Is the Geek Movement bad for science?
This was originally written as a comment on the blog post “Why the Geek Movement is bad for science.” It got too long though, so I posted it here for clarity.I wouldn’t have bothered with this piece, except that much of it is representative of a lot of incredibly poor sci-comm stuff I’ve seen, and I’m really running out of patience with a vocal group of sci-comm academic types online. The tl;dr version is this:
Certain vocal sections of science communication academics would be more bearable if they: a) engaged with and listened to communicators, and accepted that practitioners may have the kind of experience you can’t get from an MSc; b) gave useful, practical, evidence-based advice on good-practice without trying to patronize or dictate style; and c) disowned the tedious pricks in their ranks. I don’t mean to aim that at everyone in the field – there are some amazing sci-comm academics out there – just the shouty, ignorant and unhelpful ones who make me want to shoot myself in the face so I don’t have to listen to them anymore.
Anyway, the entire original piece is quoted in order, with my responses after each paragraph.
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’.
That’s fair enough, although I’m not sure that Mark Henderson can be described as spear-heading a movement: first it’s unclear what exactly the ‘movement’ is that he’s referring to, second I’d argue that Henderson (since leaving The Times) is less of a figurehead and more of an influential theorist, someone documenting a series of popular trends, and offering suggestions on how they might improve our politics. But Mark may disagree with me on that. As for ‘mere opinion’ over science, yes of course – they clearly mean that someone’s opinion about reality shouldn’t override the evidence of what that reality is, and I agree entirely with that.
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.
So we have this ‘Geek movement’ that’s being criticised, but it’s still not really clear what this is supposed to be, or what exactly he’s trying to distance himself from – there is no single ‘geek movement’ in the UK, any more than there is a single humanist or atheist movement, or a single conservative movement; just various groups of people who identify with the word ‘geek’ to a greater or lesser extent. Skeptics in the Pub gets thrown into the mix, and we have this really loaded and silly language about ‘preaching to the choir’. I said on Twitter that anyone who uses the phrase “preaching to the choir” is a moron, and while it’s a bit harsh I’m sticking by that. It’ a phrase I can’t stand because it tends to just ignore the aims of the person being criticized. In this case, Mark Henderson was speaking about a book specifically aimed in part at inspiring those who identified with his writing to get more involved in politics, so ‘preaching to the choir’ – or as grown-ups might call it, ‘talking to the base’ – is perfectly sensible outreach strategy.
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.
Now Ince and Cox are identified as spokesmen for this ‘Geek movement’, which still isn’t defined but is rapidly becoming a convenient ‘bucket’ in which the author can dump a fuzzy, geeky set of ‘stuff I don’t like’. Brian Cox already responded to this paragraph in the comments, and the author appears to have rowed back from his misrepresentation of the New Statesman piece, so I won’t bother addressing it further here.
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.
So this ill-defined ‘geek movement’, that started out as a bunch of UK folk spear-headed by Mark Henderson, has expanded into a trans-Atlantic phenomenon including the entire US atheist movement and Neil deGrasse Tyson. Then we have the bald assertion that apparently ‘the commonly-claimed link’ between science and atheism is harmful to the image of science and to scientists.” Well, my response to that would be a polite “evidence or stfu.” I put the question to the author on Twitter, and he seems to have opted for the latter response so far.
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’.
Like the previous paragraph, this carries a potent whiff of bullshit about it. What point are you trying to make when you say that they’re not scientifically trained? The author of the piece apparently has an undergraduate science degree and an MSc in Sci-Comm, so isn’t particularly ‘scientifically trained’ in a research sense either. Mark Henderson has been one of the top science writers in Britain for a number of years, and probably has a better grasp of areas of science than many who are scientifically-trained. Why does it matter? Then we have two more wild assertions: if you’re going to claim that they “worship an ‘idealised notion of ‘science’” then again, evidence or stfu. Similarly, on what basis are you making the claim that Geeks happily promote anything with a whiff of science? And again, who are these ‘geeks’ you keep talking about? Oh that’s right, it’s a convenient phrase for people you don’t like.
And then we hit probably the nadir of this:
At a Science Communication conference in September, sociologist Steve Fuller described the Geek movement as the ‘new petite bourgeois’. 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 here the author is quoting the mild hissy-fit of an advocate of intelligent design – which he may just be unaware of, I don’t know. What I do know is that things are getting incredibly confused in all this intellectual masturbation: the Geek movement has now apparently become an entire social class, who are apparently taking part in a sort of cargo cult science. What the evidence is for this… again I have no real clue, and it’s particularly ironic that this is being leveled in response to an article by a prominent physicist, by someone who (as far as I can tell) is not actually a practicing research scientist themselves.
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.
The irony of this paragraph is that it’s everything it despises. The politeness at the start of the article has collapsed and it’s now an attack on ‘sneering, self-righteousness’ in a ‘masturbatory circle-jerk’. If his aim is to reach out to geeks, then this is a pretty off-putting piece of communication. This is something I’ve seen far too often – people who have a habit of saying “don’t be a dick” in the most dickish ways possible. It’s not that I have anything against people being dicks – I love being a dick from time to time – what I can’t stand is the false claim to the moral high-ground. Then we have the claim that apparently geeks are ‘inherently damaging to science”, which, well,  please.
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.
Well the Geek Manifesto seems like a good starting point for that reasoned discussion, and Brian Cox has been involved behind the scenes in science policy work for years, something the author is apparently unaware of because – like many sci-comm types I’ve dealt with – he appears to have little interest in actually asking real-world communicators about what they do. I question the premise to begin with though. I will continue to deride people like David Tredinnick and Nadine Dorries because there is absolutely no point in engaging with them, or attempting to change their position. The idea that having a nice little chat with Dorries would persuade her to change her views is a piece of hokey fantasy straight out of a Disney film. The best way to deal with terminally bad politicians is to vote them out of office.
But we’re essentially back to the infamous ‘don’t be a dick’ argument, and it runs straight into the same three problems that this argument always hits: 1) it patronisingly assumes that people aren’t fully aware what they’re doing (and trying to achieve) by being a dick; 2) it fails to provide any real evidence that being a dick is always a problem, and not sometimes useful; 3) its proponents are almost universally dicks themselves.
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.
This gets to the heart of the problem, and it’s the one thing that a vocal group of academic science communication types just don’t seem to want to get – hundreds of thousands of people from all walks of life listen to Ince and Cox, while – and I don’t mean to be rude here because I love both of them – far fewer among the general public really give a crap what Stilgoe or Harris have to say about science. That’s because Ince and Cox are better communicators than Stilgoe or Harris (or me, or the author). They are better at public speaking, more engaging, more accessible to a wider, non-geek audience, more people want to watch them, and they achieve greater impact as a result. Yes, it helps that they’re celebrities; but why did they become celebrities in the first place? Through the strength of their ability to communicate with people.
That’s partly what I find so unhelpful about this article, and many like it. It provides no evidence to back up the overblown claims of harm, it ignores the phenomenal experience and success of those it attacks, and above all it fails to provide any useful take-home message for people communicating science to the public. I’m always keen to improve my writing, and I would love to see someone from the academic community engaged in sci-comm research offer a piece of tangible, useable, evidence-based advice on how to improve what I do, and to do it in a way that isn’t incredibly confrontational and patronizing.
End of bloody comment.