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.

A small dose of facts could transform Britain's immigration debate

While "myth-busting" doesn't always work, there is an appetite for a better informed conversation than the one we're having now. 

For some time opinion polls have shown that the public sees immigration as one of the most important issues facing Britain. At the same time, public understanding of the economic and social impacts of immigration is poor and strongly influenced by the media: people consistently over-estimate the proportion of the population born outside the UK and know little about policy measures such as the cap on skilled non-EU migration. The public gets it wrong on other issues too - on teenage pregnancy, the Muslim population of the UK and benefit fraud to name just three. However, in the case of immigration, the strength of public opinion has led governments and political parties to reformulate policies and rules. Theresa May said she was cracking down on “health tourists” not because of any evidence they exist but because of public “feeling”. Immigration was of course a key factor in David Cameron’s decision to call a referendum on the UK’s membership with the EU and has been central to his current renegotiations.  

Do immigration facts always make us more stubborn and confused?

The question of how to both improve public understanding and raise the low quality of the immigration debate has been exercising the minds of those with a policy and research interest in the issue. Could the use of facts address misconceptions, improve the abysmally low quality of the debate and bring evidence to policy making? The respected think tank British Future rightly warns of the dangers associated with excessive reliance on statistical and economic evidence. Their own research finds that it leaves people hardened and confused. Where does that leave those of us who believe in informed debate and evidence based policy? Can a more limited use of facts help improve understandings and raise the quality of the debate?

My colleagues Jonathan Portes and Nathan Hudson-Sharp and I set out to look at whether attitudes towards immigration can be influenced by evidence, presented in a simple and straightforward way. We scripted a short video animation in a cartoon format conveying some statistics and simple messages taken from research findings on the economic and social impacts of immigration.

Targeted at a wide audience, we framed the video within a ‘cost-benefit’ narrative, showing the economic benefits through migrants’ skills and taxes and the (limited) impact on services. A pilot was shown to focus groups attended separately by the general public, school pupils studying ‘A’ level economics and employers.

Some statistics are useful

To some extent our findings confirm that the public is not very interested in big statistics, such as the number of migrants in the UK. But our respondents did find some statistics useful. These included rates of benefit claims among migrants, effects on wages, effects on jobs and the economic contribution of migrants through taxes. They also wanted more information from which to answer their own questions about immigration. These related to a number of current narratives around selective migration versus free movement, ‘welfare tourism’ and the idea that our services are under strain.

Our research suggests that statistics can play a useful role in the immigration debate when linked closely to specific issues that are of direct concern to the public. There is a role for careful and accurate explanation of the evidence, and indeed there is considerable demand for this among people who are interested in immigration but do not have strong preconceptions. At the same time, there was a clear message from the focus groups that statistics should be kept simple. Participants also wanted to be sure that the statistics they were given were from credible and unbiased sources.

The public is ready for a more sophisticated public debate on immigration

The appetite for facts and interest in having an informed debate was clear, but can views be changed through fact-based evidence? We found that when situated within a facts-based discussion, our participants questioned some common misconceptions about the impact of immigration on jobs, pay and services. Participants saw the ‘costs and benefits’ narrative of the video as meaningful, responding particularly to the message that immigrants contribute to their costs through paying taxes. They also talked of a range of other economic, social and cultural contributions. But they also felt that those impacts were not the full story. They were also concerned about the perceived impact of immigration on communities, where issues become more complex, subjective and intangible for statistics to be used in a meaningful way.

Opinion poll findings are often taken as proof that the public cannot have a sensible discussion on immigration and the debate is frequently described as ‘toxic’. But our research suggests that behind headline figures showing concern for its scale there may be both a more nuanced set of views and a real appetite for informed discussion. A small dose of statistics might just help to detoxify the debate. With immigration a deciding factor in how people cast their vote in the forthcoming referendum there can be no better time to try.