Saturday, June 23, 2012

Review: The Geek Manifesto

This week I've been reading Mark Henderson's book The Geek Manifesto: Why Science Matters, which discusses the role of science and its geeky proponents in public life. Henderson's principal thesis is that politicians and scientists have been wilfully ignorant of each other for too long, and that it is time for science, its methods, and its practitioners to take a more central place in politics and policy.  This includes statistics, of course, which is why it seemed relevant to the blog.

The central examples are chosen to illustrate the challenges science and scientists face in the public sphere: Simon Singh's libel troubles for pointing out that chiropractic medicine has no useful effect for problems like asthma and colic, in spite of the way it is marketed by some practitioners; David Nutt's dismissal as head of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, essentially for doing his job and daring to say that the drugs classification system does not reflect the relative harm of the substances being classified; and the coalition government's plan to reduce the science budget by as much as a third. 

But what is most important about these incidents is not so much the serious problems they reveal about the way our country is governed, but the impressive reaction they elicited from large numbers of people in our society who do recognise the importance of science and proper evidence.  The campaign to support Singh contributed greatly to the current push for libel reform, which is working its way through parliament as I write this.  The backlash against the sacking of Nutt took the government and then Home Secretary Alan Johnson by surprise, as they had assumed it would just be a routine sacking going largely unnoticed. And the planned budget cuts spawned a movement named Science is Vital which passionately argued for the benefits of government support for research, and won a significant, though imperfect, reprieve (the non-capital science spend was frozen for five years).

The common theme according to Henderson is the rise of a sort of Geek Power movement, which he believes has the potential to transform the way that science is understood by the general public, and can help make truly evidence-based policy integral to all governments and parties, current and future.  The book covers areas including health, the environment, justice and education.  This is an important work, and it would be wonderful to believe that some of the ideas Henderson recommends might bear fruit.  There is some evidence that progress is being made: a copy is being sent to every MP.  A good start would be for the government to act on this report on randomised trials.

I'm very much of the view that as voters we get the politicians we deserve, and Henderson clearly agrees, urging geeks to make our views known to our elected representatives.  It is too easy for an MP to oppose a mobile phone mast near a school or support a homeopathic hospital if only one side ever makes a fuss.  If we expect our leaders to use evidence to make policy, then we have to make it costly for them not to do so.  They may think that it shows weakness to admit that the evidence shows a policy has failed, but we need to convince them that this is a sign of strength.  Something similar goes for newspapers, of course.

Henderson is very careful to make the distinction between scientific advice to government, which lays out the evidence and facts as best understood, and the legitimate political choice which then follows.  What needs to be avoided at all costs is politicians being able to claim to be acting on (possibly non-existent) evidence, when in fact the motive is purely political.  The upgrading of Cannabis from Class C to Class B is a good example of this.

My only real criticism of the book is that science itself seems to be portrayed in a rather idealised way, a noble pursuit which sits above ordinary human endeavour.  This is best illustrated by an anecdote of Richard Dawkins' which is retold:
'There was an elderly professor in my department who had been passionately keen on a particular theory for ... a number of years, and one day an American visiting researcher came and he completely and utterly disproved our old man's hypothesis.  The old man strode to the front, shook his hand and said, "My dear fellow, I wish to thank you, I have been wrong these fifteen years."'
This describes perfectly how scientific research should be, but scientists are, in fact, human, and this story is not representative of how people usually behave when their pet theories are demolished (in my modest experience).

I don't suppose that Henderson, though not a scientist himself but a former science editor at The Times, is actually under any such illusion about researchers, rather the style seems to be a product of his (very successful) efforts to persuade the reader.  My own feeling is that this attempt to show science in the best possible light involves perpetuating a slightly unrealistic view of how it is really carried out.  It's a bit like giving Robin Cook's resignation speech as an example of how politics is done.

The book is well written, as you might expect, and I imagine it would be enjoyed by anyone who is interested in science, and possibly those who might have thought science rather dull until now (like a high school chemistry class).  The content is not just a series of examples aimed at those who will already agree that science is great, but an inspiring call to arms for researchers and their allies to stand up and defend what's important to them.  A worthy aim, and I have to say it's worked on me.  See you on the barricades. 

The Geek Manifesto: Why Science Matters by Mark Henderson is available now in hardback and as an e-book, published by Bantam Press.  Some free extracts are found here.

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