'Bionanotechnology from Theory to Practice' is a short online, course providing an interdisciplinary and up-to-date overview of the rapidly developing area of bionanotechnology
Page URL: https://www.bionews.org.uk/page_93658

Book Review: The Geek Manifesto - Why Science Matters

2 July 2012
By Fiona Fox
Chief executive, Science Media Centre
Appeared in BioNews 663

The Geek Manifesto: Why Science Matters

By Mark Henderson

Published by Ashgate

ISBN-10: 0593068238, ISBN-13: 978-0593068236

Buy this book from Amazon UK

'The Geek Manifesto: Why Science Matters' by Mark Henderson

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 cell scientists, 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.

17 December 2012 - by Dr Nicola Davis 
Do we need more scientists in Parliament? The Society of Biology recently embarked on a series of public debates on science policy, launching with this probing question...
12 September 2011 - by Oliver Timmis 
On 25 July 2011 the Wellcome Trust turned 75, and to celebrate they have commissioned a collection of 15 stories based on some of the most interesting people they have funded...
30 April 2010 - by Sile Lane 
On 15 April the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) dropped its libel action against the science writer Simon Singh, bringing to an end a case that had cost 200,000 and taken two years of Simon's life. The BCA had sued Simon following an article he wrote in the Guardian newspaper criticising chiropracty for children...
22 February 2010 - by Dr Jay Stone 
During my endeavours to explore science communication, I came across a UK charity called 'Sense about Science' (SAS), a non-profit charity trust that work with over 2000 scientists and civic groups to respond to misrepresentations of science in the public domain. SAS believes in good science communication and in promoting public understanding of science to prevent panic and confusion. The topical publications it produces - such as 'Making sense of GM' - are easy to read and appeal to all leve...
10 August 2009 - by Professor John Galloway 
Molecular biologist, (Lord) David Phillips once described to me, rather ruefully, a talk on genetics he had just given in the church hall in Banbury. Having been invited to talk on anything he chose, he sensibly asked who were likely to be in the audience. When told, mostly farmers and their families, he immediately plumped for genetics. If anyone would either be interested in genetics or have a basis of understanding it would surely be them. Selective breeding and inherited characteristics w...
27 July 2009 - by Ben Jones 
Many of the developments in the biosciences reported on in BioNews involve novel moral issues or further complicate existing ethical debates. While concerns about the efficacy or safety of a new therapy inevitably lead to calls for further action within the scientific community - more research, bigger studies, better analysis - ethical worries instead result in calls for non-specialist external validation, consultation exercises, public debate and engagement. While the public are put i
to add a Comment.

By posting a comment you agree to abide by the BioNews terms and conditions

Syndicate this story - click here to enquire about using this story.