There are many parallels between Brian Cox and Neil deGrasse Tyson. Both are trained physicists, both are extremely popular science popularizers (Cox is probably the most widely recognized science promoter in the UK, and Tyson is the same in the U.S.), and both are charismatic—and handsome as well (I’ve heard women sigh over both of them). Both are atheists. And both were involved in music: Tyson as an accomplished ballroom dancer, Cox as a keyboard player in two popular bands.
But there’s also a difference. Cox, like his wife Gia Milinovich, isn’t afraid to express political opinions that may be unpopular, while Tyson stays away from anything that may distract from his messages about science. While I’m not going to fault Tyson for that, I can say that I admire Cox more for speaking his mind, even if it may alienate some of his supporters. But judging by his continuing popularity, and the fact that he’s got a new show on the Beeb this fall (“Forces of Nature”), he hasn’t alienated many.
Today’s Guardian reports a Radio Times interview with Cox (I can’t seem to find the original), in which he speaks out about several hot-button issues. The indented stuff comes from the Guardian:
. . . Prof Brian Cox, has criticised the “growing intolerance” of no-platform speaking bans at universities and colleges, describing them as “nonsensical”.
Cox, who lectures at the University of Manchester, told the new issue of Radio Times: “I suppose they’re trying to build a less aggressive space, which I understand – modern discourse is polarised.
“But university is supposed to be a place where civilised debate takes place. If not in the university, then where do you debate the most difficult questions? So, I disagree very profoundly with the idea that there’s such a thing as a safe space intellectually at a university. It’s nonsensical to me.
“The point of university is to build an intellectual armoury. You should expect that you’re not going be abused by a shouting loudmouth – you wouldn’t want modern political discourse to be brought off Twitter and into the student union. I understand why they don’t want that and they’re right not to want that. [JAC: Well, some students do want that, at least because, as in the Muslim students at Goldsmiths or the leftist students at DePaul, they actually become shouting loudmouths. It is in fact, political discourse ripped from the pages of social media.]
“But it’s not difficult to build a debate. That’s the basis of liberal democracy. We understand that. That’s why there are lines in the House of Commons greater than two swords’ length apart, right? We’ve worked that out.”
The NUS has said the policy, backed by the majority of its students, allowed free speech without intimidation.
Cox said: “I teach first years and I don’t see it in physics. There’s not much room for personal opinion there. But because I’m a professor at Manchester, I do watch the way that this intolerance is growing. Which is a word that they would object to.”
Closed minds about Brexit. Judging from his tw**ts and comments, it’s pretty clear that Cox favored the “stay” option in Brexit, but he did link to articles presenting both sides in some tw**ts. At any rate, he’s appalled that political discourse isn’t like scientific discourse, though of course politics is an ideology, not usually way of finding the truth. Politics is far more akin to religion than to science.
Cox, whose new series, Forces of Nature, begins on BBC1 next month, said he was worried about the current polarisation of debate, not least around Britain’s membership of the EU.
“Changing your mind in the face of evidence is absolutely central to a civilised democratic society,” he said. “I think there is something wrong, because polarisation tells you that people aren’t thinking.
“Science is a collection of things, some of which are more likely, some of which are almost certainly right, some of which are less likely and some of which are wrong – the central point is that you change your mind all the time.
“If you look at the Brexit debate, it’s interesting to note that I can’t see one politician or columnist who’s actually changed their mind [the interview took place before the Brexit vote].
“The amount of new evidence that’s come forward – new positions and new data – is huge, but not one of them has changed their mind. That tells you there’s something deeply flawed about the national conversation.
“I think if you accept that you’re probably wrong, that’s probably the most valuable thing that a curiosity about nature or society can give you. Maybe that’s the goal, really, isn’t it? Then a more civilised, less certain debate will ensue. Although I could be wrong.”
That assumes, of course, that politics is about truth.
While reading Cox’s Twi**er feed, I found out that he retweeted this awesome post from Richard Coles, a musician, journalist, and priest. It’s apparently a student’s essay on Niels Bohr:
h/t: Richard S.