In this week’s New Statesman: The Christmas double issue, guest edited by Brian Cox and Robin Ince

WITH: Sir David Attenborough, Ricky Gervais, Alan Moore, Maggie Aderin-Pocock, Mark Gatiss, Phill Jupitus, Stewart Lee and many more

For our Christmas double issue, Brian Cox and Robin Ince guest edit a 100-page special on science and evidence.

In the NS Leader, they address the state of modern science, the power of evidence (why do we need it, and how can we evaluate it?), and speak out on the pressing issue of climate change:

The story of the past hundred years is one of unparalleled human advances, medically, technologically and intellectually. The problem with a hundred years of unabated progress, however, is that its continual nature has made us blasé. With each new generation, the memory of appallingly high child mortality rates, tuberculosis and vast slums grows fainter and fainter...

Against this rather depressing introductory backdrop, however, there are faint glimmers of hope, because science, rational thinking and evidence-based policy-making are enjoying a revival.

Science is the framework within which we reach conclusions about the natural world. These conclusions are always preliminary, always open to revision, but they are the best we can do. It is not logical to challenge the findings of science unless there are specific, evidence-based reasons for doing so. Elected politicians are free to disregard its findings and recommendations. Indeed, there may be good reasons for doing so.

It is not acceptable to see science as one among many acceptable “views”. Science is the only way we have of exploring nature, and nature exists outside of human structures.

Read Brian and Robin's leader in full here.

 

HIGHLIGHTS IN THE MAGAZINE

 

David Attenborough: A life measured in heartbeats

[PHOTO: Sam Faulkner for the NS]

Brian Cox and Robin Ince interview Sir David Attenborough in an NS exclusive. Robin Ince writes:

No other individual is held in such awe by as broad a group of people as Sir David Attenborough. I have seen people held in high regard reduced to gibbering fan-kids on finding themselves in the same room as him. After 60 years in broadcasting, a career that has included commissioning Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation and Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man, as well as astounding investigations into the varieties of life on this planet, he continues to work every day of the year with the occasional exception of Christmas Day.

On how public perception of science changed over the past 60 years, Attenborough says:

I suppose [in the 1940s] there was a mystique about science and also a certain sus­picion of it. Since then, our society has become so technologically based that you really can’t be a fully operating citizen unless you understand basic science. How are you supposed to make judgements about the health of your children if you don’t believe in science? How are you supposed to make a judgement about a generation of fuel and power if you don’t believe in science? You can’t operate as a sensible voting member of a democratic society these days unless you understand fundamental scientific principles.

On whether or not he considers himself a scientist:

If you appear as frequently on television as I do, looking at bunny rabbits or whatever, it’s very tempting to think people notice what you say, because you’re the one person they see and hear on the subject of science, so they think you’re a scientist. You are not a scientist. I’m a television journalist and mustn’t become so intoxicated with my own intellect that I suddenly believe that I discovered these things or I have a privileged position to assess them.

On climate change:

In the early days of dealing with climate change, I wouldn’t go out on a limb one way or another, because I don’t have the qualifications there. But I do have the qualifications to measure the scientific community and see what the consensus is about climate change.

I remember the moment when I suddenly thought it was incontrovertible. There was a lecture given by a distinguished American expert in atmospheric science... he plotted time against population growth and industrialisation. It was incontrovertible, and once you think it’s really totally incontrovertible, then you have a responsibility to say so.

On whether or not the natural world still ‘flabbergasts’ him:

Things flabbergast me all the time. A friend of mine was up in the Andes filming the courtship display of a particular hummingbird, a high-altitude hummingbird. My pal had the wit to shoot it at 250 frames [a second] and you suddenly saw the complexity of the display.

It taught you so much, not only about how complex nature is, but about how impoverished your perceptions can be, governed as they are by your human condition.

 

Brian Cox: The coldest place in the universe

[The Large Hadron Collider, illustrated by Ralph Steadman for the NS]

Brian Cox writes on the Large Hadron Collider – the proton smashing mega machine that has united 10,000 scientists from across the globe in the pursuit of knowledge, and was - in 2012 - the site of the discovery of the Higgs Boson-like subatomic particle. Cox writes:

The discovery of a Higgs-like particle by the Large Hadron Collider was the greatest scientific story of 2012. It is also a spectacular demonstration of what can be achieved when the intellectual power of theoretical physics is coupled with engineering and international collaboration.

The discovery of the Higgs is more than a profound vindication of advanced mathematics and its application in theoretical physics. It is also a surprising engineering and political achievement. No single nation is prepared to invest in a project as technically difficult and high-risk as the Large Hadron Collider.

In order to construct and operate this group of complex, interdependent machines, more than 10,000 physicists and engineers from 608 institutes in 113 countries collaborate with each other for the sole purpose of enhancing our knowledge of the universe.

I find all this to be deeply inspiring; it makes me optimistic for the future of the human race. First, we have been able to discover something profound about our universe. How astonishing it is that, to paraphrase Douglas Adams, a small group of apes on an insignificant rock among hundreds of billions in the Milky Way galaxy were able to predict the existence of a piece of nature that condensed into the vacuum of space less than a billionth of a second after the universe began 13.75 billion years ago.

And how wonderful that they did this together; that there is a place where people put their religious, political and cultural differences aside in the name of exploring and understanding the natural world.

 

PLUS

 

Ricky Gervais talks to Robin Ince about atheism

Alan Moore: The case against evidence

Mark Gatiss: On the art of the perfect ghost story

Maggie Aderin-Pocock: Voyager 1, 35 years later

Michael Brooks: On NASA, Mars Curiosity, and the Hubble Space Telescope

A View from a Hill’, a Christmas ghost story by Stewart Lee

The Greatest Scientific Discoveries of 2012’, a short comic by Robin Ince and Tom Humberstone

Mehdi Hasan: On God, faith, and Richard Dawkins

Ben Miller’s Notebook: Stargazing with Joan Collins

The NS Interview with physicist Jim Al-Khalili

Nina Caplan on Christmas drinks

Rachel Cooke on Christmas television

Antonia Quirke on Christmas radio

A double page Christmas Quiz

 

And much more...

 

Robin Ince is a writer and comedian. Brian Cox is a broadcaster and professor of physics at the University of Manchester. You can buy their guest edited issue of the New Statesman in shops until Thursday 3 January, or purchase a print or digital version here.

 

 

Charlotte Simmonds is a writer and blogger living in London. She was formerly an editorial assistant at the New Statesman. You can follow her on Twitter @thesmallgalleon.

Garry Knight via Creative Commons
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Why Barack Obama was right to release Chelsea Manning

A Presidential act of mercy is good for Manning, but also for the US.

In early 2010, a young US military intelligence analyst on an army base near Baghdad slipped a Lady Gaga CD into a computer and sang along to the music. In fact, the soldier's apparently upbeat mood hid two facts. 

First, the soldier later known as Chelsea Manning was completely alienated from army culture, and the callous way she believed it treated civilians in Iraq. And second, she was quietly erasing the music on her CDs and replacing it with files holding explosive military data, which she would release to the world via Wikileaks. 

To some, Manning is a free speech hero. To others, she is a traitor. President Barack Obama’s decision to commute her 35-year sentence before leaving office has been blasted as “outrageous” by leading Republican Paul Ryan. Other Republican critics argue Obama is rewarding an act that endangered the lives of soldiers and intelligence operatives while giving ammunition to Russia. 

They have a point. Liberals banging the drum against Russia’s leak offensive during the US election cannot simultaneously argue leaks are inherently good. 

But even if you think Manning was deeply misguided in her use of Lady Gaga CDs, there are strong reasons why we should celebrate her release. 

1. She was not judged on the public interest

Manning was motivated by what she believed to be human rights abuses in Iraq, but her public interest defence has never been tested. 

The leaks were undoubtedly of public interest. As Manning said in the podcast she recorded with Amnesty International: “When we made mistakes, planning operations, innocent people died.” 

Thanks to Manning’s leak, we also know about the Vatican hiding sex abuse scandals in Ireland, plus the UK promising to protect US interests during the Chilcot Inquiry. 

In countries such as Germany, Canada and Denmark, whistle blowers in sensitive areas can use a public interest defence. In the US, however, such a defence does not exist – meaning it is impossible for Manning to legally argue her actions were in the public good. 

2. She was deemed worse than rapists and murderers

Her sentence was out of proportion to her crime. Compare her 35-year sentence to that received by William Millay, a young police officer, also in 2013. Caught in the act of trying to sell classified documents to someone he believed was a Russian intelligence officer, he was given 16 years

According to Amnesty International: “Manning’s sentence was much longer than other members of the military convicted of charges such as murder, rape and war crimes, as well as any others who were convicted of leaking classified materials to the public.”

3. Her time in jail was particularly miserable 

Manning’s conditions in jail do nothing to dispel the idea she has been treated extraordinarily harshly. When initially placed in solitary confinement, she needed permission to do anything in her cell, even walking around to exercise. 

When she requested treatment for her gender dysphoria, the military prison’s initial response was a blanket refusal – despite the fact many civilian prisons accept the idea that trans inmates are entitled to hormones. Manning has attempted suicide several times. She finally received permission to receive gender transition surgery in 2016 after a hunger strike

4. Julian Assange can stop acting like a martyr

Internationally, Manning’s continued incarceration was likely to do more harm than good. She has said she is sorry “for hurting the US”. Her worldwide following has turned her into an icon of US hypocrisy on free speech.

Then there's the fact Wikileaks said its founder Julian Assange would agree to be extradited to the US if Manning was released. Now that Manning is months away from freedom, his excuses for staying in the Equadorian London Embassy to avoid Swedish rape allegations are somewhat feebler.  

As for the President - under whose watch Manning was prosecuted - he may be leaving his office with his legacy in peril, but with one stroke of his pen, he has changed a life. Manning, now 29, could have expected to leave prison in her late 50s. Instead, she'll be free before her 30th birthday. And perhaps the Equadorian ambassador will finally get his room back. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.