Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Book Review “The Geek Manifesto” by Mark Henderson

The Geek Manifesto: Why Science Matters
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.


  1. Hi Bee

    Thanks for a nice review of a book whose premise also strikes a chord in me. However as since you say it’s mainly just preaching to the choir I think I’ll leave this one alone. Then again I’m wondering what a scientifically minded person could demonstrate to the non geeks of the world that would have them convinced more general decision making would be better off to adopt the philosophy; that is with first including their own. However my idea of what constitutes to being a scientific perspective extends past just the bare bones of the philosophy, as to encompass the broader nature of such a mindset, with being as to understanding how such becomes to be acquired. One thing for certain if a book with such ability is ever written I would become like a Gideon as to dedicating myself to having it widely and freely distributed.

    "My suggestion is that at each state the proper order of operation of the mind requires an overall grasp of what is generally known, not only in formal logical, mathematical terms, but also intuitively, in images, feelings, poetic usage of language, etc. (Perhaps we could say that this is what is involved in harmony between the 'left brain' and the 'right brain'). This kind of overall way of thinking is not only a fertile source of new theoretical ideas: it is needed for the human mind to function in a generally harmonious way, which could in turn help to make possible an orderly and stable society. As indicated in earlier chapters, however, this requires a continual flow and development of our general notions of reality."

    -David Bohm, “Wholeness and the Implicate Order”, Introduction p.xiv



    P.S. The general term I prefer to describe such people is NERD. That is for Neurologically Enabled Rational Dude or Dame :-)

  2. This echoes some of your sentiments:


  3. Hi Phillip,

    Speed Meet a Geek? Sounds like a conference reception, ha-ha. But, yes, it's a stupid word. My first association to "geek" is "eek", the next is "nerd", it goes downhills thereafter. Best,


  4. Hi Phil,

    I think we discussed this earlier. I believe education is highly influential here. People develop some strategy to analyse and address problems very early in life. Do you know anybody who went non-scientist to scientist past the age of, say, 25? I mean, in attitude, not in profession. I don't. That sadly makes me think it's a generational problem that will take 50 years or so to be solved, provided we manage to realize a helpful strategy. Best,


  5. "Do you know anybody who went non-scientist to scientist past the age of, say, 25? I mean, in attitude, not in profession."

    Well, he was a bit younger than 25, but Ed Witten is an example of someone who came to physics at a much later age than most people (he had previously dropped out of studying economics). (OK, he made up for it by becoming a professor at Princeton before he was 30.) Whether or not he had a scientific attitude before he started working in science, I don't know.

  6. Hi Bee,

    I suspect what you fear may be true, as I can’t personally think of such a person and also know that when I do attempt to discuss a problem or an issue within a scientific context I find myself being often the only one in the room who might understand my perspective. Now as you know I’m not a scientist, yet I do work regularly among engineers and yet even here if the issue is not something standing in direct relation to their specialty their positions on other matters I find are not well addressed within such a context. Moreover as I’ve noted before this growing atheistic movement which attaches itself to science is for the most part only gathering believers as opposed to increasing the numbers of the enlightened. That’s why I also think such manifestos don’t stand much of a chance as having a meaningful impact if one actually considers the goal. That is to first to have ignorance and the ignorant so narrowly defined from my point of view is like recognizing only one possible symptom while ignoring the disease.



  7. Mingling with the science nerds can have its benefits through conversation?:)

    Do you know anybody who went non-scientist to scientist past the age of, say, 25? I mean, in attitude, not in profession. I don't

    Asking for validations and proofs now would require me to ask you for some documentation on that supposition?:)

    Phil, engineers do need to get their hands dirty and not just live in a "highly abstract world" which by which system can sometime cost many thousands of dollars. So I feel for you.:)It is good to have a sounding board if they are open to the insights.

    So I think what I am hearing is that it is about "just getting involved with the issues in society? Then, from a scientific viewpoint, how would you approach the problems.

    A biologist might have the view point sociologically very much differently and have something different to add about the issues.

    I think that would be an interesting listen "as to the approach" by that individual. To see it, in a different light.


  8. It was not a supposition, but a statement of experience that was clearly expressed as such.

  9. The cover is hilarious. Do you feel like a modern proletarian Bee?

  10. I find the cover pretty awful. To begin with, it's a signal color for emergencies and reminds me of ambulances and paramedics. The last book I read with an orange cover was Lisa Randall's warped passages, and the orange dramatically bleached away after a couple of years (now it doesn't only look awful, but also sickly). I'm not a chemist, which is what I guess the image is supposed to allude to. What the image actually reminds me of is a type of soda that used to be sold in France and came in funnily shaped glass bottles. Granted, they had a somewhat different shape, but anyway. I sympathize with the proletarian roots of social democracy, but I wouldn't call myself a proletarian. I guess I'm too detached from the labor unions for that. Best,


  11. truth is most low level researchers are trully been proletarized. If you doubt you may try to find out how it feels doing things like basic research in a state like Greece nowadays.

  12. The mob wants to be in church not in lab. Every civilization eventually takes flush toilets for granted, then condemns them in favor of more "natural" solutions. The more "natural" solutions include cholera and dysentery (tests of faith to shrive the faithful). The proletariat is a collective ass.

    The other solutions are imaginary.

    (Not forgetting Emily Noether, Lisa Meitner, Rosalin Yallow, Rosalind Franklin... because individuals always outperform committees. No desirable future is painted in beige.)

  13. When I went to high school, there was no such thing as words like "nerd" or "geek," so I was always referred to as a "brain." And it wasn't a put down, it was actually used respectfully.

    Anyhow, if I were trying to survive as an intelligent young adult in today's world, I'd resent hell out of people who used "nerd" or "geek" to describe someone with an interest in literature, serious music, art or science. And I think it says something about our society that such terms are currently so fashionable in the media.

    I think it has something to do with how we are so going down the tubes these days in so many important respects.

    People who get a kick out of using such degrading terms to describe people more intelligent than themselves should also have an appropriate nickname. I think I have one: jerks.

  14. Thanks for your book review.
    Coincidentally I saw that very book today in the store, and I was considering it for a while. You made my decision much easier.

    PS: I actually like the title "geek". Here seems to exist some confusion concerning "geek" and "nerd" etc.
    Let me cite my favorite definition from urban dictionary:

    One of four titles used to classify someone based on their technical and social skills. The other three titles are nerd, dork, and normie. The difference between the four titles can be easily shown in table form:

    ................ Technical ...... Social
    Title ............ Skills ......... Skills
    ---------- ---------------- ------------
    Normie ......... No ............. Yes
    Geek ........... Yes ............. Yes
    Nerd ............ Yes ............. No
    Dork ............ No .............. No

    Normie: A normal person. Blah.

    Geek: An outwardly normal person who has taken the time to learn technical skills. Geeks have as normal a social life as anyone, and usually the only way to tell if someone is a geek is if they inform you of their skills.

    Nerd: A socially awkward person who has learned technical skills due to the spare time they enjoy from being generally neglected. Their technical knowledge then leads normies to neglect them even further, leading to more development of their technical skills, more neglection, etc. This vicious cycle drives them even more into social oblivion.

    Dork: A person who, although also socially awkward, doesn't have the intelligence to fill the void with technical pursuits, like a nerd, and is forced to do mindless activities. Almost always alone. Usually with an XBox. Like playing Halo. All day. Every day. Not even understanding how the Xbox is making the pretty pictures on the screen. Very sad."

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