Man at His Best

Brian Cox: People Think That Their Opinion Is Valuable, It Is Not

From musician to physicist, a life’s worth of advice on a page.

BY LESTARI HAIRUL | Dec 7, 2016 | Culture

Photograph by Ronald Leong

Our civilisation rests on science and technology, and on the understanding of nature. If you have large sections of the population that don’t understand how that happened, then they can’t be expected to understand how to react. Our best models of the climate tell us that if we continue to put greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, then we’re likely to have a warm world that’s going to cause us problems in 10 to 30 years’ time, or even now. Why would people believe that if they know nothing at all about how the data was generated?

In a world where data is more readily available than ever, how do you respond to that increase? First of all, you must be taught that different people have different opinions. But, at the same time, you need to be taught that it’s not good to just go into a little echo chamber somewhere on an Internet forum and get carried away thinking there’s a big conspiracy and the Earth is flat or something. That’s a skill that we need to spend more time teaching people.

There’s a tendency in popular culture to guess, so that’s what I think Deepak [Chopra] tends to do. He points to a mystery, which is the mystery of consciousness. We don’t understand fully how consciousness emerges from essentially inanimate matter. My view of Deepak is that he’s got into the guessing area rather than “the don’t know”.

What you find with younger people is that they haven’t developed a fear of anything yet. Fear of knowledge doesn’t exist in children. It exists in some adults. The thought process that you have to deploy in order to find things out about nature is most definitely not innate. You can see that in the way it took us so long as a civilisation to get to the point where we were actually doing science in the modern sense.

There’s a very famous essay by Richard Feynman called “The Value of Science” in which he argues that the most valuable thing about science is its philosophy. He calls it a satisfactory philosophy of ignorance. The most difficult thing that you have to teach people is the importance of being delighted when your opinion is proved wrong in the service of learning things about nature.

People tend to think that their opinion is innately valuable, when actually it is not. Your opinion is worthless in the face of reality. Being a scientist is about enjoying that. If I was wrong, that’s brilliant because I’ve learned something.

There’s no such thing as being right in science. But you can be temporarily rightish. Even Einstein’s theory is definitely not right, even though everything that we’ve measured agrees with its predictions. It’s a good model, an approximation that works very well, but we’re pretty certain that there will be a better theory. All scientists know that they’re ultimately going to be only approximately right at best. That’s very important.

Science is unique because it starts from a position of ignorance and celebrates its ignorance. All scientists ever do is try to prove everything wrong all the time. There’s no other field of human endeavour that involves trying to replace every single piece of dogma.

Life is extremely precious. If there’s one thing that cosmology teaches you, it’s that the earth is a rare place and our intellect may be a very rare thing in the universe. My philosophy is that we should value our place immensely. The more we find out about the universe, the more fortunate we appear to be here at all. Trying to understand the universe is a good way to determine what to do with that good fortune.

I don’t regret anything. I will give you the geekiest example to support that. There’s a brilliant episode of  Star Trek: The Next Generation called “Tapestry” that addresses this. [Laughs] In essence, it tells you that if you’re even remotely happy with where you are now, then your choices were what they should have been all along. Being able to go back in time to change little bits won’t necessarily make things better.

When I was growing up, I couldn’t tell the difference between science fiction and science fact. I just loved Star Trek and space travel. Science fiction is all about dreaming of other worlds. It’s about letting your imagination roam the universe. I think that’s important. I’m not one of those people who think that scientific accuracy in fiction is necessary. It isn’t. Fiction’s a different thing, but the sense of wonder that it can instil is the same, and that’s what’s important.

I was giving a talk about the origin of the universe to a group of schoolchildren in London and the first question that someone asked me was: “Is it possible to believe in God and be a scientist?” And I said yes. I was going to add: “But you won’t find a scientist who thinks the Earth is 6,000 years old.” But the moment I said yes, there was a round of applause, and then I realised that this person was really asking permission.

The worst thing that you can do, as someone who’s trying to promote science, is say, “But you lot can’t participate because you believe in stuff that’s nonsense.” They might discover that what they believed when they were 12 is nonsense or they might find a way to work it out. Some people do. There are people in science who believe in God and there are some who don’t. So I’m always quite careful. 

I learned that the way to get more kids involved in science is not to put up barriers to their participation. I’m not very aggressive in that sphere. Really. I’m not [Richard] Dawkins. 

Forces of Nature is available on BBC Earth and BBC Player.

Originally published in Esquire November 2016