It’s All Geek to Me: Science and Skepticism

I first bought Mark Henderson’s The Geek Manifesto: Why Science Matters with a feeling of trepidation – the title, the bright orange fist-depicting cover, and the blurb’s list of ‘crimes’ committed in Britain by scientific ignorance all suggested to me that I was in store for a pro-science anti-politics rant.  I quite literally judged the book by its cover, and was already planning derisive comments based around the nickname ‘Marx Henderson’.  Well, I was completely wrong.  The book makes a very considerate argument that a Geek or ‘skeptical’ mindset, in which opinions are based on prevailing evidence, is dangerously missing from the upper echelons of politics, media, and the law.

Any readers who are pro-politicians (if such a concept exists) might argue that politicians do give evidence for their decisions, usually drawn from mysterious focus groups and their shadowy ilk.  Even the most misfiring politician doesn’t just spout arbitrary randomness (insert your own Boris Johnson joke here).  But Henderson’s point is that it’s preponderance and use of evidence that matters – whereas politicians tend to come up with their ‘good idea’, then take anything that gives them a thumbs-up, and ignore the (often sizable) rest.  Similarly, even in circumstances where everyone accepts how crucial good evidence is, senior figures can be worryingly poor at critical thinking.  Any ‘experiments’ or ‘trials’ conducted in the name of political decisions, lacking as they do basic randomised controls or properly systematic data collection, would be laughed out of any peer-reviewed journal – even though the consequences are much more immediate and further-reaching than many scientific projects.

These arguments aren’t new, but Henderson’s approach is refreshingly nuanced.  He doesn’t take a relaxed ride on the old ‘politicians are idiots’ bandwagon, but notes how misuse or non-use of evidence is usually shaped by the culture of politics.  U-turns are considered undignified, so sticking with a plan even in the face of mounting counterevidence paradoxically saves credibility.  And even though there is substantial evidence that (say) homeopathy simply doesn’t work, homeopaths are far more vocal (after all, they have got well-hydrated vocal cords) than skeptics.  For a politician, who is probably ambivalent about the issue, it’s easier to go with the loud quacking.  Henderson’s solution is to build on the recent Simon Singh ‘quacklash’, the Science is Vital protests and the like to present proper evidence-based thinking as a powerful vote-winning tactic.  By his nods to the complexities of politics, and his avoidance of science-elitism, Henderson’s argument comes across as considerate, realistic, and unlikely to simply be thrown away by cabinet ministers at the nearest under-secretary.

In case you hadn’t picked up by now, I quite like the book.  But for me, one of the best (and most interesting) points was the place of science within the argument.  The subtitle Why Science Matters is based around Henderson’s point that the evidence-based approach is drawn from the practices of science.  But the idea of a monolithic, universally-agreed-upon ‘scientific method’ which politics should imitate is absent from the book.  Instead Henderson’s evidence-based thinking is based around a set of guidelines – the most important being Feynman’s principle that “you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.”  In a sentence that got me jumping up and down a bit in excitement, Henderson points out the looseness of such guidelines: “scholars of ‘science studies’ have shown effectively that the idealized picture [of scientific method]… is rarely quite fulfilled in practice”.  Why does this excite me so much?  Well, mostly, it’s because ‘scholars of science studies’ got a shout-out, without any sniggering or patronising comments.  Mark, you beauty.  But also, because I believe that the idealized picture of ‘THIS is SCIENCE and anything that doesn’t do THIS is NOT SCIENCE’ is deeply problematic.  There’s a lot of scholarship on this – due to the effects of recent excessive alcohol consumption I really can’t be bothered to summarize it, if you’re interested (you should be) have a look at this and this  Instead, I am going to illustrate why I dislike this through the medium of memory.

A few months ago I attended a talk on ‘Humour in Science’.  The presenter made a few different arguments about this topic.  Firstly, that jokes have been part of major scientific advances.  His main case study was a story recounted by Richard Feynman in Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman (which I’ve also just finished – one of the most enjoyable reads I’ve ever had).  The story goes: Feynman was experiencing the theorist’s equivalence of writer’s block, “burned out” of ideas as he puts it, when he saw someone in the canteen throwing a plate in the air.  Feynman noticed some interesting wobbles in the motion of the plate, did some maths (I’m simplifying somewhat), and got an answer that he would later apply to electrons and ultimately win him a Nobel Prize.  Now, it’s a nice story.  It’s maybe even a salutatory lesson for any despairing researcher.  But it is NOT A JOKE.  If you laughed at reading that you should check your surroundings for nitrous oxide.  Similarly, the same talk argued that scientists make jokes because both jokes and science are creative processes, and that people make jokes about scientists because they’re scared of their mysterious powers.  No, people make jokes about scientists because they make jokes about pretty much everything, and scientists make jokes because they are people and people make jokes.  Simple as.  The talk was symptomatic of a whole mindset – that science is an all-encompassing lifestyle choice quite separate from the rest of humanity, and the presence of something as universal as humour needs justifying when it appears in science.  And if that justification involves crowbarring in the Feynman story – the inclusion of which basically says ‘anything non-boring counts as a noteworthy example of humour in science’ – as a ‘joke’ then we really are in trouble.

Similarly, Robin Ince recently tweeted that Brian Cox and another scientist were winding down at Latitude by discussing neutron shielding.  Ince’s tweet was a gentle prod at his mate Brian, but it does illustrate another supposedly separating mark of the scientist from the ‘normalos’ (to borrow classificatory terminology from Peep Show) – they always talk about science, even in situations where they’re not doing science.  It’s the negative connotation of the Geek.  But I would point out that, for many scientists, science is essentially a ‘dream job’.  Like being an actor or sportsman, it’s something they might have wanted from a young age, something they’ve really had to work at, and something they’ve had to get through a competitive filtering process to achieve.  And, as with any dream job, it’s unlikely their interest will be confined to office hours.  But such geekery needn’t be considered unique to the scientific.  From the brief times I’ve spent with professional actors, I can suggest they’re basically the same.  I know that’s hardly a good example of an evidence-based argument – Mark, have mercy on my soul – but I am prepared to stick my neck out and suggest that strong leanings towards specific interests, with the conversational biases that entails, needn’t be considered unique to scientists.

As I’ve suggested before (see last week’s post) anything that presents science as a specific and immutable collection of features risks alienating people who don’t identify with all and only those features.  The scientific mindset becomes something that can only be applied to scientific problems, and can only be applied by the brainy but socially inept.  I like The Geek Manifesto because it doesn’t do that.  Both science and politics are presented as sufficiently flexible to encompass the other’s concerns, and science isn’t unrealistically The Obvious Answer to All Politics Problems Ever.  Henderson is aware that politics doesn’t take place in a nicely-sterilised laboratory, but rather one where all the mice have escaped and have started demanding more cheese of numerous different varieties.  The proposed geek movement would accept that politicians will sometimes go against scientific evidence-based approaches (but also argues they should give good reasons why.  Which seems a fair cop, guv).  Indeed, the actually ‘scientific’ is less important than the ‘skeptical’. As mentioned earlier, I find the place of science in the manifesto interesting, in that a lot of the advice Henderson gives doesn’t necessarily link back to science.  The idea that politicians should be more comfortable with going back on bad ideas seems to me more commonsense than scientific.  But science is a field which has made great successes from such a revisionist attitude.  Similarly, it is in science-based case-studies (medical hoaxes, the sacking of David Nutt etc.) that the government’s lax approach to prevailing evidence is most apparent.  Science comes across as neither unrealistically unified nor antagonistically elitist.  Instead, it’s the best example of the type of thinking Henderson (and many others, myself now included) wants to see more of.

So Henderson isn’t putting science on a pedestal.  He isn’t saying that all politicians should learn all about the facts of science.  Rather, he’s taking bits and pieces he’s observed from reporting on scientists, like the power of peer review and randomised controlled trials, and noting how they can be applied to politics.  He isn’t saying that science will basically solve politics (a sure-fire way of keeping open the politics-science divide).  He’s saying that science provides examples both of how skepticism can be applied fruitfully, and case-studies where lack of skepticism has resulted in poor political decisions.  Instead of providing answers, science shows politicians debates they should be having.  It doesn’t require that politicians become scientists, and it doesn’t require you to be massively pro-science to agree with the prescriptions.  The thin amount of evidence on the cover originally suggested a polemical tract of science-elitism, but in the face of massive counterevidence within the book itself I’ve completely revised my original hypothesis.  Henderson, I hope you’re proud.


During the article I subtly slipped in a mention of a book called The Geek Manifesto (prize if you spotted it).  The accompanying blog, with purchasing options, is here


This is also lovely

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