Non-Fiction Reviews

The Geek Manifesto: Why Science Matters

(2012) Mark Henderson, Bantam Press, £18.99, hrdbk, pp315, ISBN 978-0-593-06823-6


This is probably the most important book you will read this year (if not for a longer time). Yes, we all accept that there are many that believe in the efficacy of astrology and homeopathy, and that many do not believe on biological evolution, or that humans are having a significant impact on the global climate. Indeed worrying for sober science fiction fans that there are those that consider some of the tropes of this fictional genre are fact, such as that the US government has evidence of alien intelligence visiting Earth. Fair enough, you may accept that woolly thinking is not uncommon currency. But what really is worrying is that many politicians in the US do deny both evolution and anthropogenic climate change, and in Britain our beloved but cash-strapped, National Health Service spends millions each year on homeopathic medicines.

It is not just worrying that politicians can thing this way (and get away with it), it is downright scary!

Fortunately the majority in developed nations in N. America and W. Europe have a perspective based on rationale thought and a coherent consideration of the evidence. Unfortunately we are governed by those who let ignorance and prejudice sway… It is time for the geeks to stand up and be counted. This is the premise behind The Geek Manifesto: Why Science Matters.

The Manifesto begins with the recent rise in rationalism, for example challenging religious bigotry and successfully defending libel cases brought by disgruntled quacks. It then proceeds to layout some of the factors behind the tension between science and non-science in politics and how recent years (mainly though the internet and blogs) daft political notions based on non-science have been exposed, ridiculed and challenged. Most frighteningly (and for me it brought back many unwelcome memories from my science-policy heydays) how politicians pervert science by either ignoring it, making it up, or cherry picking only the results that seem to support their own ideas even when the principal balance of evidence overwhelmingly runs contrary to this.

We then get to see how science has been mistreated by the media (something of which everyone who has had a science education and/or is scientifically literate is all too aware) before a detailed analysis as to why science is important to the economy, health, the environment and education.

Finally there is a call for Geeks of the world to unite and for us, the rationale majority, to actively take the offensive.

Now, if all this seems jingoistic it undeniably is. However we have been so immersed in a society threaded by irrationality that we take it for granted. We do not stop to think, 'hang on, why should I take superstition, bigotry, and irrationality by those who shape my life for granted?' However let this thought flit across your mind, and then realise that there are millions out there who do believe in rationality just like you (even if their interests and nuance of lifestyle individually differs from your own) then you get the feeling that something really must be done.

This book goes beyond the fun-but-frightening reviews of irrationality, such as the wonderful Denying Science by John Grant or the passionate Dawkin's The God Delusion, but shows how some have made a difference by shining a light on ignorance.

There were a number of things that I (as someone who has formally been in this fight championing biologists) particularly liked about this book. I was appreciative that Henderson recognised that not all geeks are scientists: some are and some are not, even if all recognise the value of rationale scientific thought: 'geek' is a broader term than many realise. Similarly, as an environmental scientist (that is my first degree) I was particularly appreciative of Henderson using the term 'greens' rather than 'environmentalist': after all you do not say that 'physicists' marched to ban the bomb which would be one direct analogy. My dislikes of the book were neither many nor major. One very tiny error: there is currently no overall hard evidence that the frequency of hurricanes will increase with global warming (though their intensity might), but this complaint was just part of one sentence in the entire book and the science here is complex and you have to have read the primary literature to get a firm grasp on it. My one other complaint I want to share is my old bugbear of the copy editor needing to recognise that there is a difference between the common noun 'earth' (soil) and the proper noun 'Earth' (our planet): the two are quite different even if the former can be found on the latter. But these are very minor quibbles compared to the rest of the book and its fundamentally important mission.

This book deserves to be widely read. To be quite frank, politicians should be locked up with a copy and not let out until they have read it and passed a short test as proof.

I do urge you to buy a copy now. If you like it, and I suspect you will, then buy three more copies as Christmas gifts to those who you think will enjoy it. We need recruits for the army. As I have been often known to say, if we are to get through the mid-century crunch of population, dwindling resources, environmental degradation and climate change, then we are going to do it with rational thought, science and innovation, and not through ignorance and bigotry. We must demand this of our political leaders.  This matters to us all!

Jonathan Cowie

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