The Life of Brian – Science Messiah or Very Naughty Boy?

by | Dec 10, 2010

Brain Cox is a great science communicator. That is to say, he makes very effective TV programmes, which do not condescend, and do much to encourage an interest in science. But there is surely science as process, and there’s ‘science’ as an institution. It’s not clear which one Cox – who gave this year’s Royal Television Society Huw Wheldon Lecture –  was speaking for. His lecture, given the title, ‘Science: a challenge to TV Orthodoxy’ was disappointing given his previous arguments for scientific research, and didn’t challenge orthodoxy as much as it reproduced it, almost entirely uncritically.

To people who follow the climate debate, the interesting things would seem to be Brian’s treatment of Martin Durkin’s film, The Great Global Warming Swindle, which was ‘bollocks’, in Cox’s view; and Iain Stewart’s Climate Wars series, which was held up as a model of good science documentary making. (More on those points shortly.)

But what Brian’s lecture really demonstrates is very much the problem in the background to the climate debate, not merely the problem within it. As we’ve argued here, environmentalism is a symptom, not a cause of the problems experienced in today’s society. Some interesting contradictions in Brian’s thesis reveal the context of the climate debate.

Take, for instance, these two statements, one made at the opening and the other further into his presentation.

Science is enjoying a renaissance in its political and cultural visibility. It was largely protected in the recent government spending review, which speaks not only to its economic value, but also to its increasing public profile.


So since the continuing health of our science programming depends on the public and therefore government support, and the steady flow of excited young people who want to become scientists and engineers, television clearly has a big responsibility to get its science programming right.

At the same time as Cox celebrates the apparent scientific renaissance, he seems to be concerned that television isn’t getting science right. This appears to be something of a contradiction. What kind of cultural renaissance misconceives the very substance that drives it?

To demonstrate the problem of broadcasters’ approach to science, Cox turns to the treatment of two scientific arguments. The first is the BBC’s handling of complaints about his (correct) claim that ‘astrology is a load of rubbish’ in his film, the Wonders of the Solar System. It had drawn the following complaint:

His careless assertion was unreserved, unsubstantiated and unscientific. Has he done any empirical studies? Has he explored his birth chart? … I have certainly never seen him at an astrology conference or read anything written by him about astrology… This bad science is an abuse of a position of trust in an educational scientific programme funded by BBC licence payers. BBC guidelines state that astrology must be presented in a balanced way.

When the BBC asked Cox for a response, he simply put his argument more forcefully. The BBC instead released a statement explaining that Cox’s views on astrology were his own, and not necessarily a reflection of the BBC’s views. The issue Cox takes here is with the supposition that broadcasters should be ‘neutral’ in their coverage of ‘controversies’.

Cox says that this is a trivial case, but that there are much more serious problems caused by the imperative of impartiality. The next case he explores concerns criticism of the the media’s coverage of the MMR-autism scare from Dr. Ben Goldacre. Goldacre says:

Now debate’s good. But this was conspiracy theory and ignorance. The pharmaceutical industry have certainly been guilty of cover-ups. But MMR just isn’t one of them. And it’s not as if scientists have ignored the question. Researchers in Denmark looked at half a million children. 400,000 had MMR. 100,000 didn’t. And yet the rates of autism was the same in both groups. You’ve not heard about research like this, because the media chose not to cover the evidence that goes against their scare story. I can’t blame parents for being terrified. Evidence-based medicine — the science of how we know if something is good for us, or bad for us — is fascinating. It’s easy to understand. And I think the public deserve the chance to hear about these ideas.

Just as the BBC had sought to distance itself from Cox’s statements about astrology, the ITN news programme featuring Goldacre’s authored piece also emphasised that the opinions reflected belonged to the author, not the broadcaster.

These two cases indeed seem to point to a problem, though it’s worth asking how representative they are. And Cox’s reflection on them is not deep. Astrology is, as Cox claims, a mystical view of the universe. But its adherents no longer express their ideas in supernatural terms. The complainant’s criticism of Cox is expressed in scientific terms. It accused him of bad science. However much nonsense it is, the complainant’s reformulation of a supernatural idea in scientific terms speaks volumes about science’s ‘cultural and political renaissance’.

And to the MMR scare, we might want to say that, although the media’s appetite for controversy certainly raised the profile of the issue, scientists were at the heart of the story. Surrounding the coverage of Andrew Wakefield — the now disgraced researcher — who gave the story seemingly scientific credibility, were the angry parents of autistic children. A strange mix of high emotions and cold scientific language dominated the coverage, obscuring the substance of the matter. Cox and Goldacre both promise that science had the answer. But what does this promise say to the suspicion of the pharmaceutical industry — and by extension, medicine — that Goldacre seems to share? What can it do about the media’s need for ‘scare stories’? It seems, after all, less that science is enjoying a renaissance, but that ‘science’ is simultaneously the expression of a weakening of public discourse and trust, and is given as its remedy. To what extent is the use or abuse of science in the MMR scare or astrology really about science?

Moreover, climate sceptics would recognise Goldacre’s criticism of the media’s use of ‘scare stories’. And this makes Cox’s use of the Great Global Warming Swindle and BBC’s Climate Wars series all the more odd. If the media are drawn to scare stories such as MMR, is it not fair to ask if this phenomenon extends to the media’s coverage of the climate?

To illustrate the expression of bad documentary film-making, Cox points to the Swindle film, to make the argument that a viewer might not have the substance behind the eyes necessary to understand that Durkin’s film was a ‘polemic’. He acknowledges that the film was advertised and introduced as a polemic, but that this is not enough. He seems to want the words ‘POLEMIC’ in flashing red letters, throughout the broadcast.

Durkin’s film was polemic, of course. But Cox doesn’t ever explain what the fault of the film’s polemic was. Was it the solar / cosmic ray theory of cloud-formation? Or was it the argument that climate change is the product of this natural variation? Cox’s objection to TGGWS appears to be that it broke with what he calls the ‘peer-reviewed scientific consensus’, misleading the audience who may not be sufficiently well informed to understand that the film was a polemic. Broadcasters and film makers should stick to the peer-reviewed scientific consensus.

But if Cox doesn’t identify precisely what the object of the ‘peer-reviewed scientific consensus’ actually is, how can he criticise a ‘polemic’ which seems to contradict it? This blog has, over the past 4 years attracted criticism for the same thing, yet we’ve rarely ever ventured into matters of science. Indeed, our principal argument is that the ‘consensus’ seems to stand for whatever those who wield it claim it stands for. More to the point, we can see as much confusion about what the consensus is from climate scientists, world leaders, and activists as we can see from any group of sceptics. Yet it is only ‘sceptics’ and ‘deniers’ who are taken to task for taking liberties with the consensus.

There is a further problem here, in that the climate debate divides on another axis, between the argument about whether or not ‘anthropogenic climate change is happening’, and what its consequences are. Within each side of this axis there are competing and contradicting claims, and questions of degree, rather than binary, true-or-false calculations. If, just over a year ago, had you proposed a film to Brian Cox, which took issue with the claims that climate change would massively reduce crop yields in Africa, or that the hundreds of millions of people living beneath the Himalayas face chronic water shortages as a result of glacial recession, you would, in his view, be a ‘maverick’. You would be outside the ‘peer-reviewed scientific consensus’. Yet those are the things that this and other blogs have discovered to be false. The implication of Cox’s argument is that such claims should be ignored by broadcasters.

So the notion of a ‘peer-reviewed scientific consensus’ serves to polarise the political and scientific debates. And the unfortunate implication for Cox is that, as long as what you say apparently ‘fits’ the ‘peer-reviewed scientific consensus’, you can whittle out any nonsense you wish without incurring the wrath of the ‘scientists’. (And it should be asked again at this point, exactly how representative TGGWS was — as we’ve pointed out before, this bogeyman sticks out of many tens of thousands of hours of programming. It’s hardly typical of contemporary programming, and sits amongst many many hours of green trash.) You can, for instance, claim that a billion people will starve or face drought. You can claim that 150,000 people a year die of climate change. You can then, for no good reason double the estimate to say that 300,000 die of climate change. You can claim that there are just ‘50 days to save the planet’, or you can claim that ‘Obama has just 4 years to save the planet’, or you can claim that there are only ‘100 months to save the planet’.

In other words, you can use the ambiguous ‘peer reviewed scientific consensus’ to construct dramatic stories about catastrophe, and you can use this urgency to develop political arguments with the blessing of ‘science’. And that is precisely what Iain Stewart did for in his series, Climate Wars, which Cox holds up as an example of ‘drawing a clear distinction in the viewers mind, between the peer-reviewed science and his opinion’. In the clip Cox showed, Stewart said:

It would have been lovely to have made a programme about how science had got it all wrong. That actually we’ve got nothing to worry about. But unfortunately it’s the opposite. Most of the climate scientists I talked to are actually genuinely scared by the future. They’re worried that it’s in the nature of the climate to change far faster than we once thought possible. And my feeling is, if they’re scared, so should we be. Because whatever the uncertainties surrounding climate prediction, the fundamental science is pretty clear. We may not know exactly what global warming will bring, but we sure as hell know it’s happening. There’s just no hiding place from that simple fact. And of course what it means for us an our families, well, that’s a different matter. But if I’ve learned one thing in this series, it’s that the stakes are so high, doing nothing simply isn’t an option.

But as we showed here (and here), Stewart’s films took massive liberties with the facts of the climate debate, and even greater liberties with his treatment of the arguments of the ‘sceptics’. For instance, he presented the last 20+ years of debate as one between ‘scientists’ representing an unchanging ‘scientific consensus’ and the usual deniers. This re-wrote history, not only from the perspective of just one side, but also from the present. This ahistoric perspective was owed to the fact that the film is nothing more than a verbatim replication of Naomi Oreskes’s ‘Tobacco Strategy’ thesis. Indeed, Oreskes gets a credit on the film. But it’s nothing more than a conspiracy theory. As we pointed out:

To find support for her Tobacco Strategy theory, Oreskes simply takes debates about acid rain, secondhand smoke and CFCs, and divides each into two positions such that, with the benefit of hindsight, one is necessarily false, and the other is necessarily true; she polarises the debate so that it can be cast as a reasonable position versus a ridiculous one. From this vantage point, she can claim that a strategy has been in place throughout. But what debate with a scientific element to it wouldn’t be about how well understood the science is? Which one of these debates hasn’t involved exaggerated claims from alarmists? And what demands for regulation have not been met by opponents that it is not necessary. The Tobacco Strategy is a rather mundane observation about the nature of arguments. Yet Oreskes gives it enough significance to paint a picture of a conspiracy. As we have argued before, this search for geometric congruence between ‘denialist’ arguments comes at the expense of meaningful moral or political analysis. And by the same token, it could be argued just as easily that demands for acting on the best scientific evidence and scientific opinion makes bedfellows of greens and the eugenicists of the early-mid 20th century.

Brian Cox cannot have looked too deeply at the Climate Wars series, because Stewart routinely confuses ‘science’ with opinion. It was, in the words Cox might use, ‘factually total bollocks’, both in its treatment of the scientific arguments, and matters of history and politics. And it’s Cox’s surprisingly fragile understanding of the climate debate and his failure to subject claims about the ‘scientific consensus’ to criticism which causes him to reproduce the same old orthodoxy:

As Iain Stewart says, the consensus is clear. The real controversy is political, and centers on the question ‘what is to be done’. Should we increase tax on oil? Should we not build a third runway at Heathrow? Should we build more nuclear power stations? Or wind turbines? Should we risk damaging our economy in the short term by reducing CO2 emissions quickly? Or should we continue to pursue economic growth at all costs, and seek a more market-oriented solution to climate change? These are complex questions, the answers to which often divide down political lines. But I think Iain Stewart navigates these treacherous waters well, because he remains true to the science, and true to television.

Here, Cox is simply naive. For him, the political debate emerges after the ‘science’, but as this blog argues, there’s plenty of politics prior to the science.

In one sense, the politics is prior in determining what the consequences of climate change are likely to be. In order to understand the material consequences, environmentalists presuppose a fragile nature in ‘balance’. And to understand the human, social consequences of climate change, environmentalists need to presuppose that social phenomena are ‘natural’, such that nothing could ever be done, for instance, to abolish poverty. These points are discussed at length elsewhere on this blog. But there is another sense in which the politics is prior that could do with some exploration here.

As discussed above, science’s ‘political and cultural renaissance’ is coincident with moral disorientation at the newsdesk, and a collapse of trust between the public and medicine. Cox identifies that there’s a problem with TV makers responding to the controversies that its audience wants answers to, but appears to say nothing of what this phenomenon arose from. Just as newsdesks can only see the world in terms of scare stories and controversies, so too do today’s political arguments ground themselves on matters of catastrophe.

Cox does this himself:

This means that the most objective and impartial presentation of the so-called contentious story, such as MMR, climate change, astrology, or even the so-called evolution debate should be given significantly more weight to the scientifically peer-reviewed position. Because this will leave the audience with the more truthful view of the current thinking. Now you may see there that I’m redefining what impartiality means. But the peer-reviewed consensus is by definition impartial. To leave the audience with this particular kind of impartial view is desperately important. We’re dealing with the issues of the life and death of our children and the future of our climate. And the way to deal with this is not to be fair and balanced, to borrow a phrase from a famous news outlet, but to report and explain the peer-reviewed scientific consensus accurately.

Cox makes an argument for science, not on the basis of its positive potential for us, but on the same old basis: that we face crises. This is not an argument for science. It’s an appeal for authority.

… the grand challenges of our age such as climate change, and the ever-increasing appetite of our planet’s rapidly expanding population for clean water and energy require scientific and engineering solutions as well as political ones.

Cox is kidding himself. The peer-review process is not, by definition ‘impartial’. For instance, the peer-review process can’t necessarily exclude the possibility that the peer-reviewers are victims of the thinking that Cox is victim to. Does the peer-review process reject claims about the consequences of climate change which don’t give consideration to the degree to which social factors — i.e. poverty — determine the human outcome far more than weather? Or are scientists, just as journalists and politicians are, vulnerable to the idea that catastrophes are merely material events, devoid of any social or historical context? It strikes me that you can do perfectly good science on a flimsy social premise that ‘poverty is natural’, to conclude that climate change will make it worse. But why should this premise have more weight in the debate about climate change than the argument that we could do more by abolishing poverty? Moreover, the view of the climate debate that Cox seems to have is that it simply divides on the question about whether or not ‘climate change is happening’. And the fundamental problem here is that the ensuing arguments confuse the sensitivity of the climate to CO2 and the sensitivity of human society to climate.

My argument on this blog is that this confusion is the presupposition of much climate science that constitutes the ‘peer-reviewed scientific consensus’. This is at best a kind of soft-environmentalism, and it’s passed off as the conclusion of climate science. But really, it’s the premise of political environmentalism. The conclusion and premise of much climate research is identical, and never interrogated. This is the major fault not only of environmentalism, but also of science’s ‘political and cultural renaissance’.

Scientists, journalists and politicians are all vulnerable to the view that debates about science consist merely of arming the argument about ‘What is to be Done’ with the imperative: ‘Something Must be Done about…’. That is the extent of science’s ‘cultural and political renaissance’. In the process, a great number of presuppositions are smuggled in, consciously or not.

To this, Cox might respond (indeed he says it),

Science is simply the process by which we seek to understand nature. It is utterly a-populist. Its findings reflect no social or political norms or religious beliefs. In other words, when it comes to the practice of science, the scientists must never have an eye on the audience. For that would be to fatally compromise the process.

‘Science’ as a process may well have no agenda to speak of. But the same cannot be said of science as an institution. Science does not do science; people do science. And as much as the aim may be to produce a value-free investigation of the material world, we see in the climate debate that the issue is muddied. Climate science is no longer merely engaged in an attempt to understand material processes, but becomes the substance of an understanding of how humans relate, and the basis on which far-reaching political institutions are being established. The claim that 150,000 people die each year from climate change, for instance, to form the basis of a projection and a call for action, must presuppose that there is nothing that can be done to abolish poverty. In other words, climate science begins to explain the existence of poverty in the world: it’s the result of a degraded environment. The more general expression of this problem is the ‘naturalisation’ of social problems and phenomena.

The problem becomes clearer in a statement Cox makes near the start of his presentation:

I think the best way to illustrate these occasional incompatibilities is to first define what science is. Now this is not easy in a historical context, because to put it bluntly, vast amounts of drivel have been written about the subject by armies of postmodernist philosophers and journalists. But I’m going to ignore all this, because I concur absolutely with the quote attributed to the Nobel-prizewinning physicist, Richard Feynman. He said the philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornothology is to birds. To my mind, science is very simple indeed. Science is the best framework we have for understanding the universe. Now as long as you accept that evidence is more important than opinion, then this is a statement of the obvious. See everything we take for granted in the modern world, from atoms to electricity, from our understanding of the stars to medical imaging, is down to somebody being curious about the universe and using the scientific method to investigate it.

‘Science is the best framework we have for understanding the universe.’ Of course it is, with two important caveats. First, that material science is the framework for understanding the material world. Second, that this first caveat must imply some method which makes it possible to identify whether science is attempting to study something material, or something that is better understood or studied through social science.

Cox is nearly onto something when he says that postmodern philosophy confounds the definition of ‘science’. But he perhaps forgets what it also did to the study of the human realm. If we take ‘postmodernism’ to mean some radical form of relativism, which reduces ‘science’ to nothing more than ‘just another belief system’, this also reduces the social sciences and humanities to meaningless narratives. The effect of postmodernism on the understanding of the human world was far more devastating. The escape from postmodern relativism has been to locate authority not in human-centric ideas, values, or principles, but to ground it in what appears to be objectivity… ‘Science says…’ This really does turn ‘science’ into ‘just another narrative’, because it now starts to become an encompassing framework, from which claims are made about the non-material world. It starts to explain poverty as a natural phenomenon. It starts to explain the right and the wrong in material terms of ‘true and false’. It starts to connect humans through material phenomena. ‘Climate change’ begins to explain social phenomena; it measures the ‘ethics’ of our behaviour; it determines what form of social organisation is best, and how people should relate…

That is the reality of ‘science’s cultural and political renaissance’. Science becomes far more than a value free investigation of the material world, and starts, in Cox’s own words,

…to draw profound conclusions about our responsibility to ourselves, our planet, and ultimately the cosmos itself.

This is no longer ‘objectivity’. And when it turns out that the institutions of science don’t engender the respect and authority that Cox believes they deserve, he has only one answer: more scientism. The reality is that people are suspicious of the MMR jab and people believe in astrology, not because they are mislead, but because it takes more than sheer wonder at the universe to create trust in political, social, and scientific institutions.


  1. StuartR

    Thanks an interesting piece, I found this quote very striking:

    The escape from postmodern relativism has been to locate authority not in human-centric ideas, values, or principles, but to ground it in what appears to be objectivity… ‘Science says…’ This really does turn ‘science’ into ‘just another narrative’, because it now starts to become an encompassing framework, from which claims are made about the non-material world.

    The part about the ‘escape’ from postmodernism struck me as true, I had never thought of it like that before. I guess it has actually been overcome, I don’t see anybody really defending it in the mainstream, and also I can see that the process of everybody getting over postmodernism has now help to leave a void in the understanding human values where science has crudely entered and taken over.

    It is not too bad when you see blue painted demonstrators saying the “science says”, but it is when the scientist seem to believe this you worry, and they more often really do as Cox demonstrates. The tendency for scientist to expound upon duties and moralities may sound similar to the stuff Sagan and Feynman touched upon when they turned to philosphical musings a couple of decades ago but I sense a subtle difference, there is a more confident assertion of the primacy of science as the last – or at least the first – word.

    Cox is gracious enough to say the science process hands over to the poltics process to take over the baton, to make the policy decisions, but he is coy about how far through the process this is and how tolerant he will be if we get polemical about it.

  2. Mooloo

    Cox is kidding himself. The peer-review process is not, by definition ‘impartial’.

    You are far too polite here. This idea that peer-review is impartial and effective at separating out the political from the scientific is a theological position, except that peer-review takes the place of the word of god. Cox is not kidding himself, he is deliberately trying to kid others that peer-review does something that it does not do.

    There are so many examples of poor science passing peer review that no-one even with a passing interest in science would think that peer-review separates the good from the bad. After all, did Wakefield’s appalling MMR study not pass peer-review and end up in one of the most prestigious publications?

  3. Ben Pile

    SuartR – It is not too bad when you see blue painted demonstrators saying the “science says”, but it is when the scientist seem to believe this you worry, and they more often really do as Cox demonstrates. The tendency for scientist to expound upon duties and moralities may sound similar to the stuff Sagan and Feynman touched upon when they turned to philosphical musings a couple of decades ago but I sense a subtle difference, there is a more confident assertion of the primacy of science as the last – or at least the first – word.

    I don’t sense the confidence. The assertion of science belies deep insecurity about the world. For instance, it is usual for the ‘scientists’ (i.e. those asserting the science outside the material realm) to appear to be most anxious about, in particular, other people’s beliefs. Religion, astrology, alternative medicine, etc. And often, accounts of these beliefs are expressed in scientific terms: pathologies, memetics, psychology. This, I would suggest is actually a synthesis of postmodernism/relativism and scientism — the worst of both worlds — not a departure from them. But it’s more forcefully expressed, nonetheless.

  4. Ben Pile

    Mooloo — Cox is not kidding himself, he is deliberately trying to kid others that peer-review does something that it does not do.

    I think if his presentation had been more coherent, that might be true. But it’s just so weak and incoherent.

    If you take the Goldacre clip for instance, Cox claims that the broadcasters try to distance themselves from his opinion. Now, it’s certainty true that they emphasise it is his own opinion, but the news anchor follows it with something only just short of a mea culpa, and urges other broadcasters to take on board what Goldacre has said, which contradicts Cox’s depiction.

  5. Barry Woods

    If only monty python were still around…

    ‘it’s all gone post normal’ would havebeen an excelent starting point for some satire.

  6. Atheist Ranter

    A few hundred years ago it was the scientific consensus that the sun orbited the earth. If Cox had his way then we would all follow along nodding to the consensus like good little boys and girls and have people like Copernicus ignored, ostracised or laughed at or even burned at the stake.

    Personally, I find it impossible to believe that anyone with a ‘reasonable’ IQ and/or a scientific understanding, believes in AGW. By that I mean ‘really’ personally believes in it, you know, when you’re alone, at night in a quiet room with time to think and reflect…

    To re-use a phrase by Cox, AGW is ‘total bollocks’.

  7. Lewis Deane

    Ben, I think what so-called ‘post-modernism’ did deserves a separate debate – I would suggest a very crude reading of Nietzsche and those he influenced might be a starting point, as far as aetiology is concerned.

    But what Cox and his fellow ‘scientimists'(!) seem to illustrate is the self-ignorance of a smug, yet beneath it all, extremely insecure class. That may seem paradoxical but it is a well known truth, once illustrated by Freud, that the greater the insecurity, the greater the ego.

    Btw, and not to spoil the broth, your ‘abolition’ of poverty sounds a little bit like ‘abolition of property’ which, some might say, went down the pan along with Prouhdon and his poverty of philosophy, as well as all the other Eutopianisms, left and right! No?

  8. Lewis Deane

    Actually, may I put my latter point slightly differently? I do believe in the technical cleverness of mankind, at his best, but I don’t believe in any purported ‘perfect society’ as the end of such a technique, ie perfection is not a ‘problem’ that progressively greater and greater technical fixes will ‘solve’. Nor do I believe in Mankind’s inevitable progression ‘upwards’. As Marx once implied, either civilization or – barbarism! Not a little of that has contributed to our present. In fact, culturally we are almost on par with the syn cretinism of the late Alexandrians! They were very clever in their day, too!
    All wishes to ‘improve’ mankind, whether by ‘scientists’ or, indeed, ‘social scientists’ (an oxymoron if ever there was one – indeed it signifies a lack of courage, in the English speaking world at least, to call oneself a philosopher!) always smacks of a viscous arrogation of cheek!

  9. Ben Pile

    Lewis, it would take more than a post to even outline ‘what pomo did’. I raised the point in the post because it seems to be part of scientism’s mythology (which is where Cox seemed to be coming from) that pomo tried to destroy science, rather than had a broader effect on/reflected wider changes in society. It is this narrow perspective which I think causes Cox’s kind of argument its problems. He doesn’t understand why various forms of authority appear to be collapsing. I agree that it was too brief a statement, but it was already turning into an unmanageably long post!

    Btw, and not to spoil the broth, your ‘abolition’ of poverty sounds a little bit like ‘abolition of property’ which, some might say, went down the pan along with Prouhdon and his poverty of philosophy, as well as all the other Eutopianisms, left and right! No?

    The abolition of poverty doesn’t strike me as a particularly Eutopian aim. In fact it strikes me as a particularly limited aspiration. I often find myself using that claim from the WHO and GHF that 150,000/300,000 people dying each year from climate change, and thinking that it is impossible to use it without it being instrumental. But the crude numbers have it; the deaths which are Nth-order effects of climate change are first-order effects of poverty. So it seems to me that the abolition of poverty is a more worthwhile — and feasible — aim than the abolition of climate change. I put it to environmentalists, who claim that ‘doing something about climate change’ is a progressive good. It’s clearly a bogus claim.

    I do believe in the technical cleverness of mankind, at his best, but I don’t believe in any purported ‘perfect society’ as the end of such a technique, ie perfection is not a ‘problem’ that progressively greater and greater technical fixes will ‘solve’.

    To return to the same point, I don’t think that a society free of poverty amounts to a ‘perfect society’. Imagining a society without poverty, or the means to produce it shouldn’t be casually dismissed as Eutopian, nor even Utopian. How does any conceivable system of social organisation — left or right — legitimise itself if it can’t conceive of a better world? A world without poverty could still be a tyranny.

    Nor do I believe in Mankind’s inevitable progression ‘upwards’. As Marx once implied, either civilization or – barbarism!

    I don’t recall Marx’s claim that progression was inevitable. I think his point is that struggle is inevitable, given the creation of classes with antagonistic interests. If progress was inevitable — on his own view — he might just as well sit back and watch the show.

    All wishes to ‘improve’ mankind, whether by ‘scientists’ or, indeed, ‘social scientists’ […] always smacks of a viscous arrogation of cheek!

    “Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives”. – JF Lyotard.

    I hope you take my point.

  10. Alex Cull

    Re scientism’s mythology, here’s something I noticed in the lecture. Brian Cox says:

    “Because science is, at its core, a deeply human pursuit. It stems from that most human desire to explore and explain the world around us. It has generated the most amazing facts and figures, along with our technological civilisation, which I see in some ways as a spin-off from the scientific project. Our aircraft, GPS satellites, the internet, modern medicine, television – these are all applications of the knowledge we acquired accidentally, on our travels through an ever-expanding domain of intellectual territory.”

    Has he got this the wrong way round? Matt Ridley, in The Rational Optimist, takes what seems to be the exact opposite view:

    “It used to be popular to argue that the European scientific revolution of the seventeenth century unleashed the rational curiosity of the educated classes, whose theories were then applied in the form of new technologies, which in turn allowed standards of living to rise. China, on this theory, somehow lacked this leap to scientific curiosity and philosophical discipline, so it failed to build on its technological lead. But history shows that this is back-to-front. Few of the inventions that made the industrial revolution owed anything to scientific theory.

    It is, of course, true that England had a scientific revolution in the late 1600s, personified in people like Harvey, Hooke and Halley, not to mention Boyle, Petty and Newton, but their influence on what happened in England’s manufacturing industry in the following century was negligible. Newton had more influence on Voltaire than he did on James Hargreaves. The industry that was transformed first and most, cotton spinning and weaving, was of little interest to scientists and vice versa. The jennies, gins, frames, mules and looms that revolutionised the working of cotton were invented by tinkering businessmen, not thinking boffins: by ‘hard heads and clever fingers’. it has been said that nothing in their designs would have puzzled Archimedes.

    Likewise, of the four men who made the biggest advances in the steam engine – Thomas Newcomen, James Watt, Richard Trevithick and George Stephenson – three were utterly ignorant of scientific theories, and historians disagree whether the fourth, Watt, derived any influence from theory at all. It was they who made possible the theories of the vacuum and the laws of thermodynamics, not vice versa. Denis Papin, their French-born forerunner, was a scientist, but he got his insights from building an engine rather than the other way round. Heroic efforts by eighteenth-century scientists to prove that Newcomen got his chief insights from Papin’s theories proved wholly unsuccessful.”

    Did science produce our technological civilisation (Cox) or did technological civilisation make modern science possible (Ridley)?

  11. Ben Pile

    Alex, I will admit to not having read all of Ridley’s book, but I was troubled by some of the implications of ‘ideas having sex’. It’s from Richard Dawkins’ idea of memetics, which holds that ideas have a mechanism, much like genes. The problem is that it seems to deny human agency. It’s almost as if the humans are passive viewers of development.

    Actually, I prefer Cox’s idea that ‘science is a deeply human pursuit’. I just don’t think he follows through with it. Cox for a moment puts humans at the centre, but later turns them into dangerous slack-jawed morons who only obey TV, thus making a special role for scientists as the guardians of truth and censors.

    It’s not until an idea is made real that its possibilities are fully understood, and create the idea of new possibilities, ad infinitum. This implies something about the process I think Ridley is driving at, which doesn’t make men the complete master of their own future, so to speak, let alone of their ideas. But isn’t this Cox’s point, too?

    It is nonetheless individual humans at the heart of the process. I think there’s a duality going on here. It’s a big, iterative process, some of which owed to agency and some to accident, but it would all still be trees were humans not around, or didn’t have some sense of purpose.

  12. Ben Pile

    Kenan Malik has reprinted an essay of his concerning a dark episode in sociobiology on his blog at — it doesn’t necessarily relate directly to this discussion, but I think there are many parallels. Certainly, it raises questions about how scientists understand humans, and also some of the difficulties that emerge from it, and how forming a criticism of politically-engaged science can be just as problematic.

  13. geoffchambers

    When Brian Cox’s lecture was publicised on BishopHill and Harmless Sky I started transcribing it at the latter site, because it seemed so bad that it deserved a thorough demolition. I’m a bit surprised that both you and TonyN at Harmless Sky have been so understanding, pointing out how good Cox is as a TV presenter, etc.
    Maybe it’s because I’d never heard of him before, but I thought the lecture was an intellectual disgrace. He wasn’t doing particle physics, or even philosophy of science, but media studies, which is a perfectly respectable activity which demands the same intellectual rigour as any other. He failed absolutely. His vulgar dismissal of the science in Durkin’s programme; his partial and pointless selection of extracts from the Durkin and Stewart programmes; the infantile definition of science; the conflating of peer review and consensus; the irrelevant quotes from Orwell and Mill; all this would have lost him a sixth form debate. He had nothing to say, and he said it with the air of cool authority which comes from being a TV star.

    I don’t see that the BBC and ITN’s distancing from Cox and Goldacre over astrology and MMR raise important questions. They were just protecting themselves legally and in the popular mind. Of course assertions made by the thousands of faces which cross our screens aren’t the opinions of the broadcasters. What harm does it do to recall this evident truth, if it makes some horoscope compiler or nervous BBC lawyer happy? These were just conjuror’s passes to prepare us for his treatment of global warming.
    Because global warming was the real scientific case he was interested in, and, as you rightly point out, his subject was authority – his own. This authority stems in part from the danger represented by AGW, and partly from the opinion polls which consistently give scientists an 80% trust rating, compared with 20% for politicians and journalists. As democratic authority has seeped out of politics and been mopped up by pollsters, this simple (and utterly trivial) public opinion titbit has taken on an importance which will fascinate social scientists for decades to come.

  14. George Carty

    Does anyone else here think Durkin’s libertarian polemic Britain’s Trillion Pound Horror Story may be harmful to the AGW sceptic cause, by seeming to confirm the Green propaganda about AGW sceptics being greedy plutocrats and their lackeys?

  15. Ben Pile

    Geoff, before Cox became a megastar, he made some really good science films. His later efforts suffered, I think, from his attempt to do that Sagan, personal reflection stuff. It may well have inspired Cox, but I find Sagan’s style nauseating. In the meantime, he also said some interesting things in defence of scientific research.

    I think it’s fair to say that he’s now exhausted his capacity to illuminate the wider debate about science’s role in society. His inclination to use the words ‘twat’, ‘bollocks’, ‘nobber’, and so on only serve to demonstrate his frustration with the issue, not his grasp on it. I guess that’s the point of the ‘scientific consensus’; it’s a fig leaf for hollow agendas, as discussed here before, a lot. So far, I think we’re in agreement.

    I did think that the point raised about the distance between Cox and Goldacre and the broadcasters could have been interesting. There seems to be a disregard for polemic, yet it is the polemic journalists which we remember. It seems to me that the expectation of ‘balance’ in reporting is owed to nervousness about perspective itself. Anyone slightly to the left or right of centre, or is at all radical is understood as ‘extreme’. I don’t think Cox’s points were particularly good instances of this phenomenon, but that’s because he wanted to discuss it only in relation to science. So to your question ‘What harm does it do to recall this evident truth’, the problem is the low expectations of the audience it implies: precisely the low expectations Cox has, such that he wants the words ‘POLEMIC’ up on the screen the moment anyone ventures an opinion outside of the ‘peer-reviewed scientific consensus’. Opinions are dangerous, you see.

  16. James Cox

    Digressing slightly, but in relation to the reliability peer review itself, within the publishing industry and academic societies, there is always a tendency toward theoretical agreement and a shared “political” or “philosophical” agenda.
    I have worked within a production company; working within some of the most read, science and social science publications in the world (no names given). There are some test that we use occasionally, that prove – beyond doubt – tthat the process itself means less and less in terms of the validation academic work, across the bored.
    For example, go to go to “postmodern essay generator” or something like it (Google it, don’t know the address) and it will give you as many novel, semi-coherent, science/philosophy/politics essays that you may want, all of which are obvious bollocks. These regularly get passed by the peer review system that we subject them to. It has been embarrassing for some scholars, but it mainly it reveals the fallibility of peer review itself. Both in the way it may used as a lazy way of presenting, scientific “truth”, particularly within the media, as Ben has suggested. But, also it can at atimes present a way that “like minded” scientist can use peer review, to “create” or “construct” scientific “consensus” and give the overall appearance of universal agreement, on certain issues.
    Within scientific cliques, it offers an avenue to “promote”, what, in essence is a politically motivated agenda. Yet, within academic publishing itself, no one knows what other system might offer improvement. But from inside experience, as it stands, I can assure that, peer review is fundamentally flawed and never reliably objective.

  17. Philip

    “The escape from postmodern relativism has been to locate authority not in human-centric ideas, values, or principles, but to ground it in what appears to be objectivity… ‘Science says…’”

    Out of the frying pan, then? When talking about political correctness, Anthony Browne has recommended judging what people “say at face value, rather than believing there are hidden, dark motives that entitle you to dismiss what they say without thinking about it.” I presume that the possibility of doing otherwise has at least to some extent arisen from postmodernist ideas. But the kind of attitude it engenders is I think a terrible trap, because you must imagine that other people judge your sayings in a similar way and rational argument becomes impossible. Since it no longer seems possible to argue from A to B, you are then left with simply asserting B. And perhaps this in turn leads to the horrible defensive dogmatism still seen in the climate debate. Part of the solution therefore presumably lies in everyone following Browne’s advice. Taking people’s sayings at face value is rather liberating and I can’t imagine how it ever became popular to do otherwise.

  18. Philip

    Alex and Ben:

    Regarding whether science or technology came first, I have one of my old university textbooks to hand (written by John Ziman and published in 1976), and chapter 2 is about exactly this question. Briefly, his conclusion is that there is no simple answer (sorry). In some examples, technology motivates a new scientific discipline; in others a technology grows out of ideas motivated by idle curiosity; sometimes the two go hand in hand; other times, they develop independently and only later do they “fruitfully recombine”.

    My sense, however, is that Ridley’s position is nearer to the truth. I’d say, somewhat cynically perhaps, that Cox is putting forward a kind of sentimentality over science that I don’t find very appealing (“…technological civilisation, which I see in some ways as a spin-off from the scientific project”). In a way, I rather like the evolutionary implications of Ridley’s “ideas having sex” and I don’t think that this needs to imply the denial of human agency.

    In fact, I’d say that the idea of evolution has an explanatory power across a whole range of different topics, not just in science, and it irritates me no end that it often seems to be caught up in arguments between atheists and the more orthodoxly religious, or misused to justify ghastly ideologies. It seems to me that the best systems of ideas are normally those that can be thought of as developing in an evolutionary way and are therefore more likely to be open than closed. Science (or what I think of as science) certainly falls into this category, whereas scientism is set in stone.

    On this note, I can’t resist offering you a final quote I noticed when glancing through Ziman’s book again. It concerns the relationship between alchemy and science:

    “Was [alchemy] just an early case of a serious science that had got into a blind alley through faith in a confused and misleading theory, and could not rescue itself by open discussion and mutual criticism because it was a ‘Secret Art’?”

    I’ll say no more.

  19. Ben Pile

    Philip: – ‘In some examples, technology motivates a new scientific discipline; in others a technology grows out of ideas motivated by idle curiosity;’

    Isn’t that the thrust of what I said?: I think there’s a duality going on here. It’s a big, iterative process, some of which owed to agency and some to accident,

    In fact, I’d say that the idea of evolution has an explanatory power across a whole range of different topics, not just in science…

    But it doesn’t have explanatory power, except in the most prosaic sense. That technology creates further possibilities is well understood. And that people are either able to experiment purposefully, or accidentally to produce new knowledge from old implies very much a process that requires agency. Different forms of technology or ideas do not bring themselves together.

    I go into more detail about the problems with the extension of the genetic analogy into the climate debate here:

  20. Philip


    “It’s a big, iterative process”

    Yes I agree. It’s an iterative process with technology and science going on in tandem.

    “But [evolution] doesn’t have explanatory power, except in the most prosaic sense…”

    Yes I’m sorry; I had in mind the more general idea of a process driven by a choice mechanism. But you can build mathematical models of such processes, make predictions and all the other things expected of a scientific idea. This is the sense in which I spoke of explanatory power.

    “I go into more detail about the problems with the extension of the genetic analogy…”

    I agree with you about the dehumanising nature of the idea of memes. But I don’t think that “ideas having sex” is meant in this way. I think it is meant more as a light hearted description of the human process in which the ideas of individuals are developed and cross-fertilised over long time scales as people exchange ideas and think about them and pass them down the generations. I think that problems with memes and eugenics arise because of the inhuman way in which the evolutionary idea is applied. But surely problems will occur with almost any scientific or technological idea if it is applied in a way that disregards people? Although perhaps evolution is especially vulnerable to such abuse.

  21. Ben Pile

    Philip – “I agree with you about the dehumanising nature of the idea of memes. But I don’t think that “ideas having sex” is meant in this way”

    You’ll correct me if I’m wrong, but Ridley refers to Dawkins when he introduces the idea. It’s hard to think of what else he means by it… But I haven’t finished the book, so I don’t know if there’s a caveat to it yet.

    But surely problems will occur with almost any scientific or technological idea if it is applied in a way that disregards people?

    Granted, Ridley doesn’t seem to use ‘memes’ to explain ‘the God Delusion’, or anything like it in the angry way Dawkins does. And I actually liked — and have quoted — his mini taxonomy of ‘reaction’ to forms of progress.

  22. Philip


    Is this one of the passages that has worried you?

    “The habitat in which these ideas reside consists of human brains. … The evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in 1976 coined the term ‘meme’ for a unit of cultural imitation.”

    This does seem consistent with the idea that it is the memes that are in charge, and that thinking for yourself is simply a clever illusion. I also noticed a review by John Gray in New Statesman that strongly criticised Ridley regarding memes. This obviously irritated him though, because he wrote a letter about it, strongly rejecting the criticism:

    “I have resolutely criticised both eugenics and social Darwinism … I have consistently argued that both policies are morally wrong, politically authoritarian and practically foolish. … I make a wholly different and more interesting argument, namely that if evolution occurs among ideas, then it is ideas, not people, that struggle, compete and die.”

    He also cites a paper that argues selective forces matter even if the sources of variation are not random. I take this to mean that with respect to cultural evolution, it is humans that are in charge of creating, selecting and developing their ideas.

    I wonder if it is the reductionist way of thinking about evolution that leads to the mechanistic view of human beings and to ideas like memes-in-control and eugenics? But it may also be possible to think of evolution as an emergentist theory. Thought of like this, our normal ways of thinking about ourselves – free will and so on – may seem more comprehensible.

  23. tom.harrigan

    Professor Cox certainly has upset a lot of irrational types of various flavours with his Huw Wheldon lecture. The astrologers are upset, the creationists are upset, the MMR-causes-autism bunch are up in arms, but most of all, the global warming “sceptics” are very upset indeed!

    So, what did he say to so enrage those who “strive undermine our civilisation”? First of all, he explained that science is our best framework for understanding the universe. Then he explained how it works; that the process of peer-review is the best method of establishing and progressing the scientific consensus that we have. He then explained why, in the field of scientific reporting, the consensus view should be given significantly more weight than “controversial” views, such as our love lives being determined by the relative positions of Mars and Venus, or that global warming isn’t happening.

    If you are rational, and have been paying attention, Cox’s assertion that peer review “works” and that it has “delivered modern world”, should be self evident. He neither claimed it is perfect, nor that it necessarily produces a consensus which is correct, but that it does in general, represent the best that can be achieved given the available data.

    How can Cox’s perfectly reasonable position generate such a negative reaction? Well, the article above manages to find plenty to disagree with, but principly by by distorting what Prof. Cox said, then getting upset by the distortion. e.g.

    “At the same time as Cox celebrates the apparent scientific renaissance [he didn’t, it’s a renaissance in its visibility], he seems to be concerned that television isn’t getting science right [he didn’t say that. He said its important that TV gets its science programming right. He thinks there is “occasional incompatibility”]. This appears to be something of a contradiction [you’re joking right?]. What kind of cultural renaissance misconceives the very substance that drives it [to quote the good Professor, “bollocks”]?” I could go on, but it would be tedious.

    I think you had better accept, despite your obvious desires to the contrary, that in the end science always wins. It is more fundamental and more reliable than any mystical world-view (eg. philosophy, religion or political persuasion). You keep saying politics is prior to science (and I confess I don’t really know what that means). Maybe you are right, and maybe that is the problem?

  24. Ben Pile

    Tom – I could go on, but it would be tedious.

    It already was.

    It seems that your defence of Cox’s scientism depends on splitting hairs about the difference between a ‘renaissance’ and a ‘renaissance of visibility’; how representative the ‘occasional incompatibilities’ he chose were.

    To the first point, Cox referred to a ‘renaissance in [science’s] political and cultural visibility’. Even if we accept that this a phantom renaissance of appearance only, this is the point I make several times. For instance, I say that the reformulation of astrology is a symptom of the ‘scientific renaissance’.

    To the second point, it was my argument that the things Cox chose to illustrate his talk weren’t necessarily representative.

    I think you had better accept, despite your obvious desires to the contrary, that in the end science always wins. It is more fundamental and more reliable than any mystical world-view (eg. philosophy, religion or political persuasion)

    First things first, science is not and cannot be ‘more fundamental’ than any world view, mystical or not. World views are by definition primary in this respect. ‘Science’ cannot be a world view. Science is a process by which people try to exclude world-views, values, prejudices, and so on. Expecting ‘science’ to be a world-view is pretty much like turning it into a religion.

    You keep saying politics is prior to science

    In the context of the climate debate.

  25. Peter S

    Cox tells us at the beginning of his speech that “everything we take for granted in the modern world, from atoms to electricity, from our understanding of the stars to medical imaging, is down to somebody being curious about the universe and using the scientific method to investigate it”.

    But if Environmentalism refuses to admit that the politics is really prior to their science (as Ben insists it is), then surely in this statement Cox is acknowledging that curiosity is prior to the science. “Scientific method” is one – systematic – approach “somebody” can use to satisfy his or her curiosity about the world around us and the objects it contains (including the climate). Of course, other ways of satisfying our human need of curiosity include seeking a technical or artistic view of our environment and its contents. But in all cases, the need must exist first in order for us to act in an attempt to meet it.

    People interested enough in Cox’s view of AGW (and the science which supports it) would likely tune in to watch his programme in an effort to satisfy their curiosities. And the overall coherence of Cox’s words and ideas would determine whether or not that need in the viewer is satisfied – or left wanting.

    If curiosity is a need – in a similar way as a hunger for food or a desire for warmth is – and if the result of its being met is a usable knowledge of such objects as ‘atoms, electricity, stars and medical imaging’, then we could call it an ‘appetite’ and also recognise it as one which is special in defining what it is to be human. We could also wonder if, like other appetites, it is possible to have too much of a curiosity and what a person who digests too much to meet its particular needs might look like (after all, we are warned that it kills cats!).

    Indeed, we could go on to see that the primary enemy of environmentalism (and many of its leftwing accomplices) – the very thing that is claimed to place our surroundings in the gravest danger – is nothing other than human appetite… or desire. And conversely, the humans that environmentalism gives its greatest and most sentimentalised privilege to are those whose appetite remains unmet – whether through a self-made choice to suppress and control it or through external circumstances.

    Cox appears to promote an appetite for knowledge and understanding as something worth having and then slips in the demand to limit what can and can’t be used to meet its needs. He seems to be saying that whatever a sanctioned authority places on the table in between itself and the ‘public’ is fit for consumption by the curious receiver – and if the public’s curiosity is left wanting by the limited (cooked) fare served up, then it is the appetite itself that must be wayward and therefore a threat to the space we are in.

    If curiosity really is a quality worth valuing and nurturing, it might be useful to wonder what places it at the greatest risk. What might a curiosity, or an appetite for knowledge, come up against which attempts to get rid of it – rather than satisfy it? The answer is a word (or idea) we hear over and over again (in one form or another) from the Environmentalist – as well as in Cox’s muddled speech. A ‘conclusion’ is that which renders curiosity at once obsolete and unwanted. If food is eaten to abolish hunger, then a conclusion is stated to abolish curiosity. And of course for the Environmentalist, either human curiosity concludes – or the world does.

  26. Ben Pile

    Philip – I also noticed a review by John Gray in New Statesman that strongly criticised Ridley regarding memes. This obviously irritated him though, because he wrote a letter about it, strongly rejecting the criticism:

    Gray has a pretty dismal picture of humanity himself, though I think Ridley wants to have his cake and eat it there. But at least Ridley points out that things probably will get better even if those things are beyond our means — as mere things — to control them.

  27. Alex Cull

    Ben and Philip, re Ridley and memes, behind the “ideas having sex” concept must lie the desire of humans to improve their lot in life, e.g., while the computer mouse, one of his examples, is on the one hand the fusion and recombination of many different ideas (and cannot be made by one person as easily as a stone hand-axe, thus requiring co-operation, specialisation, trade, etc.) it is also the result of someone wanting an easier, faster or more intuitive way to interact with computers. Without the human desire to improve life, the mouse wouldn’t have come into being. So yes, there is common ground between Ridley and Cox, viewed in that way – with both world views, the prime movers are human beings who have feelings, desires, curiosity and aspirations.

    The Kenan Malik essay is an eye-opener, by the way; although I had been aware that the field of anthropology was politicised, it was a shock to realise just how much it has been. A grim but fascinating object lesson, really.

  28. tom.harrigan


    You claim several renaissances, “scientific”, “cultural”, and “political”, none of which is claimed by Cox. Why don’t you just address the points he made rather than the ones you imagine he did.

    Cox’s three examples of “occasional incompatibility” between science and TV are entirely representative. They cover the trivial, the simple, and the complex – all in areas of public interest, all in areas where the public would best be served if TV promoted the scientific consensus. Just like the astrologists, you don’t like one of them. I can’t think of any other recent examples, can you?

    One other of your misrepresentations is where you attribute to Cox scaremongering: “Cox makes an argument for science, not on the basis of its positive potential for us, but on the same old basis: that we face crises.” This is simply not true, and it this not splitting hairs! What you need to understand is that for a scientist a “challenge” and a “crisis” are different things.

    It has obviously come as news to you that science and “scientific thinking” does constitute a world view.

  29. Ben Pile


    These are Cox’s words: “Science is enjoying a renaissance in its political and cultural visibility.” I don’t claim any ‘renaissance’.

    If there are just three moments of incompatibility between science and TV from the last 3 years, I would suggest that the whole point of Cox’s lecture is lost. It looks like no more than a grumble at ITN, and a bark at Channel 4. There is clearly no great consequence to these ‘incompatibilities’.

    This is simply not true, and it this not splitting hairs! What you need to understand is that for a scientist a “challenge” and a “crisis” are different things.

    This blog — I don’t know if you’ve read any of the other pages on it — is about climate politics. It pays particular attention to the role that climate crises plays in various narratives. In Cox’s lecture, it exists as a crisis, and he draws authority for his argument from that crisis. This is Cox’s argument for science:

    … the grand challenges of our age such as climate change, and the ever-increasing appetite of our planet’s rapidly expanding population for clean water and energy require scientific and engineering solutions as well as political ones.

    Furthermore, the discussion about the Great Global Warming Swindle was about how exposing the public to unauthorised scientific argument created danger.

    It has obviously come as news to you that science and “scientific thinking” does constitute a world view.

    You should take Cox’s words more seriously:

    Science is simply the process by which we seek to understand nature. It is utterly a-populist. Its findings reflect no social or political norms or religious beliefs.

    So should Cox, for that matter.

    Science is a process, not a world-view. The attempt to turn science into something like a world view is called scientism, and it ends up being rather unscientific.

  30. tom.harrigan


    The lecture was part nostalgia for a golden age of TV science, and part minor grumble. The minor grumble is not trivial however. In giving equal weights to the consensus and the crackpot, TV is misleading the public.

    As a species, we have will certainly have to deal with climate change. Cox could easily have spiced this up, but he didn’t. No crises, no tipping-points, no worse-than-we-thought scaremongering. In fact, he put climate change on an equal footing with the need for clean water. His call for engineering solutions places him at some distance from your average AGW alarmist. You would do well to stop putting words in his mouth.

    Science is a process, but as Feynman says “I would like not to underestimate the value of the world view which is the result of scientific effort.” The world-view might not be what you expect, so here’s a gentle introduction to it:

  31. Ben Pile

    Tom, you have obviously not read the criticism of Cox’s lecture in the blog post. If you have, you’ve obviously not tried to understand it. I can see from the server log that you haven’t even looked at any other pages on this site, and so it seems even more obvious that you’re not familiar with the broader discussion that happens here. As I point out, TV doesn’t give ‘equal weight to the consensus and the crackpot’, the TGGWS was introduced as controversial and polemic, and moreover represents just 90 minutes of TV in a 24 schedule of dozens of channels. Furthermore, as is discussed above, Goldacre’s segment was given an emphatic endorsement by the news anchor — hardly representing an attempt to distance his views from the broadcaster.

    And yet even furthermore, Iain Stewart’s presentation of the ‘Climate Wars’ was far from the perfect balance of opinion and ‘consensus’ that Cox believed it to be. If you had followed the link to the criticism of Earth: Climate Wars, you would have discovered that. But you haven’t. And so you can’t claim to understand the point.

    It seems to me that Cox’s three examples don’t serve his purpose, but contradict the message he tries to make from them.

    And as for Sagan… I find him intensely irritating. Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man is a much better exploration of humanity’s scientific development, and doesn’t resort to those absurd, starry-eyed attempts at sub A-level poetry.

    It is nice of you to want to defend Cox, but you don’t seem to understand what the criticism of him is.

    Feynman’s clip is hardly a rallying cry for ‘a scientific world view’.

    More to the point, “the world view which is the result of scientific effort” is not the same thing as a “scientific world view”. We can all stand on the shoulders of giants, after all.

  32. geoffchambers

    Thanks PeterS. Your comments are always fascinating, and irritating in the same elliptical way as the comments of my psychoanalyst. She has her reasons, but this is supposed to be a discussion among equals. Could you please indicate the source of the idea of psychological space as you use it? My searching on google has not revealed anything as interesting as your comments.

    When I first came across this speech (and Brian Cox, whom I’d never heard of) I was so angry I started transcribing it with the intention of pulling it to bits. Luckily so did Ben (and did a better job than I could) , and so did scores of commentators here and at Harmless Sky and BishopHill, so I left it alone for a bit. But each comment here contains a quote which brings me back to it, like an itchy scab.

    The quote at the top of PeterS’s comment: “Everything we take for granted in the modern world, from atoms to electricity, from our understanding of the stars to medical imaging, is down to somebody being curious about the universe and using the scientific method to investigate it” is so obviously false, all one can do is wonder why Cox should make such an assertion.
    It is of course, scientism of the most primitive kind, straight from the Boys’ Own Wonder Book of Science. It recalls another extract from the Life of Brian:
    – What has anyone other than scientists ever done for us?
    – Er, make us laugh?
    – Make us cry?
    – Make us think?
    – Yes, but apart from humour, art, philosophy, what (etc).
    This wasn’t a TV interview, it was a speech on a prestigious occasion. Did Cox really write it himself? Or was it handed to him by his usual script writer team? Is this all part of the BBC’s policy of making talking heads on “difficult” subjects as ordinary as possible? Is Cox the Sister Wendy of Particle Physics, the Quantum Baldrick?

  33. clivere

    Ben – whilst I agree with a lot you have written I have to admit you really upset me because I felt I had to listen to the broadcast in order to make some observations about your post. I have almost forgotten how to tune into BBC programming and it really is upsetting to see how light weight and partisan the programs have become.

    Firstly a couple of observations about the 2 non climate related examples.

    The Astrology example is odd because it is not seriously taken as a science by the wider population. However it is of interest to many people so should receive coverage and I dont see anything to be gained by labelling it in anyway to distinguish it from “concensus” science.

    The MMR example goes the opposite way in that it resulted from a peer reviewed published article in a respected journal. It is a narrowly defined controversial finding in a broad scientific field. The BBC covered it in a horizon program. I believe it was appropriate to cover it both when the new novel finding was originally published and after the the Wakefield scandal was exposed.

    For the climate examples I get the impression that Brian Cox was out of his depth and is not close enough to understand the nuances of what is going on. He seems to rely on relating everything to an established defined concensus position with an idealistic view that peer review ensures the concensus is ultimately the correct position. However the situation with climate science is very fluid and to the extent that a concensus position has ever been firmly established there is also clear evidence that the concensus position has changed very recently and is still quite likely to revert back to its pre 2000 position. He also appears to be willfully ignorant of what has been exposed by Climategate if he argues that peer review is working well in climate science.

    Most people seem to describe the debate as sceptics v warmers to use more neutral terminology. However sceptical of what and warmer than what? As Steve McIntyre has repeatedly pointed out their is no clear engineering quality exposition of the derivation of 2.5C warming so the concensus science is not clear. I understand there is a textbook about to be published by Raymond Pierrehumbert which may address this more fully but at present we dont really have a clear concensus view other than referal to either the body of literature or to IPCC reports.

    From my perspective rather that 2 scientific positions I actually see 5 main broad brush scientific viewpoints. There are some others that dont quite fit but these are the main ones.

    On the sceptic side

    1. People who believe climate change is natural mainly due to solar variation and do not believe that changes in the level of CO2 have any real impact. The reality is that these views tend to ignore the known properties of CO2 as a greenhouse gas and require a theory along the lines of Miskolczi to explain why it would not have an effect. I dont normally see that level of sophistication from people pushing this scientific view and at a stretch could see how Cox’s astrology example could be used for them

    2. Lukewarmer view point. Co2 is a greenhouse gas with a basic sensitivity in the order of 1C for a doubling of CO2. Feedbacks may be slightly positive (Michaels) or slightly negative (Spencer, Lindzen). However there are other first order drivers of climate including natural ones like solar variation and human driven ones like land use change, aerosols and soot.

    On the “warmer” side

    3. Pre 2000 concensus – Increase in CO2 is a major climate forcing but there are other first order forcings out there which may at times impact the effect of CO2 or at other times offset it. Evidence of this viewpoint can be seen from researchers like Briffa and Cook in the Climategate emails. It is also evidenced in the spat between the Realclimate guys and the authors of the Keelyside paper which illustrates there is now a firm push back against the current “concensus”.

    4. Post 2000 concensus – Increases in CO2 is the major climate forcing. Other natural forcings are of a much lower order. This viewpoint appears to have been driven into the IPCC by a strong desire for lower natural variability from the climate modelling community and was largely done off the back of the seriously flawed MBH paper. There was also a determination to provide a unified view for political consumption in the IPCC report which largely excluded all other views. To me this position still looks scientifically quite shaky. The superficial dismissal of any criticism by the Climate Wars series is arguably promoting one viewpoint over others and intefering in the scientific process by publicly marginalising critical review.

    5. Environmentalist viewpoint – temperature increases caused by CO2 increases will cause tipping points where all sorts of bad things will happen such as gulf stream reversal. release of methane clathrates, massive ice melt. As an illustration see

    and rebuttal from realclimate

    Much of this last viewpoint would also relate well to the astrology example as a belief system but there is some support in the scientific literature. However in many respects it is probably further away from the concensus position than the Lukewarmer position but is an example of the kind of material much promoted by the BBC none of which gets labeled as a polemic

  34. Philip

    What with all the other interesting points in this thread, I’m afraid I missed your original reference to Malik’s article. Thank you, I think it is relevant, and that it also talks to the issue of how one should approach the appraisal of scientific investigations in which human beings are the subject.

  35. Philip


    You said earlier, “Science is a process, but as Feynman says “I would like not to underestimate the value of the world view which is the result of scientific effort.””

    As I think Ben suggested, Feynman is talking here about the value of the *natural* worldview offered by science. As he goes on to say in his essay, “…how much more remarkable it is for us all to be stuck by a mysterious attraction to a spinning ball that has been swinging in space for billions of years than to be carried on the back of an elephant supported on a tortoise swimming in a bottomless sea.”

    Nonetheless, it is more usual I think to take “worldview” in a somewhat broader sense so that it also includes one’s basic ideas on how human beings relate to each other and to the natural world. Even from the scientific point of view, the most fundamental proposal of all is that the world is in fact rational and therefore describable by definite unchanging laws – an aspect of the worldview originating, I understand, within monotheistic religions.

    Near the end of Feynman’s essay you may also find the following:

    “If we suppress all discussion, all criticism, proclaiming ‘This is the answer, my friends; man is saved!’ we will doom humanity for a long time to the chains of authority, confined to the limits of our present imagination. It has been done so many times before. It is our responsibility as scientists, knowing the great progress which comes from a satisfactory philosophy of ignorance, the great progress which is the fruit of freedom of thought, to proclaim the value of this freedom; to teach how doubt is not to be feared but welcomed and discussed; and to demand this freedom as our duty to all coming generations.”

    This statement seems to me relevant both to the current post and to the wider climate debate, and far more representation of Feynman’s typical position. In fact, I was quite surprised to find him being cited in support of what is basically a scientistic and consensual view of science.

  36. Peter S

    geoffchambers – thanks for your comments. I’m sure your psychoanalyst will insist that the discussion you have with her is between equals – although, of course, you might wish it to be an altogether different sort. I’m not really sure where a set idea of a psychological space comes from – just reading bits and bobs and reflecting on ones own relationship to that which it separate from a sense of ‘me’. You could delve into object relations theory (British School), or try Adam Phillips’ books – I always feel inspired by the way he approaches things and the leads he throws up.

    I find it fascinating that tom.harrigan gives a link to a Feynman video clip (presumably after having read this article and its comments) in which the scientist’s words support the points I was trying to make rather than tom’s.

    In this wonderful clip (which could be taken as a slap in the face for Sagan), Feynman lets us know that he “can live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing” and goes on to say, “I don’t have to know answers, I don’t feel frightened by not knowing things, by being lost in a mysterious universe without having any purpose – which is the way it really is so far as I can tell. It doesn’t frighten me”.

    What Feynman is saying (in my view) is that he can tolerate the empty space, in which an appetite is able to exist, without being overwhelmed by an impulse to immediately fill it up (with what passes for knowledge) and thereby get rid of it. In fact, we can see from his demeanour that he cherishes this space, recognises its human value, and insists on keeping it open. The ‘mysterious universe’ Feynman can sustain ‘being lost in’ (along with its attendant frustrations of losing any sense of ‘purpose’) might be a void which is located internally – and the prerequisite location for any genuinely nourishing discovery and knowledge… when it comes along.

    On the other side of the coin, Feynman’s words also imply that some people may feel they cannot “live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing” and that they do “feel frightened by not knowing things”. If that fear fed on itself (as fear usually does), then of course it could lead to a state of mind in which the unwanted an intolerable void (and the potential human appetites it would contain) becomes indistinguishable from an ‘end of the world’ fantasy.

    Cox, meanwhile, prefers to allow himself to be blissfully overwhelmed with Sagan’s pseudo-scientific and human-belittling drivel than face (and begin to think about) his own fear.

  37. geoffchambers

    Peter S
    Many thanks for your reply. Just enough information to provide context, without completely filling the yawning void of my ignorance (which I can live with, I hope).
    I asked partly because I imagine that others may also find your remarks intriguing, but, not recognising their psychoanalytic origins, may be put off by your rather elliptical way of expressing them.
    As I’ve said before, it’s not clear to me how any insight into the psychology of global warming belief can be used, without the discussion degenerating immediately into ad hominem trench warfare. An exploration of the very peculiar relation which warmists have with the future would surely be useful though.
    Thanks to a long period of reading cheap science fiction, I like the future, and can’t understand the fear which it seems to incite in almost everyone else of my class, generation, and general upbringing. (Or could that be my personal version of the common SF fantasy of being the only one to have escaped some mysterious deadly mental infection?)

  38. Philip

    PeterS mentions fear of uncertainty as a possible factor in end of world fantasies like climate catastrophism. I wonder whether a related factor, at least for physicists, may be insecurity engendered by uncertainty about the status of their specialty?

    As Ben implies, Cox’s assertion about scientific renaissance is at best sketchy. It certainly seems as if the way in which science is conducted has changed over the last forty or so years – becoming more professional and more managed. And yet – at least in physics – there has been a disappointing lack of progress in solving fundamental questions, especially when compared with the first half of the 20th century. I think it is fair to say that the predominant attitude in physics is reductionist. This works in both directions: breaking a problem down into subcomponents; but also building an explanation up from more primitive pieces. The power and success of this view is a cliché, and yet it may be only partially tenable. Perhaps the belief in reductionism is part of the reason for the lack of progress in fundamentals – as well as underlying mechanistic descriptions of people. Robert Laughlin has a splendid discussion of the issue:

    Here is a quote from near the end of the article:

    “In his book ‘The End of Science’ John Horgan argues that our civilization is now facing barriers to the acquisition of knowledge so fundamental that the Golden Age of Science must be thought of as over. […] Horgan’s book might more properly have been called the End of Reductionism, for it is actually a call to those of us concerned with the health of physical science to face the truth that in most respects the reductionist ideal has reached its limits as a guiding principle.”

    I suspect this is a challenging issue for many physicists, because it seems undeniable and yet undermines the predominant view of how science works. ‘End of science’ or ‘end of world’ – is this simply a coincidence?

  39. Philip

    I have some sympathy with those who defend scientist’s role in the climate issue, and I’d agree that personal gain is unlikely to be a motivation for most of them. Research funding seems like a more likely concern, as does status. However, I wonder whether the scientistic attitude of many physicists is also equally important?

    I admit that when I was in my twenties, a sort of scientistic idealism was more or less how I thought of things, and many others I knew thought in the same way too. The reason for such an attitude may lie in the extreme beauty of many of the theoretical ideas of physics. You can easily see the appreciation of this beauty in Feynman’s statements, and yet he sidesteps scientism because he acknowledges his uncertainty and his lack of knowledge.

    I’m sure that scientistic idealism used to be routinely ignored by pragmatic politicians. But it seems as if this balance has changed over the last thirty years, in that politicians now seem far more likely to actively support scientistic attitudes. Is this simply because they have realised how they can harness scientism to support their own agendas?

  40. geoffchambers

    The problems of physicists faced with “the end of science” are certainly most interesting (more so than comparisons with religious millenarianism, for instance). But the origins of environmentalism are wider than any crisis in science. We’ve seen announcements of the end of history / politics / philosophy in recent years. These concerns cross the boundaries of subjects, but are largely limited to a certain level of discourse in English-speaking countries – roughly the level which sells popular books and TV programmes on serious subjects.
    Possibly the end of the world is what you see when you’re at a loose end, or at the end of your tether.

    The interest of politicians for science is easily explained. For over twenty years, opinion polls have routinely shown doctors and scientists getting 80% “trustworthy” ratings, while politicians and journalists score in the low twenties. Personally, I find these polls practically meaningless, but then I’m not a politician.

  41. Philip

    Thanks for your reply, Geoff. It’s been brought home to me recently just how complicit some of the scientists have been in creating the climate hysteria, and to be honest this has shaken me somewhat. There is something about the relationship between these scientists and the politicians that seems intriguing, if only I could understand it. Maybe one of this morning’s news stories holds a clue? Apparently Philip Hammond, the Transport Secretary, has asked the Chief Scientist to tell him whether we should plan for more cold winters in the future. There seems something slightly odd about this. If I have understood correctly, the report has the Transport Secretary asking the Chief Scientist to underwrite a decision on whether or not the country should make preparations for more snowy winters. I presume this reflects the content of a press release. If so, why is it phrased in this way? Would you think this is an example of the way scientific authority becomes substituted for political authority?

  42. Peter S

    It seems to me that ‘science’ is simply a word used to describe the type of relationship a person can opt to have with the objects he (or she) finds within his surroundings (or environment). The word confirms what is to be permitted within that relationship – and also what must be excluded from it – if it is to function as desired and not break down. Other types of relationship – such as ‘poetry’ or ‘democracy’, for example – describe altogether different sets of parameters, within which a person might have an equally meaningful and fulfilling transaction with their outside spaces.

    So, to speak of ‘the end of science’ might be to wonder about the break down of a relationship. And as the other half of the contract is usually inert and can have no say in the matter, the ‘ending’ being flirted with (or feared) is one that can only be enacted by the person contained within its boundaries.

    Similarly, a person who frets (or claims to fret) about the end of the ‘world’ might just want us to know that they are frustrated with the terms and conditions of the existing relationship they are having with it. Rather than the ‘climate’ changing (as is insisted), it may actually be the person’s felt needs which have changed – into those which the current relationship is not able to meet. A person who keeps issuing threats that the world is about to end may simply want us to know that, for them, life feels like it’s no longer worth living… and – as with any relationship – it could be the new and incompatible set of needs allowed in which make it feel that way.

    If science is a type of relationship, it may begin to appear very wanting if the person within it becomes seduced by what are perceived to be more promising and more immediate returns elsewhere. Being unfaithful, of course, is not in itself an ending – it’s just the devaluing deceit, obfuscation and lies that brings about one.

  43. geoffchambers

    I think you could usefully rephrase your first sentence: – “science is simply…” in order to avoid criticisms that you are trying to demote science to “just another way of seeing things”. I think we can allow Cox and others to claim a certain privileged position to science that we might refuse to -say – poetry or Buddhism. Otherwise, your reflections on the nature of the environmentalist’s relation to the world continue to fascinate, since they provide a typology of a kind of person in a certain social context, and not the usual ad hominem critique of the green hippy. I wonder whether Ben might not find it useful as a means of analysing the vacuum at the centre of modern politics to which he frequently refers.
    The point I was making about the “end of…” epidemic affecting philosophy, science, history, (you name it) was the shallow and cynical one that it seems to sell a lot of books. Someone with more knowledge of pschoanalysis than I might like to speculate on the kind of person who trades in this kind of idea, and sociologists might like to speculate on the nature of the kind of society which finds these ideas so endlessly fascinating.
    On the first point, Wittgenstein’s claim to have brought philosophy to an end (formulated in the trenches during the first world war, but withdrawn during his later spell as a philosophy professor at Cambridge) looks like a handy starting point. On the second point, Fukuyama’s “End of History” is open to the same kind of sceptic arguments as AGW or “Peak Oil” – arguments which are not (just) about climate or geology or geopolitics, but about man’s ability to conceive of the future – his own and that of “his” world.
    There seems to be a radical confusion in the minds of warmists between the concepts of “life after (my) death” and the Afterlife, Pascal’s Wager and the Precautionary Principle, etc. Sociologists have explored usefully the relation between the decline in religious belief and the rise of ideology, and psychoanalysis provides a useful framework for exploring man’s conception of his own mortality. It would take a lot of work, however, to weld the two together and come up with a explanation of – say – Chris Huhne’s energy policy.

  44. geoffchambers

    Yes, I noticed that news story, and immediately thought of Ben’s formulation of science as filling the vacuum of modern politics. What should happen is for the Transport Seretary to be hounded and ridiculed for thinking that a scientific advisor is the man to turn to when decisions have to be made about grit and snow ploughs, infrastructure and local government spending. Instead, we’ll be told that, if it wasn’t the wrong sort of snow, it was the wrong sort of scientific advice (i.e. not the infallible consensus sort which exists only in the minds of – well, just about everyone, apparently).

  45. Ben Pile

    I’ve been alerted to the fact that some of the comments posted in the last few weeks haven’t made it onto the site.

    It’s not personal, it’s technical. There is no pre-moderation here.

    Some bugs with the software are stopping me getting notifications that longer posts with many links need to be approved, because the anti-spam plugin picks them up. I could change the sensitivity of the spam filter, but it would mean thousands of spam comments.

    If you post a comment that doesn’t come up, please let me know through the contact form, and I’ll fish it out ASAP.

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