Britain’s most celebrated particle physicist says national politics lacks the minds to navigate Brexit successfully.
As a scientist, university lecturer and media personality, Professor Brian Cox has been a vocal advocate for rational thought as the world descends into a mess of rhetoric and appeals to emotions.
He is concerned a divide is emerging between those who care about evidence and reasoning, and those who are happy to abandon them altogether.
What is more, he says with the country’s looming departure from the European Union threatening to undermine the foundations of British science, the country needs politicians who “know how to think clearly”.
“But I would qualify that by saying some people are sick of experts, so I think we are beginning to see a reaction against that phrase… we are about ready for a backlash.”
Professor Cox says enthusiasm for endeavours like the Large Hadron Collider and Cassini show many are still interested in scientific ideas – but sadly not our leaders.
“We are not thinking scientifically at the moment, and by we I mean the political class – all of them as far as I can see,” he says.
“I think across the political spectrum there seems to be a lack of understanding of detail, and these are detailed problems that we face.
“The electorate has presented the political class with a challenge, which is that we would like to leave the EU but we would like to do it in a way that of course doesn’t impose a border in Ireland, and isn’t particularly economically damaging.”
“What you have to do if you’re not thinking politically is sit there and analyse whether that’s possible. I think there’s a lack of clarity of thought – it’s fairly obvious isn’t it?”
Acknowledging the personal ambition and ideology that cloud the political debate, he says a scientific approach would not go amiss because “thinking scientifically is the opposite of thinking ideologically”.
“When the flaws appear, as they did in Newton’s laws, we replace them. That’s the difference between politics and science.”
While usually in politics, “rhetoric can get you through”, the rapidly approaching deadline for Brexit means the ideas set out by Britain’s Brexiteers and Remainers will soon be put to the test in the biggest experiment of a generation.
“Brexit is kind of different, because there is a point in March next year when the idea is shown to be good or bad,” says Professor Cox.
“That’s a much more scientific mindset, because we are going to test that theory and see whether it’s right or wrong… I’m concerned that’s yet to be understood by the political class.”
As for the impact of leaving the EU on actual science in Britain, the loss of funding and collaboration from Europe does not bode well.
As Britain is a world leader in science and technology, the nation has “got away” with underinvesting in research and development over the years, but the cracks will begin to show following Brexit.
“There’s no upside in our field. No one could argue that – no one does actually,” he says.
Nevertheless, Professor Cox has faith in people’s enthusiasm for science, and the role the media can play in fostering that enthusiasm.
Now 100 episodes into the Radio 4 show he presents with comedian Robin Ince, The Infinite Monkey Cage, they have tried to present science in a format digestible for everyone in order to avoid the divide between those who are sick of experts and those who aren’t.
While there are still areas that have proved difficult to communicate effectively – particularly highly politicised ones like climate change and vaccinations – Professor Cox says it is up to these kinds of outlets to distil the essence of science for a broad audience.
“A lot of responsibility falls at the feet of the media. Ultimately newspapers, TV stations and radio stations are the bridge between science and the public,” he says.
He emphasises the importance of pushing more and more science into these outlets, and looking for new scientists “who are excited and want to communicate ideas to the next generation of the public”.
“That’s very important,” he says.
Watch or listen to the 100th episode of ‘The Infinite Monkey Cage’ on BBC iPlayer or watch on Red Button from Wednesday 18 July
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