“It Only Adds, It Doesn’t Subtract” – Our Monkey Aims

When I have told people that Professor Brian Cox and I are taking our science show, The Infinite Monkey Cage, to the USA, some have raised their eyebrows and, with a wry smile, said, “well that should be interesting”.

Despite being a country of great science communicators, Nobel prize winning scientists, and home of the only humans who have stood on the moon, the USA now has a popular image of anti-science and myth hugging idiocy. This has not been my experience, but viewed from this side of the ocean, there does seem to be a media heavy with ideological motivated cynicism and a political system rife with men scared of evolution and keen to deny evidence when it rubs wrongly against profit. It is the Sarah Palin/Fox News effect. It is easier to scrutinise and dismiss from a distance, while failing to notice the mote in your own eye (I won’t get too biblical here). The United Kingdom also has an unsettlingly high number of people who reject evolution by natural selection, a mass media keen to promulgate the notion that human effect on climate change is pretty much a 50/50 scenario in the science community, and swathes of anti-vaccination propaganda.

Now that we have so gained so many advantages from well-aimed curious thought, from clean drinking water to the human genome sequence, it is easier to be complacent. Those of us privileged enough to be reaping the benefits of technological and scientific imagination are a generation that have not had to spent many hours visiting cemeteries to watch the burial of another child who has died far too young. We can approach childbirth with far less fear, and we can approach old age with increased confidence that we will successfully challenge our infirmities.

One of the problems we face is that many of us demand all the conveniences and delights of advanced thought, but we also wish to preserve our superstitions and ideologies. We will accept the advantages of the evidence, but vigorously reject it when it bruises what we want to believe. We demand improved healthcare based on understanding of cells and genes, but we also want our creationism in schools and apologies in text books that evolution is just “some theory”, possessing no greater weight than your theory that you cry less when peeling an onion if you balance some parsley on your head.

What we attempt to do with Monkey Cage is reduce the fear of asking questions, incite people to be inquisitive and excited about our universe, and constantly echo Richard Feynman’s comments on the beauty of a flower, that a knowledge of the flower and why it is as it is doesn’t subtract from the beauty, it only adds.
There is strength in curiosity and active doubt.

A journalist wrote to me last year and sneeringly asked, “if science is so good, why do they keep having to change it?” I attempted to explain that scientific knowledge is not a dogma, it does not declare that it is right, rather it aims to be the least wrong version of events, there is always room for further investigation and frequently hope for a better answer.
He went onto state that scientists hadn’t even worked out how the universe began, an issue I am prepared to give them some time on. I told him he was right, they hadn’t, but they had got to ten to the minus 36 of a second, which was a good start.
“exactly,” he said,”that is why my theory of how the universe began is as good”. Suffice to say, it wasn’t. There are different degrees of wrong.

Another journalist I argued with, on grey and overcast days I have often taken to arguing with journalists, was eager to state that everyone’s opinion is equal. I explained to him that there is now more knowledge in the world than ever before, and it is increasing at a rapid rate, therefore expertise becomes increasingly specialised. He took affront to that, as if it is an insult to any of us if it is declared that our opinion on the Higgs field or epigenetics holds less weight merely because we know nothing about it. It does not mean we cannot be involved, but we must apply ourselves. If there is a subject you wish to pronounce upon, then you have to do the reading and learn the right questions to ask the right people. Critical thinking is key, however disconcerting and uncomfortable its results can be.

I am a fool, not a scientist. This is my job on the Monkey Cage, delightfully summarised in a letter we received from an eight year old.

“Dear Brian and Robin,
I really like the Infinite Monkey Cage. Brian, I like the way you explain science. Robin, I like the silly voices you do”.

I am fortunate to be in a position where I can regularly ask questions to minds that have spent much time concentrating on intriguing questions. I am willing to accept that I don’t know most things, that many beliefs I hold may be proved wrong. That is why I try not to have dearly held beliefs, they are so much harder to prise off. I realise that I will die still ignorant of most of the universe, but I aim to continue kicking against my ignorance until that moment I disappear.

All USA Monkey Cage information can be found here 

For UK visitors, all news of Christmas shows, my solo science tours etc is at www.robinince.com

More footnotes to follow