10 July 2012

The Geek Manifesto: A rallying cry for evidence-based thinking

A review of new book The Geek Manifesto by guest blogger and long-time HMS Beagle Project advisor Anna Faherty.

I learned a new phrase while reading Mark Henderson’s new book The Geek Manifesto: “evidence abuse”. Like substance abuse, it might start small, but can soon escalate to dangerous proportions. Class A examples of evidence abuse include:
  • Evidence shopping – looking for evidence that supports your view and ignoring anything that doesn’t;
  • Imaginary evidence – citing fictitious evidence to support your view;
  • Clairvoyant evidence – prejudging that the evidence will support your view before it has even been gathered; and
  • Secret evidence – citing unpublished (and therefore inaccessible) evidence to support your view.

A former science editor of The Times, Henderson makes the case that, along with plain old fixing or mishandling of evidence, politicians on both sides of the Atlantic have a dangerous habit for all of the above. He discusses the importance of science within society, but more generally emphasises the importance of taking an evidence-based approach to public policy.

The examples of evidence abuse Henderson cites (as might be expected, the ten chapters of the book are supported by 58 pages of references) are a shocking read, especially when shown alongside sobering statistics about the underrepresentation of scientists – people who live and breathe evidence-based thinking – in the political process.

The Geek Manifesto is a call for anyone (both scientists and those who appreciate and understand the methods and value of science) to change this sorry state of affairs. In that sense, it is a much more practical book than that other beacon of evidence-based thinking, Bad Science by Ben Goldacre.

Goldacre’s book is a similarly shocking exposé of misrepresented or misappropriated science, yet riled readers (and I defy anyone not to be riled by the shenanigans of a certain ‘Dr’ Gillian McKeith) have little recourse to change the situation. Not so with The Geek Manifesto.

We can change things, says Henderson – and without too much effort. Some of his suggestions include:
  • Write to your MP, representative or senator about science issues, share useful information with them and let them know that their pursuit or support of evidence-based policy will encourage you to vote them into a second term.
  • Fact-check politicians’ policy announcements and embarrass any evidence abusers by publishing details to the world through social media.
  • Even if you’re not an expert, share your views in public consultations about government policy – otherwise the received view of the “general public” is likely to be that of those individuals who have been successfully mobilised by politically-savvy lobby groups, which may not always focus on the evidence.
  • Buy or access The Times on the days when its science supplement Eureka is published, or read and comment on the Guardian’s science blogs  (which are contributed to by HMS Beagle Project director Karen James). Both will demonstrate to the mainstream media that good quality science coverage pays.
  • Give friendly advice to journalists when you see them getting something wrong. If they fail to heed it, complain to their editor, or the Press Complaints Commission.
  • Join the Campaign for Science and Engineering and Science is Vital, or support Sense About Science.

Even if you don’t want to take the political process in hand yourself, The Geek Manifesto still provides a thought-provoking discussion of “why science matters” (the subtitle of the book) to a range of social issues, including education, the criminal justice system and economics as well as the more obvious areas of healthcare and the environment.

It includes an excellent summary of what science is (and what it is not) – my favourite part of which is the idea that science isn't a noun, it's a verb, which is rather reminiscent of Charles Darwin's penchant for “geologising”... While it’s a great idea to send every British MP a copy of the entire book, how many will actually read it? Printing out pages seven to nine and forcing them each to learn how science works by heart might perhaps be a more effective option.

Henderson also shares an insightful analysis of why the union of science and politics is so problematic – just like journalists and scientists, politicians and scientists think very differently and value different things. Changing your mind is de rigeur for scientists who come across new evidence; it’s a sign of weakness for a politician. Scientists value experiments and what they can learn from failure; politicians won’t admit that most new policies are in fact experiments and therefore fail to learn anything from them. Scientists want to answer questions; politicians want to talk about solutions. Scientists think their work, and “the numbers”, should do the talking; politicians want qualitative narratives about outcomes and impact. Scientists value evidence-based policy; politicians want policy-based evidence. And so on…

There’s no shying away from outlining the work scientists themselves need to do to improve their own lobbying and communication skills, though. Or of admitting that many policy decisions may ultimately go against the evidence – for a number of reasons. Henderson simply wants politicians to be honest if that turns out to be the case.

Still, the book isn’t just calling for politicians to be “intelligent consumers of science, [who] must know how to interrogate purportedly scientific findings to judge their reliability... be able to recognise the rules of thumb by which scientists evaluate others' work, such as good controls, peer-reviewed publication and republication, and ... have a feel for spotting extraordinary claims that require extraordinary evidence." 

Henderson is also aiming towards everyone having a sound appreciation of the wonder of science, the contributions it makes to the modern world and the power of its experimental methods – which can be applied to just about any part of our lives.

That’s an aim shared by the vision of the HMS Beagle Project. So, perhaps we should add another bullet point to the list above:

If you're not already a card-carrying geek, I recommend The Geek Manifesto, along with Goldacre's Bad Science, as an excellent way of getting up to speed on how science works, why it's important and how evidence is often abused, miscommunicated or full-on ignored at the general public’s expense. If you’re a scientist, you’ll find The Geek Manifesto shocking and inspirational in equal measure, and almost certainly be moved to do something about it. As an HMS Beagle Project supporter, you're already making a difference, but there's plenty more ideas in the book if you want to become more active.

Anna Faherty is a Cambridge University Natural Sciences graduate who specialised in physics and theoretical physics. She’s an award-winning lecturer and has developed school-level learning resources for a range of clients, including national government-funded institutions such as the Science Museum and the National Maritime Museum. Despite a shortage of specialist physics teachers, under Education Secretary Michael Gove’s policy would be unable to train as a school teacher – because she only achieved a third class degree. The evidence for Gove’s decision is unclear…

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I've been thinking about buying this book for a while now but have been put off by the title, I just don't like the word "geek"!. Still, I loved Bad Science and your review makes this book sound like required reading for anyone interested in science and evidence based policy. My copy has been ordered!