MPs get ready! The Geeks are bearing gifts

Politicians of all parties are addicted to evidence, says Mark Henderson, award-winning journalist, now Head of Communications at the Wellcome Trust and author of ‘The Geek Manifesto’ (subtitled: Why Science Matters).

Proud to be geek: Henderson

But that doesn’t mean they use it the way scientists do. Or even understand it. In his new book, to show just how far politicians stray from the traditional use of evidence, Henderson has devised a clever taxonomy. It makes shocking reading for anyone who loves science – even ‘lay geeks’ (those who are enthusiastic about science without having studied to a higher level).

Evidence-shopping, he explains, is like former Home Secretary Jacqui Smith’s approach to drugs classification. She shopped around, and only deployed that which agreed with her own beliefs.

Then there’s Imaginary Evidence – example: Andrew Lansley and his NHS reforms, which he claimed were evidence based. That charge was tested by Bad Science columnist Ben Goldacre who found only four papers vaguely relevant, none of which suggested Lansleys’ plans were supportive. The Health Secretary claimed his plans were based on evidence – but Goldacre concluded: ‘I see no evidence to follow here.’

Fixing the Evidence involves setting up research groups which will search out evidence to back up your policy. See President Bush and his President’s Council on Bioethics whose president – hand-picked by Bush – was already known to be strongly averse to embryonic stem cell research before the group even took evidence. When a Council member dissented, she was fired.

Clairvoyant Evidence (my favourite). Patrician Hewitt, former Health Secretary, actually promised a revolution in childbirth policy that would be safer for mothers – and then commissioned the research to back her statement up. Curuiously, she was right in this instance.  But her method was more Mystic Meg than Marie Curie.

Mishandling the Evidence. Simply interpreting the science in the wrong way.  Henderson quotes the badger cull over TB scares as an example.  Research appeared to suggest that badgers should be culled to stem the rise in bovine TB. But the policy put in place didn’t follow the methodology of the trial so, for example, badgers were not trapped and killed but shot at by farmers, meaning many simply dispersed spreading the disease into new areas, actively making the situation worse.

Lastly, Henderson brings up a political favourite: Secret Evidence.  Michael Gove abolished the £5,000 ‘golden hellos’ for science teachers in 2010 after a value-for-money analysis. However he has refused to share this analysis, and there is none on record as having been published either. So we are now dangerously close to Imaginary Evidence again.

Why does all this matter? Why does the wider dissemination of science matter?

Henderson and his fellow Geek posse (authors such as Simon Singh, campaigners such as former MP Evan Harris, et al) want to put science back on the public agenda.

They maintain you can’t deploy a political line that policy making on education, technology, economics – indeed every walk of life – is evidence-based unless it is. Unless science is treated with respect.

Part of the problem is that there are very few true scientists (by training or job experience) in the House of Commons (and indeed the rise of the career politician makes this worse, not better). There are more in the House of Lords – especially among cross-benchers, suggesting at least one reason an elected second chamber may not be as useful or broad-based in this regard as the current patronage-based system.

A fashion for spouting the word ‘evidence’ is also to blame. I wonder how often it appears in Hansard now compared to 40 years ago when we trusted our politicians more and just let them get on with governing without challenge or scrutiny?

Mark Henderson is campaigning for every MP to be sent a copy of the Geek Manifesto as a way of opening up the debate. You can get involved with that operation here.

Will it be enough to save us from Imaginary Evidence as he describes so well above? One can only hope so. The world definitely needs more Geeks and to be more respectful towards what they can bring to public life. (I’d like to see more female science cheer-leaders out there though – journalist Claire Coleman (@FeaturesJourno) is rapidly becoming our best-known girl geek.)

The Geek Manifesto is a truly excellent book – there’s plenty more food for thought inside than just this explanation of how politicians work evidence.

And I wouldn’t stop at putting it in Westminster though – I think it ought to be compulsory reading in news rooms and staff rooms too.



About the Author

Victoria Lambert has been a journalist for more than 20 years, and specialises in health and medical matters. She writes for the Telegraph, the Times, the Sunday Times, the Guardian, the Mail and the Mail on Sunday. She contributes to Saga, Geographical and First Eleven magazines – where she is the agony aunt.

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