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The Geek Manifesto

It is not the function of our Government to keep the citizen from falling into error,’ he said. ‘It is the function of the citizen to keep the Government from falling into error.’

So (more or less) ends the Geek Manifesto by Mark Henderson, with a quote from Robert H. Jackson, a Supreme Court Justice. I don’t think I am giving anything away though when I say that this is the core message of the book.  This is the crux of the book, the idea that in all spheres of life, from the media to government and the healthcare to the environment, science is misunderstood and misrepresented. This is often unintentional, but sometimes is willful. The clarion call is that those of a scientific bent need to stand up to those who would use scientific evidence in inappropriate ways, or indeed to simply ignore it, and to try and correct mistakes and lack of understanding.

There are numerous clear examples in the book, covering all walks of public life, of how scientific evidence has been used and misused over the past decade or two – most of these, I suspect will be very familiar to the intended readership – MMR, evidence on drugs, nuclear power etc, but the narrative flows well, and the argument largely hangs togther in a cohesive manner.

My only major criticism is that some of the argument makes thigns a bit too black and white, and at the end of the day, making decisions at a societal level is statistics based, and that can be tough politically, not to mention disenfranchising for many. For example, it may well be that one way of teaching reading is better than another, and national policy can take that into account, but what if the evidence is that it is only better for 60% of pupils (I am making these numbers up)? That’s clear cut – the majority would benefit, but the reality not picked up in that type of ‘only look at the numbers’ geekfest, is that you may end up damaging the other 40% more than if you stayed with the ‘worse’ methodology. You could then argue hybrid systems could be brought in, but that makes things so much more complicated and leads to extra testing to find out what is optimal for each child. This sounds ideal, but probably isn’t realistic. So we have to be mindful of how data is interpreted and made use of, but we also have to be sensitive to a large number of other factors that shape government decisions. I think the book is not so great on dealing with nuance. Where there is clear cut evidence that policies are nuts, we should complain and demonstrate why, but sensitivty to broader issues and concerns is needed too, else the clinical ‘geeks’ come across as arrogant and patronising.

And we want science and critical thinking to become central to the national conversation. We want as many people as possible to appreciate not only what science achieves, but how it achieves it. We know that that has to start at school.

I think this idea is important, and I give a school’s talk myself on why I think learning science for it’s own sake is important, even if you never go on to work in a science or engineering field, but I do wonder sometimes if the idea is oversold. The book tells the great story about the school kids from Blackawton Primary School who undertook original work in studying how bumble bees decide which colour of flower to get nectar from. The children designed an experiment and then went through the scientific process of iterating the experiment to try to prove and improve their hypotheses over what was happening. My question is, that having down this once, have they learned their lesson over how science works? Clearly we should try and encourage this type of thinking in school kids, but beyond a certain introductory nature will kids not understand how an experiment works, how science works? A different question is: do kids actually know how science works when they leave school, but when they get to the real world they just forget or ignore it, as it seems far removed from what they do on a day to day basis? I’m all for a better science educated population, I’m just not completely sold it makes that much difference in the types of decisions discussed in the book.

Another of the arguments of the book is that it appears that scientists and engineers are under represented among MPs. I’m not entirely sure on the stats here, but it may just be that people like lawyers and doctors are over represented. I suspect more people work on shop tills that as bench scientists, but there is no big call for more of them to be elected as MPs. I suspect that getting certain types of people into politics will be difficult – my general impression, at least among my online contacts, is that often scientists align with political factions that tend to lose elections ;-). I also think, at the end of the day, politics is about going out and talking to people and persuading them about why they should vote for you – and to do this, your have to have much further motivations than the deisre to see evidence win out.

I really liked the Geek Manifesto, I took much of it to heart, but maybe I’m just pessimistic that it will result in much, but maybe there are signs that the geeks (which I find an ugly word) are really starting to find a voice. Alternatively maybe I should just chuck all this academia in and go and get elected or become a teacher. Do something more directly meaningful. You should all read this book.

  1. June 29, 2012 at 5:19 pm

    For an good example of what Mark Henderson is talking about look at the evidence given by Deputy Children’s Commissioner Sure Berelowitz

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