Who do you think said the following: “I always regret it when knowledge becomes controversial. It’s clearly a bad thing, for knowledge to be controversial.” A severe man of the cloth, perhaps, keen to erect a forcefield around his way of thinking? A censorious academic rankled when anyone criticises his work? Actually, it was Brian Cox, Britain’s best-known scientist and the BBC’s go-to guy for wide-eyed documentaries about space.
Yes, terrifyingly, this nation’s most recognisable scientist thinks it is a bad thing when knowledge becomes the subject of controversy, which is the opposite of what every man of reason in modern times has said about knowledge.
Mr Cox made his comments in an interview with the Guardian. Discussing climate change, he accused “nonsensical sceptics” of playing politics with scientific fact. He helpfully pointed out what us non-scientific plebs are permitted to say about climate change. “You’re allowed to say, well I think we should do nothing. But what you’re not allowed to do is to claim there’s a better estimate of the way that the climate will change, other than the one that comes out of the computer models.” Well, we are allowed to say that, even if we’re completely wrong, because of a little thing called freedom of speech. Mr Cox admits that his decree about what people are allowed to say on climate change springs from an absolutist position. “The scientific view at the time is the best, there’s nothing you can do that’s better than that. So there’s an absolutism. It’s absolutely the best advice.”
It’s genuinely concerning to hear a scientist – who is meant to keep himself always open to the process of falsifiabilty – describe his position as absolutist, a word more commonly associated with intolerant religious leaders. But then comes Mr Cox’s real blow against full-on debate. “It’s clearly a bad thing, for knowledge to be controversial”, he says. This is shocking, and the opposite of the truth. For pretty much the entire Enlightenment, the reasoned believed that actually it was good – essential, in fact – for knowledge to be treated as controversial and open to the most stinging questioning.
It’s right there in John Locke’s 1689 Letter Concerning Toleration. Truth is arrived at precisely through testy public engagement, said Locke, through the right of an individual to “employ as many exhortations and arguments as he pleases” on the truths of the day. The truth does not need to be protected from challenge, he said, for “[she] would do well enough if she were left to shift for herself”. In the 19th century, John Stuart Mill suggested controversy is the lifeblood of knowledge. “Complete liberty of contradicting and disproving our opinion is the very condition which justifies us in assuming its truth for purposes of action”, he said. That is, the best way to discover whether a piece of knowledge is true is through subjecting it to as fulsome a discussion as possible.
Mill frowned upon the kind of absolutism promoted by Mr Cox, saying: “Where the discussion of the greatest questions which can occupy humanity is considered to be closed, we cannot hope to find that generally high scale of mental activity which has made some periods of history so remarkable.” Today, too many tell us that the discussion about climate change – a great question occupying humanity – is closed. “The debate is over”, they say, discouraging Mill’s “mental activity”. […]
Knowledge ringfenced from controversy will quickly become prejudice rather than truth, an ossified set of beliefs kept hidden from the raucous value of doubt. Climate change is fast becoming just that: an orthodoxy we’re “not allowed” to question, making it more akin to a protected religious truth than a piece of reasoned knowledge susceptible to provocative challenge.
People like Mr Cox think they are standing up for truth and reason when they say they are absolutist on issues like climate change. In fact, they are doing the opposite – they are making truth and reason seem weak, so weak that they cannot possibly be allowed to become the subject of testy, rowdy, prejudicial discussion. To deploy the A-word, Mr Cox is absolutely wrong – it is a good thing for knowledge to be controversial.