Isaac Newton was twice elected an MP for Cambridge University. Beyond asking for a window to be closed, there is no record that he ever spoke in a debate. More than three centuries later, just one of today's 650 MPs, Julian Huppert, the Lib-Dem member for Cambridge, has been a research scientist. Only two others have a science PhD.
“What science admires as intellectual honesty is seen in Whitehall as the stuff of the gaffe,” argues Mark Henderson in The Geek Manifesto. It is one reason why so few trained in the sciences pursue a political career. Changing your mind when confronted with new evidence is at the heart of being a scientist, but for a politician it often leads to being charged with a lack of conviction.
As Henderson points out, science is far more than just a body of knowledge; it is a way of thinking. The former science editor of The Times makes a persuasive case for his central proposition: “A more scientific approach to problem-solving is applicable to a surprisingly wide range of political issues, and that ignoring it disadvantages us all”. The problem, argues Henderson, is that politicians, policy wonks and opinion-formers rarely grasp the value of science. If not indifferent, then for many across the political spectrum, science is an optional extra, to be used when it suits an agenda.
“Precisely what politicians think is less important than how they think.” It's a point that Henderson repeatedly drives home in his passionate answer to why science matters. Changing how politicians think, he hopes, will shape what they think on how best to teach children, prevent crime, fund healthcare and protect the environment.
There are many types of abuse of scientific data by politicians seeking justification for policy-based evidence. Politicians get away with this, argues Henderson, because abusing and undervaluing science carries no political cost. Yet about 3 million people in Britain have some sort of science background.
Henderson urges geeks to mobilise into a political force “that punches its weight” in the fight for evidence-based policy. The Geek Manifesto should be required reading for all those who question the value and importance of science.