Mark Henderson’s book “The Geek Manifesto” was part of my holiday reading, and there’s a lot to like in it – there’s all too much stupidity in public life, and anything that skewers a few of the more egregious recent examples of this in such a well-written and well-informed way must be welcomed. There is a fundamental lack of seriousness in our public discourse, a lack of respect for evidence, a lack of critical thinking. But to set against many excellent points of detail, the book is built around one big idea, and it’s that idea that I’m less keen on. This is the argument – implicit in the title – that we should try to construct some kind of identity politics based around those of us who self-identify as being interested in and informed about science – the “geeks”. I’m not sure that this is possible, but even if it was, I think it would be bad for science and bad for politics. This isn’t to say that public life wouldn’t be better if more people with a scientific outlook had a higher profile. One very unwelcome feature of public debate is the prevalence of wishful thinking. Comfortable beliefs that fit into people’s broader world-views do need critical examination, and this often needs the insights of science, particularly the discipline that comes from seeing whether the numbers add up. But science isn’t the only source of the insights needed for critical thinking, and scientists can have some surprising blind-spots, not just about the political, social and economic realities of life, but also about technical issues outside their own fields of interest.
But first, who are these geeks who Henderson thinks should organise? “Geek” was the one name I wasn’t called as a child, as it’s current usage hadn’t then crossed the Atlantic. The word has well-attested northern European roots, with connotations of a fool or a stupid person – in English fairground argot to “geck” someone is to fool them. But it was in the sideshows and carnivals of the USA that “geeks” were largely to be found. There, the dwarfs and giants, the bearded ladies and monkey-boys of the sideshow attractions were the “freaks”, while the “geeks” were physically typical people who did extreme things, often to themselves, to attract custom and attention, such as sticking nails up their noses or biting the heads off chickens. While the “freaks” were part of the aristocracy of the closed world of the showmen and carnies, “geeks” were regarded as inauthentic imitators. So as an insult, “geek” has a double force – as someone who indulges as repetitive, stupid and possibly self-destructive behaviour, and who yet, despite these extreme efforts, is still not wholly accepted in the group to which they aspire to belong. But just as, in the counterculture of the 1960’s, “freak” was reclaimed by those thus insulted as a badge of pride, so we’ve seen “geek” appropriated by those who as youths didn’t fit in, being more interested in science, maths and computers than sport and celebrities.
But if the word had been widely used in this way in my childhood, I’m sure I would have fitted the bill. I still have on my bookshelf the copy of “Mellor’s Modern Inorganic Chemistry” I acquired as a scientifically precocious ten year old. At a boarding school in rural mid-Wales at that time, I shared a surname with more than half the school, but that was pretty much all I had in common with a population of small boys obsessed with trapping small animals, poaching sewin and playing rugby. I did attempt to fit in by ill-advised, poorly executed and unsuccessful experiments to see if it was possible to stun fish using home-made explosives (and I take this opportunity to apologise for any hitherto unexplained pollution spikes in the River Ystwyth around 1971) but I remained an outsider, who would have made an ideal candidate for a geek identity.
And yet, why should we think that geeks really can form a single group, with a homogenous set of interests, from which one could build some kind of identity politics? And even if they do, doesn’t that contradict the broader aim of Henderson’s book, that public life in general ought to be more rational and sensible – surely rationality shouldn’t be restricted to a single interest group? Speaking for myself, perhaps I am a geek, but that’s not where my group identity comes from (not least, because my identity is strongly connected to my sense of being an outsider). One of the ways in which groups come together is through the development of a set of shared beliefs. I sense that we are seeing the emergence of something of a geek belief package to accompany this development of a geek identity. I’m sure I share a great deal of this, but by no means all, and actually I positively resent the idea that seems implicit that to be part of this movement I have to sign up to a few key shibboleths. For example, while I know that the claimed basis for homeopathy is clearly rubbish, I just can’t bring myself to think that the public toleration of homeopathy is the worst thing in the world (see the footnote for further justification of my ambivalence on this). Surely, though, you might argue, I must have in common with other geeks an understanding of and reliance on the scientific method? Well, no; here again we see the problems of trying to construct a single geek identity when science embraces a very wide variety of methodological approaches, styles of explanation and indeed ways of thinking.
For example, in common with other writing from cheer-leaders of the geek movement, Henderson emphasises randomised controlled trials (RCTs) as a pinnacle of the scientific method. Now, I understand why one needs RCTs for experiments in clinical medicine, and I can see the value – much stressed in Henderson’s book – for RCTs to test different interventions in social policy. But for many intellectual traditions in science, RCTs are simply unimportant and irrelevant. Looking back on my own training as an experimental physicist, on the one hand, I would hear quoted Rutherford’s apocryphal words “If your experiment needs statistics, you should have done a better experiment”, while on the other I didn’t entirely escape the blandishments of the Cavendish Laboratory’s nest of evangelical Bayesians. What I took from my training as I made a career at the messier end of condensed matter physics was an obsession for designing clean experiments in complicated systems together with (I hope) a reasonably thoughtful approach to data analysis. To such a physicist as me, doing a randomised controlled trial is in effect an admission that you don’t understand your system well enough to design a clean experiment (and of course I understand entirely why this must be the case in the difficult world of medicine and the even more difficult world of social science).
If identity forms one of the dimensions of politics, another involves power, and the way in which groups and interests that have power can maintain that position or be displaced from it. It is a recurring vice of those with a scientific or technical worldview to narrow the scope of discussions down from the political to the purely technical, and to deny the political dimensions of technical questions; this closing down rather often favours incumbent interest groups. So while the mythology of science often emphasises its revolutionary character, overturning received wisdoms with the power of evidence and critical thinking, history shows that science has often been used to support very conservative positions. The geek hero may be Galileo, fearlessly breaking the intellectual grip of the medieval church, but we shouldn’t forget the social Darwinists of late Victorian England, confidently arguing that the theory of Natural Selection justified the politics of laissez-faire capitalism, nor the racial scientists with their spurious justifications for colonialism. One can summarise conservative thought as a systematic attempt to argue that the way things are is the way things ought to be, and it’s not difficult to see how science can be used in support of these positions. While we should have learnt from Hume that you can’t get an ought from an is, that lesson doesn’t seem to have been learnt by many of those who combine an enthusiasm for evolutionary theory – and particularly evolutionary psychology – with Hayekian free-market liberalism.
In Henderson’s book, these issues come to a head in the chapter on environmentalism. Here it is the green movement that attracts Henderson’s blame for discrediting the science of climate change in the eyes of the public and politicians; because greens see economic growth and new technology as the cause of the problems of environmental degradation and climate change, they are only willing to accept solutions that involve a reduction in consumption in the rich west – “there is no place here for a dispassionate, method-blind approach to mitigating and adapting to climate change by any means necessary”. Now, my personal view of the fundamental position of the deep greens – that our problems will only be solved if a substantially smaller world population lives more simply – is that it is irresponsible and fundamentally inhumane, given their failure to specify how the fraction of humanity deemed surplus to requirements will be identified and removed (or indeed to volunteer to serve as part of that fraction). But I will give them credit for two things – they make explicit their vision of what they want society to look like, which is, after all, the proper business of politics. And they do confront the awkward truth that, given our current existential dependence on fossil fuel energy, the challenge of climate change isn’t something to be overcome by a few technical tweaks.
For Henderson, one of the technical solutions to climate change is nuclear power; he quotes Mark Lynas as saying “the reason why nuclear power is so heavily opposed by the Greens is not because it can’t help to solve climate change, but because it can”. For Henderson, nuclear power, like nanotechnology and biotechnology, are “technical solutions which allow humanity to continue with something approaching business as usual, allowing sustainable growth and economic development without requiring significant changes to consumer and corporate behaviour, or to the capitalist system” . To speak personally again, I do think we should be moving much faster than we are to deploy new nuclear power stations (and for my views on nanotechnology, look around this blog), but nonetheless two aspects of these statements trouble me deeply. Firstly, wanting our current economic system to continue without change is not an apolitical position. On the contrary, it is a profoundly political position in itself, and there’s no reason to suppose it will command universal assent. Secondly, it leaves unexamined the credibility of the original claim that nuclear power actually can make a significant difference to climate change. Currently nuclear power accounts for 5.8% of the world’s energy requirements (12150 Mtoe) with 371 GW of installed capacity. Using the estimates of the World Nuclear Association, to decarbonise the world’s current electricity supply with nuclear now would require about 2,000 GW of capacity. But by 2050 we’d need 10,000 GW, to account for the increase in demand for energy and for an increasing share of energy being supplied through electricity. Even neglecting the need to replace the existing fleet, that amounts to completing one new 1 GW nuclear power station every day and a half for the next 38 years. This is a tall order – it’s roughly a factor of 10 faster than the roll-out of nuclear power in the 1980’s, sustained for a longer period. Perhaps this is not inconsistent with the laws of physics, but looking at progress so far I’m not sure about its compatibility with the laws of politics and economics. My point here is that even geek dreams need to be subjected to some critical examination.
There is a reason why climate change is such a profoundly difficult issue, that so resists attempts to separate the politics from science. If one accepts the science connecting human CO2 emissions with global warming (and in my opinion the scientific case for the effect is quite watertight, even if there is uncertainty about its magnitude and its likely effects on ecosystems and economies), and one fully understands the degree to which our prosperity and way of life depends on burning really substantial quantities of fossil fuels, it is difficult to maintain that things can continue much as they are. Henderson’s ire for those who mix the science and politics of climate change is reserved for the deep greens, who he blames for the resistance of conservatives to climate change science. I think this hugely underestimates the capacity of conservatives to realise for themselves that the existence of anthropogenic climate change poses a deep threat to their conviction that the way things are is largely the way things ought to be. And such conservatives don’t all by any means think of themselves as anti-science. Take, for example, today’s leading spokesman of the “cornucopianist” tendency – Matt Ridley – whose book “The Rational Optimist” explains that free market economics and technological progress will inevitably lead to universal prosperity and the progressive solution of our environmental problems. Ridley is a successful science writer, author of a string of well-regarded books on evolutionary biology, but this has not prevented him from expressing strong scepticism about climate change science. (It’s also not entirely irrelevant to note that he was also Chairman of the UK bank Northern Rock, whose failure during his tenure and subsequent nationalisation initiated the current financial crisis in the UK, and will lead to direct costs to the UK taxpayer estimated at £2 billion. I suspect his dislike of government intervention in the free market doesn’t extend to the idea of limited liability for bank chairmen. Ridley has admitted to failing fully to appreciate the risks his bank was exposed to, but pleads that people more expert than him didn’t appreciate those risks either).
This all brings to mind something George Orwell wrote – “People can only foresee the future when it coincides with their own wishes, and the most grossly obvious facts can be ignored when they are unwelcome”. Neither deep greens nor cornucopians are intrinsically anti-science; they simply predict a future that at some level accords with their wishes – whether that is the collapse of global capitalism or its triumph. Can we escape this trap? Orwell again: “I believe that it is possible to be more objective than most of us are, but that it involves a moral effort. One cannot get away from one’s own subjective feelings, but at least one can know what they are and make allowance for them.” The question is – are geeks necessarily any better than anyone else at this kind of critical thinking? Some would argue that science brings habits of objectivity, of following the data where it leads. There is something to this, but I’m not convinced that history shows this always to be the case. Some part of science is about gathering data without preconceptions, but much of it is about applying, with great focus and single-mindedness, a very tightly defined set of methods and ways of thinking.
To return to nuclear power, Henderson makes some sound arguments about the way the dangers of nuclear power have been overstated, and he’s quite right to make the comparison between the safety record of the nuclear industry and coal mining. The cheap energy that underpins our way of life has come at a considerable human cost – to add another example not mentioned by Henderson, what I believe to be the world’s worst energy-related disaster involved neither nuclear nor coal, but renewable hydroelectricity – 26,000 people were killed by flooding when the Banqiao Hydroelectric Reservoir Dam in Henan, China burst in August 1975. But there’s a danger of missing the point here. One of the lessons we should have learnt from analysing public reactions to issues like genetic modification of food or nuclear power is that the narrow question of risk isn’t the fundamental issue – the issue is one of trust. People do appreciate that technologies have risks and uncertainties attached to them, but they need to trust the institutions – whether these are private companies or government agencies – that control them. The nuclear industry does not have a great record of winning this trust.
There’s one way in which the development of a more coherent geek political bloc has both potential and danger – that is in the question of science funding. The potential arises because government science funding has much less political visibility than it deserves, so anything that raises its profile as a political issue must be a good thing. The danger is that scientists are seen as a special interest group, pleading for more tax-payers money for their own benefit, rather than as a group able to make a compelling case for science spending as a benefit of the nation as a whole. Henderson, for his “geekonomics” chapter, goes back to 2010 and the way the new coalition government, wishing to make substantial cuts in public spending, set the science budget. An unexpectedly fast-growing grass-roots movement initiated by Jenny Rohn – “Science is Vital” – raised the political profile of the decision, and there was general relief that the ultimate flat-cash budget settlement was not as bad as had been feared. I certainly shared this relief – having responsibility for research in a large research-intensive university, and having seen the contingency planning for likely budget cuts in research councils, I had some sleepless nights trying to work out how to minimise the potential terminal career damage to talented young scientists, given the likelihood, in plausible budget scenarios, that research councils would be terminating existing grants and expecting universities to make young researchers redundant before the end of their (already short-term) contracts. I was privileged and proud to be involved in the Royal Society’s study “The Scientific Century”, which assembled the evidence supporting the economic and social case for maintaining or growing government spending on science, and I did my best to make that case in public whenever I could (including the one occasion when I’ve met Mark Henderson in person, when he chaired an event I spoke at at the Cheltenham Science Festival – for my talk see: “Is debt putting British science at risk?”). And yet, what I learnt from that experience was that the arguments are less clear cut and the evidence less solid than one might think.
Even the driest economists concede the case in principle for public funding of science. What’s at issue is how much funding there ought to be, and how it is allocated – in particular how much emphasis you give to basic research as opposed to more applied efforts, how much is directed and how much is left to support the unfettered curiosity of researchers. Elite academic scientists are naturally in favour of more undirected, basic research and Henderson quotes a few of them to this effect. We do need to ask whether a narrow focus on economic measures of the benefit of science is helping us, or whether a broader definition of the public good that science should yield would be healthier. But if we accept that much of the justification for public science spending derives from economic arguments, we need to think about the broader innovation system that this basic research fits into. We need to recognise that our national innovation system has changed substantially in the last few decades (see my last post, The UK’s thirty year experiment in innovation policy), and understand that the biggest impact of those changes hasn’t been in basic, academic research, but in the decline of more applied research in both the government and private sectors. This has a huge potential impact on the ability of basic science to deliver the economic benefits that we are promising. My own view is that we now need to go beyond simple calls to increase science spending to a much wider consideration of how our current political economy helps or hinders the development of the innovation we need (themes I’ve begun exploring in posts such as “Good capitalism, bad capitalism and turning science into economic benefit” and When technologies can’t evolve. Given current economic problems – in the wider world but in the UK especially – we urgently need a much better understanding of the link between science and prosperity.
I’ve written a lot more than I first intended, and I’m conscious that this all reads rather critically. So I should stress again that I’m glad that Henderson has written this book (though I might have preferred a different title), there’s much that I entirely agree with that I haven’t discussed here at all (for example, the chapters on science education, science in the media and science in the courts). The issues that surround the interactions between science and politics aren’t straightforward, and anything that begins a discussion on them is welcome.
My thanks to my colleague Professor Vanessa Toulmin, curator of the National Fairground Archive at Sheffield, for guidance on the origins of the word “geek”. The Orwell quotation comes from his London Letter to Partisan Review, December 1944, from volume 3 of his collected essays, journalism and letters. Energy statistics are from the International Energy Authority – Key World Energy Statistics. Estimates on the amount of nuclear new build needed to decarbonise world energy supplies are from the World Nuclear Association – World Nuclear Energy Outlook. Ridley’s comments on Northern Rock are from How Darwin would reform Britain’s banks. Sewin is the name given to sea-trout in mid and west Wales. They’re the most delicious of all fishes, whether obtained legally or otherwise.
Why do I think that tolerating homeopathy isn’t the worst thing in the world, despite the fact that it has no scientific justification and clinical trials reveal it to be no more effective than a placebo? To answer that, first recall that the placebo effect can be very real – people who’s health improves as a result of a placebo often don’t just feel better, they have real and measurable health benefits. This, of course, is why it is so important to use careful randomised controlled trials for clinical testing of new drugs. It seems likely that the placebo effect can be particularly effective for a number of conditions that while not life threatening, are chronic and debilitating. So why doesn’t conventional medicine make more use of the placebo effect? Firstly, because, for the placebo effect to work, patients must believe the treatment is real, and we don’t think it’s ethical for doctors to lie to their patients. And secondly, for it to be most effective, the doctor has to believe in the treatment too. This, of course, is why one has to go to so much trouble to make clinical trials double blind, so patients don’t pick up unconscious cues from their doctors that they are being given non-physiologically active treatments.
Here’s a thought experiment about how you might implement a scheme that exploited the placebo effect. You would need remedies that were completely biologically inactive, so there was no danger of any side-effects. Pure water fits the bill perfectly. Then you’d need to construct a rationalisation of why your remedy might work that was convincing enough not just to persuade patients of its effectiveness, but to allow you to train a group of specialists to administer the remedies who themselves be convinced of the rationalisation for their effectiveness. You might invoke some fictional phenomenon that related to a difficult and little known area of science that was already controversial and in which definitive experiments were hard to come by – the short-range structure of liquid water might well be an area you could latch onto.
Would this be ethical? To a strict utilitarian, who weighted individual freedom above abstractions about the health of wider society, it might be, as long as safeguards were introduced to make sure that people weren’t denied conventional medicine where it would be effective – because of the power of the placebo effect, a substantial number of people, perhaps with long-standing mild depression or chronic pain, would have had their lives improved. But many people, including me, would regard as unacceptable the cost by which those benefits were obtained, in terms of the compromised integrity of a society where such an act of collective deception could take place.
Of course, the scheme I described corresponds pretty closely to the situation of homeopathy, with this difference – in the case of homeopathy, this situation has arisen spontaneously, without (I believe) an act of conscious deception. For many people, even without conscious deception this situation remains an affront to the principles of a rational society so great that it cannot be outweighed by any number of patients who might have benefitted from it. I sympathise with this view. But given all the other problems of the world, and given that we’re balancing an abstract principle about society against some real benefits to individuals, I wonder whether in this case it wouldn’t hurt too much to let sleeping dogs lie.