Should Scientists Rule?

A Review of The Geek Manifesto

In The Geek Manifesto, British journalist Mark Henderson makes a passionate case for why science and scientists deserve a greater role in politics. He argues that political views ought to be measured beyond two axes representing economics and social policies. “Politics,” Henderson explains, “has a third axis, too. It measures rationalism, skepticism and scientific thinking.”

The champions of this third axis are the “geeks” — those “people with a passion for science and the critical thinking on which it is founded.” Science, Henderson explains, “is not a noun but a verb.” He continues, explaining that science “is provisional, always open to revision … comfortable with your changing your mind … anti-authoritarian: anybody can contribute, and anybody can be wrong … [tries] to prove the most elegant ideas wrong … [and] is comfortable with uncertainty.”

Henderson briefly notes that scholarship also shows that “the idealized picture presented in the last paragraph is rarely quite fulfilled in practice,” an important qualification that goes undeveloped. Here I offer a critique of The Geek Manifesto, a book I really enjoyed reading. Ultimately, I disagree with the book’s bottom line call for a political movement centered on science as an organizing theme.

I am undoubtedly a geek. If my academic degrees and H-Index aren’t convincing, just ask my kids. So I am of course predisposed to agreeing with the values that underlie Henderson’s manifesto. As a professor who teaches policy analysis methodologies I think it an excellent idea to “base opinions on evidence and to keep them under review as better evidence comes along.” At the start of each of my courses I invoke John Dewey when I tell my students that I do not care much at all about what they think; my interest is in how they think.

So I welcome and appreciate Henderson’s polemic in support of the importance of evidence as a key element in effective policy making. Yet, despite my predisposition, I am also of the view that Henderson’s call for geeks to organize a political movement not around specific policies, but around scientific thinking is doomed from the start. Beyond that, rather than making our politics more scientific, the geek movement might just make our science more political, and not in a good way.

I base my critique on two related aspects of Henderson’s argument. The first is the quick recasting of science not as a verb but as a noun representing people, credentials and money. Throughout, Henderson equates those with a passion for critical thinking with credentialed academic scientists. This is wrong in two ways: having scientific credentials is no guarantee of an ability to think critically in political settings; and the absence of a scientific degree is no indication of a lack of critical thinking ability. The shift from advocating critical thinking to the advocacy of scientists, science funding and science education turns The Geek Manifesto into a plea for science as a special interest.

More scientists in elected office, more government science funding, more scientific expertise in journalism and more science education may all make good sense, but the evidence is thin that such outcomes benefit common interests rather than the special interests of the science lobby.

For instance, Henderson repeats a common claim that “every pound invested in science will lead to much greater gains in national prosperity” and then asks what would be the obvious question: “why are we not calling for a step change in science funding?” Such a question seems superfluous -- If there always been one area of broad agreement among the science lobby, it is in the need for more public funding of science. One reason why policy makers do not write blank checks for science is that the evidence for economic returns on government R&D is far more equivocal than Henderson allows. For example, one recent review in the US concluded (here in PDF), “Returns to many forms of publicly financed R&D are near zero … Many elements of university and government research have very low returns, overwhelmingly contribute to economic growth only indirectly, if at all, and do not belong in investment.”

The Geek Manifesto’s selective reading of the economics of R&D is related to the second aspect of my critique, which is more fundamental. Henderson writes as if there is in fact a lobby out there who might advocate for science, independent of specific policy issues, such as climate change, nuclear power, genetic modification, drug safety and other topical issues of the day. However, experience shows that we “geeks” are just like everyone else with ideologies, political preferences and points of view on particular policy issues. Further, 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.

Throughout Henderson argues that electing more scientists into political office will improve the scientific basis of policy making. Maybe; maybe not. Consider that lawyers, a profession well represented in politics, might claim to know the most about law, yet experience shows that a parliament or Congress chock full of lawyers provides no guarantee of effective legislating. No one has yet written The Solicitor’s Manifesto.

Consider US Representative Bill Foster, a Democrat from Illinois who was just re-elected to the US Congress in 2012 after being unseated by a Tea Party Republican in 2010. Foster gets special praise from Henderson for both being a credentialed scientist and frequently invoking the importance of science in politics. He is presented as exactly the sort of politician that we need more of, a geek success story.Despite his unimpeachable geek credentials – Foster is a PhD particle physicist -- he doesn’t appear to think much about voters. Henderson quotes him saying that

“You’re lucky if voters hear you say anything at all. You have to keep repeating your message, so that if they are listening that’s what they’ll hear. As a scientist it makes you feel like an idiot, but it has to be done. It’s tough. Working hard comes naturally to scientists, and so too does mental discipline, but simplifying doesn’t.”

As well, Foster doesn’t appear to think much about the integrity of science in politics either. In February 2011 at a workshop on responsible research practices organized by the American Association for the Advancement of Science I sat on a panel with Foster where I listened to him present to the audience of early career scientists a “difficult ethical question” for them to mull over.

At the time I characterized his remarks as follows:

If a scientist knows that their message will be distorted in the political process, to what degree should s/he predistort their message in hopes that what comes out the other end is a closer approximation to reality? Foster cited as an analogy cheap earphones that achieve high quality through software that counterbalances distortion. Foster warned that such predistorion might be "heading down a slippery slope" but he was fairly ambiguous about the tactic.

The Geek Manifesto does not weight in on the merits of “predistortion” but it repeatedly comes down hard on politicians who skew their presentation of science for political gain. Presumably, “predistortion” would not be judged to be an acceptable tactic, even when recommended by a geek?

The Foster anecdote illustrates a deep flaw in The Geek Manifesto — despite the appeal to an idealized, even Mertonesque, caricature of “science” as the most effective way of resolving empirical questions, the route from ideal to practice runs through people. What happens when it is the geeks themselves who engage in a pathological politicizing of science?

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.

This is illustrated in Henderson’s characterization of the case of David Nutt, a scientist who in 2009 served as the chair of the UK Advisory Committee on the Misuse of Drugs. After making some irreverent but scientifically justifiable public comments comparing the risks of taking the illegal drug ecstasy to that of horseback riding, he was sacked by the government. A subsequent short-lived row involved several of Nutt’s colleagues on the committee resigning in protest and the government responding with largely cosmetic changes to its mechanisms of science advice. Of this episode Henderson comments that scientists who “give their time to guide ministers… deserve to be treated with a modicum of respect in return.”

However, as Clint Eastwood explained to Gene Hackman in “Unforgiven,” “’deserves’ got nothing to do with it.” While it is certainly the case that Nutt was sacked for expressing politically inconvenient views based on his research, the fundamental problem was not a lack of respect for science, but an institutional design that had scientific advisors serving at the pleasure of elected officials. The best way to secure independent scientific advice is to set up scientific advisory bodies which are actually institutionally independent of immediate political control. Geeks are fooling themselves if they think that “respect” for their standing might consistently trump short-term political expediency. Even independent advice is no guarantee that politicians will respect the advice of scientists, as illustrated by the Obama Administration’s rejection of the scientific advice of an expert advisory panel on the so-called “morning after pill.”

The idea that science and scientists deserve special treatment in politics is often what leads to the temptation to exploit that specialness for political gain, which ultimately works against science being afforded special treatment. In this manner, calls for a “geek revolution” can have a hard time avoiding the slippery slope of scientific authoritarianism. Henderson doesn’t engage these issues, and thus avoids stepping on that slope. But it is there, nonetheless.

For instance, The Geek Manifesto rightly takes issue with green campaigners who consistently exploit the latest weather disaster to make the case for emissions reductions to deal with climate change. He explains that such claims create “an unnecessary weakness which deniers can target to sow doubt about the rest of the science.” However, in his critique Henderson focuses exclusively on the excesses of Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and Al Gore. He does not mention the role of the “geeks” in aiding and abetting such misinformation, including the much celebrated Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and many prominent geeks. Instead, Henderson paints an idealized picture of “geeks” who are always right about the science and non-geeks who need to be overcome. Reality paints a far more complex and difficult picture.

Henderson’s passionate defense of the climate scientists whose emails were exposed from a leak or hack at the University of East Anglia reinforces this lack of nuance. The problem, Henderson asserts, is not that the scientists engaged in “any wrongdoing” but rather that these scientists did not ”meet their foes in hand-to-hand combat” to defend their virtue in the public eye. My experience with these same scientists, as revealed in the leaked emails, is somewhat different.

In 2005 I led the preparation of a peer-reviewed paper on the science, impacts and economics of tropical cyclones which determined that current research was equivocal on a relationship between carbon dioxide and hurricanes (here in PDF). Further, we concluded that despite the reality of human-caused climate change, scientific certainty as to its influence on hurricanes would not be soon forthcoming. We subsequently learned via the released UEA emails that Phil Jones and Kevin Trenberth, two climate scientists that Henderson defends, conspired to prevent our review from appearing in the fourth assessment of the IPCC. Fortunately, in subsequent IPCC reports the scientific record has been corrected, and our view has held up extremely well. However, As Jacob Bronowski once said, “No science is immune to the infection of politics and the corruption of power.”

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? Once we descend from the idealized version of “science” to the more prosaic realities of science in the real world we see that what we actually need is to practice better politics in all of its messiness. This means holding politicians and scientists accountable to each other, and to the general public. Science is a part of this process, not a separate political axis.

Science has a crucially important role to play in democratic governance. On this point Henderson is no doubt correct. Judged by the volume of discussion and debate that The Geek Manifesto has already generated, the book is certainly a valuable contribution to science policy discussions. In the end geeks should be very careful. Calls for science to represent a third axis of political conflict might just succeed -- an outcome which would improve neither science nor politics.