Clarification: I would like to make clear that many of the problems I highlight regarding the Geek movement are not personally directed at Mark Henderson, Brian Cox or Robin Ince. They have, intentionally or otherwise, become figureheads of a wider movement. I would urge readers to check the comments left by Brian Cox and Mark Henderson in which they clearly set out their own positions.
In recent years, the label ‘Geek’ has shaken off its previous negative connotations and many have adopted it as a badge of honour. The movement has been spearheaded by the likes of Mark Henderson, author of ‘The Geek Manifesto’, along with a whole host of scientists, authors and comedians. Science comedy duo Brian Cox and Robin Ince recently co-wrote an editorial in the New Statesman arguing that ‘politicians must not elevate mere opinion over science’.
With a physics degree and a love of data, I could easily be described as a ‘Geek’ myself. Yet I find the Geek movement to be highly troubling, and would like to distance myself from it. Many Geeks also self-identify as ‘rationalists’ or ‘skeptics’, and Mark Henderson has spoken at countless Skeptics in the Pub events to preach to the choir.
I have a number of problems with the Geek movement, not least of all the implicit arrogance of the thing. In the New Statesman article written by Ince and Cox, they compare science to ‘mere opinion’ in the headline, and continue to assert that science provides the only valid form of evidence, and is ‘the only way we have of exploring nature’. This fundamentally closed-minded attitude appeals to badge-wearing Geeks, but will only alienate the audiences who don’t already agree.
The Geek movement also seems to have subsumed the atheist movement, with some rather unhealthy outcomes. Neil deGrasse Tyson, a well-known darling of the Geek movement, found himself ‘constantly claimed by atheists’ and had to publicly distance himself from the atheist movement. The commonly-claimed link between science and atheism is harmful to the image of science, and to scientists such as DeGrasse Tyson.
It is worth noting that many proponents of the Geek movement such as Mark Henderson and Robin Ince are not themselves scientifically trained. This is not to say that they are not qualified to comment on or campaign for science, but there is a tendency for Geeks to worship an idealised notion of ‘science’. As a result, science and scientists are elevated to a privileged position of assumed authority, and Geeks will happily promote anything with a whiff of ‘science’ or ‘rationalism’.
At a Science Communication conference in September, sociologist Steve Fuller described the Geek movement as the ‘new petite bourgeoisie’. Although the session drew to a close before the concept was discussed in depth, I would be tempted to agree with Fuller’s assessment. The term petite bourgeoisie refers to a social class who seek to emulate the traditions and values of the higher (upper-middle class) ‘bourgeoisie’. We might therefore label a Geek as a ‘petit scientiste’, since many Geeks lay claim to some idealised version of the scientific method. As Fuller pointed out at the conference, many Geeks are ‘computer jocks’ with no real experience of science in practice.
So what’s the problem? If we have this movement of Geeks, rationalists, skeptics, atheists – whatever they choose to call themselves – are they really harming anyone? It is my view that the movement is inherently damaging to science as it becomes characterised by the more sneering, self-righteous elements. The tone of superiority adopted by many Geeks, including Ince and Cox, does little to persuade those who are not already ‘converted’. Instead, it fosters a thoroughly masturbatory environment in which Geeks congratulate Geeks for promoting Geek philosophies. I do not find such circle-jerks particularly constructive, but they are all too common in the science communication world.
Following that rant, you could be forgiven for thinking that I am in some way against evidence-based policy, good scientific advice or anything else championed by the Geek movement. I am not. I am strongly in favour of improving the handling of science in Westminster, but would like to see more reasoned discussion around the issues. Scientific evidence is not the only type of evidence that politicians should consider, and to dismiss anything else as ‘mere opinion’ prevents any meaningful dialogue. No ‘anti-science’ politician is going to be won over by derision; insulting their intelligence is more likely to cement their position. I would like to see a more measured response, where Geeks present evidence in a more measured and tolerant way.
In November, I organised an event with the Society of Biology to question the notion that Parliament would be improved if we stuffed it full of scientists. In an online poll before the event, 96% of people wanted to see more scientists in Parliament. Following a measured discussion between the panellists, the final percentage was closer to 60%. Jack Stilgoe and Evan Harris argued against the motion, and Stilgoe subsequently posted an excellent summary of the arguments on his blog.
This is the sort of discussion that I would like to see more of in the mainstream media. Give me Stilgoe and Harris over Ince and Cox any day. To me, those who make reasoned arguments to doubtful (or even hostile) audiences are far more valuable than those who bask in the approval of a homogenous Geek community.