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The Geekocratic Tendency

By Jon E 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.)

12 Responses to “The Geekocratic Tendency”

  • 1
    Steve Miller wrote on 25 May 2012:

    Just in case anyone has any doubts about the Geekocracy’s political intentions, let me refer you to Page 6:

    “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 think more deeply in the political process. But if we are to achieve anything, we need to turn our numbers and confidence into political muscle.”

    And on Page 15:

    “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.”

    Views on this will vary from laudable to laughable. But is clear – refreshingly and threateningly so.

  • 2
    Steve Miller wrote on 25 May 2012:

    PS In case it’s not obvious, the pages refer to “The Geek Manifesto”.

  • 3
    Science Policy in the Tragic Age of the Geeks | csid wrote on 26 May 2012:

    […] STS Observatory » Blog Archive » The Geekocratic Tendency. […]

  • 4
    alice wrote on 26 May 2012:

    I’d look at the last few pages of the book for a good sense of the “political intensions”. When he talks about the Green movement’s ideological problems with respect to science, I think we learn a lot about Henderson’s ideological approach. I’m kind of annoyed none of the reviews have really picked up on that.

    You outsider/ insider point is spot on I think, lots to be pulled out in this tension. I kind of found it expressed (though not in the word geek) in the kids books I looked at for my PhD and at one point thought about post-doc research on the topic. I didn’t, but did take short commission for THE feature on it last year – the Mendick and Francis work we mention might be relevant to above http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?storyCode=417188&sectioncode=26

    Critical point – you think the criticism of the death of british science thing came from jealousy that they were more politically savvy? Really? Maybe I’m too close to this (COI: I share a flat with the Director of CaSE, though in some ways I think that makes me more critical…) but knowing what I do about the background to that stunt, that just doesn’t ring true. I’m not entirely sure what you count as grass roots or not here, though (partly because of the insider/ outsider thing and way people astroturf a bit on this issue, this is complex to track) – the criticism in that BBC piece you link to was from James Wilsdon. What’s he? Of course a lot of these tensions about whose bottom you are thinking about with respect to apparently top down approaches to sci in society are as old as any of the others. Anyway, the comment thread here is quite illuminating, albeit painful at times on this topic.

    I also thought Wilsdon’s review of Henderson’s book was pretty fair. As was the Research Fortnight one. Both worth reading if you are interested in this issue.

    And I assume you saw this?

  • 5
    Am I a geek? | Jon Butterworth | Life & Physics | Politics News and Discussion wrote on 26 May 2012:

    […] of the word geek grated on me slightly, but not as much as the UCL Science and Technology Studies attempt to introduce the word “Geekocracy”. It’s nice that the STS Observatory have noticed a phenomenon and made a pretty pigeonhole […]

  • 6
    Jon Butterworth wrote on 26 May 2012:

    Disagree with “fetishisation”, but interesting… See http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/life-and-physics/2012/may/26/science-policy-gm if interested in more from me…

  • 7
    Am I a geek? « « News in BriefsNews in Briefs wrote on 26 May 2012:

    […] of the word geek grated on me slightly, but not as much as the UCL Science and Technology Studies attempt to introduce the word “Geekocracy”. It’s nice that the STS Observatory have noticed a phenomenon and made a pretty pigeonhole […]

  • 8
    Am I a geek? | Jon Butterworth | Life & Physics | Nullbox wrote on 27 May 2012:

    […] of the word geek grated on me slightly, but not as much as the UCL Science and Technology Studies attempt to introduce the word “Geekocracy”. It’s nice that the STS Observatory have noticed a phenomenon and made a pretty pigeonhole […]

  • 9
    Am I a geek? | Jon Butterworth | Life & Physics « « News in BriefsNews in Briefs wrote on 28 May 2012:

    […] of the word geek grated on me slightly, but not as much as the UCL Science and Technology Studies attempt to introduce the word “Geekocracy”. It’s nice that the STS Observatory have noticed a phenomenon and made a pretty pigeonhole […]

  • 10
    Reflections on Rothamsted | Responsible Innovation wrote on 28 May 2012:

    […] So it appears that there was a protest. And a counter-protest. And lots of lots of police and lots and lots of journalists. The field trial didn’t get torn up, which was good for the particular research project, but not really the issue. The experiment itself, sociologically-speaking, was symbolic – a pivot with which to gauge the balance of sentiments in the GM debate. As a member of the Sciencewise board, I have been dragged into this discussion as Rothamsted consider how to strategically engage with the public in the future. I have made the case to them that doing so means looking forwards rather than fixating on the politics of this trial. For all the talk of ‘dialogue’ and ‘debate’ around this trial, it is clear that the progress or otherwise of this experiment was not on the table. No reason why it should have been. The trial had been agreed by ACRE, a sensible body with broad expertise, appointed legitimately to represent the public interest. Put the trial to one side and we can see that there are plenty of important decisions to discuss about the future of agriculture and that these can usefully be opened up to deliberative discussion. Observing the sabre-rattling that has taken place in the last week or so, I have been interested in whether this helps or hinders that debate. It has certainly been interesting to observe the emergence of the muscular rationalists in response to the anti-GM gang. They will be congratulating themselves this morning on a moral victory, although it would have been all the sweeter had they not needed quite so much Council help and police muscle. But my worry is that, in winning this battle, they make future battles more likely and risk prolonging the war. (‘They’, incidentally, might be Jon Agar’s Geekocratic Tendency). […]

  • 11
    alice wrote on 30 May 2012:

    This is interesting on insiders/ outsiders wrt the death of science thing… http://www.researchresearch.com/index.php?option=com_news&template=rr_2col&view=article&articleId=1195592

    (via Alex Connor, IoP, on Twitter)

  • 12
    Graham wrote on 30 May 2012:

    Whilst science advocates can be guilty of disregarding the cultural aspects of the scientific process, humanities trained MPs usually have an even stronger disregard for available evidence when policy making. It’s about realligning the balance, and not about creating an idolatrous faith in ‘science’. The use of the word ‘fetishism’ fails to acknowledge that good ‘evidence-based’ studies include an assessment of uncertainty and context.

    Yes, data can be misused and abused, but surely examining the data and using the structure of inductive, deductive or abductive reasoning to at least try and make rational decisions is superior to being entirely subject to the whims of prejudice and emotion. I have much sympathy with Mark Henderson’s book and will guard against ‘fetishism’ from the inside. I therefore take great exception to the use of this term. As Ben Goldacre is keen on saying…I think you’ll find it is a little bit more complicated than that.

    I see evidence “evidence-based” as a rather blunt political catchphrase, of the type needed to strike a chord with the general public. Those of us in the know may prefer something more like “data-informed”, or “research-led”. Perhaps you can think of a better one.

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