Hail to the geeks!
- 18 May 2012, 14:30
- Robin Webster
The UK's political and media debate is not overburdened with
scientific knowledge. None of the editors of the UK's national
papers has a degree in science or a background in reporting it. Of
the 650 MPs in the House of Commons, only one has previously worked
as a scientific researcher. In 2010 - during the BBC's 'year of
science' - only one scientist was invited to be a guest on Question
Time. And the future's not looking that great either. 2008/9,
only a quarter of A-level students was taking a science
Mark Henderson's new book "Geek manifesto: why science matters"
is littered with examples showing how science, despite its central
importance to our lives, "...is seen as a niche interest, not a
central part of the national conversation". His treatise - starting
with the stirring tale of
Simon Singh's legal victory over the British Chiropractic
Association (BCA) - is a call for the geeks to rise up and put
science back into politics.
Henderson takes inspiration from other citizen action groups
like Stonewall or Mumsnet, to suggest:
"As those of us who care deeply about
science and its experimental method start to fight for our beliefs,
geeks have a historic opportunity to embed critical thinking more
deeply in the political process. If we are to achieve anything, we
need to turn our numbers and confidence into political muscle".
Right on, we say.
In his chapter on science in the media, Henderson argues
journalists and editors misrepresent science because it is "at once
easy and painless" and ultimately without cost to the organisations
that do it. Indeed, in the hyped-up world of the media,
sensationalising reporting leads to more attention. The challenge,
he says, "is to make media distortions matter".
Journalists should receive lots of emails in their inbox
pointing their mistake out, he argues; their editors should be
embarrassed and complaints should be made to the Press Complaints
Commission (Again, right on!). Stick firmly in hand, there's also a
nod to the carrot - Henderson argues that his nascent army of geeks
should consider "sending a brief email of praise about reporting
you respect and value". This is a nice idea.
The book is packed with interesting quotes and useful nuggets of
information. The story of the
primary school class who published a peer-reviewed paper on
bumble bee behaviour is inspired. And did you know that Dr Andrew
Wakefield did not make his controversial comments about the link
between the MMR vaccine and autism in a scientific paper -
where it would have been subject to the inconveniences of peer
review - but in a press conference? Nope, neither did we.
In the areas we're familiar with, Henderson's analysis seems
pretty solid. For example, he gives an effective run-down of the
problems of so-called false balance in the
media, neatly illustrated by this quote from Professor Steve
"Mathematician discovers that 2+2=4;
spokesperson for Duedecimal Liberation Front insists that 2+2=5;
presenter sums up that 2+2= something like 4.5 but the debate goes
In the review of science coverage he did for the BBC, Professor
Jones identified coverage of climate change particularly as a "microcosm of false
balance" - where journalists feel obliged to balance the
mainstream view with a minority opposing view, however little
supported by the evidence.
But Henderson's analysis doesn't totally tally with our
experience where he argues:
"With a few exceptions, newspapers and
broadcaster under-represent and misrespresent science not because
they are actively hostile, but because the people run them know no
While we subscribe to the general thesis - it's more cock-up
than conspiracy - there are important examples of misreporting on
climate which look a lot more like "active hostility" than
indifference. Witness the
model that the Daily Mail has adopted for covering climate
science recently, where it regularly frames articles in terms that
question whether climate change is real at all
Although he argues for geeks to get into science blogging,
Henderson also largely dismisses the importance of blogging on
shaping public opinion - noting that just one in fifty people cite
science blogs as a source of information in the 2011 Public
Attitudes to Science survey. This is probably right, but misses the
role of the blogosphere in gestating
inaccuracies that can then make the short jump into the
mainstream media via friendly journalists - a process we see
fairly regularly when it comes to climate coverage.
This, of course, brings us onto 'Climategate' and its attendant
traumas. In the chapter Geeks and Green, Henderson provides a
pretty good run-down of the email hack from UEA and its impact on
the media narrative on climate change. Whilst he records that the
scientists involved were found innocent of any scientific
wrong-doing, he criticises them for their bad PR response to media
criticism and a "culture of non-disclosure". Henderson calls for
scientists to stand up for their work and integrity in the public
Under the section headlined "the perils of opportunism", he is
also good on the perils of over-egging the certainty of connections
between climate change and individual weather events. He cites an
article by the Independent back in 2000 announcing "
snowfalls are now just a thing of the past". Unsurprisingly,
this article became
something of a favourite amongst climate skeptics when the
snows fell in December 2010. (And subsequently...)
The green movement comes in for its share of criticism, with a
good proportion of the chapter Geeks and Greens devoted to
criticising NGOs for their approach to science on nuclear and GM
crops. Although he supports NGOs for their drive to push climate
change up the political agenda, Henderson argues:
"Many [geeks] are deeply frustrated by
the position they take on nuclear energy, GM crops and other
Many of the criticisms are clearly valid - and important. But
the presentation of green activists (Henderson says "many" have "a
deep suspicion of modern technology and free-market economics")
veers close to caricature (it's been
In an interesting addition to this, science communicator
Alice Bell points to the tension at the heart of green NGOs who
"Too quick to reject science (GMOs)
whilst, at the same time, too keen to claim scientists know the
incontrovertible truth when it suits their campaigns (climate
..but she adds that this is something of an "oversimplification"
- and NGOs concerned with the wider social good will not always
come to the same conclusion as scientists.
This point illustrates the limits of Henderson's book. Bell
argues that the book makes her think, "yes, but...:
"if science is going to play with public
policy it has to be willing to listen as well as teach, and
possibly change in the process."
The "yes, but..." it made us think was that a campaign pushing
for a greater voice for science won't necessarily take into account
the wider social, political and cultural impacts of science and
technology. Science needs a voice but it is not the only voice.
But that's ok because it's not Henderson's job to give
everybody's point of view. This is a book arguing for more
attention to be paid to science in our politics and the media. And
Mark Henderson is dead right that science and the scientific
methodology are far too poorly communicated and understood. The
geeks do need to rise up. Go for it, we say.