Brian Cox turns irrational

Brian Cox turns irrational


norman lebrecht

March 24, 2011

For those who live on another landmass, Professor Brian Cox is presently magnetising British attention with his expositions of science on television and his columns in the tabloid Sun.

Cox, once a boyband member but now an advocate for ruthless empiricism, gave a revealing interview to the Guardian today in which he quoted Carl Sagan’s famous aphorism that science ‘has not got an agenda… it is a process that is utterly dispassionate’.
In a previous breath Cox had told the interviewer that ‘I just want to beat them (my critics) into the ground.’ 
He admits there may a paradox here. So that’s all right, then.
Cox is also absolutely sure, beyond doubt, that there is no God.
What he cannot grasp are the limits of his exaggerations. Education is entitled to exaggerate for effect. We expect teachers to take a theory to extremes in order to amplify core truths.
Television, on the other hand, exaggerates for survival. It pushes image and idea to extremes in order to stop viewers drifting off to more enlivening experiences. Cox is a prisoner of this process. Millions can see that. Only he can’t.
Read the Stuart Jeffries interview. It made my day.



  • Dary Merckens says:

    For everyone reading this, here’s the full quote (also, side note, next time you can just write “…to beat [my critics] into the…”):
    “What annoys me is that I can’t get out my intellectual cricket bat with my critics, as I can when you’re doing physics. There’s a brutality in science because you’re measuring yourself against reality. As a presenter, I have to be circumspect, but as an academic I just want to beat them into the ground.”
    So beat the down academically, because they’re objectively wrong or misinformed or under-informed, not physically because he’s a violent person.
    You also don’t explain why atheism is an exaggeration, but I would love to hear you pontificate further.
    Finally, you claim that Cox is oblivious to being a prisoner to the necessity for extreme and exaggerated production values for survival, when several times in the article he’s clearly readily apparent of it. In fact, just reread this paragraph:
    “I accept some criticisms of the series,” says Cox, 43. “I think the days of standing alone on a mountaintop while a helicopter circles round me are over. We’re not going to do that again. But it’s a challenge to suggest the epic, awe-inspiring nature of the universe. When Carl Sagan, whose work I loved from when I was a boy, made Cosmos [a 1980 TV series and book], he got a lot of stick. So do I. But it’s hard: how do you keep the body of the documentary and remove all the visual cliches? To be honest, I’m a little bored of the grandiose thing and I want to move on.”
    I’m not trying to be a Brian Cox apologist – I’ve only seen bits and pieces of his shows – but it’s kind of a pet peeve of mine when someone misquotes or misrepresents someone else so badly.

  • Tony says:

    The sound of this chap’s detuned whiny voice is enough to make me reach for the OFF button on the tv, and usually does. It has an effect on me similar to that of hearing a masonry drill in an adjacent room.
    No-one serious can have any interest in whether this empty vessel believes in God or not. He talks down to viewers like a Blue Peter presenter after drinking half a bottle of cheap white wine.
    A giant yawn splits the Cosmos when one hears tv commentators move out of their safe-zone into philosophy.

  • EA says:

    I must, in the interests of fairness to Dr Cox, point out that journalists and blog-writers also exaggerate for effect – to attract the most valuable thing on the Internet: attention.
    NL replies: Not necessarily. If I want attention, I go on radio or TV. I use the blog for a variety of other purposes. But everyone has his/her own strategy.

  • margaret evans says:

    I have to say think I brian cox wonders of the universe is one of the best programmes on tv. its educational and very interesting, people who pull him to bits about his voice and looks as brian cox says himself “what have either to with the presentation of the show”, and quite rightly so. He explains everything in a way you can understand. I personally could watch him for hours. he’s more interesting than watching people in bed for hours on the BIG BROTHER people who sit and watch that are very SAD and want to get a life!!!!

  • Bob says:

    I find your article mystifying.
    (1) Cox does not admit the paradox you suggest (the paradox is of wanting to elicit an emotional reaction from viewers on a subject based on dispassionate observation).
    (2) The critics he wants to beat into the ground are people who say he is dumbing down but ignore the intellectual content of his programmes. Why shouldn’t he be annoyed if he feels people are misrepresenting his work? Why would you object to it?
    (3) The interview nowhere mentions belief in God – why you think it’s relevant to the discussion I’ve no idea.
    NL replies to (3) Because in many statements elsewhere his atheism is avowed, doubt-free and militant, disabling his empirical position.

  • Bob says:

    So no comment on inventing a fictitious paradox?
    As for Cox being “absolutely sure, beyond doubt, that there is no God”, here’s an interview it took me 5 minutes to find:
    Asked where he stands on the theory of God, he says: “I think postulating a God is guessing. The first thing you learn, as a scientist, is not to guess. So you should just say: “I don’t know what happened less than a billionth of a second after the Big Bang, because we’ve not built an experiment to go there yet. So therefore I don’t know what happened”. To go on and say: “I think that some entity created it,” to me is a guess. So basically I have nothing to say on the matter.” In other words, entirely consistent with his approach to science. Do you have quotes from him that contradict this? Or are you just assuming you know his views without looking into it?