I wrote this three weeks ago and filed it away as rather trivial. A plug for Brian Cox’s latest pop science TV series in the Graun media pages is hardly big news. But then Richard mentioned it in his latest, and in a comment under my “Weak Minds” article John Shade picked up a quote from Cox in a piece by a New Zealand sociologist calling for climate scepticism to be criminalised. Nonsense from the likes of Cox has a force that sheer common sense can hardly hope to combat. Still, we do our best.
Here at Cliscep we try to defend science, rational thinking and common sense against the forces of darkness, antiscientific irrationality and insanity, as exemplified for example by Professor Brian Cox, surely one of the most scientifically ignorant beings ever to grace the pop charts.
In an interview in the Guardian in response to the interviewer’s mention of public cynicism towards professional expertise, Brian Cox replies:
“It’s entirely wrong, and it’s the road back to the cave. The way we got out of the caves and into modern civilisation is through the process of understanding and thinking. Those things were not done by gut instinct. Being an expert does not mean that you are someone with a vested interest in something; it means you spend your life studying something…”
Cox is talking about distrust of economic experts in the case of Brexit, but the Guardian’s interviewer manages to bring in climate change with a link to an article by Michael White which asks: “Should we listen to the experts on the EU referendum?”in which White says:
“…a lot of well-meaning types, including me, went out and bought diesel cars as a small way of helping save Australia’s coral reef and other species threatened by climate change, also including you and me. It may not all be caused by human activity, but the experts – there we go again – are overwhelmingly of the view that most of it is and we must act together to offset its consequences… Experts are divided over the causes of the climatic changes we see all around us in every country, aren’t they? Well, no, actually. About 97% of those who are supposed to know what they’re talking about support the consensus.”
If Michael White really thinks, or thought, that his buying a diesel motor car would save the human race from extinction then he is a very foolish person. And by linking his 97% reference to an article by John Cook at SkepticalScience he confirms this impression (unless it’s the work of a Guardian spambot that automatically links the term “97%” to John Cook – cartoonist, blogger, serial liar, Goebbels impersonator and convinced Christian.)
But back to Cox. Most of the article is a plug for his forthcoming science series on BBC TV in which, we are warned: “the presenter seeks to explain why icebergs float, grass is green, water is blue, planets are round, and honeycomb is built out of hexagons.”
The interviewer (Decca Aitkenhead) who claims to have got “straight As in science GCSEs” confesses:
“The embarrassing truth, however, is that I watched his new series’ first programme three times, took notes, kept rewinding the most complicated bits, and even then still grasped at best only a quarter of what Cox was on about.”
(Don’t worry dear. If you’ve grasped a quarter of the explanation of why icebergs float you’re probably 25% up on the Guardian’s environmental team). Cox puts her mind at rest when he states:
“If it were up to me, actually, I would abolish exams. I say to my students [he teaches a first-year class at Manchester university]: ‘You don’t even need to do an exam really. You don’t need me to tell you whether you understand Einstein’s theory of relativity or not. You’ll know when you get it.’ Because I think that education is about taking responsibility for your own understanding, and you know when you understand something.”
Yeah. You know what you know when you know that you know it: the credo of every mediaeval theologian, as reproduced for science students at Manchester by a boys band ex-star. Maybe he should have worked it up into a song lyric. Maybe he will.
Cox’s musings on the nature of science don’t end there:
“Well, so, if you list the questions now that are at the frontiers of fundamental science, there are some very immediate questions. Are we alone in the universe? That’s one of them.” Cox thinks other civilisations are a logical inevitability – “The universe is probably infinite, so they’re going to have to. Given that we evolved, and we are consistent with the laws of nature, then it becomes a game of chance, and no matter how small the chances are, if the universe is formally infinite, then there will be an infinite number of civilisations.”
And; by the same “laws of nature”, “if the universe is formally infinite”, it follows as “a logical inevitability” that an infinite number of lizard men named Geoff Chambers are at this very minute (not to mention yesterday and tomorrow) venting their spleen on an infinite number of three-headed supercilious extra-terrestrial twats named Brian Cox; and that the same number of monkeys equipped with typewriters are making exactly the same point: that we are being governed, entertained, educated, and otherwise distracted by idiots.
How can anyone who’s just quoted Feynman say anything so crassly unscientific? “Are we alone in the universe?” is no more a scientific question than: “Will my disc make it to the top of the charts?” or “Does mummy love me?” (the answers to which are: Yes! and Yes! in at least some of the infinite number of civilisations which Cox has just demonstrated must exist.)
The interview finishes on a slightly sinister note with a question about the future – Cox’s future, that is.
“I don’t know actually, it’s a good question. I don’t know. I like learning curves. I was a musician for a while, then I did physics, physics research, I love teaching, that’s a big learning curve.”
[Nice one Brian, nice and mathematical. Except that the thing about learning curves is that they’re flat at the top. They’re not going anywhere.]
Then, to the question: “Isn’t TV a huge learning curve?” he replies:
“Ye-es. But I’ve done that quite a long time now, 10 years really. So, I never quite know, really. I’m always on the lookout for something else to learn about, someone else to do or run.” He pauses, and laughs. “Or something.”
Seems Bri is looking for an opening more suitable to his talents than sweeping up the bosons on the floor at CERN. Running someone, or something. What about Prime Minister Bri? Or Leader of the Opposition? No; not opposition. That wouldn’t be your style. What about just … Leader?
Brian of Britain. Has a nice ring to it.