By Mark Henderson
Bantam Press (10 May 2012)
Henderson’s book is a well-structured and timely summary of why science, both scientific knowledge and the scientific method, matters for the well-being of our societies. Henderson covers seven different areas: why science matters to politics, the government, the media, the economy, education, in court, in healthcare and to the environment. In each case, he has examples of current problems, mostly from the UK and to a lesser extent from the USA, that he uses to arrive at recommendations for improvement.
The book is quite impressive in the breadth of topics covered. The arguments that Henderson leads are well thought through and he has hands-on suggestions for what can be done, for example how and why scientists should take the time to correct journalists, how and why to communicate their concerns to members of the parliament, why random controlled trials matter not only in health care but also for general policies and educational practice, and so on.
“The manifesto’s aim is to win your broad support for its central proposition: that a more scientific approach to problem-solving is applicable to a surprisingly wide range of political issues, and that ignoring it disadvantages us all.”That having been said, the book is clearly addressed at people who know the value of and apply the scientific method, people he refers to as “geeks.” I’ll admit that I’m not very fond of this terminology. If I hear “geek” I think of a guy who can fix a TV with a fork and salt, and who can recite Star Wars backwards in Klingon. What’s wrong with “scientists”, I am left to wonder?
There’s some more oddities about this book. To begin with it’s set in Times, and the text is in several places broken up with large quotes that repeat a sentence from the page. You see this very frequently in magazines these days, with the idea to get across at least a catchy sentence or two, but it doesn’t make any sense whatsoever to do this in a book every 30 pages or so. It’s just plainly annoying one has to read the same sentence twice.
I’ll also admit that I’m not following British politics whatsoever and most of the names that are being dropped in this book don’t tell me anything. It’s a strangely UK-centric vision of what is a much broader issue really. Plenty of twists and turns of UK politics did not make a compelling read to me. That’s really unfortunate, because Henderson has a lot of good points that are relevant beyond the borders of his country.
Basically, Henderson’s message can be summarized as urging “geeks” to become more active and more vocal about their frustration with how scientific evidence and methods are being treated in various realms of our society. As a call to action however the book is far too long and, being addressed to readers who are fond of science already, it’s preaching to the choir. Thus, it’s a good book, by all means: well-argued, well-referenced, well-written – but I doubt it’ll achieve what its author hopes for.
I have to add however that it is good to see somebody is at least working into the direction of addressing this systemic problem that I’ve been writing about for years. I think that the root of our global political systems is that scientific knowledge and thinking is not, at present, well-integrated into our decision making processes. Instead we have an unfortunate conflation of scientific questions and questions of value when it comes to policy decisions. These really should be disentangled. But I’m preaching to the choir...
You may like “The Geek Manifesto” if you have an interest in how science is integrated into our societies, and what the shortcomings are with this integration. I’d give this book three out of five stars, which is to say I had to fight the repeated desire to skip over a few pages here and there.