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The Geek Manifesto: Why science matters Paperback – 3 Jan 2013
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"Powerful and important, The Geek Manifesto eloquently lays out a programme to make the UK a more rational and therefore prosperous and successful country. And it's not that hard to do! Base policy decisions on evidence, invest in our knowledge-based economy by supporting education and research, and above all promote reason above opinion. Everyone interested in importing the scientific method into public life should read this book, and then lobby their MP!" (Professor Brian Cox)
"The Geek Manifesto is the most compelling, engaging and entertaining account I’ve read of the relationship between science and politics .,, Geek or non-geek, this is a manifesto we should all feel able to endorse." (James Wilsdon Financial Times)
"[Mark Henderson's] writing is urgent and for today ...I would, if I could, force every politician in the land to read this book and act ." (Nick Cohen Observer)
"A rallying cry... it is impossible not to admire Henderson’s focused anger at the lack of science in policy making and his passion to change things." (Angela Saini New Scientist)
"The Geek Manifesto should be required reading for all those who question the value and importance of science." (Manjit Kumar Independent)
A compelling and entertaining and very persuasive call to arms for scientists, engineers, skeptics, rationalists - all geeks, secret geeks and wannabe geeks everywhere...Shortlisted for the Political Book Awards Polemic of the Year 2012.See all Product description
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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.
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!"