigorous appropriate methods before they are licensed for general use and before the state agrees to fund them. For the most part, this means assessment by randomized controlled trials  (RCTs) – the most reliable method yet devised for determining whether or not a particular intervention really works.

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The Geek Manifesto on Start the Week

This morning, I took part in Start the Week on BBC Radio 4 — a wide-ranging discussion about science, evidence and politics pegged to the Geek Manifesto.

You can listen to the programme here.

The other guests were Professor David Nutt, who also has an excellent book out about the evidence on drug use, David Blunkett, who took a very thoughtful approach, and Jill Rutter, a former civil servant who is now programme director of the Institute for Government.

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The Geek Manifesto is going to every MP

We’re there… At about 11.15 this morning, PledgeBank recorded the 325th pledge to send a copy of The Geek Manifesto to every MP. Pam Lynch was the critical pledger.

As my publisher, Transworld, has agreed to match every pledge to send one, that means we’ve got all the pledges we need to ensure every MP gets a copy of the book.

Many many thanks to Dave Watts for starting the pledge, and to all those of you who have signed up.

We’re now establishing how sending the copies will work. Full details will follow from Dave (which I’ll reproduce here), but broadly it will operate something like this.

We’ll set up a shared spreadsheet with all 650 MPs. Please find your MP, and note that you’re sending (or have sent) a copy. If your MP is taken, pick another one.

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Read extracts from The Geek Manifesto for free

Several people have asked me over the past few days whether there is a free version of The Geek Manifesto available. There isn’t a free version of the whole book, but there are several ways you can read significant parts of the book for free.

First of all, the entire first chapter, and the first few pages of the second one, is available to read via Amazon’s “look inside” feature. Click on the book cover on the Amazon page.

I’ve also posted two whole sub-chapters here on this blog.

The section on GM crops is here.

And the section on “The Limits of Evidence”, explaining why evidence is nearly always necessary for good policy-making, but very rarely sufficient, is here.

I hope to publish further extracts over the coming weeks.

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A straw man criticism of The Geek Manifesto, and a supporting extract

Ian Scoones, of the ESRC STEPS Centre, has written today in the Huffington Post about how the Rothamsted GM crop protest and the themes of The Geek Manifesto amount to “scientific self-righteousness” that advocate “a linear technocratic vision”.

The argument of the geek manifesto is that more scientists should be in politics. Only one of 650 Members of Parliament (MPs) in the UK is a scientist, Henderson claims. More scientists need to be politicians, he argues, and then better policy will result. A linear, technocratic vision is laid out where science leads politics. This is a potentially highly dangerous view. A democratic political process, surely, should have a more accountable relationship with scientific expertise. Scientists should be ‘on tap, but not on top’, as was famously said by Winston Churchill. It seems this is not the idea behind the Geek Manifesto. It states “As those of us who care deeply about science and its experimental method start to fight for our beliefs, geeks have a historic opportunity to embed critical thinking more deeply in the political process. But if we are to achieve anything, we need to turn our numbers and confidence into political muscle.” It continues: “Let’s create a political cost for failing science. Politics has had it too easy for too long. It’s time for a geek revolution.” Bizarrely, the Chinese politburo is seen as a model. Because it is full of highly expert engineers, this is seen as a good thing. It seems issues of representation, accountability and democracy are of lesser importance for the revolutionary geeks!

I’ve responsed in comments, but repeat my argument here. I think this is a criticism of a book he would like to have attacked, rather than the book I have actually written. In particular, there is a lengthy section entitled “The Limits of Evidence” that explicitly explains why science and evidence do not trump democracy. My comment, and the extract, follow:

The criticisms Ian Scoones makes here would be fair and important if they were aimed at the book I have written, rather than at the book it appears he would have liked me to have written.

Do I think science could contribute more usefully than it does to public policy? Yes. Do I think more scientists in politics might help to achieve this? Yes. Do I think geeks and scientists should engage more actively with politicians, and that this would ultimately benefit both groups? I do. But the book decidedly does not make, as Ian suggests here, an argument for technocracy that overrides democracy. In fact, it explicitly argues the opposite.

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