Archive for May, 2012

The Geekocratic Tendency

By Jon Agar, on 25 May 2012

A new social movement in science is gathering, and it is time to give it a name. It’s a mutation of an older tradition of scientific lobbying, but it has new features and deserves some analysis.

What is it?

Let’s describe its components and features. We would include organisations like Science is Vital, which formed to campaign against cuts in science during the present austerity. There are campaigns, such as Simon Singh’s anti-libel wars against the chiropracters.

There is a cultural wing – we are thinking of the spectrum of mutual regard that spans Ben Goldacre, Brian Cox, Wired magazine in the UK, and the comedians Robin Ince and Tim Minchin. These are the geek-tastic “skeptics”, all with an immense following via social and other media which extends now into real world grassroots events such as Skeptics in the Pub.

But the geekocratic tendency is not just about love of the values of science, or protecting the resources and funds for science, or even securing greater respect for science or worrying about public understanding. None of these features are especially unique, indeed we can identify many as having long historical roots tied up with the professionalisation, and popularisation, of science. The novelty is partly a stronger political focus (and especially a fetishisation of evidence-based policy-making), but presented as an ‘outsider’ view while being articulated in fact by well-connected ‘insiders’.

The key text is Mark Henderson’s Geek Manifesto, published this month. It not only serves as a rallying cry for all these groups but also as an attempt to reappropriate the term ‘geek’. Yet, Mark is no DIY science activist. He is Head of Communications at the Wellcome Trust, one of the leviathans of UK science funding. ‘Geek’, as Steve Cross has pointed out, has changed its meaning quite radically.

This social movement has other features. It has its own heroes (teenagers bravely standing up against anti-vivisectionists) and villains (homoeopathists, creationists, politicians who don’t ‘get’ science). It is self-policing – the criticism of the recent ‘death of British science’ campaign is an interesting example. The embarrassment and derision stemmed from the fact that this is a social movement that is much more politically savvy than some of grassroots.

 

Analysis

A social movement needs a name so that it can be tracked, discussed and perhaps supported or criticised. Hauke Riesch has described “science activists”. Proposals kicked around included “grabby geeks”, “science botherers”, the “SciNet” (a la SkyNet of Terminator fame), and the “Geek Establishment”. We like the “Geekocracy”.

So how do we account for this social movement? Is it merely, for example, a manifestation of a network? Certainly social media have provided older science lobby networks with a visibility and an immediacy of communication which is new. Perhaps without social networks the constituency of this social movement would remain local or individual and largely invisible. We in STS@UCL will be watching with interest.

 

(This post combines the collective thoughts of STS’s SASsy group.)