The 'Geeks' Fight Back: Challenges for Science and Democracy

01/06/2012 10:38 | Updated 31 July 2012
  • Ian Scoones Ian Scoones is the Director of the ESRC STEPS Centre and a professorial fellow at the Institute of Development Studies. He is a lead researcher in the Dynamic Drivers of Disease in Africa Consortium.

A mood of scientific self-righteousness has broken out in the UK. The 'geeks' - professional scientists committed to evidence-based policy - are on the march. What has brought this on? Two things seem to have combined. First a protest and second a manifesto. Both have important implications for the debate about the relationship between science, society and democracy - and the role of biotechnology in all three.

The protest has been provoked by a field trial of genetically-modified wheat at the public research station at Rothamsted. A protest group called 'Take the Flour Back' committed to destroying the trial in a carnivalesque protest last weekend. The 'decontamination' didn't happen, but the publicity storm certainly did. The normally media-shy scientists have been shoved into the spotlight and, under the direction of the articulate and down-to-earth Professor John Pickett, Rothamsted scientists are defending their decision to carry out the trial in a very public way. For the first time the debate is being led by public sector scientists in a balanced and informed manner. Monsanto and its disastrous PR machine, thankfully, is nowhere to be seen. The protestors, meanwhile, continue to press their charges, with fears of contamination high on their list of potential risks. Meanwhile politicians, leader writers and other commentators have weighed in, suggesting that this is a turning point in the GM debate and the valiant Rothamsted scientists are on the right side of history this time around.

The manifesto is a pithy new book written by Mark Henderson, the very effective head of communications of the Wellcome Trust, a global medical charity based in London. It is titled: 'The Geek Manifesto: Why Science Matters'. It too has been give a lot of air time and favourable reviews in the press are piling up. The book argues, through a range of cases - including GM crops - that scientists need to stand up and be counted, and that evidence-based policy is losing out in favour of emotional, ideological or plain ill-informed debate. The scientists - the geeks - need to fight back and, if possible, take over; making in-roads into politics to ensure that ill-informed policies are banished forever in favour of science-led enlightenment.

Is all this moving the debate on or backwards? I believe the latter, and I will explain why. I think there are three reasons why the current debate is deeply problematic and potentially dangerous.

First, we should reject the idea there is a 'march of unreason' or a 'return to the dark ages' when there is dissent, debate and deliberation in society about major technological and scientific issues, no matter what the source. Those raising concerns should not be condemned as ill-informed zealots; they are concerned citizens who may just be wrong (or perhaps sometimes even right). No-one should have a monopoly on the truth, and debate within and outside accredited science should always be a good thing. But when such views challenge mainstream visions of progress, and in particular certain technological elements with huge vested interests and political commitments associated, then it all becomes a bit more tricky. Solid, well-grounded evidence is of course essential - and this must be rigorous, transparent and well documented, and so open to scrutiny and challenge - from whatever source. The anti-GM campaigners clearly need to engage with the arguments of Professor Pickett and colleagues more fulsomely, but this also needs to be reciprocated. When dealing with issues of uncertainty (which means nearly all science, certainly at the cutting edge), plural and conditional knowledge and advice must necessarily result. This means that policymakers and publics must debate the implications. The job of scientists is to provide the data, in collaboration with other knowledge holders and experts including the public, and let a more open, democratic process be the judge and make the decisions. This is not a dark age of unreason, but a mature democratic approach to science and policymaking.

Second, the argument of the geek manifesto is that more scientists should be in politics. Only one of 650 Members of Parliament (MPs) in the UK is a scientist, Henderson claims. More scientists need to be politicians, he argues, and then better policy will result. A linear, technocratic vision is laid out where science leads politics. This is a potentially highly dangerous view. A democratic political process, surely, should have a more accountable relationship with scientific expertise. Scientists should be 'on tap, but not on top', as was famously said by Winston Churchill. It seems this is not the idea behind the Geek Manifesto. It states "As those of us who care deeply about science and its experimental method start to fight for our beliefs, geeks have a historic opportunity to embed critical thinking more deeply in the political process. But if we are to achieve anything, we need to turn our numbers and confidence into political muscle." It continues: "Let's create a political cost for failing science. Politics has had it too easy for too long. It's time for a geek revolution." Bizarrely, the Chinese politburo is seen as a model. Because it is full of highly expert engineers, this is seen as a good thing. It seems issues of representation, accountability and democracy are of lesser importance for the revolutionary geeks! Science is of course an important contributor to contemporary societies, and indeed the new GM wheat varieties from Rothamsted may be an example, but it is essential to have a proper debate about what directions of science for whom, and this needs to be carried out in an informed, respectful and inclusive way, as the STEPS Centre argued in a rather different manifesto for innovation, sustainability and development.

Third, in the current hubbub there is much talk of the great Enlightenment tradition, and how the 'geek revolution' can ensure that it is revived and sustained. However, a very limited view of enlightenment is trotted out - see for example the usually excellent Will Hutton in the UK broadsheet, The Observer or the item on the flagship Today Programme of the BBC. It seems essentially to involve a narrow, rationalist technocracy, dominated by accredited scientists who know what's best for the rest of us. This of course is a far cry from the Enlightenment vision of the great thinkers of that time, described in 1784 by Immanuel Kant simply as the "freedom to use one's own intelligence". The Enlightenment was of course an escape from the hegemonic grip of a narrow view of world dominated by powerful religious institutions and the monarchic state, opening up the opportunity for debate in the public sphere. A pluralistic view was celebrated that saw science, the arts and the humanities as liberating, creating new freedoms. The vision was one of free and open debate, with dissent and discussion absolutely central. The currently prevalent misreadings of Enlightenment instead appear to create a new theocracy in the form of a controlled and policed science-led technocracy, where alternative views are dismissed as belonging to quacks and mavericks and being non-scientific and unreasonable. Who will be the new popes and bishops, and where will those who don't comply be burned at the stake, I wonder?

Of course John Pickett and Mark Henderson would not go that far. But some of the implications of the arguments being bandied around in response to their interventions are quite extreme. Of course science has a vital place in modern economies and societies, and with this biotechnology. But when protests emerge and debates arise, the reaction should not be one of hysterical retreat, but one of engagement and discussion, accepting that given contending values and diverse uncertainties, there are going to be no easy answers and so no clear agreement on what is progress and what science for what purpose fits.