Professor Brian Cox undoubtedly has the prettiest lips in the world of celebrity physics. That – together with his cute, knowing little half-smile; his Charlatans-style haircut; and his early incarnation as keyboard player with New Labour’s favourite one-hit-wonder band D:Ream – explains why he has become the BBC’s go-to popular science presenter.
If you believe his Wikipedia entry, indeed, he is the natural successor to the BBC’s most treasured grand dame, the whispery-voiced gorilla-hugging Malthusian Sir David Attenborough.
Whatever, in terms of UK science TV and radio programme, Cox is undoubtedly a big deal: like a better-looking, better qualified version of America’s Bill Nye the Science Guy.
So even if – as I do – you think he’s a bit irritating, it does really matter what he says about scientific issues because he has a wide, loyal audience who not only worship him as if he were a member One Direction but who revere him as a serious intellect with his proper actual doctorate in high energy particle physics and his associations with the CERN project in Geneva.
That’s why it’s important we take a look at his recent appearance on Q & A – Australia’s answer to Question Time – and examine how well he comported himself when speaking out on science’s most fraught, contested and expensive issue: climate change.
You can watch the video by following the Q & A link above or here at Watts Up With That? Here are my thoughts:
This was a classic progressive Establishment stitch up
Australia’s ABC is so nakedly biased it makes the BBC look like Fox News. Presenter Tony Jones doesn’t even pretend to be neutral, as he showed in his handling of a question on climate change, which had clearly been set up in advance in order to make a fool of the only climate sceptic on the panel – Federal Senator Malcolm Roberts. We know it was a set up because Brian Cox had come armed with a sheaf of relevant papers – graphs and data – which he could pull out with a flourish at the appropriate moment to create a “gotcha!” scenario for Roberts. Roberts clearly hadn’t been expecting this underhand trick (I’ll explain why it is underhand in a moment) but recovered well and did about as well as you could possibly do in a situation where the presenter, all four of fellow panelists and the entire audience have drunk the Kool-Aid. (Memo to all the smartarses in the comments section of Watts Up With That who think you could have done better: no actually you couldn’t – try doing live TV sometime instead of bloviating from the comfort of your armchairs)
Richard Feynman was a real scientist. Brian Cox isn’t.
As Eric Worrall has rightly noted, this was Roberts’s most telling point. Cox began his spiel with the usual weary arrogance we have come to expect of the climate establishment: the tired old line that the vast majority of the world’s top scientists all agree etc. To which Roberts replied: “I’m absolutely stunned that someone [Brian Cox] who is inspired by Richard Feynman, a fantastic scientist who believes in empirical evidence, is quoting Consensus.” Well, indeed. Cox’s entire case rested on his lazy and unscientific assumption that the case for man-made global warming is proven and that even to question it puts you on the maverick fringe. As Feyman could have told Cox, this is a quintessentially unscientific position: “Religion is a culture of faith; science is a culture of doubt.”
Brian Cox is a low-down dirty cheat
When Cox whipped out a graph marked Global Land Temperature Index apparently demonstrating a spectacular upward trend in global warming, the parti-pris Q & A audience whooped their approval. Why? How could they be sure that the chart was trustworthy? How could Cox, either, given that climate change is not his field and that he quite clearly isn’t abreast of the nuances of the climate debate? The reason that this gesture was underhand is that Cox provided no supporting information as to its provenance or its reliability. As Roberts was absolutely right to point out, there are many question marks over the Global Land Temperature index, whose raw data has been the subject of unexplained revisions by the politicised climate gatekeepers at institutions like NASA and which has been corrupted by the Urban Heat Island effect. Had he been forewarned, Roberts could easily have come up with a chart showing more accurate satellite data which would have refuted Cox’s chart. It was extremely dodgy – and quite against the spirit of ABC’s supposed obligations towards neutrality – that Q & A should have encouraged Cox to pull this stunt. But what’s even more dishonourable is that Cox, who as a reputable scientist ought to be above such knavish trickery, should have acceded to participating in it.
Brian Cox is a bully
I’ve encountered this behaviour all too often myself from Cox’s pals – the ex-Royal-Society president, ex-Socialist-Worker salesman Sir Paul Nurse; the ‘comedian’ Robin Ince with whom Cox presents a radio show; etc – and it stinks. If, as they appear to imagine, the case for man-made global warming theory is such a slam dunk, well fine: just go ahead and demonstrate it, chaps, as proper scientists have done for centuries, through the medium of falsifiable evidence. I happen to think all three of the above are talentless, overrated, low-grade, lefty-activist tossers. But I’m sufficiently well versed in the rules of rhetoric to know that this is merely ad hom – a gratuitous playground cheapshot which though fun to toss into the mix contributes absolutely nothing to the scientific and political issues at stake. What disturbs me about Cox and his alarmist cronies – most of them heavily bigged up by the BBC, which treats them as unimpeachable authorities – is that they have become too grand to bother with the science any more and seek merely to belittle and marginalise their opponents. The worst example of this on the Q & A show was when Cox cynically and crassly sought to ridicule Malcolm Roberts by giving the impression that his arguments were so absurd as not to be worth debating. This ugly technique – the demagogue playing to the mob – is what Jo Nova calls Argument from Incredulity. Here’s what Cox said in response to Roberts’s – correct – suggestion that NASA’s data had been manipulated:
By who? NASA? The people the… Hang on a minute. No, no, see this is quite serious. But can I just – just one thing. NASA, NASA… The people that landed men on the moon?
Even more disgustingly Cox went on to suggest that Roberts probably didn’t believe in the moon landings either.
Brian Cox doesn’t understand some of the most basic principles of science
Certainly not the entry-level one that correlation is not causation. Which puts into perspective his wanky little speechette – which, naturally, his fanbois in the Q & A audience and on the panel found terribly impressive – on the subject of why current climate science is, like, totally accurate and amazing and unimpeachable.
Here, courtesy of Jo Nova, is what Cox said – in an exasperated “really! climate deniers are such idiots!” tone:
“Let me just – all right, I’ll just give you one snapshot. So, I took a snapshot of the different bits of evidence for 2015. So global ocean heat content highest on record in 2015; global sea level highest on record in 2015, 70 millimetres higher than that observed in 1993; global surface temperature highest on record, El Nino something like 10 to 40% contribution to that; tropical cyclones well above average overall, as you said and even the anecdotal data. …
…. So the point is you go evidence, evidence, evidence, arctic continue warm, sea ice extent low, artic land surface temperature in 2015, 2.2 degrees Fahrenheit above 1981’s 210 average.
To which the only credible scientific response is: Yeah? And??
Or, as Jo Nova puts it:
All of that would happen no matter what caused the warming. Cox hasn’t even thought this one through at a baby basic level. If the solar wind changed clouds and warmed the world, the seas also rise, the ice also melts, blah blah blah. Same for magnetic fields changing cloud nucleation. Same for UV solar cycle changes shifting jet streams and altering cloud formation.
Brian Cox’s half-baked opinions on climate science are less than worthless
Yup. Nothing wrong with Cox looking pretty and pouty in front of a screen showing molten bubblings on the surface of Mercury – or whatever – he’s good at that and he’s found his metier. But history will not judge him and his ilk kindly for the disservice he has done to the scientific method in general and climate science in particular. He has used rhetorical trickery to promulgate a massive lie and perpetrate a giant con against a credulous public who really deserve better than to be misled in this way by Cox and his employers at the ABC and the BBC.