Martin Robbins 

Geeks, rise!

Martin Robbins: Politics is rubbish. As Mark Henderson publishes his Geek Manifesto, it's time for geeks to stand up and make a difference
  
  

Boris Johnson won the race to be Mayor of London because, while 80.4% of London's registered voters didn't vote for Boris Johnson, 81.6% didn't vote for Ken Livingstone. Barely a third of the electorate bothered to turn up at local elections that consumed the British political classes; a group whose chattering increases in volume as the chamber they inhabit grows ever more insulated from the rabble outside.

That may seem a bit depressing - because frankly it is - but it's also an opportunity. Decisions are made by those who show up, and one person's apathy is a chance for someone else to put their shoes on, jolly-up, and make a difference. Mark Henderson wants geeks to seize that chance, and he's written an entire manifesto to try to spur us into action.

Geeks and nerds have come a long way in the last few years, led by the likes of Ben Goldacre, Brian Cox, and a clutch of comedians from Robin Ince to Dara O'Briain. In 2009, 'Belle de Jour' suggested nerds were "largely in need of a wash", a squat-dwelling, Pot Noodle-eating subclass who would "never discard an item of clothing with the least scrap of fabric still left in it", unable to function without the assistance of their doting mothers. Since then we've become so popular she's had to switch names and start writing nerdy books for us.

But what can geeks actually achieve? I follow politics with a passion, but when it comes to activism my life is a series of crushing 'ooh... smack' moments. Every few months I'll see something that warps my impressionable young mind, like an episode of The West Wing, and decide that I want to be in politics like Josh Lyman. "Ooh!" I think to myself epiphanically, and filled with enthusiasm I fire up a browser and Google the various parties and politicians I could support or campaign for. "Smack" is the sound my face makes five minutes later when my palm hits it.

I can't remember when I first realized that most politicians are even less competent than I am, but since that day I've viewed Westminster with a growing sense of disbelief and horror. Watching them wrestle with the issues of the day on Question Time is like watching elderly relatives try to operate my smartphone, if instead of giving them my smartphone I handed them a small box with a picture of a smartphone printed on the front.

I used to think politicians were devious; now I can go to bed at night reassured by the fact that they're too stupid to be devious. There are debates in primary school playgrounds on the topic "who should own up for the ball that just took out Mrs Bridle's dentures", that are conducted with more civility, greater maturity, and more sophisticated use of rhetoric than the average exchange at Prime Minister's Questions.

What I desperately want is a move toward an evidence-based culture in politics. Politicians are free to say: "I think people on drugs should be punished because drugs are immoral." That's a moral call, albeit a rather stupid one in my opinion. What they shouldn't do is say: "I want to reduce drug use, and sending all users to prison is the most cost-effective way to achieve that." That's not at moral call, it's a factual statement; as such it should be evidence-based, or else the person making it should shut the hell up.

Mark Henderson suggests that we should have an Office of Scientific Responsibility to apply the "evidence or STFU" rule to Parliament. This wouldn't restrict the autonomy of ministers, but: "when science is cited to justify a policy, the OSR would audit it, naming and shaming those who bend it to their political advantage." The result would be a political cost for MPs who abuse evidence, and about a thousand angry blog posts by the likes of James Delingpole blithering on about climate conspiracies and wotnot.

The weakness of an 'OSR' is that it addresses the symptom rather than the cause: a lack of scientific experience and expertise in the House of Commons. Adam Smith addressed this in more detail recently, but briefly: a political system that values debate-winning over truth-seeking, and openly ridicules anyone who changes their opinion, isn't the most natural home for the scientifically-minded. It doesn't help that senior scientists often seem to sneer at political activism with the sort of disdain Brian Sewell might express if confronted by a dog turd - I don't think it was a coincidence that a younger, more junior generation of scientists drove the Science is Vital campaign.

Against all this sit the geeks, a movement that has been growing steadily in strength and promise. As David Aaronovitch says in The Times today: "The geeks represent, for me, one of the most encouraging recent developments in British public life." The problem is that for all this energy and enthusiasm, it's difficult to know what a geek can actually do to influence the political system. That's where Mark Henderson's Geek Manifesto comes in, and I had a long chat with him last week ( which you can listen to here) in which I raised that question.

One solution may be to get past partisan politics, and it's notable that The Geek Manifesto is a carefully non-partisan book. Far too many people treat politics like football fans, doggedly sticking by their favourite party regardless of how utterly clueless the local candidate may be. How else to explain the presence in Parliament of a man who believes the success of surgery varies with the phases of the moon? A greater awareness of individual candidates might help to improve the Commons across all parties, and projects like Skeptical Voter have gone some way toward helping voters make more informed choices. A non-partisan campaign to support good MPs from all parties could make a real difference in 2015.

Trying to win elections isn't the only way geeks can engage in politics. As Henderson writes: "Too few geeks join political parties, and play a part in selecting the candidates between whom voters choose. Still fewer of us stand for office. Those of us who support a party should sign up, so we can influence its positions from the inside." Living in a safe seat? Why not join the dominant party - whatever you think of it - and try to influence it from the inside. Vote for the best candidate even when they don't stand a chance: even if they lose, a better-than-expected performance could encourage their party to give them a shot elsewhere.

And the recent success of the libel reform campaign is a timely reminder that we shouldn't underestimate the power of old-fashioned badgering. As Mark says: "We must lobby our elected representatives, taking time to explain how and why evidence matters. Geeks are constituents too – we have a right to expect politicians to listen to us, even if they won't always agree. When governments hold public consultations, we must participate. When they don't, we must share our views anyway." It doesn't always work, but many are open to persuasion.

It won't be easy but we can make a difference, now more than ever. Decisions are made by those who show up, and there are plenty of geeks around. If nothing else, taking part in democracy could be a lot more fun than hurling things at Newsnight.

Mark Henderson - The Geek Manifesto

Follow me on Twitter: @mjrobbins

 

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