3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 13 August 2012
The binary notion of politics as a contest between left and right is increasingly seen as out of date. Few of us are members of a political party, and fewer still believe we can influence what goes on in Whitehall. Despite this disconnect, no one is unaffected by the decisions made by government, and we all have an interest in those decisions being of the highest quality. While we may not be able to change the political principles of those in power, we can certainly hold their policies up to rigorous evidential scrutiny. In this tremendous book, Mark Henderson argues that politics has a third axis, which measures rationalism, scepticism and scientific thinking: "the willingness to base opinions on evidence and to keep them under review as better evidence comes along."
One recurring theme is politicians failing to see "how science might generate more informed debate about the risks of different activities." When Professor David Nutt, the government chief drugs adviser, compared taking ecstasy with horse riding, Jacqui Smith was outraged. Her political instincts to avoid the inevitable headlines may have been well tuned, but her "approach to drugs classification was class A evidence abuse". The subsequent sacking of Nutt by her successor, Alan Johnson, "took this insult to another level." By now, the government was entrusting drugs policy advice to, among others, a Manchester GP called Hans-Christian Raabe, "who was quite prepared to quote non-existent evidence to support a religious crusade."
Labour, of course, are not alone in playing fast and loose with the evidence. When Andrew Lansley could find no real evidence to back up his NHS reforms, "he cited fiction." This is particularly bizarre, given that evidence-based medicine is "one of the crowning achievements of twentieth-century science". Politicians, it seems, like to benefit from advances in medicine without worrying too much about the values - such as a respect for the evidence - that make these advances possible. Continued political support for homeopathy - "a system of medicine founded on faith rather than science" - is a case in point: the availability of homeopathy on the NHS and its exemption from the tough standards that apply to conventional drugs can give the impression "that evidence does not really matter".
For the majority of the political classes, science just isn't a priority. That's not necessarily because they're actively hostile (not all MPs are called David Tredinnick), Henderson observes. If politicians let science down, "it's usually because they know little about it" - which opens the door for geek activism. And who are the geeks? Anyone who cares deeply about the scientific method. And what is the scientific method? That's a little harder to describe, but Henderson does a good job of emphasizing several important features, such as looking for countervailing evidence and the use of randomization. He also rightly points out that, even after a successful test of a hypothesis, the best a scientist can say is that the conclusion "is provisionally correct". Where I think he goes too far is to say that science is "always open to revision in the light of new evidence". If that's so, how can science distinguish truth from falsehood, as he's just claimed a few pages earlier?
Once we have a theory, in the scientific sense, then the word "provisional" is no longer appropriate. Only a creationist would be stupid enough to describe the theory of evolution in that way. Henderson understands this distinction, because he emphasizes the importance of "the scientific consensus" (the "broad conclusion drawn from multiple branches of research"). There is often confusion over the term "consensus" as applied to science, in that some people (forgetting the small matter of objectivity) conclude that science must just be about enough scientists clubbing together to agree on what is true. (Henderson is echoing the phrase "rational consensus" used by J. M. Ziman in his excellent Public Knowledge: An Essay Concerning the Social Dimension of Science. See also Cromer's Uncommon Sense: The Heretical Nature of Science.) Such confusion is seen in the green movement, whose position on, for example, GM food and nuclear energy is not always based on evidence. By rejecting the scientific consensus on these issues, "greens invite the charge of hypocrisy when they urge politicians and the public to listen to the scientific consensus on climate change."
For a non-scientist, Henderson is an enthusiastic and informed advocate of science and the scientific method (the best "that humanity has for solving problems that don't yet have an answer"). He acknowledges that, while evidence isn't usually sufficient for sound policy-making, it's nearly always necessary. With chapters on the media, economics, education, the justice system, medicine, and the environment, there's no shortage of areas that could benefit from more scientifically minded thinking, and he succeeds in demonstrating "the relevance of science and its methods to all manner of contemporary challenges". This timely and inspiring book could help shift the balance in favour of more critical thinking in the political process, but only if we heed the rousing message summed up in the title of the final chapter: "Geeks of the World Unite!"
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 2 August 2012
It is surprising how many improbable things people will believe in,the supernatural, health giving properties of crystals and so on. It is not that such things are necessary wrong but simply that people accept them without question and without asking for supporting evidence. On the other hand the same people totally disregard or disbelieve things that are supported by evidence. Yes, a lot of science is difficult to understand but the scientific method is not. Science is sceptical: it is continually asking why. Mark Henderson in this book describes the scientific method and how it can be applied to everyday decision making, especially political decisions. The lack of understanding of the general population is reflected in the lack of rationality in political decision making which can be seen everywhere with changes to major areas of policy swinging in a cyclic manner with every change of government.There is a way to find out what really works by applying the scientific method. Mark Henderson asks everyone to challenge political decisions that are not supported by evidence and I do too. If the book has a weakness it is that it doesn't discuss the human element and the propensity of people to accept what they want to believe rather than what is "true". Leave your prejudices behind and read this book. When someone says "I believe..." you should ask them "how do you know?" Send a copy to your MP.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 5 September 2012
Henderson has written an interesting book about the political rise of scientists and engineers. He highlight lots of ways scientists have started to react against the current political machines, with targeted campaigns and lobbying.
He raises the interesting points that the majority of MP's have no science and engineering background, and because of that society is loosing the experience and knowledge these people can bring. He also covers the roles that science must play in the criminal justice system, and the enormous benefits that they bring to the economy.
He also rightly pushes for people who are interested in the science and engineering fields to engage with the political process and write to their MP when the government is not doing the sensible thing
However, the book can occasionally com across as being written in the style of the PR people that he opposes. I feel that whilst he strongly supports the nuclear campaign, he did not cover the possible use of Thorium reactors as a long term viable solution to the growing energy crisis.
Overall, a good read, and the general points on action and participation are well worth following. If you have read Bad Science then you will like this.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Absolutely a book with an axe to grind, but one that is used against unspeakably valid targets. It takes precise and justifiable aim at the shocking scientific illiteracy that plagues our political process, and contains with it a rallying cry that we as rationalists must take work harder to make our thoughts known. Unfortunately, while the cause is just it still comes across as a little naive - evidence based decision making is undeniably the ideal, but it's costly, time consuming, and difficult to communicate to non-specialists. You can hold a politician's feet to the fire as much as you might like, but the real-politik that comes from a largely disengaged electorate means that it's often a case of tilting at windmills.
That's not to say the book isn't worth reading - it absolutely is. It's just that when I came away from it, I felt more dejected than energised. He lays out a very convincing case that something must be done. Unfortunately, the somethings that are on offer are unlikely to bring about the change that is so obviously needed.
26 of 30 people found the following review helpful
on 8 July 2012
In this review, I'm going to follow the author's lead and pretend that Geeks are a homogeneous community who speak and act - more or less - with a single accord.
This is an important book. It is a rallying cry to Geeks everywhere to organise ourselves as a lobby group to give science and rationalism a stronger voice in government and policy making, to counter the organised voices of vested interests whose political clout far exceeds their following.
Parts of this book will probably be illuminating to even to the politically aware geek. He talks much about how evidence is routinely abused by politicians. To whet your appetite, "spray on evidence", "cherry-picking evidence", "shopping list evidence", "veneer of evidence", "hand-picking advisers", "misunderstanding evidence", "cargo cult science", "confirmation bias", "cognitive dissonance" are all expounded concepts of evidence-abuse by our politicians in justifying their policies.
The Geeks, he says in a theme which runs through the book, are beginning to organise themselves to bring our policy makers to account for designing off-the-cuff, populist policies and pretending they're the result of scientific research. And he tells us how we can join in: how we can access information and resources, get Geek candidates into the halls of power, and persuade the organs of power to adopt scientific method to inform policy choices.
Numerous case studies of alleged science-abuse are covered, which include examples of missed opportunities, best practice, abuse of power, undermining scientific advisers, and - of course - the evidence misuse. Let's give you another list of a few of his topics: chiropractic, phone masts, animal rights, phonetic phonics, starting school lessons later, drugs policy, the Forensic Science Service, RCTs in education, NHS informing Criminology, Homoeopathy, Drugs, Nuclear Power, Global Warming, GM.
So, why have I given this book only 3 out of 5 stars? It comes down to this bizarre reality: he frequently abuses evidence in his case studies!!! :
* It's a scientists-always-right, politicians-always-wrong assessment. However closely politicians may follow scientific method in a specific case, he allows scientists to escape through some invented trap-door, before blame is allocated.
* There are lots of examples of him giving just one side of an argument.
* Although he's *explicitly* very clear that science doesn't trump democracy; there is an *implicit* message in his case studies that it damned well probably should.
* He cherry-picks quotes/actions of politicians and applies them unfairly or out of context (like the Blair "no reverse gear" and Thatcher "You turn if you want to" party conference sound-bites: he misappropriated and labelled them 'anathema to evidence-based policy'. We know that these were about New Labour reforms in general (Blair), and unpopular policies of recession (Thatcher). But we get the facile comment: "Would you drive a car with no reverse gear, or that wouldn't u-turn?".)
* He is completely unrealistic about the extent of opportunity for Randomised Control Trials (especially in the uncompromising methods he selectively applies to them); and he has unequal standards: when scientists' research trials fail it is the nature of science, but when governments' research trials fail they have wasted money.
In spite of its short-comings, this is an important book. Anybody who cares about science-abuse in policy-making and wants to be part of the clean-up team should definitely read it and act on some of the ideas. But hey, he's talking to Geeks... he should expect us to read it sceptically and not bleat unquestioning agreement like a flock of sheep, huh?
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on 26 July 2012
I really expected to like this book, and was hoping to be challenged and engaged. Unfortunately, and despite a lot of great content, it was let down on two fronts.
The first being an annoying writing style and the insistence of using the American spelling of sceptic and scepticism. This is supposed to stop us from getting confused with the climate sceptics, who are not proper sceptics (skeptics), but just climate deniers. In reality, this is both extremely annoying and off-putting. It makes the author and the whole "skeptical" movement come across as gimmicky, and petty and somewhat ironically, play fast and loose with attention to detail. There was considerable repetition, and some parts of the book read more like a series of blogs than whole book chapters intended to be read in one sitting. The other annoying habit was that he commonly presents a point of view as a fact, with a weak attempt to support it. In a book that encourages the reader to appreciate the difference between an associative and causal effect, and cherry picked evidence - he appeared to do exactly that when it suited him. It's more likely to be down to an attempt at a conversational style, but it was annoying all the same. The same goes for the lumping of any interest group. Who knew that all "greens" thought the same? In spite of working in the environmental field, I had no idea that apparently everyone in the "environmental mainstream" was against nuclear power etc.
The other, perhaps more fundamental, flaw in the book was failing to recognise many of the reasons that science, and scientists are so frequently not taken seriously, especially when it comes to the perception and communication of risk. There is a lot of good, and useful research on what sort of risks scare us the most, and which ones we take in our stride. It is well documented that we are far more scared of risks that are unfamiliar to us, which accounts for the general public's wariness of new, or black-box technology. It also shows that an over-familiarity with a risk can make us blasé. When a scientist realises this, it stops them from being quite so patronising, and therefore a much more effective communicator.
Even though I am (broadly) in favour of nuclear power and properly developed GM crops, and I use a mobile and have wi-fi etc, I felt the discussion of the fears of these technologies didn't properly account for the high dread factor, and the perfectly legitimate question "what if they are missing something?" It's not enough for scientists to say "there is no evidence of any harm and anyone who continues to complain is a luddite". They need to be able to explain that there is a lot of evidence of "no harm", and that while it's possible to miss something, it would be a very small risk, or they wouldn't have missed it.
Another niggle was that perfectly reasonable suggestions about the separation of the science from the ideology only seemed to be important when it was someone else's ideology. It seems hypocritical to tell the ubiquitous greens they aren't allowed to talk about measures that are anti-capitalist, because that's ideological, whilst then quoting someone saying that we need environmentalists to embrace capitalism. Support or criticism of an economic model is either ideological or it isn't. What I think Henderson really meant was that greens should be careful of saying things to scare off big business, but in my experience of the actual environmental industry, there is already a very large body of environmental activists who have spent the last twenty or so years trying to impress onto business that you can save the planet and have a healthy bottom line. It's just sometimes environmental investment takes longer to get a return - a bit like investment in scientific research does.
I realise I am listing criticisms, but I don't want to give the impression it's all bad. I agreed with a lot of what was said, and I would recommend people with an interest in science and the role in society read it. I would recommend that before reading this book, everyone first reads Ben Goldacre's "Bad Science" as it presents the need for a "Geek revolution" more effectively, and is generally a more coherent and interesting book. I would also suggest that anyone with a sincere interest in communicating science, in particular controvertial, or risky science, should read something like "Risk" by Dan Gardner.
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
I found this to be a surprising book in many ways, particularly in the specific limitations of its demands and the willingness of the author to stir up some controversy towards the end, in unexpected directions.
The main demand is that the political system, dominated as it is by humanities graduates, should take a more scientific, evidence-based approach. The limitiation, or compromise, is the recognition that, having weighed that scientific evidence the politicians are quite within their rights to not follow it and to base their decision on other considerations - as long as they are honest about that and don't try to mis-represent the science. This might be a step too far for some politicians and a step short for some scientists, but it strikes me as a step in the right direction.
For a change, this is a book evangelising science without specifically targeting religion. That is not to say it promotes religion, it just concentrates on the political system instead as that is where the real decision-making goes on. There are some scary statistics about how many elected representatives in the US and UK governments have any scientific background (very, very few) how many primary school teachers have a science degree (hardly any) how many secondary school science teachers teach the subject they studied themselves (fewer than you would think) and many more that can easily lead to despair.
Perhaps that is the worst thing about the book: it is too good at stating the scale of the problem, and then doesn't offer a magic wand to wave in order to overcome them, but proposes lots of things which all sound like hard work - but if you want a miracle cure you should be reading the Daily Express instead.
The book is organised well, with manageable chapters concentrating on specific policy areas, and not always in the way I was expecting. For example, when I saw that a chapter was about education I expected it to be all about how few science teachers there are and how few students choose science, maths or engineering. Instead it launched into how policies are introduced without any way to reliably measure their effectiveness. I had not considered that before, so it was an education for me.
The controversy becomes most apparent towards the end, in the chapter about the environment and the attitude of green pressure groups and the Green party towards scientific matters, especially in relation to nuclear power and GM crops. I can see that stirring up a few arguments.
The whole book is summed up in five pages at the end, with some specific points distilled from the earlier chapters. These points were too long to be snappy and memorable but too short to include any examples or re-inforcement and thus felt like a bit of an anticlimax after 245 pages of very strong argument, but that is a small criticism for a book that is, I am sure, destined to become a fixture on any self-respecting geek's bookshelf, and besides that it is an impossible dilemma to resolve.
Following the conclusion is another 50 pages of references, many of which are URLs. Some of these are quite long and will be quite laborious to type in. There is no problem with having such a comprehensive set of references, given the subject matter it should be expected, but this book is crying out for an e-book version where the links can be followed easily or the use of shortened URLs - bit.ly, tr.im, or similar.
As somebody who has dabbled in politics myself, I found this inspiring even if it left me with all sorts of regrets that I didn't know all this while I was still involved in the local council.
As a scientist and engineer I found myself torn with this book. I agree with the basic premise that decision makers should have a better understanding of the scientific method and use the results in their decision making process more effectively. However I was also uncomfortable about the lack of balance in considering the failings and shortcomings of the method, these were barely even alluded to let alone discussed fully. It all sounds a bit too much like a science fan-boy having a rant. Of course the clue is the title. It is a manifesto, it is an unashamed piece of propaganda for the science movement. If you want to marshall arguments when talking to your local MP or school board or lawyer this is a fair place to start. Some of the statements are plain wrong or exaggerated in importance but overall the message is on point. I agree with the conclusion even if taking issue with some of the details - like anything else in science in fact!
My final area of criticism is the seeming fixation with academic research while ignoring the huge contribution of industrial research. Many of the most important developments, and especially in recent years, have come through the focused, systematic research contributed by industry but this barely gets a mention in the book. Both academia and industry have roles to play but when considering the economic models no consideration is given to the split of investment and return on investment of the two research groups. They are mutually dependent but different in both approach and focus. But, I admit I'm biased since I work in industry!
9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
This book is essentially a collection of examples in which politics fails to follow science in making policy and combines this with ideas of how the reader can get involved to prevent this. It is a good premise and one that has potential, however, I kept thinking that within all the examples he uses, the author is missing the point.
This book starts with the notion that all political decisions that can be made based on pure science should be based on that science. It is a great idea but wholly impractical and essentially unworkable in modern society and modern politics. It is that very fact which is also the undoing of the premis of this book as it does not take into account the human element in any of this. I therefore found myself becoming increasingly frustrated by the lack of understaing from the author to this fact and it somewhat undermined his arguments. I did, however, still find it an enjoyable read and one definitely worth a read.
17 of 21 people found the following review helpful
Mark Henderson has written a book which all scientists and politicians should read. From its very beginning, he catalogues time after time how politicians misunderstand and underfund basic scientific research. They misunderstand it because almost all of them have no scientific background. That they underfund it is remarkable, seeing that they bend over backwards to ease the way of entrepreneurs and investors who are only too happy to reap the benefits of this research.
There are many highlights. I mention only a few. Sarah Palin for instance, wondering why on earth biologists were funded (in modest terms) to study fruit flies. Anyone who has studied genetics at all would know that the study of variations in fruit flies underpinned that subject, but maybe Sarah doesn't believe in evolution?
There are the news program debates, where the interviewers give equal weight and hearing to solidly founded research and crank views, be it in climate science, stem cell research or alternative medicine. Time and again, a refutation of the crank views is easily to hand, but is not used, in the interests of a false sense of "balance", where the hippo and the ant are deemed to have equal weight.
We have Vince Cable telling us that much scientific research is not even worthwhile and should be cut. In this case, a concerted campaign achieved only a freezing of funding, ie, a cut in real terms. If politicians could have predicted the World Wide Web, developed as a by-product of trying to share CERN's discoveries, could they have pushed funds in the right direction? Plus, all of the modern world depends on the unassuming research of Maxwell, a Scottish scientist, trying to formulate equations to describe electromagnetism. Who would have foreseen the ramifications of that? The mathematician Hardy is famous for claiming that his research in number theory was pure, and would never find applications, yet it is now essential to encryption and security in computing.
The title of the book contains the word "Manifesto." Although it is not strictly a manifesto in the sense of a numbered list of prescriptions, it contains many indicators of when scientists need to get active, why it is essential to do so, and how to do that. There are also many case histories of campaigns that were successful, or, in the funding case, more successful than doing nothing. There are web sites, ways of spreading the message, and examples of scientists who successfully tackled poor science in the media.
I don't agree with everything in the book. The GM scare wasn't only about creating "monsters", it was also about large corporations like Monsanto selling seed that would grow crops, but would then not allow the growers to harvest fertile seeds themselves, creating a monopoly for Monsanto. Also, The Times has a supplement called Eureka that Henderson regards as good scientific reporting, whereas I, as a scientist, find that Ben Miller's column in it is the only bit worth reading.
However, overall, this is an important book, and I hope it gets a large audience. Well done, Mark!