by Judith Curry
British journalist Mark Henderson makes a passionate case for why science and scientists deserve a greater role in politics in The Geek Manifesto. But he offers no discussion — much less remedy — for “geeks” who play politics via science. Increasing the influence of scientists won’t clean up our politics; for that, we simply need to practice better politics, which means holding institutions and authorities, including scientists, accountable to the public. – Roger Pielke Jr.
Roger Pielke Jr
At Breakthrough, Roger Pielke has a post entitled Should Scientists Rule? Excerpts:
Henderson 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.”
Ultimately, I disagree with the book’s bottom line call for a political movement centered on science as an organizing theme.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Keith Kloor has a post on this book entitled Science Geeks Ready to Rumble, which includes an interview with Mark Henderson and discussion of Pielke Jr’s points:
KK: In a sharply critical review of your book, Roger [Pielke Jr] is among those who argue that such special treatment is counterproductive, because scientists, like everyone else, have views that are informed by politics and/or ideology. Thus, conflict and politicization of issues often follows when scientists wrap their own personal views in the mantle of science. Would you like to now offer some advice on this?
MH: He’s right of course that geeks – by which I mean those who appreciate science, not necessarily “credentialed scientists” as Roger mistakenly asserts – have all sorts of political viewpoints. And that we are all, geeks included, prone to confirmation bias, cognitive dissonance and all the other foibles of judgement to which the human mind is prone. Some geeks, it is absolutely true, have been known to twist science themselves to serve a political purpose.
I don’t endorse those who do this at all. How should geeks be held accountable? In the same way as everyone else – by the levers of democracy. I make it very, very clear in the book that I am not advocating some sort of technocratic rule-by-scientists, and that there are occasions – many occasions – where it is perfectly proper for democratically-elected politicians to disregard scientific evidence when they consider this trumped by other factors. Science and evidence are almost always necessary for good decision-making, but they are very rarely sufficient.
What I do want, though, is for the evidence to be weighed, considered, and published, and for decisions that are made for reasons of ideology or valued to be explained as such, and not justified according to spray-on evidence that doesn’t really exist. I don’t think science deserves a special place in politics – it is one of many factors that properly go into most political decisions. But it deserves to be considered fairly as one of these factors – the examples I quote in the book show that all too often it is not. It’s the difference between arguing for a greater role for science, which I unashamedly do, and a special place, which I do not.
KK: Roger points out that in your book, you rightly criticize green campaigners who go too far with some of their claims. But he also complains that you let the scientists–who sometimes aid and abet such exaggerated rhetoric–off the hook. Are you letting scientists off too easy?
MH: To some extent, I probably am. This was one of the areas of Roger’s review that I thought had most merit. He is undoubtedly right that some scientists have happily encouraged, or at least, failed to challenge, overblown rhetoric from green campaigners – and other campaigners with other agendas as well. It isn’t much more helpful, for example, to portray GM crops as some sort of panacea for world hunger than it is to present them as an unalloyed evil with no contribution at all, and there are certainly scientists out there who have exaggerated this way.
Q. Roger also charges:
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?
Have you given special dispensation to the geeks without cause for such concern? Or are you not as worried about this as Roger?
MH: I would hope that other geeks would be in the forefront of the challenge!
This, I think, points towards the critique I am happiest to accept in Roger’s review – which is the difficulty that any “geek movement” might have in avoiding being painted as just another special interest. He’s right that this is a significant risk, and that, as he concludes, “the geeks should be very careful.” Roger is especially astute to point out that this risk grows once calls for better use of evidence in policy-making, and for greater scientific understanding in the political process, are joined by calls for increased funding. I’m also willing to accept that the book did too little to reflect the contrary literature on links between research funding and economic growth.
Overcoming this risk of politicization is difficult, but I think it can be done. It has to start with being equally hard on, and fair to, all political parties when they abuse evidence and damage science, leaving normal party loyalties aside. I’m with Roger, and Daniel Sarewitz, when they point out the dangers of US science’s increasingly close identification with Democratic politics. When the Obama Administration transgresses, geeks need to be every bit as robust as they were when Bush held the White House.
Ultimately, too, I think geeks have to get more politically active if political approaches to science are to change for the better. As I’ve said above, the problem isn’t by and large that politicians are anti-science. It’s indifference, a lack of engagement. Few politicians have much sense that there might be any kind of political price to pay if they handle science badly. It’s only by acting as more active citizens that those of us who care about science stand much chance of addressing that. Roger’s right that we have to be careful, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it at all.
KK: Can there be both a geek revolution and a check on its power?
MH: Absolutely. Democracy can, should, and generally does provide it. As I’ve said above, I do not think for a second that science should trump democracy. I’m not calling for a technocratic state, or for scientists on top, in authority, holding the levers of power.
If science really were an over-mighty elite wielding exceptional and undemocratic power over elected governments, I’d be in the vanguard of those calling for it to be cut down to size. But as I think I show quite successfully in the book, we’ve a long way to go before that becomes a serious threat.
The problem with science and politics isn’t that scientists are too active, too controlling, too spin-savvy and streetwise. It’s quite the reverse, that there aren’t enough of them who know their way around the corridors of power, or even how to make themselves heard by those in office, and there aren’t enough politicians and civil servants who have really engaged with science and appreciate what it has to offer. A political class with a stronger grasp of science, incidentally, would also be a stronger bulwark against scientists who do play politics with data, and try to twist it to suit their own ends.
Yes, let’s hold science to account. Geeks need to be very robust on malpractice – scientific fraud, for example, and non-publication of clinical trials. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. We can do huge amounts to improve the way politics uses, appreciates and exploits science to deliver more effective policies before we have to start worrying about technocratic rule.
JC comment: I am all in favor of better information informing policy making. For science to be more effective in informing policy making, science and scientists need to be held to a greater level of accountability. Geeks playing politics with science act to diminish the value of science qua science and in decision making. I don’t have any suggestions for a solution to this issue, but I thinking shining a light on the issue and discussing it is a first step.