08 January 2013

Review of The Geek Manifesto

My review of The Geek Manifesto is up over at The Breakthrough Institute. In it I discuss "predistortion," the UEA emails, David Nutt's sacking and a conversation between Clint Eastwood and Gene Hackman in Unforgiven. Here is a short excerpt:
The idea that science and scientists deserve special treatment in politics is often what leads to the temptation to exploit that specialness for political gain, which ultimately works against science being afforded special treatment. In this manner, calls for a “geek revolution” can have a hard time avoiding the slippery slope of scientific authoritarianism.
See the entire, longish review here.  Please feel free to come back and tell me what you think!


  1. "The subtext of The Geek Manifesto is of course political power. It is about who should be in a position to determine what evidence is deemed acceptable in political debates, what decisions ought to be made in the public interest, what should be taught in schools, and what should be reported in the news. Henderson’s view, one widely shared among science connoisseurs, is that by virtue of its essential characteristics, science — and more specifically those who embody the virtues of science — deserve a special place in politics."

    Just what the US needs, a Department of Truth. Independently run by some self-selecting group of scientists I presume.

  2. I noted many of the same points that Roger makes.

    In addition, I noted that Henderson starts with a plea for full and impartial information; and continues with suppression of facts, cherry-picking, and distortion to support his argument that natural scientists are somehow better politicians.

  3. He continues, explaining that science “is provisional, always open to revision … comfortable with your changing your mind … anti-authoritarian: anybody can contribute, and anybody can be wrong … [tries] to prove the most elegant ideas wrong … [and] is comfortable with uncertainty.”

    Aside from the excellent points made in your review, the above rates a cynical snicker. Science actually is quite conservative, and non-provisional, and so it should be; imagine if we'd set out to revise fundamental physics based on the recent artifactual observation of superluminal neutrinos. Kuhn's claim that science changes when the older generation of scientists die off is only a slight exaggeration. The idea that anyone can contribute is also a stretch; some people can get their doodles published in Nature, and some have to struggle to publish truly novel and important work.

    The idea that science is a magic field of human endeavor that is somehow immune to human frailty is just plan silly. Science is as vulnerable to venality, corruption and obduracy as any other enterprise.

  4. Clark and Clark's Newton's Tyranny: The Suppressed Scientific Discoveries of Stephen Gray and John Flamsteed is an excellent illustration of why scientist should not be accorded any special status when it comes to political decision-making.

  5. My first reaction to reading the review is, "what about the engineers"? As a trained scientist, I've always considered one of the biggest differences between the science and engineering disciplines is that scientist worked to do experiments where they could isolate a single phenomena to study it exclusively whereas engineers dealt with the slings and arrows of the world as whole and made certain their designs would accomodate the insults the world throws at them. Scientists therefore find solutions that are often narrow in scope, assume away alternative mechanisms as insignificant and easily brush aside unintended consequences.
    Scientists are also not very smart about how political processes can use a concern about theoretical outcome for a competitive advantage. Look at the non-sense going on with biofuels. The laws that mandated these were justified based on climate change but the bio-fuel solution will not have a detectable positive climate impact but it has been documented to have increased the price of grains in the US by 17% and the NY Times on Sunday had a story on the poverty and hunger created in third world nations by these policies. In California, there are examples where agricultural land is being converted to solar power generation.
    As a scientist, I cringe at science given a special place in the national discourse. Scientists need to step out of the ivory tower and deal with the real world problems of regular people. The "specialness" that some seek is really a refuge from debate and criticism that life in an ivory tower shields science from.

  6. The reason that science has a special place in politics is that scientists are 100% PWNED by big business and its government employees.

    The global science community has as much independence and value to the political debate as the occupants of a Steve Jobs Chinese slave labour camp. That has been my position since I started debating here.

    I hate,hate, hate science geeks. They make me want to scream like an infant. They are always telling us that every science body in the world supports global warming.

    What does the American Society of Frog Spawn Irradiators think about depleted uranium, GM food, the completely toxic American food chain which breeds cancers like weeds. The insurance ridden American health system. The pharmaceutical industry.

    What do they think about trillions of dollars for nuclear weapons and the vast array of other science / maths/ technological applications that bolster the military and only benefits (in this case almost literally) criminal corporations.

    What do they think of Barack Obama's drone hobby ? What do NASA think of the biggest war machine in history, which they are part of, spewing CO2 into the atmosphere ?

    The answer is nothing. Like the Steve Jobs slave labour camp employees, they pay the rent by keeping their mouths shut.

    That hasn't always been true.

    The only information that is required to know that AGW is a corporate scam is that scientists universally support it.

  7. Scientists are a special interest in a chain of interests. They are specialists who contribute knowledge and skill to assess and mitigate risk. They are also competing interests. It is competing interests -- from the individual to diverse cooperatives -- who keep the honest people honest and others from running amuck.

    That said, I agree with Sean. Given a plan, it is the engineer who is best suited to realize it. That is, in fact, their vocation. A human society can be characterized as a dynamic system, which requires an adaptive model to establish and maintain its optimal function.

    There it is. Human society is a system. Characterize the system. Describe an ideal plan for its function. Let the engineers develop a model for its optimal function.

    Reposition lawyers to process arbitration exclusively.

  8. What does the American Society of Frog Spawn Irradiators think about depleted uranium, GM food, the completely toxic American food chain which breeds cancers like weeds.

    Em, I'm not an elected representative of American Science; in fact, I'm a determined heretic, but I do think you should check your cancer rate against ours.

  9. Roger
    correct me if I am wrong but in the case of Prof. Nutt I seem to remember that your take was: he got sacked because he acted as an advocate while he should have been an honest broker.

  10. -9-Reiner

    Thanks ... close, here is what I said at the time:

    " My view is that the ACMD needs to be constituted as -- and here I'll slip into the jargon of The Honest Broker -- either a Science Arbiter or an Honest Broker of Policy Alternatives. If the former then the task of the committee would be to answer specific, fact-based questions posed by policy makers, like, is taking ectasy more or less dangerous than riding a horse? If the latter then the ACMD would present the pluses and minuses of a wide spectrum of policy options. In both cases the notion that advisors advise and decision makers decide would be preserved. If current policies don't allow either role to exist, then policies need to change....

    Greater independence from the home secretary makes good sense, but it is not sufficient. Greater attention needs to be paid to the actual work of the committee and its role in decision making. If it is to answer narrow technical questions then this needs to be made clear, and a process needs to be put into place to elicit questions from policy makers. I much prefer an "honest broker" approach that allows the committee to lay out a wide range of policy options for policy makers to consider. Independence helps in both cases, but an options committee would fill a very different role than a committee that arbitrates technical questions."


  11. Hi there RWP..

    Here are the cancer rates per 100,000

    USA 7th 300

    UK 22nd 266


    Let me be honest and say that I had totally convinced myself that I had read from a reliable source that US cancer rates were double that of the UK and that is why I wrote what I did. Sorry.

    It sounded reasonable with much looser human / animal food controls.

  12. Roger

    David Nutt is a dude. He experiments on the beneficial effects of illegal drugs (for example MDMA and psolocybin ) and he likes publicity.


    Professor David Nutt plans to test ecstasy live on Channel 4 to study its effects on the brain.


    He fell out with the government over research chemical BZP which they banned. All that happened is what he predicted, namely that the vendors developed even more sophisticated and realistic dance drug alternatives.

    The government appointed Nutt for positive reasons, but the rabid British tabloid media made them retreat.

  13. .

    Here are the cancer rates per 100,000
    USA 7th 300
    UK 22nd 266

    Not a very big difference.

    Plus this:

    Despite efforts to inform the public about the risk of sun exposure, the rate of non-melanoma skin cancer in the U.S. is reaching epidemic proportions, with more than 2 million people affected in 2006, researchers said.

    The USA and UK have different demographics, climate, and geography. To assign cause to any one variable is silly.


  14. With regard to food purity and cancer rates (and survival rates), this compilation from the American Cancer Society is interesting.


    Although I could be wrong, it would seem that the cancer rates most prone to be impacted by food contamination would be stomach and colo-rectal.

    Figure 6 shows colo-rectal cancer incident rates in the UK and US are comparable and stomach cancer rates are higher in the UK (Fig 10). In fact, stomach cancer rates in the US and Canada (along with Sweden) are the lowest in the developed world.

    The real surprise for me was survival rates (Table 5). Granted, the US data is more recent by 5 years, but given the horror stories we hear about "the disgraceful US Healthcare system", survival rates for the US are head-and-shoulders above those of the rest of the countries listed. Would 5 years make that much difference?

  15. Before considering whether to address the American, British issue, I hope everyone noticed I apologised for my faulty memory.

    Here is a British aspect of the subject. The British give their scientists grandiose titles like Sir this and Lord that, and project great eminence on men of science. Like Sir Isaac Newton, Lord Kelvin and Sir George Bidell Airy. There is a Royal Society and so forth.

    Professor Jonathon Jones (Physics – Oxford University)

    However, “hide the decline” is an entirely different matter. This is not a complicated technical matter on which reasonable people can disagree: it is a straightforward and blatant breach of the fundamental principles of honesty and self-criticism that lie at the heart of all true science. The significance of the divergence problem is immediately obvious, and seeking to hide it is quite simply wrong.

    The recent public statements by supposed leaders of UK science, declaring that hiding the decline is standard scientific practice are on a par with declarations that black is white and up is down. I don’t know who they think they are speaking for, but they certainly aren’t speaking for me.

    There we are. Following these statements, our great men of science were rewarded with a BBC poll declaring that 21% of the public believed in global warming. So much for eminence.

  16. John M.,

    There is nothing "disgraceful" about the quality of care in the U.S. Healthcare in the U.S. is more expensive in large part because of our use of more advanced and effective technology, which puts our quality of care far above other countries, as the cancer survival rates indicate.

    When people claim that our healthcare system (like our educational system) is disgraceful, they are usually making political points with regard to 1) cost or 2) access for all. The lower outcomes that we do have, say in overall life expectancy or infant mortality, have little to do with the healthcare system per se (except for our approach to preventive care, perhaps) and more to do with demographics, affluence vs. poverty, and the diversity of our society. Believe me, once you get sick, the U.S. is by far the best place to get care.

  17. I enjoyed your review Roger, and agreed almost all the way.

    My analogy would be with the military. Lots of soldiers think they know best about all sorts of things unrelated to their actual sphere of knowledge. And, when given the opportunity, they have a depressing tendency to try to impose their views. It almost always starts out with good intentions too.

    So democracies allow their military to fight their wars, and keep them strictly out of their politics. Oversight of the military is civilian and thorough.

    We would be wise to take the same view of science. They do their thing and keep their noses out of politics (with it a condition of state employment that they do that).

    That scientists have some special ability to think critically is ludicrous, and effectively proof of their excessive self-regard. We don't let other groups get away with such statements – the military have no stranglehold on patriotism, religious leaders have no monopoly on righteousness. When scientists try to claim that they think better than other people, we should make it clear to them that they do not.

    I have post-graduate papers in Chemistry. It hasn't made me think any better. I just know a bit more about chemistry.

  18. Here is a great science story in the Guardian

    When the press release arrived in our inboxes, we knew what would happen next. A controversial Nobel laureate had stated, in a peer-reviewed paper he described as "among my most important work", that antioxidant supplements "may have caused more cancers than they have prevented".

    Even the most fad-friendly sections of the UK media were bound to cover the story.

    In reality, Professor James Watson – one of the DNA double-helix's founding fathers – was only restating what we at Cancer Research UK (along with many others) have been pointing out for years.


    My view is that the real culprits are science and other journalists for whom I have enormous contempt wrt global warming.

  19. A story which has some interesting comparisons between American and British healthcare. In the Guardian.


  20. eric144 #19

    Interesting. Looks like the UK is using the US as their "safety valve". Rather than investing in the technology needed to make the high-tech care available in the UK, they send the occasional patient that needs it off to the US.

    What would they do if the US hadn't invested in this care?

  21. What would they do if the US hadn't invested in this care?

    The US has not invested in this care. It makes no sense to talk of it as if the US, collectively, have made that decision. Even Obamacare doesn't come close to a nationalised healthcare system.

    Some parts of the US have, mostly for reasons of profit, decided to invest in advanced care. I don't think they will allow the Britons in without paying either. That's how they get their return on investment.

    I don't think when I buy Microsoft software how generous the US is in giving me the ability to buy a spreadsheet program.

    The Brits have been sending people to France for medical treatment for a long time. In that case it IS the French who have collectively decided to get advanced treatment facilities.

  22. Mark,

    By the US, I also mean collectively.

    I mean the private companies who fund health insurance for their employees.

    I mean the health care service companies who use investor's capital to make profitable and effective equipment.

    I mean government funded programs like medicaid and medicare that put money into the system.

    I mean hospitals who often eat the cost of the medical care they provide for the poor and indigent(or pass it on to the insurers funded by employers).

    I mean "the US" as a collective term as well.

    For better or worse, the system we have has funded the technology that the UK sent their patient to be treated with. As I said, paying someone else to treat the occasional patient is a lot cheaper that building your own infrastructure.

    The US system may not be the most efficient one financially, but it has created a system with the highest survival rate for the treatment of cancer.

  23. JonM

    The simple answer is that health in Britain is seen as a service, not a business.

    Usually ...

    Two weeks after the start of term, a student appeared in my software engineering class. He said he didn't want to learn anything, he just wanted a qualification. I replied "you have come to exactly the right place, that's what we do !! ".

    He had written a large database for a local state of the art American private hospital. He did it cheaply on the basis that he would get the maintenance contract. Unfortunately, the Americans were speaking with forked tongues and refused him the contract because he was under qualified.

    He used his access to their information to break a major scandal that this massive £180m hospital with luxury hotel was totally bust and only kept alive by the government paying them huge amounts to treat NHS patients.

    This is further on as the government was caught ploughing money down a hole in their desperate attempt to make private medicine look attractive.


    There aren't enough wealthy people to pay for these facilities. It is now a state owned hospital, bought for a quarter of its original value.


  24. "The simple answer is that health in Britain is seen as a service, not a business."

    Well, the US does have some of those too.

    We have the United States Postal "Service".

  25. Hmmm...

    Upon doing further research, I'm forced to conclude that the UK healthcare system does indeed invest in high tech equipment.


  26. Great review and great post. The way for an anti-authoritarian and truth seeking society is one in which every person or group is free to pursue and advocate their causes, with no one allowed to monopolise the market of ideas nor being seen as illegitimate simply for advocating their ideas.
    Couldn't have been better put than in Roger's review.

  27. The US system may not be the most efficient one financially, but it has created a system with the highest survival rate for the treatment of cancer.

    This is a dangerous statistic. Quite possibly a wrong one.

    I could double the NZ "survival rates" for cancer. I would just diagnose a whole bunch of people without cancer as having cancer. Voilà! In one step the number of people "surviving" cancer is more than doubled.

    Now obviously the US doesn't do that, but it does send a lot more people for early testing. And the result of more testing is more people diagnosed. And many of those diagnosed have either false positives or benign tumours. More testing will inflate survival rates even if treatment levels remain exactly the same.

    That's a subtle but key idea -- survival rates do not indicate your chances of surviving. They indicate your chances of surviving on the assumption that you have the disease. There is also a time lag involved - if you are diagnosed early your "survival time" is longer even if you don't live a single day longer! It is just your "survival time" is counted from an earlier date.

    This is certainly what happens with breast cancer:
    and prostate:

    The important statistic for cancer is mortality rates, as they are unimpeded by the effects of false diagnosis.

    See this discussion, to show that the US "survival rates" need to be read very carefully in context:

  28. I guess then the secret to avoiding being diagnosed with cancer is to never visit a doctor.

    Probably why mortality rates for cancer in Africa are so low.

  29. One giant leap backwards for AGW authority.

    New York Times dismantles environment desk



    I was never fan of standalone environment desk even when I worked for it. Creates a ghetto for the subject and reporters. Environment is not a beat. Environmental impacts are a result of human decisions and actions. I do think it's a mistake, however, to end position of environment EDITOR.


    Taxi for Revkin !!

  30. Probably why mortality rates for cancer in Africa are so low.

    As it happens, Africa does have a low mortality rate for cancer. Which just goes to show that such statistics need to be carefully examined, and are not proof of a good medical system.

    Not that we were talking about mortality rates – which are a fair comparison across rich countries. We were talking about survival rates, which are very different indeed.

  31. "Not that we were talking about mortality rates – which are a fair comparison across rich countries. We were talking about survival rates, which are very different indeed."

    Well, we were, until you threw this into the punch bowl.

    "The important statistic for cancer is mortality rates, as they are unimpeded by the effects of false diagnosis."

  32. Thanks, Roger, this seems like a very comprehensive review. Although I gather that Henderson takes issue with some of your arguments.

    That being said, I'm not quite sure what to make of a "leading science communicator" [in Keith Kloor's opinion, anyway] who would write:

    "I don’t think that’s an attitude that is desperately helpful if those of us who’d like to see a greater appreciation of science [...]"

    Perhaps Henderson will explain how an attitude (or anything else for that matter) can be "desperately helpful"!

    Considering that Henderson also brings to Kloor's Discover table the usual (unsubstantiated) tropes about the "balance fetish ... global warming ... [is an example] of where phony balance, rather than fairness to the evidence, has damaged the quality of public debate", I do wonder to what extent he has actually examined "the evidence" himself, as opposed to accepting without question or verification the word of a "climate scientist" in the course of *his* "fairness to the evidence".

    Also in the unsubstantiated trope department, as you noted in your own review, Henderson "explains that [green campaigners' hype can] create 'an unnecessary weakness which deniers can target to sow doubt about the rest of the science.'"

    In his final remarks at Kloor's Discover table, Henderson observes:

    "If science really were an over-mighty elite wielding exceptional and undemocratic power over elected governments, I’d be in the vanguard of those calling for it to be cut down to size."

    So where was his voice when the U.K. passed its absymal "Climate Change Act" some years ago.

    And I wonder what Henderson might have to say about an IPCC Lead Author who - evidently not satisfied with having declared his support for a candidate for leader of the (Federal NDP) official opposition - is not only a candidate for an upcoming BC provincial election, but also the deputy leader of the provincial Green party, under whose banner he is running for political office.

  33. As a conservative semi-geek...rather than a progressive real geek...I commend your thoughtful analysis and balanced approach.
    " In the end geeks should be very careful. Calls for science to represent a third axis of political conflict might just succeed -- an outcome which would improve neither science nor politics."

  34. Mark Henderson has responded to some of the criticisms here


    Aside from the inflammatory title I thought it was constructive to the debate


  35. Carbon dioxide is no blanket. The "blanket" is produced by non-radiative diffusion processes primarily involving nitrogen and oxygen at the surface-atmosphere boundary. If the only consideration were the effect of water vapour and carbon dioxide you'd be sleeping under a handkerchief.

    Discover "The 21st Century New Paradigm in Climate Change Science" (on the Principia Scientific International website) and discover what real physics has now proved, completely negating any significant relevance of the old 20th Century radiative greenhouse concept.

    No back radiation caused the Earth's surface to be 288K (or the Venus surface to be over 730K) all on its own, somehow multiplying the Sun's energy. What did cause it was the temperature distribution brought about by diffusion of kinetic energy in a gravitational field, and this process continues to maintain surface temperatures as atmospheres absorb direct incident Solar radiation, the only possible radiation that can keep them at the observed temperatures. For more detail read “Planetary Surface Temperatures. A Discussion of Alternative Mechanisms” published by PSI in November 2012, as well as this week's article mentioned above.

  36. The most powerful geek who ever lived was probably Margaret Thatcher MSc. Her geekness was central to her abomination of a political career.

    Like a scientist, she believed that if one could just find a formula, a solution, everything would be fine. The answer was out there. The answer was Monetarism, imposed on her and her ally General Pinochet by their American handlers.

    This is a hilarious video

    Thatcher Denies Having Ever Subscribed to Monetarism

  37. Doug: there's no nice way to put this. Your theory is not even dimensionally correct.

    If you want to do this stuff, go back and get a Ph.D. in atomic and molecular physics. Ph.D. physicists are by and large not idiots, and an assumption they've all been making a bonehead error for 100 years is not a propitious background to a new theory.