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Science Geeks Ready to Rumble

By Keith Kloor
Jan 11, 2013 4:34 PMNov 20, 2019 2:57 AM


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Anyone who believes that science, above all, should inform our debates on medical, health and environmental issues, will find much to agree with in The Geek Manifesto, a recently published book by Mark Henderson, one of Britain's leading science communicators. As science writer David Dobbs writes in his foreward to the U.S. edition, The Geek Manifesto

articulates with bracing clarity how science’s central principle – that evidence should trump authority, and reason trump rumor – can help improve the clumsy, cranking machinery that produces law, policy and other frameworks of public life.

At the same time, though, not every fan of science may agree with Henderson's prescriptive for a more muscular science role in the political process, or with his assessments of some of the obstacles to science-based policies. Nanotechnology researcher Richard Jones has offered his critical take (to which Henderson has responded), and so has University of Colorado's Roger Pielke, Jr. In the following Q & A (conducted via email), Henderson engages with the criticisms of his book, and also offers his thoughts on the furor recently stirred up by a provocative speech on biotechnology by a well-known UK environmental writer.KK: As you know, the speech by Mark Lynas, in which he apologized for being an anti-GMO campaigner, has generated much discussion in the media. In the sciency world, there seems to be mixed, or at least ambivalent reaction. Many have applauded Mark’s turnabout (he has become an enthusiastic biotech champion). But others are harrumping about the nature of his conversion. Mark says his change of mind happened because he “discovered” science. That, in turn, led him to learn the facts about genetically modified crops. But as Michael Specter wrote this week in The New Yorker, “It would not have been hard to discover some of these facts earlier.” In other words, what took him so long? MH: Mark's a friend of mine, who was very helpful while I was writing The Geek Manifesto, so I thought I ought to declare that at the outset. But I do think his high-profile change of mind over GM crops and nuclear power deserves to be applauded. I understand the "what took him so long?" charge -- it can be galling, especially to those who've long argued for a discourse on these issues that is better informed by evidence, to see a convert get praise for views they’ve held all along. But I don’t think that’s an attitude that is desperately helpful if those of us who’d like to see a greater appreciation of science in public life are ever going to make any headway.The crux of my argument in The Geek Manifesto is that indifference to science – ignorance in the non-pejorative sense of just not knowing, never having engaged – is the chief reason why it doesn’t figure more significantly in politics and public policy. I think therefore that those who change their minds when they do engage, who lose their indifference, have to be celebrated. We want more politicians and public servants, and campaigners of all sorts, to change their minds when presented with better evidence. It would be churlish for us to sneer at people who do exactly that.It’s a bit like rounding on Tyler Hamilton and the other US Postal cyclists who gave evidence against Lance Armstrong. Yes, they did things they shouldn’t be proud of. But would you really rather they’d kept quiet?KK: Another related gripe by some (such as paleoanthropologist John Hawks and science journalist Ed Yong) has been directed at editors in mainstream media, who for years gave Mark a prominent forum to air his uninformed views on biotechnology while he was a leading anti-GMO activist. Is this is a legitimate complaint—that Mark should never have been given such an opportunity to spread misinformation in the first place? After all, the opinion pages of newspapers and magazines are littered with all manner of ill-informed and ideologically charged columns. How do you police something like that? MH: This is a fair criticism, with which I have a lot of sympathy. It’s not that those who say uninformed things about science should be denied a platform altogether. It’s that far too often, their views are given a prominence in the media that is out of all proportion to scientific consensus. Sometimes, this is simply because parts of the media are always going to want to promote the sensational, the outlandish, the man-bites-dog story (that also explains why conversions like Mark Lynas’s make headlines). But sometimes it’s because of deeper-seated problems with the way much of the media is managed.The first problem is the balance fetish. Far too often, the media sees science through the prism of politics – if you’ve got the Republican view, you’ve got to have the Democrat too for balance. That might generate debate, but it distorts science. The evidence isn’t always equally weighted between one side and its critics – global warming and vaccine safety are particular examples of where phony balance, rather than fairness to the evidence, has damaged the quality of public debate.The other problem is that too few senior editors in newspapers and radio and television stations actually know enough about science to identify op-ed viewpoints that are founded on misinformation.These issues are fiendishly difficult to police – science matters a lot to me, but so does free speech. Ultimately, the best weapon is complaint. Editors, for the most part, run dodgy science because they think it’s popular or provocative, and because they don’t think there will be much of a downside. Those of us who care about science need to challenge and call out bad journalism if we’re to stand a chance of changing it.KK: In a sharply critical review of your book, The Geek Manifesto, Roger Pielke Jr. writes:

The subtext of The Geek Manifesto is of course political power. It is about who should be in a position to determine what evidence is deemed acceptable in political debates, what decisions ought to be made in the public interest, what should be taught in schools, and what should be reported in the news. Henderson’s view, one widely shared among science connoisseurs, is that by virtue of its essential characteristics, science — and more specifically those who embody the virtues of science — deserve a special place in politics.

Roger is among those who argue that such special treatment is counterproductive, because scientists, like everyone else, have views that are informed by politics and/or ideology. Thus, conflict and politicization of issues often follows when scientists wrap their own personal views in the mantle of science. Indeed, he writes in his review:

Many geeks have shown themselves to be willing to stretch, bend and even distort science for political gain. In fact, such tactics are particularly appealing to geeks because science carries such authority in political debates. The Geek Manifesto offers no advice on how the geeks themselves are to be held accountable.

Would you like to now offer some advice on this? MH

Roger’s a writer whose work I find very interesting, and this review was no exception. I obviously don’t agree with all of it, but I think he made some fair points. Most importantly, he for the most part engaged with the book I actually wrote, rather than (as some other critics have done) attacking the book he’d have liked me to write. [Henderson's response to that missive]. 

He’s right of course that geeks – by which I mean those who appreciate science, not necessarily “credentialed scientists” as Roger mistakenly asserts – have all sorts of political viewpoints. And that we are all, geeks included, prone to confirmation bias, cognitive dissonance and all the other foibles of judgement to which the human mind is prone. Some geeks, it is absolutely true, have been known to twist science themselves to serve a political purpose.I don’t endorse those who do this at all. Indeed, there’s a good quote in the book about this from Evan Harris, a former Liberal Democrat MP in the UK who was an ardent champion of science: “We are held back by the rationality and circumspection with which we speak, handicaps that do not encumber our opponents.” I think these handicaps are important. We throw them off at our peril.How should geeks be held accountable? In the same way as everyone else – by the levers of democracy. I make it very, very clear in the book that I am not advocating some sort of technocratic rule-by-scientists, and that there are occasions – many occasions – where it is perfectly proper for democratically-elected politicians to disregard scientific evidence when they consider this trumped by other factors. Science and evidence are almost always necessary for good decision-making, but they are very rarely sufficient.What I do want, though, is for the evidence to be weighed, considered, and published, and for decisions that are made for reasons of ideology or valued to be explained as such, and not justified according to spray-on evidence that doesn’t really exist. I don’t think science deserves a special place in politics – it is one of many factors that properly go into most political decisions. But it deserves to be considered fairly as one of these factors – the examples I quote in the book show that all too often it is not. It’s the difference between arguing for a greater role for science, which I unashamedly do, and a special place, which I do not.KK: Roger points out that in your book, you rightly criticize green campaigners who go too far with some of their claims. But he also complains that you let the scientists--who sometimes aid and abet such exaggerated rhetoric--off the hook. Are you letting scientists off too easy? MH: To some extent, I probably am. This was one of the areas of Roger’s review that I thought had most merit. He is undoubtedly right that some scientists have happily encouraged, or at least, failed to challenge, overblown rhetoric from green campaigners – and other campaigners with other agendas as well. It isn’t much more helpful, for example, to portray GM crops as some sort of panacea for world hunger than it is to present them as an unalloyed evil with no contribution at all, and there are certainly scientists out there who have exaggerated this way.Q. Roger also charges:

The Geek Manifesto offers no discussion, much less remedy, for geeks who play politics via science. Even more confounding, what about those geeks who politicize science in pursuit of authority and power via a geek revolution?

Have you given special dispensation to the geeks without cause for such concern? Or are you not as worried about this as Roger? MH: I would hope that other geeks would be in the forefront of the challenge!This, I think, points towards the critique I am happiest to accept in Roger’s review – which is the difficulty that any “geek movement” might have in avoiding being painted as just another special interest. He’s right that this is a significant risk, and that, as he concludes, “the geeks should be very careful.” Roger is especially astute to point out that this risk grows once calls for better use of evidence in policy-making, and for greater scientific understanding in the political process, are joined by calls for increased funding. I’m also willing to accept that the book did too little to reflect the contrary literature on links between research funding and economic growth.There’s certainly a decent argument that arguing for greater science funding *is* a special interest. It’s not one I would make myself, but it isn’t a silly thing to suggest. The case that better use of evidence would benefit everyone is, I think, much stronger. The two arguments shouldn’t be confused.

Overcoming this risk of politicization is difficult, but I think it can be done. It has to start with being equally hard on, and fair to, all political parties when they abuse evidence and damage science, leaving normal party loyalties aside. I’m with Roger, and Daniel Sarewitz, when they point out the dangers of US science’s increasingly close identification with Democratic politics. When the Obama Administration transgresses, geeks need to be every bit as robust as they were when Bush held the White House.

Ultimately, too, I think geeks have to get more politically active if political approaches to science are to change for the better. As I’ve said above, the problem isn’t by and large that politicians are anti-science. It’s indifference, a lack of engagement. Few politicians have much sense that there might be any kind of political price to pay if they handle science badly. It’s only by acting as more active citizens that those of us who care about science stand much chance of addressing that. Roger’s right that we have to be careful, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it at all.KK: Lastly, I should point out that Roger is by no means the only one raising concerns about special treatment accorded to scientists. In the recent publication of the British Science Association, there is an editorial that begins this way:

Scientists need scrutiny. The mainstream press does a good job of holding those in public office to account. But power, spin and questionable financial practices are not just the preserve of the political elite. Scientific endeavor combined with ambition, financial and political agendas can be a potent mix, causing all sorts of poor practices to occur.

Can there be both a geek revolution and a check on its power? MH: Absolutely. Democracy can, should, and generally does provide it. As I’ve said above, I do not think for a second that science should trump democracy. I’m not calling for a technocratic state, or for scientists on top, in authority, holding the levers of power.I do wonder, though, whether the British Science Association editorial you quote, and indeed Roger’s review, are worrying about a problem that it would be nice to have. If science really were an over-mighty elite wielding exceptional and undemocratic power over elected governments, I’d be in the vanguard of those calling for it to be cut down to size. But as I think I show quite successfully in the book, we’ve a long way to go before that becomes a serious threat.The problem with science and politics isn’t that scientists are too active, too controlling, too spin-savvy and streetwise. It’s quite the reverse, that there aren’t enough of them who know their way around the corridors of power, or even how to make themselves heard by those in office, and there aren’t enough politicians and civil servants who have really engaged with science and appreciate what it has to offer. A political class with a stronger grasp of science, incidentally, would also be a stronger bulwark against scientists who do play politics with data, and try to twist it to suit their own ends.Yes, let’s hold science to account. Geeks need to be very robust on malpractice – scientific fraud, for example, and non-publication of clinical trials. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. We can do huge amounts to improve the way politics uses, appreciates and exploits science to deliver more effective policies before we have to start worrying about technocratic rule.

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