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book review: The Geek Manifesto – Why Science Matters

The news that the Government had moved to ban all research on human-animal hybrid embryos came late in December 2006, just as Parliament had closed for Christmas and the media started to fill up with festive fluff. While I knew anger was growing in the scientific community I called all the scientists involved and asked them to hold fire until we could coordinate a press conference in the New Year. My argument was that the angry response from the scientists would lose potency if it trickled out through individual journalists in the pre-Christmas period when policy makers are away.

The scientists were uncomfortable, many having already agreed to interviews with science reporters with whom they had good relations. The science reporters were furious when their calls were met with a refusal to speak and one yelled down the phone accusing the Science Media Centre of getting way too big for its boots and ‘manipulating’ the media. But despite the pressures we held our ground and the first big media story that hit MPs on their return to Westminster was the angry backlash from the UK’s leading stem cellscientists, splashed on the front page of the Times and dominating the Today programme.

That press briefing was the start of a year of well managed, skillful lobbying and media work by the scientific community which is praised by former Times science editor Mark Henderson in his new book, ‘The Geek Manifesto – Why Science Matters’. ‘Scientists were on the front foot and enlisted the media’s assistance to get the result they wanted’, he writes. ‘The steady diet of embarrassing newspaper stories that they engineered was an important factor in the Government’s U-Turn’.

Mark cites the campaign around the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill (as it was) as one of many examples of a new found confidence among ‘geeks’ to seize the agenda and argue for evidence based policy. His book is explicitly a call to arms and sets out to ‘explore how geeks can turn our irrepressible energy and analytical rigour into a movement with real clout’.

I remember meeting Mark ten years ago. The consensus amongst his colleagues was that Mark, a history graduate who had been asked to cover science by chance, would soon be offered a posting in Westminster or Washington. In fact Mark stayed covering science, was soon promoted to science editor, a role in which he flourished.

In his 13 years in the job he got as many front pages as many political editors – including several in fertility and stem cell science – areas familiar to BioNews readers. The fact that an ambitious young Times reporter could thrive on the science beat supports the key message of Mark’s book – that science is on the march, no longer seen as an ‘and finally’ subject, and firmly out of the ghetto and in the mainstream of national debate.
My own conversion to science mirrors that of Mark and I especially enjoyed the early chapters of this book which pay homage to the scientific method and include great quotes from Carl Sagan, Richard Feynman and other luminaries. ‘Science’ writes Mark ‘is anti-authoritarian; anybody can contribute, and anybody can be wrong […] it is self-correcting, because of the importance it places on trying to prove the most elegant ideas wrong. It is comfortable with uncertainty, knowing that even at its best answers will simply be the better approximations of the truth’.

Mark seems to lurch from glass half full to glass half empty throughout the book. He is encouraged by the growing popularity of ‘geeks’ like Simon Singh, Brian Cox and Ben Goldacre and of the success of campaigns like that around the HFE Bill. But he also despairs of politicians who are either impervious to science or pervert it to suit their ideological preferences; ‘many of them would prefer it if the policies they implement were never evaluated at all’.

There are certainly contentious bits in the book and it won’t just be the anti-science brigade that Mark upsets. His belief that a scientific approach to problem solving is applicable to a ‘surprisingly wide range of political issues’ extends into areas like education and the law. My husband, a teacher, will doubtless be sceptical about another geek suggesting that neuroscience will ultimately offer insights to improve teaching.
Nor I suspect will the book go down well with critics of ‘scientism’, a term back in common currency for those who claim that science is the best way of explaining and understanding the world’s problems. They have a point – Mark does little to hide his own preference for a world where policies on issues like nuclear power and genetically modified crops are based on evidence rather than ideology.

But Mark’s critics should not skip the section called ‘limits to evidence’ in which he states clearly that ministers are entitled to take all sorts of factors into account, ‘when they weigh up how to act they are right to think about the expectations and aspirations of the people who voted for them’.

So Mark, like Churchill, is for ‘science on tap but not on top’. What he really objects to is politicians who pretend to base decisions on science rather than admitting that they have over-ridden science because of strongly held political views. He gives the example of former Home Secretary Jacqui Smith’s reclassification of cannabis as a class ‘B’ controlled substance.

It follows from Mark’s arguments that Smith was perfectly entitled to make a decision to criminalise cannabis based on the views of the police, Daily Mail editorials and voters. However she was not entitled to dismiss the evidence of her own scientific advisers and shop round for other science that suited her political stance.
Mark perhaps attributes a little too much of the rising popularity of science to its celebrity wing and geek bloggers when equal praise should go to the less high profile work of thousands of research scientists who have decided over the past 15 years that engaging the media and the public is part of their role (the many skillful press officers who support them in this are similarly overdue praise). But there is much to like about this book. Mark’s skill as a journalist shines through and he makes many of his points through compelling stories of ‘geek power’ including the Simon Singh libel case, the grassroots campaign to maintain the science budget and the creative activities of opponents of homeopathy. That science now occupies a prominent place in society is surely proved by the fact that a book called ‘The Geek Manifesto’ is being taken so seriously by so many.

Buy The Geek Manifesto: Why Science Matters from Amazon UK or Amazon USA.


This blog contains the thoughts of the author rather than representing the work or policy of the Science Media Centre.

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