Yesterday, the U.S. Congress, like Wyle E. Coyote on an especially lucky day, scrambled back onto the fiscal cliff that Congress itself had jumped off of, having built the cliff last year as a thing that no one would be stupid enough to jump off of. So it may seem a futile time to ask that we make policy-making a bit more rational.
We writers are a stubborn lot, though, so I’m publishing below my foreword to The Geek Manifesto, a wonderful book that makes just that appeal. The Geek Manifesto, written by Mark Henderson, formerly a London Times science editor and now communications director at the Wellcome Trust, has been a sensation in Britain, finding its way through a hivemind campaign to every member of Parliament and stirring a much-needed high-profile debate about how to better integrate evidence-based thinking into public life. Henderson was kind enough to ask me to write a foreword for the U.S. edition, which currently in e-book form, soon to be in print*; the publisher liked it enough to include it as an afterword in the new UK paperback edition, which is out tomorrow.
A Geek Manifesto for America
Foreword to the US edition by David Dobbs
Nothing illuminates like a close analog.
So I found during a recent year in London, as I watched scientists and science-writing colleagues there, including Mark Henderson, the author of this book, wrestle with translated forms of the threats that haunt those of us in America who would like to see our country run according to honest airing of fact and principle rather than lies and fear. In the US, we deal with virulent creationism, medicine-by-advertising, and deeply institutionalized resistance to the reality of climate change; in the UK, the assault on empirical thinking ranges from ridiculous prescriptions for colonic irrigation to the sublimely sad savaging of researchers by those who would have us ignore drought, fire and the melting of the ice caps. In noisy pubs and cafés, on the slightly less noisy sidewalks outside pubs and cafés, and in quieter halls of inquiry such as universities and the Royal Society, Henderson, colleagues and I talked and ranted and laughed about these things and, comparing notes, saw how alike the battles raged in Old England and New America.
Alike – but with instructive differences. The Brits’ climate-change battles may lack the vitriol of ours, but they lost early fights over genetically modified foods that we have won (so far), and the UK faces an even stiffer challenge than we do in calming fears about vaccines and autism. We Yanks must endure legislators trying to ban the use of temperature-change data in laws about climate change (thanks, North Carolina), but Henderson must listen to arguments in Parliament that the government should bloody well do something, my Lord, and right away, please, to counter ‘the awesome power of the moon’, because the full moon, astrologists tell us, makes bad people act worse and also endangers innocents: it makes their blood run thin, so surgeons can’t save them when the moon-maddened bad people cut them up (see Chapter 2). We Yanks hardly hold the market on irrationality.
To these battles Henderson brings deep knowledge, steady determination and good humour. Despite the head-banging idiocy of many of the problems he writes about, he amiably outlines how any democratic English-speaking nation can bring more evidence-based thinking into every realm of public life – government, education, healthcare, the economy, the environment, even politics. He wields lightly his wonk and tells vividly his tales of hope and woe. American parents and teenagers will cheer, for instance, at Henderson’s accounts of how teaching self-control to children early on can boost them all their lives, and how one British high school raised its grades simply by starting classes at 10 a.m., the better to suit adolescent diurnal rhythms. And anyone will be engrossed and then disturbed by his account of how Britain’s Forensic Science Service cracked a gruesome murder case – but faces closure, because forensics, incredibly enough, cost money.
Henderson has made a real mark in England with this book, managing to get copies to every single member of Parliament (including the astrology-crazed) and shaping debate and policy. His book can help here, too. We Americans have won some great victories in pushing policy along empirical lines. We have prevented millions of deaths because our laws heed evidence that seat belts save lives and that secondhand smoke, smog and polluted water take them. We have fended off most efforts to ban perfectly healthy genetically modified foods, allowing us to benefit from better nutrition. And the healthcare reforms in the recently passed Affordable Care Act will save lives, grief and money by designing healthcare policy according to what treatments actually work best.
But we’ve far to go. Too many policies fly in the face of facts or empirical principle. Medicine remains driven far more by business concerns than by data. We still forbid needle exchanges for addicts despite overwhelming evidence that we should do otherwise. We let pharmaceutical companies push new, more expensive drugs, even though they work no better than cheaper drugs we already have. We dally on climate change. We base education policy on what’s convenient or traditional, rather than what’s effective. And we often starve science budgets, even though science drives the economy.
We should do better. The London libraries, universities and noisy pubs in which Henderson, his British mates and I exchanged war stories, lamented denial and laughed about quackery were kin to – and sometimes were – the venues in which the compatriots of John Locke, Francis Bacon and the two Charlies, Darwin and Lyell, forged the principles of empiricism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The fight for empiricism was then, and is now, more than a fight for science. It is a fight for a society based on defensible argument and a fair exchange of views – a fight for democracy.
Henderson articulates with bracing clarity how science’s central principle – that evidence should trump authority, and reason trump rumour – can help improve the clumsy, cranking machinery that produces law, policy and other frameworks of public life. This is the real value of science in the public realm: in its elevation of evidence over authority, science is insistently democratic. It steers authority not to those who hold more power, but to those who hold better evidence. Like democracy, science sometimes gets messy – but it’s a productive mess that is ultimately liberating. Like the principle of liberty, the principle of empiricism moves us always towards a better, freer, healthier world.
And a more enjoyable world: Henderson is a warm and funny man with a lively mind. His book goes down like a good British ale: reassuringly familiar – the stuff is quite clearly beer – but different enough from one’s home brew to spark new interest and perspective. You’ll emerge from The Geek Manifesto as I did from talking science with Henderson over pints of Bishops Finger and London Pride: refreshed, stimulated, and embracing with new energy the problem of how to give empirical thinking a bigger place in public life.