Brian Cox defends free speech, calls no-platforming and censorship “nonsensical”

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.


  1. GBJames
    Posted June 28, 2016 at 12:47 pm | Permalink


  2. merilee
    Posted June 28, 2016 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

    How nice to learn that Tyson does ballroom dancing. Love both these guys. Hope we can get Cox’s new show over here.

    • darrelle
      Posted June 28, 2016 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

      I never knew that about Tyson! But now that I do I can easily imagine him on the ballroom floor.

    • Michael Waterhouse
      Posted June 28, 2016 at 8:46 pm | Permalink

      There is a short clip on you tube with Neil showing some moves.

      • merilee
        Posted June 28, 2016 at 11:24 pm | Permalink

        disco, no less;-)

  3. Kevin
    Posted June 28, 2016 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

    Rick Astley and Niels Bohr!?! Holy CC. A pot of petunias just crashed on my floor.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted June 28, 2016 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

      Rick rolled!

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted June 28, 2016 at 11:20 pm | Permalink

      If I were you, I’d be heading for the “sperm whale incoming at nearly escape speed” bunker, rather sharpish. Even if it is hoping for a friendly meeting.

  4. Ken Kukec
    Posted June 28, 2016 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

    I’ve always had a strong preference for the speak-your-mind, put-your-name-on-it-and-own-it types over the difference-splitters in the middle-of-the-road (where there’s nothin’ to see but yellow stripes and dead armadillos).

    But I respect NdGT’s position of avoiding capital-P partisan politics as long as he’s the public face of a publicly funded institution.

  5. jay
    Posted June 28, 2016 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

    I believe that it’s kind of early to expect changes of mind on Brexit (I’m in favor, though I’m in the US). The only ‘data’ at this time are arguments over the economic and related details.

    But Brexit was never about that. Even the true believers understand there WILL be an economic price, at least in the short run. The bigger picture was whether a supranational, unelected technocracy should have the power to micromanage member nations internal affairs. Merkel’s temper tantrum today tended to underscore that point.

    • Torbjörn Larsson
      Posted June 28, 2016 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

      As long as you have convinced yourself you made the right choice. The former UK plans to increase taxes and decrease benefits sounds nice of course, as well as losing influence over European immigration policies. I assume that was their deeply thought out goal?

      And I am on the other hand enjoying the quick move among swedish politicians to ditch the sinking ship and support Germany as the nation that is most closely aligned to Sweden’s politics. Thanks former UK for clearing the ship!

      • Posted June 28, 2016 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

        Why is it the Former UK?
        I did not think that the status of the union between Scotland, Ireland, England and Wales had changed.

        • colnago80
          Posted June 28, 2016 at 8:24 pm | Permalink

          It appears that Scotland might be headed for the exits as the vote to remain was very strong there. Thus,Scotland may leave the UK and apply for membership in the EU.

        • gravelinspector-Aidan
          Posted June 28, 2016 at 11:27 pm | Permalink

          I did not think that the status of the union between Scotland, Ireland, England and Wales had changed.

          Yet. The word on the street is that a re-run of the independence referendum is expected, sooner rather than later, with a much higher vote for independence.
          Of course, this is not necessary for the politicians. Every Scottish politician already has a clear mandate to work for Scotland remaining in Europe, and to use every trick in the parliamentary book to delay and obstruct the progress of legislation towards that. And if they do that, then there is little prospect of them suffering significant consequences at the polls.

      • jay
        Posted June 28, 2016 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

        “as well as losing influence over European immigration policies”

        I’m not sure UK really cares about the rest of Europe’s immigration policies. That is exactly a key point, nations should not be dictated to by others (primarily Germany).

        “decrease benefits sounds nice of course, as well ”

        This remains to be seen. UK has been bleeding cash into it’s healthcare and other benefits and EU has done NOTHING to help that situation. Money for benefits does not grow on trees.

        No one is pressing other nations (including Sweden) to leave, though Brussels is now getting into a very threatening posture. This outbreak of hostility may spur some others (possibly Spain, Greece, Italy, Hungary, Austria) to reconsider their options.

        • RolandG
          Posted June 29, 2016 at 5:40 am | Permalink

          You seem to have a rather large chip on your shoulder with regard to Germany. Why is that?

          • Dave
            Posted June 29, 2016 at 9:43 am | Permalink

            Merkel’s decision to admit hundreds of thousands of muslim migrants without asking either her own people or the rest of Europe (which will eventually be afflicted with them once they acquire their German passports) might have something to do with it.

            • RolandG
              Posted June 30, 2016 at 9:08 am | Permalink

              Who said they will all become German citizens? Do you even know the requirements for citizenship?

  6. Graham Head
    Posted June 28, 2016 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

    Radio Times is the listings magazine that used to be owned by the BBC (you can judge its age by its name!). Cox is actually on the front cover of next weeks issue.

    Forces of Nature actually starts next Monday at 9pm on BBC1, the BBC’s flagship channel which tells you how influential Cox is.

  7. Ken Kukec
    Posted June 28, 2016 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

    You wanna fitting tune for Brexit, how ’bout the one from London’s own The Clash off their Combat Rock album — “Should I Stay or Should I Go?”

    • darrelle
      Posted June 28, 2016 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

      Hmmm. Not sure if it fits Brexit, but it’s a great song!

      I think Straight To Hell might be a better fit. Not necessarily the specifics of the song but the general context. Immigration and going straight to hell.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted June 28, 2016 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

        Now that Brexit has gone “leave,” maybe it turns out the Sex Pistols got it right with Anarchy in the UK.

  8. darrelle
    Posted June 28, 2016 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

    I like and respect both Tyson and Cox, and enjoy watching / reading / listening to them. But I, like Jerry and Ken have expressed, seem to be more similar of mind to Brian. I can’t recall a single thing I’ve heard / read him say that I disagree with him about, though I am sure there are things that I do. I think Brian is spot on here and I think he said it pretty well too.

    I can’t say the same about Neil, but I have no serious issues with him. To put it in perspective, I have much more serious issues with some of my best friends. Of course, I know them much better than I know Neil.

    • Heather Hastie
      Posted June 28, 2016 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

      I think part of the difference might just be the difference between Britain and the US. The mainstream in the US is both more religious and more religion-friendly than Britain. It’s much more difficult to be openly atheist in the US.

      I saw something on Fox yesterday where Bill Maher was being praised for speaking up for free speech. His atheism usually makes him a favourite whipping-boy there. He was called the “only one on the left speaking out for the principle of free speech.” Being anti-free speech is the reputation liberals now have because of things like shutting down and dis-inviting speakers.

  9. J. Quinton
    Posted June 28, 2016 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

    “Politics is far more akin to religion than to science”

    Probably the best one-line definition of religion is that it’s politics with the addition of the supernatural.

    • Filippo
      Posted June 28, 2016 at 5:34 pm | Permalink

      I see similarities in the behavior of crowds at:

      – (mega)churches
      – political rallies/conventions
      – sports events
      – business/tech events (e.g., the oohing and aahing and genuflecting/prostrating before the latest digital icon)

    • Jonathan Wallace
      Posted June 29, 2016 at 4:17 am | Permalink

      “Politics is far more akin to religion than to science”

      I think this statement needs qualifying. Politics is about how society is governed and how different interest groups (or individuals) seek to influence or control this. Politicians vary in their approach: many, perhaps most, are strongly ideological and blindly pursue their side’s position irrespective of what evidence may be placed in front of them but others are more pragmatic and rational and open to reasoned argument.
      So politics itself is not really akin to religion but many political ideologies – Tea Party, UKIP, Socialist Workers’ Party etc – are.

      • Filippo
        Posted June 29, 2016 at 5:21 am | Permalink

        Politics, political, policy, police, polite, polity, polled (heifer), hoi polloi (“the herd”). Politics is human primate herd management, by whatever means.

        Occasionally not a few of “the people” and media pundits, and occasionally reporters too, lament that a given candidate is not “exciting.” A political rally is not atypically like a fundamentalist revival, what with the whooping and hollering and ululating and waving of arms heavenward and the seeking of “selfies” with the candidate and getting seen on television.

        I wonder if one could be allowed to attend a rally simply to listen to the candidate, and not be noticed simply standing still and silent and declining to wave some precious sign – and not being taken to task for it – by some party/campaign apparatchik.

    • peepuk
      Posted June 29, 2016 at 11:08 am | Permalink

      My two euro-cents:

      Ideology is a bunch of beliefs to justify your goals and actions. All ideologies are incoherent; religion is just an obviously wrong ideology.

      Politics is the art of achieving your goals within a group of humans. For creating large groups of cooperating strangers you need some kind of ideology.

      A truth is a justified belief: it corresponds completely with reality. Science is the art of discovering useful beliefs; its byproduct is (an approximation of) truth. At least sometimes.

  10. gravelinspector-Aidan
    Posted June 28, 2016 at 11:39 pm | Permalink

    “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]

    Cox is wrong on this (now there’s a sentence you don’t see that often!).
    One of the Leave campaigners – Baroness Warsi – left the campaign on the 19th, specifically over the increasingly extreme right-wing nature of the rhetoric of the campaign.
    Hmmm, what was the date of the actual interview – it’s not given in the Grauniad, AFAICT.

  11. Posted June 29, 2016 at 12:45 am | Permalink

    I feel sad to see people abandoning all hope of truth in politics. I understand the point that, as practiced, it looks very tribal and irrational. But to cede the possibility that politics and political debate could happen differently is to give up the right to self-determination and self-governance without a fight.

    There’s a big difference between a tribally based political affiliation and politics in the larger sense. Public policy, which is determined by political processes, can at least be empirical, even if truth in some hard and fast sense is not a possibility. If people genuinely believe that there is no room for data-driven decision making at either the individual or the national/international level in politics, it’s no wonder that things are not going better.

  12. Jonathan Wallace
    Posted June 29, 2016 at 4:25 am | Permalink

    “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”

    This statement is true of the majority of high profile campaigners but two who did change their minds were Sarah Wollaston and Baroness Warsi, both Conservative Party politicians who defected from the ‘Leave’ campaign.

    In Warsi’s case it was because of the xenophobia she perceived to be associated with the Leave Campaign whilst Wollaston stated that she felt that the Leave Campaign was making untrue claims about the money that would be available for the National Health Service post Brexit.

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