Q&A: Professor Brian Cox talks scicomm

June 15, 2017 - 06:15

What is good science communication and how do you convey science in a time of fake and alternative news? A Q&A with particle physicist, author, and TV presenter Brian Cox.

Professor Brian Cox is a household name in the UK, USA, and Australia. He’s known as a leading particle physicist and for his numerous documentaries and books where he distils complex subjects such as general relativity into something that anyone and everyone can understand.

As a scientist, he lectures physics at The University of Manchester and works on the CERN ATLAS project at the Large Hadron Collider, CERN--part of the team who famously detected a particle consistent with the Higgs boson in 2012.

Cox is touring across the UK and Scandinavia to discuss the latest ideas on the origins of our universe, life on earth, and everything in between. Last year, his science tour broke the world record for the most tickets ever sold for a science show--75,193 in all.

This time around Cox is joined by UK comedian Robin Ince—the two host a weekly BBC radio panel show that blends science and comedy to discuss pressing issues of the day.

ScienceNordic caught up with Cox just before his show in Copenhagen last week to get his take on good science communication and what science communicators and scientists have to offer in a world of fake news and alternative facts.

You can see what he had to say in the videos above and below.

“Love what you do”

Cox’s first piece of advice for aspiring science communicators is to love what you do and to know your subject.

“That might seem obvious, but actually it’s quite difficult,” he says.

“I lecture special relativity to first year students at The University of Manchester, and that’s probably the simplest thing you’d think—in England we used to teach special relativity I think to A-level students, so 17 and 18-year-olds, just in its basic form. So it’s not mathematically difficult at all, but it’s conceptually quite interesting. But even now, and I think I’ve been lecturing the thing for six years, every year I learn something new about special relativity that you wouldn’t believe that there was anything more to learn about that subject, but I do.”

Even though scientists often find themselves talking about a subject or a concept that they have accepted as truth a long time ago, communicating these topics to a non-scientific audience can force you to re-evaluate and question your own understanding, he says.

“You’ll find that there’s actually always things where you can say “actually, do I fully understand that?” And it’s a very rewarding experience if you’re honest with yourself.”

“Practice makes perfect”

His next piece of advice is simply to get involved and practice. Cox first embarked on science communication at The University of Manchester by helping to organise a series of physics workshops for school children.

Facing a room full of kids was nerve wrecking, says Cox, but the classes allowed him to practice constructing simple messages from complex subjects.

But his break into mainstream media came about by accident. Cox became involved politically after a series of radio appearances to object to cuts to UK science funding while studying for his PhD.

“Quite a few of us got involved with lobbying at that time. I did a couple of radio interviews and went on TV, and shouted at some politicians. And someone from the BBC noticed that and said ‘oh, do you want to make a program?’ So it was kind of an accident. I was basically doing my research as a PhD student and shouting at some minister who I’ve long forgotten,” he says.

Scientists are delighted when they’re wrong

When asked about the challenges facing science and science communicators today, he reflects on the broader issues facing not only science but also politics.

“We seem to have fallen in to a polarization in society, certainly at the moment in Britain and America—I’m not sure whether it’s the same in Scandinavia, but people seem to be developing views and becoming entrenched,” he says.

Here, science can play a role.

“Science is a humble pursuit. It’s based on the idea that we don’t know. We don’t have absolute axiomatic beliefs that we will stick to even in the face of evidence. Quite the opposite. Actually, I think that scientific training teaches you to be delighted when you’re shown to be wrong,” says Cox.

“In research you’re wrong almost all of the time. And what being wrong means is that you can rule some stuff out and so you’ve learnt more about nature. So your goal is to understand nature, that’s all. Your goal is not to be right. And that’s really important, because I think that the tendency among certain political leaders and among a good proportion of people is that they like to be shown to be right. But scientists don’t like to be shown to be right, they just like to find out more. And that’s something that we can add to public discourse and so I think that’s a very important point.”

“Be firm but not arrogant”
ScienceNordic caught up with Professor Brian Cox just before his show in Copenhagen to get his take on good science communication and what science communicators and scientists have to offer in a world of fake news and alternative facts. (Photo: ScienceNordic)

So how can scientists be heard through the sea of alternative facts and fake news that everyone is talking about today?

“You’ve got to be firm, but some of it depends on your personal outlook. Richard Feynman expressed it best in a great essay called the value of science, where he talked about science as being a satisfactory philosophy of ignorance, which is a beautiful phrase. The idea that we don’t know anything at all for sure, but, it’s simultaneously that, and the best you can do at any one point.”

Cox made it to Copenhagen, despite first confusing it with the southern Swedish town of Malmo.

Cox uses the issue of climate change as a good example:
“If you ask the question, which is a legitimate question “what will be the global average temperature in 2100?” Then that’s a good question and so we’ve got to try and answer it. How can we answer it? Well, we can take measurements now, we can look at past climate data, we can try and model it, make some models, predict things, and then we can tune those models and we’ll get to some range of predictions and there it is. That encompasses Feynman’s humility.”

“We’re not saying this is correct—it won’t be. There’s a very famous saying that all models are wrong. But they’ll be some range and if we’ve done well, we’ll get the errors right, and somewhere in some band within a certain range, we’ll have the right prediction. The alternative is to do what? To guess? That’s pointless. So science is the best you can do, but the best you can do is a humble statement.”

“So it’s not the case that scientists are sitting on a mountain, passing down knowledge and being the final arbiters of all public policy. This is one of the problems that we have when we communicate science. We can seem like the people who make the final decision, saying “you’re wrong” and “you’re right.” If you do that then it’s very difficult to bring people into what is undoubtedly the correct [way to do it], which is to do the best we can with the current knowledge and data available. And I’d defend that very strongly: science is the best the human race can do in certain subject areas, where science is applicable.”

But ultimately any good communicator has to ask themselves the simple question, “what are you here to do?”

“We’re not trying to make ourselves seem smarter than everybody else, like a guru standing on a stage. We’re trying to engage people, excite people, and entertain people. And hopefully make them aware of this particular way of thinking, which is one of the necessary foundations of our civilisation.”

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