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 subject.

Mark Henderson's new book "Geek manifesto: why science matters" is littered with examples showing how science, despite its central importance to our lives, " 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 Jones:

"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 on"

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 better"

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 arena.

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 scientific issues..."

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 done before).

In an interesting addition to this, science communicator Alice Bell points to the tension at the heart of green NGOs who are:

"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 change)."

..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.

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