Robin Ince and Brian Cox

So, Robin Ince and Brian Cox wrote an article in the New Statesman about politicians not elevating mere opinion above science. I’ve read it and thought it was fine. Didn’t analyse it in great detail but the general idea that politicians should at least be aware of what science is telling us and should be using it to inform their decisions is perfectly sensible as far as I can tell. I don’t think it trumps everything else, but it should inform policy. I also think more scientists in parliament would be good, but I don’t think that this means more published researchers. I just take it to mean more people (doctors, engineers, chemists, physicists, ..) who have an understanding of science and of numbers .

Their article does, however, seem to have riled a few others. Jack Stilgoe in the Guardian suggest that “science and politics needs counselling not separation”. He refers to the views of Cox and Ince as being “bad politics” and criticises Paul Nurse (president of the Royal Society) for saying “keep science as far as is possible from political, ideological and religious influence”. I think, however, that Jack Stilgoe is somewhat missing the point (or at least my understanding of the point). I don’t believe that anyone is suggesting that there shouldn’t be a link between science and politics (if anything it’s the reverse), but the scientific method is well founded and so shouldn’t unduly be influenced by politics.

It’s true that different scientists may disagree about the best way to analyse a complicated data set or about the best way to set up a complicated computer simulation, but over time methods get tested and improved and the results of experiments and observations determine which theories are the closest representation to what is actually happening in the world around us (to reality, I guess). Politics can determine which areas of science are important and deserve funding, but it can’t (or shouldn’t) influence the results of science. The goal of science should not be to justify an ideology, it should be to understand what is actually happening in nature. It is very difficult for scientists to not have some kind of pet theory, but good scientists change their minds if experiments or observations show that their theory is wrong. I don’t think scientists should be playing politics in order to get politicians to consider the results of scientific enquiry.

A post by someone called Haralambos Dayantis is even more strongly critical of Cox and Ince and suggests that the geek movement is bad for science. I must admit that I don’t know much about the Geek movement, but I did find this article quite unpleasant. It suggested that Cox and Ince were amongst those who had a sense of superiority and that the Geek movement fosters a “thoroughly masturbatory environment” and referred to those involved as “circle-jerks”. I can, however, thank Haralambos Dayantis for giving me the opportunity to use the term masturbatory in a post though. A lot of the people he is referring to are clearly celebrities and, as such, I don’t really expect them to engage with me (although I can thank Brian Cox for getting me my highest number of readers on a single day). They will naturally come across – at times – as having a sense of superiority. Personally, I’ve been quite impressed by the various celebrities (mainly comedians) who engage with science and who do it fairly well.

The two main critics of Cox and Ince both seem to be science communicators/science policy experts. They both actually seemed to agree with quite a lot of what Cox and Ince had written and it seemed a little (to me at least) that they were really just being pedantic about the details, rather than actually constructively engaging with the message that Cox and Ince were trying to get across. What I think I agreed with the most was the response (by Martin Robbins) to the abovementioned post by Haralambos Dayantis. Firstly, he seems to suggest that the Geek movement isn’t particularly well-defined so aiming specific criticisms at it doesn’t really make sense. He then also criticises the tone of the article (as I have) and suggests that it comes across a bit like a formal science communicator being slightly bitter that some celebrities (some of whom – such as Brian Cox – are actually scientists) are better communicators than they are. If they really wanted to help, they should constructively engage and give reasoned advice (if they are indeed experts at science policy/communications) rather than being overly critical of those who happen to be good at communicating science to the public.

It is possible that I’ve misunderstood (or misrepresented) some of what has been written about this topic. I haven’t analysed all the articles in extensive detail. As usual, I’m happy to take corrections or comments through the comments box (that’s assuming anyone actually reads this).

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5 thoughts on “Robin Ince and Brian Cox

  1. I notice that Jon Butterworth has written an article for the Guardian titled Science is not political, except when it is. It seems to express views that are quite similar to what I’ve said above.

    What I’ve found interesting about this is that I wrote the above post reasonably early in the debate, it’s linked to one of the other posts that seems to have created the most debate, I’ve commented on various other posts (such as Is the sci-comm movement bad for science?) and yet the number who’ve read the above is barely above single figures. This is despite this issue apparently being one of great interest to many.

    I don’t really know why. It could simply be that what I’ve written is dull and boring, but presumably people would need to read it before knowing that. I guess the fact that noone really retweets my posts may suggest that they aren’t particularly interesting. Maybe I should write things that are more intentionally provocative.

    I also don’t really put an awful lot of effort into advertising what I write (although I think I’ve done more for this post than for any other). I’ve also maintained my anonymity (although I still don’t really how anonymous I actually am – I always assume that I’m somehow giving myself away). I have wondered about removing my anonymity to see if it would make a difference but I quite like the idea of seeing if my posts can generate interest simply through what I write, rather than who I am. That may make it seem like I’m suggesting that I’m well known, which I’m not, but I do get the sense that sometimes people want to know who has written something. That’s fair enough and I certainly don’t want to hide behind my anonymity.

    I also write mainly for my own benefit, so it doesn’t really bother me if I don’t get many readers. I don’t really want to change what I do – and how I do it – simply to increase my readership. I’ve just found it interesting that even when I engage in a topic that is current and controversial and link it to posts that are being read by many, I still don’t get many readers. Maybe it’s better this way though 🙂

    • You’re forgetting the christmas factor I think with the number of readers, many people will be distracted by family stuff so might not be spending as much time on the web. I’ve just had a read of your post and it does seem well written. I’ve chipped in myself but mostly in responce to Dayantis and his mangling of the term Geek. He clearly has set out on an agenda to have a rant and doesn’t seem to have bothered with any fact checking at all.

      • You may be correct, but it’s not unusual for my posts :-). I read your post too and tend to agree. It wasn’t quite clear what he was hoping to achieve other than – as you say – having a bit of a rant. There is a sense (as Martin Robbins has commented elsewhere) that the criticism is coming from people who feel they’re being unfairly ignored and their fields are not being given enough credit. As much as I’m in favour of being inclusive and giving credit where credit is due, this is about engaging the public and policy makers and making sure that the story that is being told is being told in a way that will have some impact with those who hear/read it (without of course being factually incorrect).

  2. Pingback: Is the sci-comm movement bad for science? « The Thought Stash

  3. I notice that the Cox/Ince New Statesman editorial has been criticised in James Delingpole’s latest blog post. I think this gives what Cox/Ince said more credence, but then again, maybe I’m wrong.

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