December 6, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Science may ‘matter’, as Mark Henderson argues, but bringing it into greater contact with society will amplify its flaws as well as its plus points…

GManifIn this issue of Spandex Wizards, there’s going to be a slight change of tack. Instead of exploring a unique instance of science and culture colliding, I’m going to review a book. Don’t worry, I haven’t gone completely off-topic — the book I’m going to review is Mark Henderson’s The Geek Manifesto, a book which explores the relationship science has with society. The book covers a range of issues, from science journalism to science in politics, and has been generally well-received, with people from Brian Cox to Dara O’ Briain professing their love for it.

I can’t say I’m quite as impressed. My main concern about Manifesto is that it misrepresents science. The book is written as a series of chapters on what science brings to different sectors of society: politics, journalism, education, the justice system, and so on. The general thrust of each of these chapters is that this sector has been “unscientific” in some way: politics ignores science in policy-making; journalism doesn’t accurately write about science; and so on. Henderson goes on to argue that by understanding science better, or by listening to scientists, these sectors would be much better off. I’m not going to say that politics, journalism, education, and so on, are all fine and don’t need improving; but what I am going to say is that Henderson argues these sectors would be improved through science by appealing to an ideal of science.

The science Henderson has in mind when talking about evidence-based policy, for example, doesn’t exist. Science is not an untainted font of pure knowledge. The worst part is that Henderson acknowledges this. Early on in the book, Henderson acknowledges that science isn’t the “idealized picture” that so many claim it to be: open-minded, anti-authoritarian, sceptical, and so on. But throughout the rest of the book, all of these idealised values are implicit in the benefits he claims science brings to society. He says one thing and then does another.

Don’t get me wrong — I, like Henderson, believe that science can and does bring great things to society’s table. But I’m not naive. I’m well aware that science can, and has, caused disruption to society. Take the example of Dr Andrew Wakefield and the MMR controversy. Henderson uses this example himself, to highlight media misrepresentation of scientific controversy. I’m not going to deny that point — science in the media has always been a tricky issue. What I am going to do though, is give a different perspective: Andrew Wakefield is an example of a scientist leveraging the media to advance his own agenda and disseminate his theories, which resulted in many children missing out on a valuable vaccine. Henderson might counter this with “Well, Wakefield was just one scientist. Science as a whole isn’t like that.” Well, that sort of smacks of a “no true Scotsman argument”. You can’t cherry-pick the good that science does and discard the bad. If you want science, as a whole, to engage with society, then you have to accept that not all scientists will be fair and balanced. Perhaps the benefits that science brings outweigh the negatives, however. That sounds reasonable. Henderson’s portrayal of science, however, is not. He almost totally ignores the ‘bads’ of science in Manifesto, and triumphantly extols its virtues in his call-to-arms. This is not realistic. This is a fairy-tale.

Let us not forget that The Geek Manifesto is indeed a call-to-arms, and it should be commended for that. Engaging with the mechanisms that make up society, from environmental issues to educational, is a good thing, and society would probably be better off for it. But Henderson isn’t quite calling for this — instead, he is calling for the “geeks” to engage. Their perspective, earned from a passion for science and knowledge of the sacrosanct scientific method, is the valuable commodity Henderson claims can change society. Henderson tells the geeks what is broken in society, and persuades them to call for change. He does this by showing how science has suffered at the hands of these broken systems, and uses these examples to motivate those who love science — the so-called “geeks” — to campaign for change in these systems.

In doing so, however, Henderson cripples his book with two failings. The first is his nomination of science as the saviour of society. I’ve already established that science isn’t going to be the saviour that Henderson claims it will be. Bringing science into greater contact with society will amplify science’s flaws, as well its merits. A better, more comprehensive, call for change in society would recognise that — as well as politics, journalism, the environment, and so on — science is also a sector that is imperfect and needs change. For this reason, I believe the book isn’t really a “manifesto”. The Green Party were once criticised for being a single-issue party — their response was to evolve a comprehensive manifesto from their ideals. Henderson doesn’t do this, and so the “manifesto” of the title is a a misnomer.

Henderson’s second failing is his appeal to the geeks. Henderson highlights inadequacies in society (apart from science), and rather than construct a well-thought and targeted argument for change, he takes the easy way out. He exploits his audience. He chooses a group, the “geeks”, that perceives itself to be a minority, and that has already, without Henderson’s call-to-arms, campaigned for change. There are examples that Henderson himself uses, such as the campaign to support Simon Singh during his legal troubles with the British Chiropractic Association, and the eventual backlash against Dr Andrew Wakefield’s MMR “quackery”, that show that the Geeks are not a minority. In these examples, they usually end up outnumbering their targets. The Geeks are already mobilised.

Do the Geeks need a manifesto? Many fans of evidence-based medicine mobilised to help Simon Singh (pictured) in his legal battle with the British Chiropractic Association.

Within the scope of Henderson’s own argument, this doesn’t make any sense. Henderson would have you believe that the geeks are a minority that need to stand up and be heard, yet his own examples prove him wrong. Henderson has chosen an audience for his manifesto that already agree with everything he’s saying. He isn’t telling Britain what it needs to hear — he’s telling “the geeks” what they want to hear. And that’s why I view the “geek” of The Geek Manifesto as a failing.

The Geek Manifesto could have been a great book. In his writing, Henderson shows insight into many systems that do need change, and convincingly argues that greater engagement would help such change occur. He fails however, in choosing the wrong audience and arguing that it is this audience that should engage with change. For that, I find it a rather disappointing read.

IMAGES: Wikipedia.