Book review: The Geek Manifesto

"I could not have written this book four or five years ago," Mark Henderson said in a recent visit to the Westminster Skeptics. "The problems were there, but the solutions were not.

"I could not have written this book four or five years ago," Mark Henderson said in a recent visit to the Westminster Skeptics. "The problems were there, but the solutions were not. We are part of the solution."

Henderson, a former science correspondent for The Times, was there to talk about his new book, The Geek Manifesto: Why Science Matters (he will be making another appearance at the London Skeptics in the Pub on Thursday 24 May). It makes a relatively simple point: science suffers at the hands of politicians because few politicians know much about it, and — this is the key point — we let them.

We should stop letting them, and for all sorts of reasons, which Henderson details in chapters on politics, the media, healthcare, government, education, the justice system, the economy and the environment. In each case, Henderson outlines the many ways in which we fail to use or respect the ways science can help make better decisions. "Science abuse" isn't a crime, but maybe it ought to be.

The effects are wide-ranging and varied, as Henderson lays out. Education, for example, proceeds as a series of nationwide experiments based on the latest fad — why are there no pilot tests to determine whether phonics or whole words is a better method of teaching kids to read? In criminal justice, drugs policy has long been driven by policy rather than evidence — in fact, when scientific advice conflicted with the Home Office's intentions, the advisor, David Nutt, was ousted. The Forensic Science Service, which had the expertise to solve rare and complicated criminal cases, was closed down in March over the objections of the companies that were supposed to take over its functions. Media and scientists fail to engage with each other, leading to erroneous and sensationalist reporting and mutual distrust. The government cuts science research, yet still funds homoeopathy on the NHS despite expert advice that it does not work.

Where Henderson gets into more contentious waters is in his discussion of such media and political hot potatoes as global warming, nuclear power and genetically modified foods. Here, while agreeing that climate change is a real problem, he criticises Greenpeace for cherry-picking the science it likes (climate change) and rejecting the science it doesn't (evidence against the efficacy of alternative medicine). Fukushima and Chernobyl, he argues, were exceptional cases that should not put us off nuclear power, which Henderson describes as "considerably safer than its principal alternatives" — and certainly lower in carbon emissions than the coal-fired plants that are being built instead. Organic farming requires greater use of land, and feeding 7 billion people (soon to be 9 billion) will require every tool we can create — including GM foods. Green activists' intransigence in telling people to buy less, travel less, eat less meat and have fewer children has, he says, paved the way for the emergence of right-wing climate change denialism.

The question Henderson leaves open is how someone with an average understanding of science is supposed to choose among competing ideas, all of which sound scientific and claim the backing of scientists, but some of which are wrong.

He finishes up with a multi-point platform on which to found a movement: the 'geek manifesto' itself. The goal is not so much to push specific policies but to change how policies are made — to evidence-based policy rather than policy-based evidence. Geeks, unite! You have nothing to lose but your indifference.

The Geek Manifesto: Why Science Matters
By Mark Henderson
Bantam Press
326 pages
ISBN: 978-0-593-06823-6

Wendy M Grossman