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.

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Why Prince Charles and Princess Anne are both wrong on GM foods

The latest tiff between toffs gives plenty of food for thought.

I don’t have siblings, so I was weirdly curious as a kid about friends who did, especially when they argued (which was often). One thing I noticed was the importance of superlatives: of being the best child, the most right, and the first to have been wronged. And it turns out things are no different for the Royals.

You might think selective breeding would be a subject on which Prince Charles and Princess Anne would share common ground, but when it comes to genetically modified crops they have very different opinions.

According to Princess Anne, the UK should ditch its concerns about GM and give the technology the green light. In an interview to be broadcast on Radio 4’s Farming Today, she said would be keen to raise both modified crops and livestock on her own land.

“Most of us would argue we have been genetically modifying food since man started to be agrarian,” she said (rallying the old first-is-best argument to her cause). She also argued that the practice can help reduce the price of our food and improve the lives of animals - and “suspects” that there are not many downsides.

Unfortunately for Princess Anne, her Royal “us” does not include her brother Charles, who thinks that GM is The Worst.

In 2008, he warned that genetically engineered food “will be guaranteed to cause the biggest disaster environmentally of all time.”  Supporting such a path would risk handing control of our food-chain to giant corporations, he warned -  leading to “absolute disaster” and “unmentionable awfulness” and “the absolute destruction of everything”.

Normally such a spat could be written off as a toff-tiff. But with Brexit looming, a change to our present ban on growing GM crops commercially looks ever more likely.

In this light, the need to swap rhetoric for reason is urgent. And the most useful anti-GM argument might instead be that offered by the United Nations’ cold, hard data on crop yields.

Analysis by the New York Times shows that, in comparison to Europe, the United States and Canada have “gained no discernible advantages” from their use of GM (in terms of food per acre). Not only this, but herbicide use in the US has increased rather than fallen.

In sum: let's swap superlatives and speculation for sense.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.