Over the weekend I finished reading an advance copy of The Geek Manifesto by Mark Henderson that Amazon sent me. The book is to be published in May and more information about it can be found at www.geekmanifesto.co.uk
Amazon don’t really encourage lengthy reviews, so what I wrote only scratches at the surface of what I thought about the book. I may expand a bit on my thoughts here, but this is what I wrote about it:
I found this to be a surprising book in many ways, particularly in the specific limitations of its demands and the willingness of the author to stir up some controversy towards the end, in unexpected directions.
The main demand is that the political system, dominated as it is by humanities graduates, should take a more scientific, evidence-based approach. The limitiation, or compromise, is the recognition that, having weighed that scientific evidence the politicians are quite within their rights to not follow it and to base their decision on other considerations – as long as they are honest about that and don’t try to mis-represent the science. This might be a step too far for some politicians and a step short for some scientists, but it strikes me as a step in the right direction.
For a change, this is a book evangelising science without specifically targeting religion. That is not to say it promotes religion, it just concentrates on the political system instead as that is where the real decision-making goes on. There are some scary statistics about how many elected representatives in the US and UK governments have any scientific background (very, very few) how many primary school teachers have a science degree (hardly any) how many secondary school science teachers teach the subject they studied themselves (fewer than you would think) and many more that can easily lead to despair.
Perhaps that is the worst thing about the book: it is too good at stating the scale of the problem, and then doesn’t offer a magic wand to wave in order to overcome them, but proposes lots of things which all sound like hard work – but if you want a miracle cure you should be reading the Daily Express instead.
The book is organised well, with manageable chapters concentrating on specific policy areas, and not always in the way I was expecting. For example, when I saw that a chapter was about education I expected it to be all about how few science teachers there are and how few students choose science, maths or engineering. Instead it launched into how policies are introduced without any way to reliably measure their effectiveness. I had not considered that before, so it was an education for me.
The controversy becomes most apparent towards the end, in the chapter about the environment and the attitude of green pressure groups and the Green party towards scientific matters, especially in relation to nuclear power and GM crops. I can see that stirring up a few arguments.
The whole book is summed up in five pages at the end, with some specific points distilled from the earlier chapters. These points were too long to be snappy and memorable but too short to include any examples or re-inforcement and thus felt like a bit of an anticlimax after 245 pages of very strong argument, but that is a small criticism for a book that is, I am sure, destined to become a fixture on any self-respecting geek’s bookshelf, and besides that it is an impossible dilemma to resolve.
Following the conclusion is another 50 pages of references, many of which are URLs. Some of these are quite long and will be quite laborious to type in. There is no problem with having such a comprehensive set of references, given the subject matter it should be expected, but this book is crying out for an e-book version where the links can be followed easily or the use of shortened URLs – bit.ly, tr.im, or similar.
As somebody who has dabbled in politics myself, I found this inspiring even if it left me with all sorts of regrets that I didn’t know all this while I was still involved in the local council.
Quite early on in the book, about page 22 or 23, it raised an issue about politics which has bothered me for a while now. It is a fundamental problem with politics, possibly too entrenched to shift easily, quickly or at all, and one of the things that has increasingly turned me off of conventional politics and despite it bothering me immensely I had never really thought of it as anti-scientific but just bloody stupid and it is the inability to say “I don’t know”, to change one’s mind in the face of new evidence, or admit to ever having been wrong about anything.
The standout quote is “What science admires as intellectual honesty is seen in Westminster and Whitehall as the stuff of the gaffe.”
This isn’t even the fault of politicians as individuals, or not entirely. It is the whole system, including the media and the public. A scientist can carry out several experiments, and the ones that don’t work are not failures but learning points that eliminate bad hypotheses and in an ideal world lead towards the ultimately successful experiment. You can’t progress without acknowledging the bad results and building on them, but in politics that is unacceptable.
As soon as a minister admits that some new policy didn’t work he will find himself on the move at the next re-shuffle, after being held to ridicule by the media and probably branded a flip-flopper and accused of a U-turn. If they stick to their opinions in the face of very obvious failure they will be praised as a ‘conviction politician’.
I wonder where we would be if ‘conviction chemists’ were similarly praised, or ‘conviction doctors’? We would probably be treating common ailments with blood-letting and trepanning still.
The temptation to cherry-pick evidence is strong. Whenever there was an example of a Labour politician doing the right thing or a Tory politician like Nadine Dorries being an idiot I was lapping it up. When there was an example of a Tory being sensible about science or a Labour minister making up evidence I was metaphorically reading the book from behind the sofa and between my fingers, and by the time the Green party came in for a good kicking I was cheering, but the fact is that there is a failure of the political class and not of any particular party and the book remains admirably neutral.
I had that entire rant in my head just from reading a couple of pages, and on just about every page there was something similarly stimulating. This isn’t a book you can easily read passively.