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.

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.