Reflections on The Geek Manifesto

As I read Mark Henderson’s new book “The Geek Manifesto” I found my mood alternating between enormous optimism and nagging pessimism. Perhaps this is spot on for a book that seeks to inspire geeks (and I would count myself within this group) to action; at times it is inspiring, at others the challenge to make a difference seems overwhelming. But while in some senses the book covers familiar ground, it does an excellent job in bringing together material and arguments in a form that is clear and inspiring. As I read, there were some broad issues that I kept returning to. These aren’t criticisms of the book, as such, but areas were I think there is some room for further reflection and debate.

  • Science or evidence? A key thrust of the argument in the book is that policy-making should be better informed by assessment of the evidence, and Henderson is careful to remind us on a number of occasions that this evidence often stretches beyond the boundaries of the natural sciences. The word ‘science’ is often, though, used as a shortcut for ‘evidence’ and there is a risk that some will take this shortcut seriously. Similarly, the importance of factors beyond the evidence in guiding political decision-making are mentioned, but the take-home may again be that science trumps everything else. And there is certainly a strong thrust through the book that the scientific method is centrally important, especially in the guise of randomised trials. While I don’t disagree that there are opportunities to use these approaches more in public policy, it is also important not to discourage other types of analytical approach (qualitative social science, or historical analysis, for example) and to avoid developing a false hierarchy of approaches to evidence.
  • Ethics. This is a book about ethics in the sense that it is concerned very much with ‘doing the right thing’. For me, a strong utilitarian ethic underpins the argument suggesting that we need to formulate policies that are in the interests of the majority. I am sympathetic to this argument, but I think it is important to acknowledge that there is considerable debate about this ethical approach and it is relatively easy to construct scenarios where a strict adherence to utilitarian ethics raises real dilemmas. Alternative ethical approaches, like rights-based ethics, would take a rather different approach to many of the issues covered. For example, should people have the right to choose homeopathic treatment if that’s what they want? I think we need to open up debates like this, which sit uncomfortably with the strict evidence-led approach.
  • Evidence-based science policy. A really important point that Henderson stresses, but that bears repeating, is that it is essential that the geeks are themselves always strictly evidence-led. Nowhere is this more important than in the field of science and innovation policy, where we need to be zealous in demanding the highest quality evidence to inform policy. And implicit in this, is that we need to follow the evidence even if it disagrees with our preconceptions and prejudices. This is, after all, what being evidence-led is all about. I am not convinced that the scientific community is always as open to evidence about its own practice as it ought to be. I also wonder whether the research community would be supportive of randomised trials if, say, the Research Councils were to suggest that a new policy approach would be applied to a random sample of research grant applications to investigate how well it worked. But maybe I am wrong about this.

Overall, I would strongly recommend “The Geek Manifesto“. It’s a good read, very thought-provoking and an excellent contribution to the debate about evidence and policy.

I will be debating these and other points with Mark Henderson, James Wilsdon and others on Tuesday 29 May at the Science Policy Research Unit in Sussex University. Come and join in!