Professor Brian Cox is almost certainly the prettiest physicist ever to have appeared on television. A crowded field, I know. But even I would, I suspect, happily married man though I am (and happily married man though he is too), given the right circumstances: those wonderful pouty lips; that winning perma-smile as he delivers his pearls of astronomical wisdom on his charming documentaries; the rock star cool – complete with Charlatans-style, retro haircut – a legacy of his days as keyboard player with Nineties pop band D:Ream.
So yes, I perfectly well understand why the BBC has elevated him to the position of go-to scientist on all matters of import, with TV series like The Wonders of the Solar System, and why he is constantly being invited to deliver TED talks and high profile speeches like the 2010 Huw Wheldon Memorial Lecture and the Douglas Adams Memorial Lecture.
The only bit that troubles me – and it is something of a problem, I think you’ll agree, in a leading “science communicator” – is his somewhat uncertain grasp of the scientific method. (H/T Bishop Hill)
Here is the lovely lad telling Guardian readers what to think about climate science.
OK. Fair enough, O Guru. Pray tell us what it is that gives you the adamantine certainty that enables you to make such ex cathedra pronouncements.
Hmm. I detect a flaw here. Don’t you?
What Professor Cox appears to think is that all those myriad computer projections over the last few decades warning us of catastrophic, unprecedented, runaway man-made global warming ought to be taken more seriously than the real world data which show no warming since 1997.
Theory, he is saying, should trump reality.
Is this really how science works? I’m not sure that science philosopher Karl Popper would have agreed with him. Popper, I would concede, never had nearly as much street credibility as Brian Cox. Not once was he in any kind of popular dance act and even in his youth his hairstyles and fashion sense were pretty ragged. But he is generally recognised as the man who laid the intellectual foundations of the scientific method when he devised the concept of “falsifiability.”
In order for a scientific hypothesis to have any value, Popper posited, it must be falsifiable. That is: capable of being proved wrong through experiment and observation.
The classic example he gave was the proposition “All swans are white.” In order to disprove this, all you have to do is find a swan that isn’t white – eg those black swans you find in Australia – and the hypothesis has been falsified.
But Professor Cox, it would appear, thinks he knows better than this. Where Anthropogenic Global Warming theory is concerned, scientists have found the black swan: the 17-year hiatus in global warming which has confounded all the theoretical models predicting that as anthropogenic CO2 levels rise so, inexorably, will the world’s temperature. Yet what Cox is telling Guardian readers is: “Sod the black swans in Australia. All our models tell us they can’t possibly exist because swans are meant to be white, so there.”