Get Ur Geek On

15 May 2012 by Pete Etchells, posted in Uncategorized

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There was a time, in the (embarrassingly) not-too-distant past, when being called a geek was a slur. If you were a geek, you were socially inept. You spent all your time doing technology-, science-, or maths-based hobbies. You might have been shy and retiring. You were not cool.

Not any more. No longer is it synonymous with a drive to do science and science alone. It’s a way of thinking objectively about things, about taking a step back, assessing the evidence, and coming to informed conclusions about things. Now, ‘geek’ is increasingly becoming a badge of honour.

Why am I pontificating about this? Well, Mark Henderson’s ‘The Geek Manifesto’ was published this week, and is a rallying cry for geeks everywhere to stand up and make themselves heard. Not just in science, but in politics, healthcare, the media, the justice system, the educational system, and anywhere where rational, evidence-based approaches can lead to sound and sensible policies. It’s a superb book, and if you haven’t already devoured it you really should. Better people than I have already written glowing reviews, but I wanted to provide my own thoughts and experiences, on the media section in particular.

We’ve already seen lots about how scientists might engage more effectively with the media in getting research of interest out into the public in an honest but digestible way. When this sort of collaboration breaks down, it doesn’t help anyone; research gets misrepresented and misinterpreted, and it promotes scientists as self-interested sensationalists. Sometimes it’s the fault of the journalist, sometimes (and more than some would care to admit), the fault lies with the scientist. It’s up to the geeks, whichever walk of life they might come from, to provide a barrier against this sort of problem. I started this blog because I felt like I was one of those geeks, and I was getting tired of seeing science improperly reported in the media. But since Counterbalanced started, I’ve found a whole wealth of unexpected benefits about blogging.

I’ve had lots of brilliant opportunities to get insight into how scientists communicate with the media, and vice-versa. Obviously there’s still tons for me to learn, but one thing that I hadn’t anticipated is that it’s really helped me gain perspective on why I wanted to become a researcher in the first place. I’ve thought long and hard about the research that I do, and how I might communicate it to the world. Because doing cool new research is great, but it’s infinitely more fun when you can share that new stuff with other people in a way that gets them excited about it too. This comic from xkcd sums it up nicely:

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Furthermore, being critical about research in the media has made me much more critical of my own work, and hopefully that will make it better and better in the long run. If it doesn’t, then I really hope that someone picks me up on it, maybe in a blog like this one.

Reading The Geek Manifesto reaffirmed my belief that as many people as possible who are involved in front-line scientific research should be blogging. It helps to get new findings out to more diverse audiences, and it acts as a great neighbourhood watch scheme for picking up on dodgy science claims, wherever they might be. At the very least, it helps you improve your writing skills. More geeks need to be blogging.

And so, with the greatest respect, I have to disagree with Prof. Alice Roberts’ view back in January that it’s not ‘great to be geek’. Much to the contrary, I think now, more than ever, being geeky is pretty damn awesome.


3 Responses to “Get Ur Geek On”

  1. Tom Hardwicke Reply | Permalink

    Really enjoying reading your blog Pete, its very well written. You (and Suzi) are making me think of starting one myself. My original thought was “who cares what I think?” but I can see the value of practicing your writing etc and you have discussed some really interesting issues that people should be paying attention to.

  2. Pete Etchells Reply | Permalink

    Thanks both! Tom, it’s really worth the effort; you never know who might be interested in what you have to say. If it doesn’t work out, that’s okay too! But definitely give it a try.

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