Listen up Nerds!
There has never been a better time to be a geek: what was once an insult has increasingly become a badge of honour. From public health and clean energy to education and crime, Mark Henderson argues that science matters to every aspect of society and politics. This talk was his rallying call to all geeks and wannabe geeks to join together in a new force our leaders cannot ignore. He begins with the Conservative MP, David Tredinnick, also known as the MP for Holland and Barrett for his love of alternative medicine. He’s also made some big claims against science and the unknown powers of the moon. Mark starts with Tredinnick because he has recently been voted into the Health Select Community by his peers where he has the most potential ‘to do damage’. Mark feels this proves an indifference toward science in the House of Parliament, that allow people like Tredinnick to be put in those positions of power.
To prove this point, Mark notes that there is only one scientist in the House of Parliament. Julian Huppert has a PhD in biological chemistry, worked in science and is a Lib Dem MP. Although there are many MPs with science degrees, Huppert is the only work to have worked in science and one of a handful with a PhD. There is a shortage of geeks in politics. With little experience in science, politicians tend to manage science badly in aspects such as funding. Cancer Research estimates that money for a new study and the first patient being recruited onto that study takes an average of 621 days, not a good way of maximising the benefits of science.
Mark turns our attention to the American scientist Carl Sagan, who said that science “is more than a body of knowledge, it’s a way of thinking.” Science is an approach to problem solving that should be applied to politics, a search for a better understanding and experimenting for the best result. John Maynard Keynes famously said: “when the facts change, I change my mind, what do you do?” A trait that is not often seen in politicians, they have a bad reputation for the way they handle and portray ‘facts’ and evidence.
Politicians love to use evidence to back up their claims. But they search for policy based evidence, evidence that supports what they want to do and close their mind to the bigger picture. Mark calls this ‘evidence abuse’ or ‘evidence shopping’. This is widely covered in his book that was here to discuss ‘The Geek Manifesto’. Unsurprisingly, all of the points and claims made by the author are backed up by evidence but he is carefully to show the full picture and not to be caught partaking in the same shopping he accuses the politicians of. Sagan’s approach is ignored too often. You wouldn’t buy a car that had no reverse gear, so why do we elect politicians that don’t believe in u-turns or have no reverse gear, no willingness to change their mind based on evidence as Keynes states.
The wider problem is this indifference between science and politics. We need a greater representation of the sciences in political areas. But why is this the case? Mark suggests that this might be our fault, we don’t look for these things in our candidates and we have not done enough to make science an issue that politicians cannot ignore. We don’t make science a priority and that has to change. Thankfully, it is changing and this is why Mark could publish his book now rather than five years ago when it would have been just a rant. Science and the geek are coming into the limelight with celebrity scientists such as Brian Cox and a higher awareness of scientific achievements such as the Large Hadron Collider. Science is finally being seen as something interesting and to be celebrated.