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A Change For The Better: The Geek Manifesto – An Interview With Mark Henderson

Curiouser and Curiouser

Kylie Sturgess

August 6, 2012

After the first QEDCon in 2011, I interviewed Mark Henderson for Token Skeptic Episode #55, while attending a session of the Westminster Skeptics in the pub. We talked about a book he was in the process of writing while working as the Science Editor for The Times newspaper. That book, The Geek Manifesto: Why Science Matters, is out now. Here’s a selection:

Whether we want to improve education or cut crime, to enhance public health or to generate clean energy, science is critical. Yet politics and public life too often occupy a science-free zone.

In the UK, ministers ignore, and even sack, scientific advisers who offer inconvenient evidence. The NHS spends taxpayers’ money on sugar pills it knows won’t work, while public funding for research that would boost the economy is cut. Groundless media scares, taken up by politicians who should know better, poison public debate on vaccines and climate change, GM crops and nuclear power.

Something is stirring among those curious kids who always preferred sci-fi to celebrity magazines. As the success of Brian Cox and Ben Goldacre shows, geeks have stopped apologising for an obsession with asking how and why, and are starting to stand up for science instead. The Geek Manifesto shows how people with a love of science can get political, to create a force our leaders can no longer afford to ignore.

Mark Henderson is Head of Communications at the Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation dedicated to achieving extraordinary improvements in human and animal health by supporting the brightest minds in biomedical research and the medical humanities. Before joining the Trust in January 2012, Mark was Science Editor of The Times, where he built a reputation as one of Britain’s foremost science journalists and commentators.

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The Geek Manifesto book cover

Mark Henderson: I've been fantastically pleased with the response that the book has received since it came out. The Geek Manifesto: Why Science Matters is a book that explores the relationship between science and politics and some of the disconnects but also, I think, celebrates a rise of what you might call “geek pride” over the last few years that I think got real potential to improve the way that science is both used by politics and can contribute to politics as well over the coming years.

Kylie Sturgess: So it's good that it's heading out to politicians, then, for them to read and reflect upon…

Henderson: It is! One of the backdrops to the book, and something that I quote within it, is that we have 650 members of Parliament in the UK. And of those, 158 have a background in business and ninety have a background in professional politics. There are eighty-six lawyers, there are thirty-eight people from the media, and there is just one professional scientist: Julian Huppert. He is the MP for Cambridge, and is the only MP who has both a science PhD and who has actually worked professionally as a scientist. Even if you start to cast the net wider for those with science backgrounds, or with a science degree of any sort, there's only about twenty.

I don't know what the statistics are for Australia, but I would be surprised if it's many more. Indeed, if you look worldwide, it's very rare for there to be large numbers of people with a background in science in politics. In the US Senate, for example, there are 100 senators: fifty-five lawyers…and no scientists at all.

Obviously, you don't have to be a trained scientist or a professional scientist to really understand what science has to offer and how its skeptical approach to thinking and problem solving, its applying tests of evidence to everything, and its observing and testing is valuable. What that can bring to public life and so on. You don't have to be a trained scientist to understand that, but it does help. Not only do you have an underrepresentation of science in politics, but you've also got a situation where, with limited experience of science, politicians end up making decisions when they come to manage science funding, regulation, that kind of thing, that are often very bad and that are made without knowing what the consequences of those decisions on science actually will be.

For example, in the UK recently, the government is bringing in an immigration cap that really would impact very severely on science, which, as I'm sure you know, is an international game now. You need to be able to recruit from India, from China, all over the place. And that wasn't deliberate, but with little experience of how science actually operates, what it's like to work in a lab, et cetera—that aspect of what policies impact was overlooked.

But another, which is in many ways more important, is—and Carl Sagan put this really well—that science isn't just a body of knowledge, it's also a way of thinking. I think that aspect of science is not fully appreciated by enough politicians; that actually, the skeptical and critical thinking that is part of science could be a much bigger part of effective policymaking.

Sturgess: You came to this work as someone with a background in history?

Henderson: Yes, I did a history degree—I got into science by accident. I was working as a journalist at The Times and was asked/told by the editor to cover science. But the more I got involved, the more I started to enjoy it and started to really appreciate the rigorous problem-solving aspect of science.

The fact is that—as Sagan puts it—it's not just about what we know; it's about how we know it. It's the most reliable way that we have of finding things out about the world. And, better yet, so much of science’s strength is drawn from the fact that it's always provisional. Everything can be revised in light of better evidence.

I don't think that's something I ever properly appreciated before I started to cover science as a journalist, despite being previously well taught about the knowledge involved in science. And that really took me off into what is now a career in science communication, and is something that I value very highly indeed.

I guess my background as a non-scientist is significant to writing this book, because it led me to know and understand how it is that so many people from other academic backgrounds or no academic background at all, often, I think, misunderstand science and don't really quite appreciate what it has to offer. They don't do that, for the most part, because they're in any meaningful way anti-science. They're not generally hostile to science.

This applies, I think, to most politicians, too. It's far more that they're indifferent to science. They've never really engaged with it, thought about it in a constructive way. It's ignorance in the really non-pejorative sense of just not knowing about it.

Sturgess: One of the other things that I thought was a key to your book was, of course, the libel case and Simon Singh. Do you think that there always has to be a “Simon Singh,” to prod people to be activists?

Henderson: This is where the optimistic half of the book comes in. My argument is that politicians abuse or misrepresent or misuse or simply ignore science largely because there's no political cost to doing so. I think one of the reasons that there's no political cost is something that those of us who care about science, who really appreciate it, have to blame ourselves for. To a large extent, we don't create that cost. We don't make science a voting issue, a campaigning issue, something that we lobby our MPs sufficiently over.

A good example of this is the Simon Singh case, where he, a prominent science writer, was sued by chiropractors for making some quite moderate criticisms of the evidence behind their practice. He was sued for libel over that, and that then kicked up a groundswell of popular support from ordinary geeks—skeptics, science bloggers, and the like. These people got behind him, steeled his nerve to actually fight the case, helped his legal team out with demolishing the case against him, and because of this he eventually won. And then, really critically, he took that further into a lobbying campaign to try and persuade MPs that this injustice, or narrowly averted injustice, really illustrated why the libel laws needed to be reformed.

In fact, the English libel laws are being reformed at the moment; a bill was tabled in the Queen's Speech, in fact, just a day before the book was published, which is terrific. My case is that we can do much more than we've historically done to make science something that features on the political agenda in a meaningful way. I think that involves our voting behavior. It involves lobbying MPs. There's a great deal that we can do there.

Sturgess: You also seem very optimistic about the use of social media—Twitter, blogging, etc.—and I was particularly pleased to see the emphasis on blogging and naming of a few activists out there who are making their mark by prompting action online.

Henderson: Well, I think the key thing about social media is that it's enabled people of like mind to find one another. Actually, first of all, it has enabled people to join together on campaigns, as happened on the Singh case, and through that, to realize that there are more of them out there than they thought. That there are more people out there who share our opinions. I think that knowledge, that you're part of a much bigger whole, is really valuable when it comes to motivating people to act and to do things. That if you write a letter or an email to your MP, you're probably not the only person out there who cares about these issues, and that if you do it, many others will as well.

One of the nice things about the campaign to send my book to two MPs is that it's being done through this website called PledgeBank, where everybody says, “I'll send a copy to my MP if a whole bunch of other people do the same thing.” In fact, my publisher agreed to match this so that we only had to get to 325 pledges. We've done that, and the letters are going out now. And really encouragingly, quite a lot of MPs are writing back and saying, “I'm glad you've drawn my attention to this. I'll read it and I'll look at it with interest.

Sturgess: This is, of course, my own personal bias, but I really enjoyed the chapter on education in particular! Were you surprised when you started delving into that field, to learn about how science and education has so many challenges, particularly for the training of teachers?

Henderson: What I think education illustrates so well is that which science as a problem-solving tool could contribute to public policy much more constructively than it does. Take health care: we expect the drugs that we take to be tested by the most robust and rigorous methods available, to make sure that they're effective before we take them. We expect them to go through, basically, randomized controlled trials, which is really the strongest evidence you can have.

Now, in many ways, education is as critical for people's life as their health is, and yet the standard of evidence that we require for teaching techniques is so much lower. The randomized controlled trial is such a powerful approach to finding out what works and what doesn't, because if you simply select people for one intervention rather than another one as a result of random allocation, you take all the other confounding factors that could potentially explain an effect out of the equation. This allows you to really know that what you're testing is something from which you can get a result.

We don't use that approach nearly enough when it comes to figuring out what works for methods of teaching. Take, for example, phonics, which is the currently fashionable method of teaching children to read. There is a lot of quite interesting preliminary evidence, short of randomized controlled trials, that suggests it's a good technique. But it’s all heavily disputed. It's largely something that's argued out on ideological lines. And yet, it's the question that is eminently resolvable by doing a randomized controlled trial, and that just hasn't happened sufficiently.

Sturgess: It seems such a huge gap in knowledge between the potential of having teachers who aren't properly trained in physics, aren't properly trained in chemistry, perhaps failing to pass on knowledge to the next generation. I was surprised that there weren't more comments...

Henderson: There is that aspect, too. I think something else about education is that it is where this spreading of the idea that science is not just facts that we learn, but rather an approach to knowledge needs to come in. I really don't think it has, historically speaking. I don't think that science tends to be taught that way sufficiently. It's starting to change. There are a lot of teachers who take this very seriously. In the UK curriculum, there is now this module called “How Science Works” that is meant to do that. Unfortunately, I don't think it was introduced well. It was introduced on the curriculum, essentially saying to science teachers who'd been trained in a very different way, “Just teach this,” without looking in a structured way at how they should teach it.

Sturgess: Unfortunately, the politicians of tomorrow are currently in school today. So having a good science background for them is obviously vital…

Henderson: It is. But it's never too late to learn that approach to knowledge. I think that's the thing I really appreciate deeply myself, having come to it in my twenties rather than in my teens. It is something that I don't want to give up on with the politicians who are in office already, never mind the next generation. I really think that we as a community can do a lot more to let them know about what science could contribute to what they do.

For example, I spent some time last year with a Conservative MP in the UK, Nicola Blackwood, who took part in a collaborative effort with a scientist, Professor David Wark, a physicist. She's not a scientist by background; she's a musician. She hadn't, by her own admission, really thought much about science at all before taking part in the effort.

One of the things she said when we were talking about all of this was she really encouraged people, her constituents, to write to her about these issues when they become relevant, because she said—and I thought this was really illustrative, a really important point—that when a lot of her constituents write to her about something, she doesn't necessarily feel duty-bound to agree with them.

But what she does feel duty-bound to do is to find out about the topic and make sure that she's properly informed about it, and that she can make her own decision about what she thinks from a position of knowledge rather than a position of ignorance.

I think that is more than half of the battle with getting science onto the political agenda. It's getting politicians to think about it at all. I think if we can do that, it would be a big step. Most politicians are not stupid. They're not venal. They're not corrupt. They are people who are in politics, by and large, for the right reasons. They just haven't really encountered science sufficiently to really appreciate how it could help them to do their job better.

I think it's incumbent on those of us who do realize how it could play that role to make them aware of it.

Sturgess: So what do you have planned next?

Henderson: Well, I think it's a matter of trying to apply some of the lessons from science to topics that come up in politics. It's always difficult to know exactly what the next issue that will be relevant to things of this nature, and thus I think we need to go into politics or approach politics with an open mind to that. That said, there are a couple of things that are obviously coming up in the near future.

Next year in the UK, we're likely to have another comprehensive spending review that will look at science budgets. It's very important that the voice of science and what it can contribute is heard in that context. So that's definitely one challenge that's up ahead.

Looking a little beyond that, there will be a general election here in 2015. These are issues that I think are sometimes easier to bring to a head at election time; we want to make science one of those issues that people who are running for prime minister and MP will see that they need to have a well thought out position upon.

We might not agree with everything that politicians say on science issues. And indeed, geek skeptics are going to disagree amongst themselves on this. But if we can just make science one of the issues that has to be on the table in the first place, then we will have moved closer towards success.

Sturgess: So people who care have to start insisting that the politicians care, too.

Henderson: That's absolutely right. Politics will, I think, start to do science better—but only when science starts to do politics better.

The Geek Manifesto: Why Science Matters official site can be found at http://geekmanifesto.wordpress.com.

Kylie Sturgess

Kylie Sturgess is the host of the Token Skeptic podcast and regularly writes editorial for numerous publications and the Token Skeptic blog. She was the co-host for the Global Atheist Convention in 2010 and 2012. An award-winning Philosophy teacher, Kylie has lectured on teaching critical thinking and anomalistic beliefs worldwide. In 2011 she was presented with the Secular Student Alliance Best Individual Activist Award and presented at the World Skeptics Congress 2012.