Brendan O’Neill on the rise of the absolutist mindset in science:
Who do you think said the following: “I always regret it when knowledge becomes controversial. It’s clearly a bad thing, for knowledge to be controversial.” A severe man of the cloth, perhaps, keen to erect a forcefield around his way of thinking? A censorious academic rankled when anyone criticises his work? Actually, it was Brian Cox, Britain’s best-known scientist and the BBC’s go-to guy for wide-eyed documentaries about space. Yes, terrifyingly, this nation’s most recognisable scientist thinks it is a bad thing when knowledge becomes the subject of controversy, which is the opposite of what every man of reason in modern times has said about knowledge.
Mr Cox made his comments in an interview with the Guardian. Discussing climate change, he accused “nonsensical sceptics” of playing politics with scientific fact. He helpfully pointed out what us non-scientific plebs are permitted to say about climate change. “You’re allowed to say, well I think we should do nothing. But what you’re not allowed to do is to claim there’s a better estimate of the way that the climate will change, other than the one that comes out of the computer models.” Well, we are allowed to say that, even if we’re completely wrong, because of a little thing called freedom of speech. Mr Cox admits that his decree about what people are allowed to say on climate change springs from an absolutist position. “The scientific view at the time is the best, there’s nothing you can do that’s better than that. So there’s an absolutism. It’s absolutely the best advice.”
It’s genuinely concerning to hear a scientist — who is meant to keep himself always open to the process of falsifiabilty — describe his position as absolutist, a word more commonly associated with intolerant religious leaders. But then comes Mr Cox’s real blow against full-on debate. “It’s clearly a bad thing, for knowledge to be controversial”, he says. This is shocking, and the opposite of the truth. For pretty much the entire Enlightenment, the reasoned believed that actually it was good — essential, in fact — for knowledge to be treated as controversial and open to the most stinging questioning.